(estimated reading time 5 minutes)
My partner 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; human evolution blows my mind. It’s incredible to think of having a connection to something as familiar, yet as different, as another hominid species. I’m enthralled by the sense of looking at something so physically and presumably cognitively foreign, yet seeing so much of myself looking back at me. That feeling of identifying with something alien is the reason that, when people get to know about cephalopods, they become fascinated by them, and I think it’s also why I love having pets and learning about animals. Ironic as it is, I always imagine Adam experiencing that feeling when he saw Eve for the first time, and declared her to be “flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone”.
Then there are the big questions that arise from us being here while the other hominid species aren’t. How did we survive and thrive so well while they died out? Should we be proud or ashamed? When and how will we go the same way?
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 are the people who 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, but she isn’t one of the deniers. She shares my sadness that people disown our great extended family. 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. While I personally don’t think the Bible and science can be reconciled without some dissonance, I also know that a lot of serious Christians understand that science should not just be cast aside because it creates some tough questions, and they find ways to preserve their faith whilst accepting scientific truths. 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 uncomfortable; you are forced to be defensive and vigilant about the information you’re willing or unwilling to accept. 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 religious beliefs, which usually meant adjusting my religious beliefs to become less literal, or finding a more convoluted way to allow certain ideas to accommodate 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 both 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 certain 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 scientist 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 it seems as though the Newsboys think that 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 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 news site announcing that “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 friend 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. It makes me sad because science does for me what religion did for me – except, it does it better. Learning about our shared natural history makes me feel like I’m part of a grand story, a narrative so much bigger than my little life, and when I reflect on it, it feels very humbling indeed. And when I learn something new and amazing about the world that I didn’t know before by, say, watching Blue Planet, or reading The Hidden Life of Trees, or looking at skulls at the Natural History Museum, I frequently have moments that I can only really describe as an awe that transports me elsewhere, accompanied by a beautiful serenity; a feeling that I’m looking at something far beyond myself and far beyond my understanding. These are the same feelings I often experienced through my religion – except this time, it’s so much better. Better because I don’t have to shut the real world out to get there. And the wonder and sense of my own insignificant place in it all is never ruined by a voice telling me “I made this because I love you!”, or “You ought to worship God for this!”, or a sense of moral obligation to lead other people to the creator of it all. It’s never ruined by a quiet, unwelcome sense of incredulity that there’s a singular sentient mind behind all of natural history.
While my recent ancestors were contemplating gods and spirits to feel wonder and awe, I bet they never imagined that today we can get the same feelings from contemplating our ancestors themselves. I wish they could have caught a glimpse of the true story.