Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Selfish Gene and the Nature of the Divine

I always have had close friends who have been atheists. Richard Dawkins' theory of 'the selfish gene' was introduced to me as one of the foundations of atheist principles. 'The selfish gene' theory declares, among other things, that morality is natural to us, because it is part and parcel of self-preservation and the survival of the species. Aristotle long ago argued that morality is natural to the enlightened human being, because the 'greatest good' brings the greatest happiness. Dawkins takes the argument further, citing scientific evidence of the behaviour of life forms in general. His scientific theories are both brilliant and thought-provoking.

I would not argue with the 'selfish gene' principle at all in so far as I understand it. What I do submit is that it has no bearing on the existence of a Divine Being. I do not believe that we need to be good either because God told us to be good or because we will be punished by God for not being good. To me, God is not some ultimate official in the realm of Law and Order.

Furthermore, evolution has nothing to do with the existence of God. As some one who is utterly opposed to literalism, I do not believe that God created the heavens and the earth in seven days, nor do I believe the Babylonian concept that the Gods created humanity as workers to assume their former chores and responsibilities. As much as I love the Northern European myths of Yggdrasil, Asgard and Ragnarok, I do not believe that the World Tree is a form of flora rooted in the soil somewhere. I do not think that any Divine Being would operate on that level. Lesser 'gods' might, but lesser 'gods' are only humans on another scale. Evolution definitely could be part of the 'divine plan'. In fact, who dictated that there had to be any 'plan'? Why should it not be simply a matter of Being and Evolution of Being?

Here is a very beautiful and indeed spiritual description of evolution by an atheist: 'To me, the idea that something as incomparably complex and capable of beauty as a person could arise, through the action of physical laws, from stardust, so to speak, is very astounding and uplifting. Even as a Christian, I felt that evolution must have been God's greatest achievement, at least on the physical plane.'

I agree wholeheartedly. Why should 'creation' and 'evolution' be incompatible? Creation through evolution is creation nonetheless. The absurdity of religions that attempt to divorce science from the equation to me is as absurd as any attempt to divorce the spiritual component from our existence. Both sides, however, often make the error of refusing to incorporate elements of each in the ultimate design of our being.

The problem I have with most atheists is their active hostile towards religion. It is in 'The God Delusion' that Richard Dawkins, rather than simply pursuing a scientific approach to create a new scientific theory or principle, chose to heap ridicule upon specific aspects of religions as if, by doing so, he could disprove the existence of the divine. In similar fashion, the main problem with organised Communism was its insistence on destroying the very foundation of religion. 'Religion is the opium of the masses' was the war cry of the old Communists.

There is no doubt that religions have been the source of much oppression and exploitation in this world. Here is where I believe 'religion' must be redefined to eliminate politics from the equation. Spirituality, rather than the desire to control other human beings, must be the true foundation of any religion and the union of science and religion, rather than the exclusion of one from the other, would represent the ultimate philosophy.

If a Divine Being exists and is not a finite being, then the Divine could not be defined in human terms in any case. Some claim not that the Gods created human beings but rather that it is humans who create their gods. As far as Gods who can be described within the human frame of reference are concerned, we are their creators to some extent. The words in which we describe them as well as our essential portrayals of them are completely human.

Even in terms of Christianity, I believe it is absurd to declare that God created us in 'His' image. The notion that God is male has to be thrown out the window for a start. God was 'created' in the image of the people who developed those myths. I will not declare that to be the image of the Hebrew tribes, although they borrowed older myths, then redesigned the deity to suit their imperialist programme of conquest. The idea that any Divine Being would encourage the genocidal plots of any small group of humans is patently outrageous. Beyond those political depictions, however, there are poetic myths in the Christian cycle of myths that should not be disregarded summarily.

The non-political myths embodied in Christian Creation tales, like all myths throughout the history of our species are human creative inventions designed to explain the universe. There is no doubt that we create our gods when we attempt to define the Divine in human terms. That fact does not invalidate the Divine Being who inspires these creations. To argue that it does would be tantamount to an argument to the effect that any flaws in the portrait of a person would be proof of the non-existence of that individual.

One might argue that the purpose of any religion should be purely and simply to achieve 'nearness to the Divine', what is called in Islam, 'qurbatan ilallah'. Human mythologies are attempts to create a relationship with the Divine. Whether in poetic tales that describe our world and universe or through tales of interactions between humans and gods, myths weave tapestries to link our existence with that of the Divine. I believe that whatever is best in us must represent the Divine and indeed, infuses us with a spark of the essence of Divinity. As I believe that religion ultimately is nothing more than a very personal relationship with the Divine, however, I would not presume to dictate to any one else.

Dogma in religion is nothing more than a human attempt to control the thoughts and actions of others. Religious wars are wars of control. What is left when religion is stripped of its political and sociological aspects? I believe that what remains is the purest form of spirituality. How we define that is a matter of personal preference. The Orphics declared: 'I am a child of earth and starry heaven'. The Dionysians claimed that humanity contained a spark of divinity mixed into the 'clay of the Titans'. Some refer to that 'spark' as the 'soul'. Others view existence in terms of a single collective entity of which every human being is no more than a cell.

