Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Leap Of Faith

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of one of the most remarkable books to ever come out in the many fields of science: On the Origin of Species. It is interesting to note that the book, that outlined the process of natural selection which is the driving force behind evolution, was not as feared in the mid-19th Century as it is today. In fact, Charles Darwin sent a copy of the book to Reverend Charles Kingsley, a prominent member of the Church of England, who, upon reviewing the work, wrote back to Darwin: "It's just as noble a conception of God to think that he created animals and plants that then evolved, that were capable of self-development, as it is to think that God has to constantly create new forms and fill in the gaps that he's left in his own creation."

The fact is, that if you look down the corridors of history, and specifically those of science, you see that faith was often the starting point for explorations of the workings of the universe. In every faith, everywhere, we see thinkers, looking around at the world, and up to the heavens, wondering how it was all put together, why it all works the way it does. The natural curiosity of philosophers, scientists, and even clergy, throughout the centuries, led to the expansion of human knowledge and the growth of human society. Concepts first outlined in one place and time worked their way forward to inspire others. So it was that the Egyptians inspired the Greeks, who inspired the Romans, and so on, taking concepts of the universe and its workings and passing them down the line to be refined.

One has to realize that this process, of identifying nature and attempting to explain its workings in more rational terms, is not some new phenomenon of the later centuries of Mankind, but a continuous thread that runs through the tapestry of human society. Science, far from denigrating faith or impugning religion, sought to open up the curtains, to see how the creation of the universe was accomplished. It was not enough for some to believe in a god or gods, but that if these deities were responsible for everything, including the appearance of Mankind, then surely their fingerprints were still indelibly etched on the world. To their minds, the perfection of creation was something to not just be mindful of, but to be understood, that they might know their creator better.

Their names are writ large throughout history: Archimedes, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin, and yes, even Einstein, who remarked: "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind." At some point, their personal beliefs drove them to think about, and discover, more about the universe. They believed that if the creation were the work of a god or gods, then it should be comprehensible and logical.

Thus it is inconceivable, given the breadth of human knowledge and the world we now live in, that at the beginning of Third Millennium of Humanity (as per the Christian doctrine), we should see religion attack science for its attempts to pervert or destroy faith. Specifically, we see Christian faiths decrying such things as the teaching of evolution in schools, because it somehow "attacks" their faith. The "intelligent design" movement is just the latest "theory" to provide a direct response to this "threat," attempting to show that there is a "scientific basis" for creationism. This goes far beyond a refutation of evolution, for traces of it can be found in the firestorm of protest over stem cell research, abortion, and the rights of homosexuals. It is all part of a toxic mix, designed to cloud judgment and pander to fear. It is not too far removed from the conditions that ultimately led to the Salem Witch Trials; faith in Christ can lead to salvation, peace, and a better regard for your fellow humans, but it can also lead to suspicion, self-righteousness, and fear-mongering.

It is a measure of the fear of some Christian groups -- and the Roman Catholic Church, from which they sprung -- that such vehement opposition is raised. The mantra heard most often is that science, and government, seek to destroy faith, through the imposition of secular ideals at the expense of that faith. Evolution offends them, contradicts what they know from The Bible, and that somehow diminishes them. Allowing a woman to decide if she will keep a child or not contravenes the lessons of their belief, that it is the command of God to "be fruitful and multiply," that to terminate a pregnancy somehow extinguishes a soul. Allowing homosexuals to marry will erode the meaning of what it is to be married, because homosexuality is an "abomination" in the eyes of the Lord and for them to marry means their faith is somehow stained, and they will not be found worthy.

What the Christian faithful do not truly understand, is that science is not interested in matters of individual faith, per se. Science is interested in teasing apart what makes the universe, and the great variety of things in it, work. It seeks to uncover the watchmaker's fingerprints, to understand the architecture and peruse the blueprints of the creation. Far from annihilating faith, science expands the avenues of it, by showing us the glories of the universe. Who can look at a picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and not be moved by how the glowing stars and their home galaxies stretch out into space, filling it with delicate structures, like cathedrals of light? Who cannot marvel at how the sum total of the universe is built of the tiniest number and type of particles, particles too small to see, yet leading to the profusion of things we experience? And how can you not be astounded by a feat of biological engineering, to build such a simple mechanism as evolution, to take a handful of living things, and fill a world?

Blind faith is just that: blind. To take only the words of a book as gospel, to avert your gaze from the true marvels of creation, to wallow in a comfortable stupor as the world changes around you, to never question or show curiosity, is to travel a lonely road to salvation. If you believe in God, and you believe Mankind was made in his image, then is it so far a leap to believe that the brains we were given, the curiosity we were imbued with, and the world we were placed upon are not at once his gifts, but also his puzzle and the means to solve it? Perhaps salvation does not rely on a closed system of faith, but an open system of wonder and belief in a greater world to be explored.

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