I’m sure that Richard Feynman or Richard Dawkins have said something similar and said it better. Ophelia Benson certainly can. I wrote this on June 28, and when I checked Butterflies and Wheels the next day she had an entry on the morality of preachers. One of the common whinges by fundamentalists against ‘naturalism’, which as I understand it is the whole ‘looking for evidence’ thing, is that it reduces humanity to something insignificant. My view is quite the opposite. When I see someone talk with Gods as their only justification I see someone who isn’t engaging or connecting with the world. With a universe of experience it’s rather like insisting everyone occupies a dogmatic cul-de-sac. The question that started me off was a simple one. “Can theists appreciate beauty?”
At the moment as I type this I’m watching an image form on my screen. I’m hooked into the Slooh telescopes on Mount Teide, Tenerife. At the top, about a mile and a half above sea-level there are a couple of remotely operated telescopes pointed skyward to the heavens.
Despite the advances in astronomy and cosmology over the past century, in some ways we are more poor now than we were a hundred years ago. Light Pollution drowns out much of the sky and instead of seeing diamond dust scattered on velvet, the view from most cities is one of a yellow sodium glow with a few pins pricks punching their way through. The telescopes in the Canaries allow me to see fine detail that I couldn’t hope to see from home. They reveal galaxy upon galaxy dancing in the night sky in an eternal waltz. I can only appreciate such beauty because I can see it.
I can also appreciate the wonder of show these sights come to be. Even in something as constant as the heavens each moment is unique. I’m currently looking at Supernova 2005AY. It’s the fading remains of a star that has come to the end of its life. Now it is dimming as it grows colder. In this eternal universe this moment will never happen again. Yet the photons which are impacting on the CCD in the telescope have been travelling through interstellar space for 43,000,000 years. This is literally a moment that has been millions of years in the making*.
I see these things that I see the same as a theist would, but do they have the same meaning? For me these sights are independent actors in a story that started at the dawn of time. For a theist it’s wallpaper for the sky; distant from mankind and thus of no importance. The creation of the heavier elements in supernovae means that it’s something else in creation with which I am connected, even if only briefly and at an unimaginably great distance. As Moby said, we are all made of stars*. For a theist made of mud there’s no connection at all. By seeking to cut themselves off from the rest of creation are they seeking to make themselves less human?
Morality is another problem. A charge by the creationist lobby against Darwinism is that it leads to immorality. Is it possible for Christians be moral? When I give to charity I don’t expect to see the money back. When I stop to help someone it’s because I want to help. I’m not expecting nor asking for a reward. Fundamentalist Christians seem to have quite a different view. They seem to feel that morality collapses if there isn’t the threat of a Very Big Stick. Does this mean that when a Christian gives to charity they do so under sufferance, knowing that a vengeful God will smite them if they don’t comply? Does it really require the threat of eternal torture to coerce Christians in following the philosophy of Bill and Ted in being excellent to one another? Is the only thing that prevents Reverend Plum from murdering me the fear that when he dies the Big Beard in the Sky will announce he knows the Reverend did it with the candlestick in the kitchen?
The Creationist lobby claim that Darwinism diminishes us all, yet the logical conclusion from their position is that humanity is a pretty wretched result of a flawed creator. In Christian philosophy it would appear that humanity would appear to be so corrupt at its core that it cannot be worthy of survival on its own merits. The Fundamentalist ‘morality’ believes children dying in non-Christian third-world countries from malnutrition by their very existence deserve everlasting torment in hell.
So there’s one position based on fear, mistrust and compulsion and another based on being nice because that’s the right way to behave. If there were no evidence either way I know which one I’d choose, but with all evidence stacked on one side as well I cannot see what the appeal of a creationist view is. Where do they get the opinion that inside each person’s heart is a bottomless pit of sin?
Christianity, by passing on responsibility for everything to a God, says the way the world is is the way the world ought to be. Science gives information on the way the world is, but forces people to take the responsibility for the way the world ought to be.
This doesn’t mean that all Christians are immoral. On the contrary they are often moral and so are attracted to an organisation that claims to embody their beliefs. However Christians tend not to be ethically blind. When their churches diverge from their own moralities they tend not to blindly follow the church, but cease attending. Belief in a god usually adds nothing to people’s morality and so crediting Christianity for creating moral behaviour is rather like crediting iTunes for creating the pop music.
* an older person would cite Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock: “We are stardust.”