May 27 2010

Thank God for Evolution – Talk by Don Feist

Published by under Talks

Thank God for Evolution

Part 1:  Religious believers  – or religious knowers ?

The Sea of Faith movement doesn’t have any statement of belief.   But we do perhaps come close to one in sharing the assumption that  “Religion is a human creation” which is in contradiction of the old orthodoxy – and it is still the current orthodoxy of a very large section of the churches  – is that religion, and religious faith,  are God-given.

It’s all very well for us to say, over against that, that religion is a human creation,  and of course people like Lloyd Geering, Karen Armstrong and others have done a great deal  to trace for us the development of religion among humans.

Lloyd Geering has also said:

“Religion may be said to have begun, …

with the telling of stories or myths.”

And he quotes Carl Jung as saying:

“A tribe’s mythology is its living religion,

and its loss is always a moral catastrophe.”

So, if the old orthodoxy had as it foundation  a body of myths  in which God is Creator, who speaks to his people through prophets and miracles and historical events, and who has become the Deliverer and Saviour of his people – and if we say that those myths simply will not do – that we cannot, today, base religious faith on a set of myths like that  – what foundation of stories have we got ?  What foundation of stories can be possibly have?   Enter Michael Dowd, author of this book:  “Thank God for Evolution”  – who is saying that in fact, we do have a story, ready to hand, that meets this need more than adequately.

In a number of ways, for me,  the book is annoying and off-putting.  First of all,  there are six pages of over-the-top recommendations of the book and the author before you even get to the title page.  Then there are two and a half pages of “Author’s Promises”  promises to those who have rejected evolution, or accepted it grudgingly, to devoutly committed Christians, to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, humanists and  others  –  of how the book will change your life forever and for the better.   And the last half the book didn’t do anything much for me. And yet,  I believe, the book really has a lot going for it.

Before I get to that, I think I need to tell you a bit of where the writer,  Michael Dowd,  is coming from.  He’s an American who grew up in the 1960s –70s  as a Roman Catholic. Then, while serving in the US Army in Berlin in 1979, he had a Pentecostal “born again” experience. For several years he was deeply involved in fundamentalist Pentecostal groups that were vigorously anti-evolution. But when he went to an Assemblies of God college,  and then a Baptist Theological Seminary, he was upset and confused to find all his teachers took evolution as a given. Then,  he says:

the final shift came suddenly, in the first session of a course of “The New Catholic Mysticism”, when the lecturer began by telling the scientific story of the Universe in a way that I had never heard it before  –  as a sacred epic.”

This conversion was rather like that of St Paul in the road to Damascus  –  Michael Dowd’s enthusiasm for evolution since that moment has been as great as his opposition and animosity before. And into the bargain, the wife he married is a professional science writer who continues to identify herself as an atheist.

So, it’s time to dive into the argument of the book.  Dowd starts by emphasising that a people’s cosmology – the  world-view,  or “Big Picture” that they take as given   –   is very important.

“We cannot thrive without myth”

he says –

“that is, without meaningful stories that freely use  poetry and metaphor to communicate what we individually and collectively experience to be true”.

And this recognition leads him to insist that a truce between science and religion  – each of them saying to the other:

Yes, I accept that you have your field of expertise,  but you must recognise that I have mine, also.  You stick to your knitting,  and I’ll stick to mine”.

Nothing like that, he says, is good enough. Nothing like that can be strong enough  to be the foundation of a religious faith people can really live by.

If we in the 21st Century are going to thrive, he argues, we must have a foundation of myth  and meaningful stories of our origins and of who we are, that can carry the weight of giving some point to life – must carry the weight of our morals, our value system and our sense of who we are.   Not least,  it must also, if we are going to survive, give us a foundation for treating every other living thing,  and the planet itself, with respect.

So, he insists, it simply isn’t good enough  just to ensure that our religious position doesn’t conflict with our science. Rather, our religious faith must be firmly grounded in the story of the Universe, and of life on this planet, and in all the understanding that science gives us of who we are,  and how we fit into the scheme of things.

In one important part of the book he spells out how the old mechanical picture of reality has been replaced. From the time of, say Isaac Newton, until quite recently, the assumption was that physical reality – that is, the galaxies, the Solar System,  planet Earth and everything on it or in it  – is like a giant clock  – in which the whole is made up of separate parts each of which could in theory,  exist independently.

