GOD, MAN and CHARLES DARWIN

I was very unwilling to give up my belief…. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. —Charles Darwin

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I have on occasion speculated that if I weren’t a deist, I would without doubt (or more accurately, with doubt) be an agnostic. For me, atheism is a non-starter; I cannot rule out possibilities beyond the point where mere mortals have the capability to ascertain. For me, the difference between an atheist and an agnostic is humility: we’re limited humans. Even if you and I don’t believe in the ‘revealed’ God, why fall into the trap of conflating man’s invented God (religion) with the fact of creation and thus the plausibility of a creator, divorced and absent though He (It) may be from what He (It) hath wrought?

These thoughts were in the back (but not too far back) of my mind as I was reading CHARLES DARWIN – A SCIENTIFIC BIOGRAPHY by the late Sir Gavin de Beer, a British scientist and author of many books on zoology, embryology, genetics, etc. I’d come upon this old book while library-browsing, and realized that, while we all know what Darwin was famous for, do we really know Charles Darwin, the man? What was he like, and what did he believe at various points in his life as his thinking evolved (pun intended)?

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind in getting to know Darwin is that he was “The man who struggled with his own ideas” (BBC website), keeping silent for 20 years before going public with his painstaking research, and describing his writing On the Origin of Species as “like confessing a murder.” Its publication in 1859 represents “one man’s struggle with the most radical idea of all time — the idea that humans shared a common ancestor with apes.”

Darwin was born of Christian parents in 1809 at Shrewsbury, England, the son of a successful physician and a mother who died when Charles was eight years old, after which (quoting de Beer) “his home upbringing devolved largely on his elder sisters to whom, in spite of their persistent fault-finding, he was ever grateful for instilling in him the spirit of humanity.” Additionally, his grandfathers were important Enlightenment figures: Josiah Wedgewood, anti-slavery campaigner, and Erasmus Darwin, a doctor who ‘wrote the book’ (ZOONOMIA) on the radical idea that one species could transmute into another.

Darwin’s father wished him to become a doctor, but after realizing that his son had an aversion to practicing medicine, he (quoting de Beer) “proposed that he [Charles] take holy orders in the Church of England. Indeed, at this time in his life, he felt so convinced of the truth of his religion” that he accepted. But after three years of studies at Christ’s College, he considered the time “wasted. His greatest pleasure was collecting beetles for the sheer joy of collecting.” After meeting men of distinction in botany and other fields, he studied geology and read books “from which he derived a zeal to travel and study natural history.”

A set of fortuitous happenings led to a position as a neophyte naturalist on the HMS Beagle, which set sail from England in Dec. 1831, not to return until October 1836….five years of meticulous observations, collecting specimens and exhaustive exploration too lengthy to detail here, but which began a new chapter in the history of science.

Years later, “The result of his experiences was that (says de Beer quoting Darwin) My theology is a simple muddle; I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind, in the details….the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wonderful universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know from whence it came. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world. The safest conclusion seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect.”

“Darwin never felt any but the most friendly and charitable feelings for those who differed from him in matters of religion, provided that they were honest. This is amply confirmed from both sides. Rev. J. Brodie Innis wrote to Darwin, We often differed, but you are one of those rare mortals from whom one can differ and yet feel no shade of animosity, and that is a thing of which I should feel very proud if anyone could say it of me. Darwin’s description of their relations was equally generous: Innis and I have been fast friends for thirty years, and we never thoroughly agreed on any subject but once, and then we stared hard at each other, and thought one of us must be very ill.”

And now I feel I know Charles Darwin, the man.

P.S. My thanks to Richard Cahill, whose July 23rd post “God, Man and Donald Trump” inadvertently suggested my title for this post after I thought better of my original (or more accurately, less original) title.

 

 

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HERE A QUOTE, THERE A QUOTE

Now and again, when I come across a quotation I particularly like, I bookmark it or write it down to save for possible use in a future post. Over time, I’ve accumulated a considerable cache of said quotes, which has me feeling somewhat like the poor soul beneath this 1837 tombstone in Thermon, Maryland:

Here lies an atheist. All dressed up and no place to go.

