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Opinion

Existence due to religion or science uncertain

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April 2, 2009

Just a few days ago, I was surfing the Web for some recent New York Times stories on education and I found one that really stood out. A guy named Charles McGrath was describing some recent books about the evolution/creationism conflict. He summarized the stance taken by one of the authors this way: “ÉIf we understand the history of the debate better we might be able to depolarize it[.]” But, he added, “That may be too much to hope. Most of us are in the blissful position of having already made up our minds without bothering to think about it.”

Unfortunately, he was right. McGrath pointed out a very natural tendency, one that can be used to describe the entire human experience. What’s behind the faith vs. science dilemma? Why have some people made up our minds without bothering to think about it?

Maybe it stems directly from our instincts of self-preservation. In an unpredictable world, people hunger for certainty. We want to feel secure in where we stand. We want to be validated, to be told that we are right and those who disagree with us are wrong.

But science can’t tell us that, in spite of how much it has increased our understanding of the world. Science (when done properly) can only tell us what the truth seems to be, based on what facts we already know and whether our theories stand up to repeated tests and experiments. For those who are especially insecure and feel they can’t get by without being absolutely certain of things, science is not enough. And because few absolute certainties exist in the real world, we have to develop some of our own.

Enter religion. A set of beliefs that are said to be constant and reliable; just as true today as they were the day before, and always will be. A doctrine that (coincidentally) places humans above all the other species. Even better; it says your particular version of humanity is the best, because you have “the one truth faith.”

This does not fully describe all religions. There are minor differences between them, based on environment and local culture. But the similarities are clear: religion gives you a place to stand, and something to stand up for. That’s why it’s such an integral part of our lives.

In my view, the problem with religion is not that believers stand up, but that so many refuse to move forward. Instead they draw a line in the sand and say, “This is pretty much all we need to know. We don’t have to look for better answers.” No matter what new information surfaces on the other side of that line, they simply avert their gaze. They seem to oppose new ideas without even bothering to understand them.

Thankfully, science is not as vulnerable to this habit. While so many religious believers already have their minds made up, a good scientist is never totally convinced of anything. And that is what lies at the heart of their dispute. Both sides have chosen their course and are in no mood to compromise. The ongoing debate about whether to teach evolution or allow intelligent design in school is just an extension of that conflict.

I am not a religious believer myself, nor am I a scientist. While nothing I’ve experienced in life has convinced me that a higher power exists; that doesn’t mean the existence of a higher power isn’t possible. Still, if there is some godlike entity out there that designed our world, I think he disguised himself extremely well. The world is not like a manufactured jigsaw puzzle, where every part fits perfectly and serves an important purpose.

Life is full of changes, flaws, subtle patterns and loose ends for which only evolution has provided a decent explanation. Plant and animal species constantly develop new abilities to survive while others go extinct. Ostriches have wings but can no longer fly; small (and useless) leg bones still grow in the bodies of whales; people are still born with wisdom teeth and appendixes, despite the fact that we no longer have to chew up raw plant tissue or digest it for sustenance. If life were the product of a flawless design, why would it alter itself and challenge its own limits so relentlessly?

We want to believe that the world is simple, that it can be defined by artificial categories and preconceptions. But the truth is not always what we want to believe. In some cases, it is the complete opposite. We may not want to face it. But that’s one of the cold, hard facts of existence.