But that picture has had its day. We are rapidly coming to appreciate that we need a picture of something more like an organism than a clock.  At every level of complexity, we find that the parts have, as it were, a creative potential within them, so that, when some atoms come together into a molecule, the molecule is something more than, and different from, the atoms of which it is made. A molecule of common salt, for example is something more than, and very different from, a mixture of equal numbers of sodium atoms and chlorine atoms. Then, in turn, a living cell  is something much more than the molecules of which it is composed.  A plant is something much more than the sum of the cells of which it is composed.   And so on.

Michael Dowd uses the term “nested creativity” to indicate this truth  – that stuff – things  – all the way up from quarks and mesons up through chemicals and plants and humans to stars and galaxies has been produced by way of this creative potential in what came before it.

Putting it another way, and quoting Brian Swimme,

“Here’s the whole story in one line:  You take a great cloud of hydrogen gas, leave it alone, and it becomes rosebushes, giraffes and human beings”.

This image of a living organism, I remind you,  is importantly different from the old mechanical image.

Another very important part of the book that I want to mention, concerns:

“the modern method by which we collectively access and expand our understanding of the nature of reality.  New truths no longer spring fully formed from the traditional founts of knowledge. Rather, they are hatched and challenged in the pubic arena of science.”

This arena, he calls  “the realm of public revelation.”

“In contrast”,

he goes on,

“private revelation entails claims about reality that arise primarily from [one person’s] personal experiences.  ….   Alas,  private revelation  enshrined for centuries in sacred texts  cannot be empirically verified today.

Such claims cannot be proven because they are one-person, one-time occurrences.  …  Accordingly, private revelations must be either believed or not believed.  When private revelations reside  at the core of religious understandings,  people are left with no choice but to believe them or not”.

In contrast to all such claims to private knowledge, he says, the arena of public revelation offers opportunities for us to learn ever more about the nature of reality  –   and continually to recognise and revise mistaken notions.  …  The mindset that welcomes public revelation is marked not only by openness and curiosity.   It is grounded in a trust so solid that nothing that might be revealed would shake its foundations.   …

“Thanks to the scientific method”,

he argues,

“public revelation emerges when claims about the nature of reality are based on measurable data and can be tested and modified in light of evidence and concerted attempts to disprove such claims.  This process typically results in a kind of understanding so distinct from belief, and so removed from cultural contexts that they can be regarded for all practical purposes, as factual.”

This process of accumulating ever more and more data,  testing it,  modifying some of it,  rejecting some of it, leads to the every-increasing build up of factual knowledge. Although none of it is ever absolutely certain or final, the agreed-upon stuff is so well established, Dowd argues, that it is totally reasonable to call it factual knowledge  – and more than that, to see it as revelation of how things really are.

Dowd then contrasts a knowledge–based, evolutionary form of religion with an old-style, belief-based, religion.

“Those who base their religious orientation, as I do, on public revelation.”

he says,

“are more aptly categorised as religious knowers, than as religious believers.”

Dowd sees himself most emphatically as a Christian.  He insists that his belief in God, his following the Jesus way of life, are no longer grounded in a world view taken from any private revelation  – whether from the Bible or anywhere else  – but are grounded in the more-or-less universally accepted factual knowledge of today  –  the knowledge of the Universe story, from the Big Bang, down to today’s knowledge of DNA and quantum theory  and space exploration and everything in between.

We get the flavour of this position is think, from these words of his:

“For the Universe story to become our story, however, amazement is not enough.  We need to feel relationship.  We must make a connection, sprout an umbilical cord to the Cosmos.  What out there can offer us such relationship?   Simply this:  ancestral stars are part of our genealogy.  We can now know and feel a familial bond to the heavens.  Every atom in our bodies, other than hydrogen, was forged in the fiery belly of a star who lived and died and recycled itself back to the galaxy before our own star, the Sun, was born.”

In this passage he makes clear an emotional involvement, wonder and commitment, built on a foundation,  not of  accepting by way of belief what someone long ago has written, but on a foundation of present day knowledge, as secure, as well-documented and well-tested, as any knowledge can be.

So  – what do you reckon  -is he right in claiming that in our day, a religious position can be built on a foundation – not of belief at all, but of sound knowledge  ???       [Discussion]

Part 2:     “When I act against my will, then,   it is not my true self doing it, but sin which lives in me”. ???

