Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Answers in Genesis

I had a friend many years ago who was an atheist. That in itself is not particularly notable, as atheism is fairly common these days, and I'm sure I have many atheist or agnostic friends. What was really notable about this guy was that unlike a lot of atheists I seem to meet on the Internet, he was pretty tolerant toward theists. In particular, I once heard him make what I thought was a pretty insightful statement: that all of the major religions of the world have enough internal logical consistency to believe in them, or else they probably wouldn't exist. I think he was right.

Anyway, I felt pretty bad writing this particular post, not because of the bare fact that I wrote it, but because it seems somewhat unfair that I waited so long to write it. To some extent I do pride myself on being open-minded and fair towards all religious views, but occasionally, I realize that I've developed a bit of a blind spot when it comes to my own partiality with respect to certain religious attitudes. Shortly after writing my recent post about Orson Scott Card, for instance, I realized that if I ever got around to reading the Book of Mormon, I'd really have to be far more generous towards it than I probably would have intended to be under normal circumstances. Anyway, while I don't currently have any plans to read the Book of Mormon, I still on a regular basis write about atheism (and yes, while atheism is not a religion, it's a religious view), and a few weeks ago I had an interesting epiphany about atheism that I really should have put into writing. Well, I can console myself that few atheists are reading my blog, and probably even fewer really care.

In a certain way, it was odd that it was only just last month that I'd come to the realization that I did, since it's largely due to Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, which I read some time in the late '80s. Who knows why it would take me more than a quarter-century to put this together? I really ought to go back and read the book again.

Something that has always bothered me about Dawkins is the way he has over time morphed into a sort of crusader for atheism. Surely, the guy is a great thinker and a giant in the world of biology, but why does that make him an expert on (the non-existence of) God? To a great extent, even though I think I've come to a deeper understanding of why his studies in biology might shed some light on theological issues, I still question what purely physical biology has to tell us about spiritual matters, but no matter (no pun intended).

This is the thing, though; I've made a big deal both on my blog and in more casual conversation that I think it's a shame that many scientists can't seem to accept the possibility of the supernatural. That's certainly not to say that the supernatural has a part to play in science; it absolutely does not, by definition. My only thought was that while studying the purely natural, a person might lose sight of the possibility that there was more to our existence than that. And I consider myself a skeptic; I don't place a great deal of faith in the supernatural myself, despite being a theist. I believe there is a God, and there is a spiritual aspect of our lives, but for the most part we can live as though it were not there. What got me feeling guilty as I prepared to write this today is that I realized I was being guilty of doing the exact same thing as I was criticizing others of doing, but in reverse.

What if the parts of our existence I considered to be purely in the realm of the spiritual could actually be under the influence of purely material forces? Why not?

If the study of science blinds one to the spiritual, certainly the study of religion could blind one to the natural. There is something that I'd always felt to be lacking in atheism, but maybe it was because I'd unknowingly set the terms of the argument unfairly. The thing that atheism lacks (in my previous view) is answers. There are certain questions that it is human nature to ask, and atheism either can't seem to answer these questions, or claims that they have no answer. These questions are things like, "What is the meaning of life?" or "Is there a higher power over us?" or "What happens to our consciousness after we die?" I mean, maybe there is no real answer to these questions, but it seems so unsatisfying.

But what if I (along with others, no doubt) was insisting on spiritual answers because I assumed that these were, by their very nature, spiritual questions? What if there was a need to keep an open mind about materialism in the same way that I always felt one should keep an open mind about spiritual things? If you open up these questions to be answered in a materialistic fashion, didn't Dawkins really answer them?

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins had a revolutionary idea with respect to biology, genetics, and evolution. (Bear with me, it's been, as I said, about a quarter-century since I read this.) It's funny, because it's one of those things that, to me at least, seems almost obvious once you point it out and explain the principle. There's a lot of misunderstanding about evolution. Does it happen to individuals or groups? Does it happen all the time, or is it a gradual process? Is it a process that has a directed plan of some sort, or is it random? Whatever the answers to these, Dawkins suggests that the real driving force behind evolution is in fact the very genes of living creatures themselves. Genes, for lack of a better verb, "want" to propagate. All biological processes on both the micro and macro level can trace back their base driving force to this fact. It's logical and inevitable on some level: as natural selection posits survival of the fittest organisms, so Dawkins' model suggests survival of the fittest genes. If a gene codes for a behavior or a characteristic in an organism that makes it more fit, then surely that gene itself could be considered fit.

But what does this mean philosophically, or even theologically? "What is the meaning of life?" Why, it's all about obeying our genes, isn't it? This is weird, since on some level this is a sort of "Well, duh," thing. If you understand that what we are and what we do is the product of our genes both on an individual level, and as a species or even an ecosystem, then doing what our genes tell us to do isn't even a choice, it's just what we are. Our genetic code is, in the end, the "higher power over us" in a very substantial way that arguably trumps anything else that might stand in its stead. Especially if you have a materialistic world-view.

Of course, maybe as a theist I still need to stress that this does leave many of those questions unanswered. There's no clue given here to the nature of a possible afterlife, certainly, but of course there may be no answer. There also is no clear indication as to what sort of moral system one should follow, but maybe morality is a separate realm from these sorts of questions. Does admitting these as potentially valid answers to great philosophical questions mean I'm advocating for atheism? Of course not, I'm still a Christian. Maybe I'm just suggesting that which is already obvious to atheists: that atheistic viewpoints have enough internal logical consistency to believe in them, or else they probably wouldn't exist. Am I right?

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