My fiancé and I had a visit this weekend from my aunt. She stayed for three days, during which we took in a few of London’s finest museums. I rate the Imperial War Museum very highly, but the Natural History Museum has got to be my favourite. We managed to spend a couple of hours there, at the dinosaur exhibition and the human evolution exhibition. For reasons I can neither comprehend nor defend I hadn’t ever seen the human evolution exhibition before. It was wonderful. To me, human evolution has got to be the most enthralling subject in the world. I’m exhilarated by the thought of having a connection to something so similar, yet alien; that mind-blowing sense of recognising oneself in something so physically and cognitively foreign. It is the same reason why, when people get to know about cephalopods, they become fascinated by them. I think it’s also why I love having pets and love learning about animals. And then there’s the great question of why we’re here and the other humans aren’t. How did we survive and thrive so well while they died out?
Because I love questions like that, it makes me sad to think that there are people who deny themselves the pleasure of asking them and seeking answers. These people are compelled by their religious faith to deny that evolution happened, and to deny the evidence that humans as a species are part of a bigger family tree. My aunt is a devout Christian, and she shares that sadness. As we walked around the exhibit, we discussed creationism, evolution, and God. She thinks that evolution is completely compatible with her faith; she doesn’t take the creation account in Genesis literally, and she believes that Christians who refuse to accept evolution have a limited view of who God is and what he can do. While we were looking around the gift shop, she noticed that this image, (reprinted on my blog from Gutenberg’s edition of Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature), had been reproduced on some mugs:
Having heard too many creationists ask questions like “If we’re descended from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?”, my aunt was adamant that this image was very unhelpful, and should not be sold in the gift shop; the arrangement of the skeletons was far too suggestive of “the ascent of man”.
Like so many Christians, including many scientists, my aunt is proof that science and religion can coexist in one mind without one diminishing the other. It’s sad, then, that some Christians (and indeed Muslims and people of other faiths) think evolution is an affront to their beliefs and must not be believed. It’s sad, because when you see the world this way, new scientific discoveries can start to feel threatening. Learning about the diversity of human experience can start to feel threatening. And learning about things like human neurology or animal sentience, can make you start to question assumptions that must not be questioned in order for your worldview to hold firm (and hold firm it must, for your eternal destiny is at stake). When I was a Christian, I often encountered this uncomfortable feeling. Although I believed that you couldn’t put God in a petri dish or a test tube, and that science couldn’t tell me whether he was real or not, I was still disturbed by certain scientific findings, because they suggested that God didn’t interact with the world in the way I and my co-religionists thought he did. I always eventually found a way to reconcile what I’d learned with my beliefs, which usually meant adjusting my beliefs to become less literal or finding a more convoluted way to reconcile certain ideas to each other. But there would always be a period of perturbation while I tried to make sense of the new knowledge.
A great visual representation of this unpleasant feeling can be seen in the video for “God’s Not Dead”, a song by the Newsboys. It provides a fascinating glimpse into how uncomfortable it is to live in a world where discovery continually challenges your most cherished beliefs, and an insight into how facts are interpreted as threats by some religious people:
At the start of the video, a “news report” style voiceover announces:
“In a statement released today, scientists have announced that based on their research they have concluded that God is a myth.”
Now, obviously establishing whether God is a myth is not the work of science, and no respectable scientists would ever release a statement like this. Yes, there are vocally anti-theistic scientists; Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss spring to mind. But they are not publishing their anti-theistic views in scientific journals, nor trying to establish through scientific research whether or not “God is a myth”. Yet according to the Newsboys, when scientists release research findings that don’t immediately appear to square with Christian beliefs, the scientists who did the research are attacking the concept of God. Even if this is a total misrepresentation of what scientists do, it is at least an insight into how the Newsboys feel about scientific discovery.
In the next sequence, lead singer Michael Tait is sitting in a coffee shop and around him, people are reading newspapers with the headline “God is a Myth”. Meanwhile, a young man reads an online newspaper with the headline “God is Dead”. Clearly, the Newsboys (or whoever came up with the concept of the video) feel that all around them, the concept of God is under attack; first from scientists who are apparently desperate to disprove him, then by a media machine that reports uncritically on their anti-God findings. I, too, remember feeling like there was some kind of conspiratorial bias against God in these institutions (now, of course, I can’t help but feel that it’s actually reality that holds that bias). However, I wasn’t as bad as some people. I had a boyfriend who was shocked when I told him I thought God made us through evolution: “Well, I feel sorry for you because you’ve been brainwashed!”, he snapped at me, defensively.
I wonder how people like him and the Newsboys would feel in the Natural History Museum, and I think I know the answer. The answer makes me sad.