I want to look now at one particular application of what Michael Dowd is advocating  –  basing religious life not on out-dated private revelation and old belief, but on the best modern knowledge which comes to us through the public revelation of the scientific enterprise.

I spoke before about the old orthodoxy that is still the current orthodoxy for much of the Christian Church.  One central part of that orthodoxy is firmly based on words of St Paul in chapter 7 of Romans:

“I cannot understand my own behaviour.  I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate. … the thing behaving in that way is not my self, but sin living in me.  When I act against my will, then,   it is not my true self doing it, but sin which lives in me.   This is what makes me a prisoner of that law of sin  which lives inside my body.”

St Paul, I think you will agree, is both insightful  and honest about the fact that our human behaviour  can very often be at odds  with our sincerely held values or goals or ideals.   But is his diagnosis of the reason for this accurate?  Dowd claims that on this point

“evolutionary brain science can provide  a more realistic and universally relevant picture of the human condition”.

To show you how this is so, I need to give you a quick science lesson, which I’ve taken straight from the book.

We now know that there are four main parts to the brain of present day humans.

The oldest part of our human brain is:

1. The reptilian brain  [“Lizard legacy”]

This part of our brain developed millions of years ago, when reptiles were evolving. Evolution, as I expect you already know, doesn’t throw things away. It works by adapting adding on and adapting.  In humans today, the cerebellum and brainstem together handle our involuntary breathing,    basic bodily movements and acquired “muscle memory”  – such things as how to throw a spear, ride a bike, kick a ball,  drive a car, type  or play music on a keyboard ….. without needing to think consciously about it.

It is also the seat of the instinctual drives that are least subject to conscious control.  So powerful is the reptilian brain’s control of our behaviour when we are traumatised that the other parts of the brain  have difficulty overriding these automatic and instantaneous reactions.  This area  is also the seat of territorial aggressiveness,    hunger     and the sex drive.

2.  The old mammalian brain  [“Furry Little Mammal”]

This is the limbic system, which evolved and was added on to the reptilian brain, in the earliest mammals. It is made up of the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalmus and insula.  It is the seat of deep emotions.

This limbic system seems to have developed to provide behaviour more carefully adjusted to the situation, and to allow experiential learning. Mammals don’t lay eggs,  but they nurse their young with milk, and this requires strong emotion for familial bonding,  which reptiles don’t need, but is provided by the limbic brain.

And I read somewhere else recently, that it is because dogs and humans share  a fundamentally similar limbic system that there can be real empathy and loyalty,  and sharing of happiness or sadness between one of us, and our dog.  This part of our brain also cranks up basic reptilian drives into more emotionally powerful and consciously experienced imperatives  – to do with, for example,  food and sex. And it is the part of the brain where the drugs that cause addiction operate.

3.  The new mammalian brain   [“Monkey mind”]

This is the neocortex  –  to be found in all the higher mammals.  It could be called the chatterbox or computer brain because it is incessantly talking to itself, fretting about the past  and worrying about the future,  working out cost-benefit analyses, balancing favours and debts in our social relationships.  It is highly developed in dolphins and the apes, but not much in rabbits.

This is the part of my brain that keeps running off on side-lines when I really want to keep following a talk or a the sermon  – so it is probably active right now, also, in quite a few of you.

There are three ways I can bring my wandering neocortex under control:

3.1 It can be internally controlled by the fourth, newest part of my brain

in a deliberate, conscious focus,   in a sermon or lecture, or in  meditation.

3.2 It can be called into service by some emergency or any outside situation that commands my full attention.

3.3 It can become fully engaged to some creative or physically demanding task.

The neocortex is where our symbolic language functions. So it is what generates conversation,  and our rational thinking, and a lot of memory-storing happens here.   It enables us to consider several options,  in order to choose one  –  so it is also the seat of our free will.

4.  The pre-frontal cortex    [“Higher porpoise”]

Also known as  the frontal lobes.  This is the most recent part of the brain to develop and it reaches significant development only in humans.  This is where plans for the future are laid,    and decisions made.  Consciousness belongs here, and here basic emotions are transformed into subjective feelings.   Our values,  and our ideas of right and wrong belong here too.  So if you wanted to pin a “You are here”  label on one of the four parts of the human brain,  this is where you should put it.