I suppose my quarrel with atheism is its insistence on defining religion in negative terms so that it can discard it entirely from the equation of existence.

Individuals become atheists usually for one of two reasons. The first is a personal hostility created by negative experiences with organised religion. The second is a need to categorise and define the Universe. The Divine, by its very nature, defies categorisation. No one can prove the existence of God and no one can disprove the existence of God either. It therefore remains nebulous, and there are individuals who look to science and mathematics to fully order and define their universe. Anything that cannot be embodied in a scientific principle or equation is jettisoned from their lexicon.

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant scientist and his hostility with organised religions can be justified to some extent. I believe, however, that individuals like him may err in rejecting the spiritual element in religion.

For example, Richard Dawkins declares that: 'Science offers us an explanation of how complexity (the difficult) arose out of simplicity (the easy). The hypothesis of God offers no worthwhile explanation for anything, for it simply postulates what we are trying to explain.'

I beg to differ. If religion simply were a matter of rules and regulations with respect to human conduct, then I would agree with him. Religion and God are two different things altogether. Religion is a human construct. If the Divine exists, it exists apart from our illusions or delusions. Our attempts to explain or define God may touch upon the truth once in awhile, but the essential nature of the Divine does not rise or fall according to our human powers of comprehension.

With respect to the notion that the idea of the Divine is nothing more than a 'comfort' to human nature, Richard Dawkins declares that: 'There are all sorts of things that would be comforting. I expect an injection of morphine would be comforting... But to say that something is comforting is not to say that it's true.'
Nor is it false by virtue of being 'comforting'. Morphine in fact, is an extremely useful and worthwhile substance and I do not feel that the comparison of morphine with God is a slur upon the nature of the Divine by any means.

Painkillers, as Richard Dawkins as a scientist must attest, serve a natural function. Where the natural release of endorphins is limited or faulty, a painkiller like morphine will act to make the unbearable bearable. Severe pain is not conducive to healing, and it is in the best interests of the human body to heal. I therefore would maintain that any substance that encourages healing and reduces factors inimical to that must be considered positive to some extent.
I would not deny that contemplation of the Divine often acts as a 'comfort' to human beings, but that is in no way evidence refuting the existence of the Divine. Human love can be a comfort and it does exist. Food and other sustenance can be a comfort as well.

I think that the foundation of the atheist element in this philosophy is that science must be able to explain the nature of the Universe and the nature of our existence in purely physical terms. Anything that lies outside that dimension is presumed to be of no value and should be discarded.

My question would be: if no Divine Being exists and if religion serves no essential purpose in our human existence, why is it that every culture and civilisation known to humanity either has created or embraced a spiritual component? I do not speak here of the rules and regulations aspect of religion but the spiritual aspect. Human beings always have tried to penetrate the veil of 'the unseen'. If it cannot be explained thoroughly in scientific terms, why is it that innate knowledge of something beyond our comprehension somehow exists in our psyche? Atheists may stamp that knowledge down ruthlessly or explain it in psychological terms. Nonetheless, I believe there is a spark of the Divine within us, something that causes us to reach towards heaven.

Moreover, mythology and ritual do serve a very useful purpose even apart from any consideration of the Divine. Mythology is both creative history and a means by which human beings express their own nature and perception of the universe. Ritual is as much a part of human psyche as the lavish display of tailfeathers by the male peacock. We are dramatic by nature. We need to act and re-enact the great dramas of existence, whether they are sacrificial or erotic in nature.

In that sense, film in contemporary society is not merely a form of entertainment. It is a means by which the audience participates vicariously in all the ancient rituals of humanity. Religious rituals deal with all the essential aspects of our lives, from love to loss. Another vital component of ritual should not be disregarded nor minimised. What has been described as 'terrible beauty' is at the foundation of some of the most powerful rituals. Human beings do respond to beauty instinctively but they respond to that which is 'terrible' as well. The greatest rituals are those that bring both elements together.

I believe that there is far more to the spiritual than can be encompassed in a single equation or dismissed even by the cleverest of scientific theories. Even if you give it a different name, there is a spiritual component within the human psyche that must be satisfied. Communism had to learn that the hard way in the 20th century and now should be able to evolve into a superior philosophy accordingly.

1 comment:

Fleming said...

Exactly: Evolution is in no way contrary to the existence of God. In fact all that we see of creation indicates that evolution is the way in which the Divine develops on every level. (Even reincarnation is usually seen as a form of spiritual evolution.) I wish I were familiar with the “selfish gene” theory as you are, so that I could discuss it; apparently Dawkins implies that if things can be explained through evolution, there is no evidence of God. That’s as fallacious as is the notion which Dawkins attributes to religions that we would have no morality if it weren’t for God telling us how to behave.

Likewise, if humans attribute to God certain qualities such as omnipotence, omniscience, all good and all loving and merciful which seem at odds with the Creation we see around us, it is the humans who have invented that God based on their own moral theories of what a perfect God should be.

As for Dawkins’ attacks on God by way of religions, he apparently overlooks that God is God and religions are human, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Your essay is truly excellent and covers all of your points so well that if I write more here I’ll either be redundantly paraphrasing or building my own little sandpile in the shadow of your mountain.