So here I am with a quoter’s worth of quotes which I have yet to use, and probably never will, as things stand. To coin a phrase, my quotations situation has come to a dead end. They’ve no place to go. I’ve reached the now-or-never point — use ’em or lose ’em. Thus, the reason for this post: it’s full speed ahead, and let the quotes (the first of which defines an atheist in a way I’d not heard of) fall where they may:

The atheist does not say ‘there is no God,’ but says ‘I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God’; the word ‘God’ is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. The Bible God I deny; the Christian God I disbelieve in; but I am not rash enough to say there is no God as long as you tell me you are unprepared to define God for me. -Charles Bradlaugh

He who is not aware of his ignorance will only be misled by his knowledge. -Richard Whatley

Moral systems are devised not to make life difficult, not to forbid pleasure, but to protect human beings from other human beings. -Andrew Greeley

Allright, forget it. We’ll play in your ballpark. -Spencer Tracy (Clarence Darrow) to Fredric March (Wm. Jennings Bryan) when the Bible (but not Darwin’s ORIGIN OF SPECIES) is admitted as evidence in the film based on the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, INHERIT THE WIND.

It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. -Zora Hurston

Any physical cause [of the universe] is by definition part of the universe to be explained. Thus any purely scientific explanation of [it’s] existence is doomed to be circular. Even if it starts from something very minimal – a cosmic egg, a tiny bit of quantum vacuum, a singularity – it still starts with something, not nothing. -Jim Holt

“GOD” is most accurately defined as the personification of ignorance, representing everything we do not yet understand. -Kenneth Marsalek

On the sixth day, God created man. On the seventh day, man returned the favor. -Unknown

I don’t believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear. -Woody Allen

Well, humor is the great thing, the saving thing, after all. -Mark Twain

 

 

MORE ABOUT THE BEGINNING

I hadn’t intended to write a follow-up — much less a serious one — to ABOUT THE BEGINNING (my last post), but after thought-provoking comments by Don Frankel and Michaeline, I had to face the soul-searching question, “Am I a muse or a mouse?” The answer is a squeaker, but I decided to face the muse-ic and go where mice-men fear to tread. So let’s go back to, oh, About The Beginning.

That title, of course, referred to the coming into existence of the universe. In that post, the words after WHAT ATHEISTS BELIEVE proclaimed the nonexistence of a creator, i.e. the “Nothing” that “makes sense”….as opposed to the revealed creator, the biblical God of believers. For me, neither scenario passes the smell test. Here’s why:

It is said that man cannot live without his illusions. Perhaps that is not entirely a bad thing….if the alternative is unbearable. If you don’t know what you don’t know, perhaps illusion is the saving compensation. That, to me, largely explains  the “revealed” God of religion. But if that need for “faith in a power stronger than ourselves” (to quote Michaeline) is as subject to perversion as any other human want, is it not also a force for good? In any case, that’s a proposition that is beside the question here; a fairy tale is still a fairy tale no matter how benevolent. The greatest saint in history has either gone on to eternal life or not, irrespective of his or her faith. We cannot believe our way into what may not exist.

The atheist’s position is a different kind of challenge….not in an adversarial sense, because this isn’t a debating contest, but a reality search, no matter where the search leads….even if the reality turns out to be beyond human reach. Certitude, in such a case, is for dogmatists….which atheists are not above, in my view. Barring absolute proof, how is certainty that there is no god any less dogmatic than certainty that there is?

Don refers to “idea[s] in Physics” (such as the search for a theoretical “God particle,” which is beyond my pay grade and perhaps beyond finding). A less pie-in-the-sky idea in Physics is the Big Bang Theory, which (to my unscientific mind) is entirely plausible, but which addresses only the means (how the universe was created), not what was behind the means….or behind the scenes, for the more theatrical-minded among you.

As a creative writer, I can’t get my head around creation without a creator. This post didn’t write itself, and I can’t see a universe creating itself, no matter how miniscule the brain behind these words or the particle that exploded into a universe. But then there’s always the question, who created the creator? Whence cometh God? Ah. That calls for another theory. Here’s mine (it’s probably not original, but what do you want for nothing, as an atheist might say):

There is no such thing as time outside of creation. The creator has always existed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean human beings have souls which will pass into that timeless realm after death. Then why did the creator bother? What’s the point? As the late vocalist Peggy Lee asked, Is that all there is? We may never know.

Presumably, a creator who created and sanctions such misery and suffering as is our lot on earth would be the same “person” our souls would be at the whim of in an afterlife. Of course, many of us are fortunate enough in this life to experience more than enough love and empathy to offset the madness. Based on this mixed bag of a creation, can it’s creator be other than a mixed bag?

I guess we’ll find out soon enough….or not.

 

 

TODAY IS “PLAY GOD DAY”

We should not play God before we have learned to be men, and as we learn to be men we will not want to play God. –Paul Ramsey, Christian ethicist

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According to holidayinsights.com., January 9 is PLAY GOD DAY. While not an official holiday (i.e., it’s not sanctioned by God, the President or Congress), it nonetheless should be one, as man has been playing God since emerging from the cave, if not before.

