One of the most interesting passages in the New Testament comes from the Gospel of John, where Jesus predicts the manner in which his disciple Peter is going to die:
Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go (John 21:19).
As I’ve said in a previous post I expressed my change of path from Roman Catholicism towards Religious Naturalism, and the reasons why.I do not hold a spiritual life with faith in a supernatural God, but instead living an evidential faith in Ultimate Reality. As I also stated in that same post, I believe in two forms of evidence:
- Eidetic evidence (a priori relations of ideas) which include the investigation of formal and material essences (logic, mathematics, geometry, philosophy, etc.)
- Empirical evidence (a posteriori matters-of-fact) which include investigations made by natural and social sciences, as well as the Humanities.
Both sorts of evidence are deeply worked by their respective disciplines, subject to intersubjective validity and critical evaluation by a community of Reality seekers, leading us many times to wherever we do not want. All of these Truth-seeking disciplines have something humbling to teach all of us. Very much like Peter’s destiny (according to John’s Gospel), if we follow evidence critically evaluated by a community of Reality seekers, it may will lead all of us sometimes to where we do not want to go. Yet, unlike Jesus’ words, this sort of evidential faith does not announce our definitive death, but is, instead, very life-giving.
The Roots of Intellectual Humility
Without any spirit for denigrating John’s Gospel, a book I admire very much. I remember John‘s version of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus appeared out of nowhere to his disciples with the exception of Thomas. Later, after Christ was gone, Thomas returned and when the rest of the disciples told him about Jesus’ resurrection, he didn’t believe them. Yet, Jesus appeared again, this time showing Himself to Thomas and told him:
“Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:27-29).
After so many years investigating in my fields of research, Epistemology and Philosophy of Science, it seemed to me that the lesson should be the reverse, that Thomas’ is the best approach. He should be blessed precisely because he sought evidence. We should require and evaluate critically the evidence for claims being made by anyone or anybody. Even during the time I was Catholic, it seemed to me that fields that required evidence were actually more humble than any process that asked me “to believe without seeing”.
On the other hand, while religious convictions actually led me to love science in general, I was bothered by a lot of people who, on the basis of pure blind faith (especially basing themselves on the passage I just quoted) told me things like:
Scientists think that they know everything, they are arrogant.
Look at how complicated science is, how simple God is.
If you agree with evolution, it is because you don’t have enough faith.
I went to one retreat in our parish guided by some people of John XXIII group, and the speaker told us about how science always presents us that we are pure matter, hence unworthy and purposeless. He cited the “fact” that scientists say that we only use 10% of our brain. Why are scientists thinking that the rest of our brain is purposeless? Doesn’t that mean you are unworthy? But, he argued, the Gospel revealed that you are worthy and that God created nothing without a purpose. Of course, I wanted to explode … and I did!!!
-“Sir,” I said, “I’m sorry to contradict you in the middle of your presentation, but scientists do NOT say that we only use 10% of our brain. That is just not a fact.”
-“But scientists,” he said,”say that all the time.”
-“Actually no renowned neurologist has said that. It is one of those beliefs that are repeated so often that people believe it. For neurologists and anyone who knows better, if you only used 10% of your brain, you would be a vegetable. For vision to work properly, you need to use at least 33% of your brain, for crying out loud!!!”
-“Be that as it may ….”
… and he continued, only to repeat the same false statement at the very end, when I shouted: “THAT’S FALSE!” A lot of my parish friends were a bit startled (putting it gently). Some wanted to talk to me later about the specific subject and I told them that this was one more occasion where a religious person (I don’t blame the John XXIII group, just the speaker) wanted to create the science vs. religion dichotomy, trying to make faith as superior to evidence based reasoning. I also told them this needed not be, since all truth discovered by science shines on faith and makes us discover truths. Isn’t all truth God’s truth?!
Although a lot of Catholics and Christians in general do recognize the validity of science, there are still too many people who on the basis of blind and naive faith want to minimize science.
Yet, as a Philosopher, in my mind, I contrasted this general attitude with a better one taught by Socrates. When he went to the Oracle of Delphi, he was told that he was the wisest man in all of Athens. Socrates didn’t believe this to be true, so he asked around the following question to people whom he considered wise: “What is the good and the beautiful?” After a series of questions and answers, using elementary logic, he actually showed that these wisest people, who actually claimed to know what the good and the beautiful were, actually didn’t know a thing about them. As a result, Socrates did consider himself the wisest man in Athens, not because he was knowledgeable, but because he recognized from the very beginning he was not, while others claimed to know, but did not know.
Humility, Skepticism, and Peer-Review
For me, Socrates’ lesson illustrates what is true humility, specifically intellectual humility. People who, on blind faith, claim that scientists are all arrogant and that what they claim is false are truly arrogant. On the other hand, scientists in general are far more humble when practicing their own respective fields. The reason is that, contrary to what people think, scientists and scholars in general try their very best to very high standards of research. And as time goes by, scientists are ever more critical and thorough with their own research, thanks in a great part to peer-review.
What does peer-review mean? Generally it means that you publish your work through a professional publisher or journal, and whatever you say you did will be challenged and tested. First, the science or scholarly journal will generally try its best to guarantee the high standards of the content of the articles published. Second, once published, others can actually look at your data, critically evaluate it, reproduce the experiment, or review the primary sources, and so on. The more your paper survives this process, the more solid is the evidence that you provide in favor of your hypothesis or theory.
Now, there is no guarantee at all that every article you read in those journals will be infallible. As a matter of fact, a lot of these articles have been retracted over the years (for instance, see this case, and this one … and this one too). In other cases, some of the publications could be embarrassing to a journal in question, just as the Sokal Hoax showed. Even the “Get Me Off Your Fucking Mailing List” episode made many people raise their eyebrows on the quality of a certain technological journal.