But things don’t happen quite so fast in this newest, youngest part of the brain,  as they do in the “Lizard Legacy”  or the “Furry Little Mammal” areas.  So that when something new and unexpected happens near me, the instinctive  or emotional reaction within the older part of my brain happens something like, I think, a fifth of a second before the rational or ethical brain area comes up with something.

Knowing these things about these areas of our brains  – about the stages of evolution over millions of years, and the very different needs  of the different creatures in which they developed  –  throws a lot of light on a number of things about us humans.

1.  Mismatch theory.

i.e.  Our brain structures and deeply ingrained behaviours were developed to cope with matters of food, safety and reproduction anywhere from 100,000 to a million years ago, long before civilisation started, which was only 10,000 years ago or less – and in fact long before we were recognisably human.  Many of our reptile and mammal ancestors had to be capable of real aggression, or they, their mates and their offspring would become someone else’s dinner.   Today, some human males, with no real need to be aggressive, succumb to wholly inappropriate road-rage.   Some of our mammal ancestors needed to eat up large in summer and autumn] in order to survive through hibernation in the winter.   Today some of our teenagers struggle with either obesity or bulimia. We could go on multiplying examples of such mismatches between life situations which some parts of our brain were developed to cope with, and the radically different circumstances which those brains must cope with today.

2. Our evolutionary knowledge of the brain  throws light on the Nature / Nurture argument.   We now know that the human brain – and especially, I think,  the pre-frontal lobes  –  don’t reach maturity,     until about age 23.  Not very long ago,  people assumed that children were simply little adults.  Then the pendulum swung, and some argued that the child is like a clean slate, so that almost everything in the development of children depends on nurture within the family and society, and on education. Evolutionary psychology is now showing us that throughout those early years both nature and nurture are vital  – and that the two interact in many complex ways.

3.  Modern brain science throws light on male-female differences.  After many centuries of patriarchal oppression of women –  and, it now appears,  the excessive claims of some feminist movements  we seem to be heading towards some sort of balance.  Men and women differ profoundly  in how they go about procreation.  Men have the physical ability to father maybe thousands of children,  and it may take a man only a few minutes to do what it takes.   But men then have no absolute assurance  that a particular child is genetically their own.  A woman, on the other hand, has a very limited supply of eggs. Every successful fertilisation of one of these eggs requires 9 months of pregnancy to produce a child, birth is hazardous and painful, and then there is still a long commitment to feeding and nurturing the very dependent infant.

Intimately linked with these differences in what is involved in reproduction, are differences in body structure,   hormone outputs,   sexual urges and emotions.  So there are very significant differences not only between our legs, but also in the physical brain and the psychology of men and women  –  differences which again have been being shaped  for maybe a million years.

And in just the last 60 years, our culture has started exploring the implications  of uncoupling sexual activity from procreation.  Little wonder there have been some stresses and strains for individuals,  for societies, for moral standards  – and of course,  quite a few human casualties.

4.  The last area I want to mention, on which modern knowledge of the brain throws light, is that all higher primates  – including of course us humans – have developed what we might paradoxically call  “gut instincts” about when we can trust our fellows,  and when they are trying to deceive us.   Evolutionary psychology has made us more consciously aware of this  – aware of how,   along with sometimes trying to deceive, and being on guard against being deceived, we have become very efficient at deceiving ourselves.   This means  that we do not always know accurately what we are feeling,  or what motives are really driving us.

And this ability we have, to pull the wool over our own eyes,  combines with the problem of parts of the brain that were shaped a million years ago having difficulty coping with modern life  — so that self-knowledge  – our understanding what is really going on inside our heads  – can become very, very difficult.

I started this second section by quoting St Paul – who became the primary source of all the Church’s teaching  about  the in-built and inescapable tendency of all humans, to sin.  From this, a belief in the necessity of deliverance from sin and guilt became the foundation  –  and almost the reason for existence   –  of the Western Christian Church.    But Michael Dowd is arguing that our modern knowledge of what it means to be human, of how we came to be the way we are – and in particular our knowledge of how our human brains have evolved, offers us a radically different,   and much more accurate  foundation  on which to build religious faith and live a religious life.  In particular,  it raises sharp questions about the whole idea of sin.

So – do you think Michael Dowd is basically right  – that this modern knowledge is a superior basis  for religion to the old ideas such as we find in St Paul and other parts of the Bible ??

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