Having discussed the role of science in the life of humanity, my atheist forum friend Mycroft turned to the subject of religion. The points of view were thus: Mycroft=science is a savior; Me=science is a tool for the exploration of reality
Mycroft wrote: “The major organized belief systems are incoherent. Half of mosaic, christian, and muslim theology over the last millennia is devoted to the task of belatedly producing some kind of consistency—often by declaring something impossible a “mystery”, or adding afterthoughts.”
Now, I had never disagreed with Mycroft about the incoherence of some organized belief systems. The irrationality of some of the beliefs I held when I was younger are what led me to look for truth and value both in the scriptures that were supposed to form the basis of my beliefs and beyond.
But here’s the thing: The belief systems current in many religious communities today are no less irrational than our political belief systems, our personal belief systems, our pseudo-scientific belief systems. They are no less irrational than any other area in which human beings make things up to explain, rationalize and make themselves comfortable with cognitive dissonance in a world that seems to change too fast to keep up with.
There is a difference, however, between what the scriptures that we claim to believe say and what we interpret them to say filtered through societal factors and personal desires. Over the valid objections of atheists and others (including religious people), we also extend the pronouncements of scripture into areas they were not intended to address.
The Book of Genesis was viewed by the people to whom it was given as a symbolic history of the Jewish people, not as a literal, material history of humankind. This is why the story of Lilith and the idea that “sons of God” married the “daughters of men” didn’t raise a red flag for Jewish scholars. Only later was the metaphorical account wrested out of that context by non-Jews and taken as a literal creation account and thereby held to be in opposition to scientific theories of evolution.
These days, Genesis is more often taken by believers to be an “age appropriate” metaphor for the creation of life than it is a literal description of that process. The fact that two separate thumbnail sketches of creation appear in the same book with two different timelines that the authors never thought to reconcile is more than suggestive of this. Nor is Genesis the only creation story in existence that is meaningful to huge chunks of humanity, and it makes no sense to insist that it is or that—taken as a metaphorical model—it usurps the role of science. It is not science. It is human beings trying to describe for posterity something they barely have the language to describe.
“But Mohammad,” Mycroft countered, “gave three different versions of the origin of man (he was made from clay, from water, from “semen of despised water”).”
With all due respect to Mycroft’s obvious intelligence, this statement is, to me, an example of the human tendency toward binary thinking. To illustrate, there is a point in the Gospels at which Jesus is trying to describe to His disciples what the Kingdom of God is like. He says it’s like a tree growing from a tiny seed and then that its like a woman kneading leaven into flour.
- One can say “Well, which is it? It can’t be both.”
- One can choose a description, and take it materialistically, supposing that Christ meant God would physically plant a tree somewhere on earth that would hold all the planet’s birds or turn into a woman and literally knead the leaven of the kingdom into the earth.
- One can recognize that a material example is being used to describe something non-material, and can ask “what do these two similes have in common?” What they have in common is that that both the growing of the tree and the kneading of dough are organic processes that take time.
So, what does Muhammad’s use of these elements (one of which is biologically apt) have as a common thread? They are all physical elements that have long been associated with the human body—clay and water; solid substance and fluids—and which every human body is composed of.
Metaphors are also used in scientific literature for the same reason that they are used in religious revelation: we lack the capacity to directly understand the thing we are describing. Scientists talk about stars being born in “cocoons of interstellar gases”, of “black holes”, of “super strings”, of “fields”. Science uses the word “noble” to describe certain gases that do not combine with others. These words are used differently than in a non-scientific setting, but imagine what might happen if someone reading scientific literature took those metaphors literally and believed that stars are like butterflies and are born in cocoons afloat in space, that the phenomenon we call a black hole is really black and really a hole, that there are strings floating in fields (like the Elysian fields or Uncle Fred’s corn field, perhaps) in the void of space, and that some gases are literally more noble than others and therefore the other gases venerate them.
In a scientific setting, after the initial shock of a new paradigm being set, it is deemed rational to adjust one’s worldview to incorporate new information. Think of the uproar over Luis and Walter Alvarez’s theories about the KT boundary and dino die-off before it became the new paradigm. I would think that my friend Mycroft and others who share his worldview would be gratified to see religious thought being similarly refined and adjusted by the new discoveries we make about our world and ourselves. Alas, such is not the case. What is considered rational behavior in one context is seen in the other as irrational dithering.
In the Bahá’í scriptures, Bahá’u’lláh (the Prophet-Founder) and Abdu’l-Bahá (His son and appointed interpreter) have written copiously about reason and the importance of the acquisition of knowledge both spiritual and scientific. Religion is revealed in these writings as an organic thing, meant from its very inception to evolve even as mankind and everything else evolves. I doubted that principle once upon a time, and that doubt caused me to study the scriptures I had grown up with in a far more comprehensive and rational way than I had before. I read the biblical texts—especially the words of Christ—with an eye to extracting information. I realized, as I never had before, that Christ (and indeed, Buddha, Krishna, Muhammad and other claimants to divine revelation) had also tried to frame the teachings of Their faiths as part of an evolving process.
“Religion must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be non-progressive it is dead. The divine institutes are evolutionary; therefore [their] revelation must be progressive and continuous. ..Sciences of former ages and philosophies of the past are useless today. Ancient laws and archaic ethical systems will not meet the requirements of modern conditions… In view of this, shall blind imitations of ancestral forms and theological interpretations continue to guide the spiritual development of humanity today? Shall man gifted with the power of reason unthinkingly adhere to dogma which will not bear the analysis of reason?” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity p. 83
When it came to my discourses with Mycroft, I was bemused to discover that he—the atheist—was the one who insisted that all scripture must be taken literally and that evolution was a non-starter.
Irony can be pretty darned ironic.