If you’re an atheist, you may well ask how man can play what doesn’t exist. Friends, if you think about it, it’s done all the time. In olden days B.F. (Before Film), a man could only play the Almighty in his own time, but since then, God-playing has not been confined to tyrants, despots, politicians and overlords. The invention of motion pictures has been a godsend to a man playing God even after the man is gone. God is not dead — like Frankenstein’s monster, it’s his own creation….and IT’S ALIVE! To wit:

Here is a list of films (including the actor/God)  in which man has played God. I do not proclaim it a complete list, nor have I seen but a few of the of the films on the list. What do you want for nothing? Remember, this is PLAY GOD DAY, so take it or leave it. I doubt God Itself ever made a better offer.

THE GREEN PASTURES (1936), Rex Ingram
THE BIBLE (1966), John Huston
SKIDOO (1968), Groucho Marx
MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975), Graham Chapman
OH, GOD! (1977), George Burns (plus two sequels: Oh, God! Book II, and Oh, God! You Devil)
TIME BANDITS (1981), Ralph Richardson
TWO OF A KIND (1983), Gene Hackman
NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (1985), Ferdy Mayne
RELIGION, INC. (1989), George Plimpton
ALMOST AN ANGEL (1990), Charlton Heston
THE PRINCE OF EGYPT (1997), Val Kilmer
THE ACID HOUSE (1998), Maurice Roeves
DOGMA (1999), Alanis Morrissette (the first actress to play God?)
BRUCE ALMIGHTY (2003), Morgan Freeman
SUPER (2010), Rob Zombie

“BECAUSE I COULD”

I don’t remember who and where it was (not that it really matters — they’re everywhere and nowhere), but I saw a news report recently of a computer hacker who, when caught and asked why he did it,  answered “Because I could.”

How ignorant is that? I mean, if I were to do likewise unto him, impersonally drive him crazy and arbitrarily make his life miserable, would he let it pass if I told him I did it “Because I could?” I’m not God, after all….if I were, there would be no question of letting the victim figure it out for himself. I wouldn’t have to tell him anything.

Except if I were such a God, how I could live with myself….which, it seems to me, is why man had to invent a god in his own image — a God who works in mysterious ways, a God who at least professes to care, at least pays lip service to empathy; and, to go man one better, promises eternal bliss in a next life for those who love, honor and obey Him. Above all, man cannot have a Creator whose mixed bag includes God-caused suffering for which He is morally responsible. Man brings more than enough grief on himself in this life  — he needs all the help he can get to get through it without losing it.

But, assuming there is a non-invented Creator (which I assume is a non-starter for atheists), what are we to make of created reality?  Wouldn’t a realistic relational afterlife (if there be such) demand that a Creator apologize to us as much, if not more, than we apologize to Him for wronging others? And if that is the best we can hope for, how surreal is that? How could there be a moral Creator who supposedly would have been cognizant of all this from all eternity? Can you say “premeditated?”

And that, my friends, is why it is much easier to be either an atheist or a believer in the God of religion — any religion. No muss, no fuss, no getting all bent out of shape (except with each other). Whatever you do, don’t be a deist, or even an agnostic. Why risk torturing your brain with conundrums that tie up your mind in knots?

Because you could.

 

 

 

FAITH, HOPE AND CLARITY

When last we met – if we met – the subject of illusory pursuits was left dangling.

On that occasion, my (admittedly) arbitrary nomination for illusory pursuit #2 was popularity. Now we come to my choice for #1: the pursuit of religion, which is doubtless (pun intended) even more arbitrary. So I will amen(d) my nomination in order to make it more exact: the pursuit of a specific religion is, in my view, illusory.

Let us be clear what we’re talking about here. My Webster’s New College Dictionary defines religion as follows: 1a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power accepted as the creator and governor of the universe. 1b. A specific unified system of this expression.

If you suspect that this is leading up to a defense or advocacy of atheism, think again. I lump both atheism and specific religions in Webster’s 1b., in the sense that both become settled acceptances of assumptions or theories which in reality are far from settled. We can believe with all our being that there is no supernatural power. We can believe with all our being that scripture is the word of God. Neither of these convictions is more than the assertion of a human conclusion. Period.

It is said that one should never argue religion because such arguments are fruitless. Precisely. Hope and believe what you wish. Just don’t expect to convince me, based on faith or what is humanly knowable, that you know God’s will or that there is no God. You know neither such thing. I may consider (so-called revealed) religious faith blind, but far be it from me to try to persuade you to venture beyond where you’re prepared to go. That beyond is a dark and scary place, you know?