Some anti-science websites try to sell this as a failure of mainstream science. I see it, on the contrary, as a great triumph in many ways, and shows that the peer review process does indeed work. The whole purpose of peer-review is precisely to purify science from fraudulent information too often portrayed as science. This is the reason why I praise the Retraction Watch website, which alerts scientists and the public in general about retracted papers either by criticizing academic journals for not upholding higher standards for their articles or by informing them and the rest of us about which important articles were retracted because of errors, lack of sufficient information, or outright fraud. Through this process, we are helped to retain the best evidence we have available. As a Popperian philosopher (regarding this subject), I think that trial and error is the very essence of scientific process and progress.
This means that the scientific process itself is inherently flawed, because it is essentially a human activity. Humans are imperfect. No scientific theory is invulnerable from future refutation for this reason. Yet, again, this process shows far more humility than, let’s say, other worldviews based on deeply flawed texts or authorities who do not allow anyone to question them. If you think that I’m exclusively talking about religion, guess again! As we shall see in later posts, religion has no monopoly in this area. A lot of non-religious people will in fact defend such texts and authorities with every fiber of their being no matter what.
Skepticism, and Honorable Tradition
The root of all knowledge is not blind faith, but doubt. As a former anarchist, I still sympathize strongly with an attitude preserved by the best anarchists I know (e.g. Noam Chomsky). Defy authority! This does not mean to rebel against any type of authority for no reason. We are called to question authority wherever we feel that authority fails to serve the public. Such a challenge, though, must be humble, since authority may be right. I want an authority that imposes traffic lights on society rather than one that doesn’t.
Knowledge and scientific activity is all about questioning authority (within reason). You can be the greatest scientist in history, yet if you publish a scientific article, know that perhaps someone will challenge you, test your hypothesis, check your data, check your experiment, and so on. And this is something that we see since the beginning of Philosophy (which is also the birth of Science), when Thales, with his proposals, questioned mythical views on the origins of the world. Socrates himself was a skeptic, and (according to Plato) was put to death because of his continuous questions and criticisms to his society’s worldviews. It is no wonder that Pyrrhonism became a branch of Platonism, which itself remitted to Socrates’ philosophy.
Since then, skepticism appears again and again in Philosophy, even in Modern Philosophy: René Descartes (with his Cartesian method), David Hume, and so on. Today skepticism is expressed best by many Philosophers of Science as well as scientists themselves. Isaac Asimov, the famous science and science fiction writer, expressed a doctrine that I’ve adopted for myself:
I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.
Skepticism is not about not believing anything, but just questioning, challenging, and ask for evidence within reason. And the wondrous thing about such a position is that it does not refrain you from obtaining knowledge of the truth. It helps you discover a lot of it, and far from being something dull and boring, it turns out to be something more exciting that is far more spiritual than people are willing to believe. Yet, not everyone is prepared to accept it. Just ask Socrates how he ended up in deep trouble, because of it.
Again, evidence will drive you where you, your friends, and your society will not want to believe or go. Yet, if you follow the evidence, Ultimate Reality, the God I worship, will undeniably speak to you about yourself, society, history, and the universe … and every day, It will tell you something new.
“What is the difference between
a Seventh Day Adventist
and a Unitarian? A BIG one.”
~ David Sloan Wilson
Usually, when I practice religion and spiritual life, community has been very important to me. Most recently, I was asking where would I find a community of religious or spiritual people where I could actually share my Naturalist religious views in any way. I decided to join a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church as that path that sort of community.
At first I didn’t know what it was. I have heard of “Unitarians” (without the “Universalists”), and used to confuse them with Unity, another very different group. I know that during the process of changing my views, I had noticed Michael Dowd talking about Unitarian Universalists, and how in their churches, they explained the Great Story of the universe to children in Sunday School, and that there were atheists belonging to several Unitarian Universalist churches (something very odd for me at the time).
Much later, I learned that Unitarian Universalism was something relatively new. Their origin dates from the early 1960s, and it was the result of the merge of two Christian denominations. First, the Unitarians, whose assertion was that God could not be a Trinity, and that Jesus was an excellent prophet of ancient Palestine under Roman rule, but not God himself. Second, the Universalists, who believed that at the very end of times, everyone will be saved by God. Even though Unitarian Universalism does not assert either of those things (at least not in their original sense), it is a faith focused on action more than creed. The UU symbol has two circles representing the union between the Unitarian and the Universalists. The Universalists used to be represented by a circle with a cross at the side, meaning that Universalism was a Christian faith, but that it did allow for the possibility of people of other faiths to be saved. That was replaced by a flaming chalice, because all UU services begin with lighting a flaming chalice.
I was a bit worried over rumors regarding the “fact” that the organization was a cult much like Scientology (see, for instance, this video and this one). Yet, when I examined those claims carefully, I noticed that they were totally baseless. Whoever makes such a claim, most probably, classifies as “cult” any religion that does not adopt his or her Christian conservative views, is a small movement, and does not state the Bible as its final authority (watch the videos whose links I just provided, and Walter Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults … a phony authority on the subject of cults). As a response to this claim, a Unitarian Universalist created this video.
For a fuller story about UU is all about, here is a video that explains it very well.
UU seemed to me the ideal community, since we learn from all religious and non-religious views and traditions, not just Christianity. There are Roman Catholic UU, Christian UU, Jewish UU, Humanist (Atheist or Agnostic) Universalists, Islamic UU, Buddhist UU, and even Pagan UU. All of our congregations also participate in the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Contrary to what is said often, UU does not hold a relativistic view of truth or ethics. For the community, reason must play a major role in spiritual life, as is the quest for truth. This means that UU embraces science as one of the key factors to know the world and provide the technology that will make our lives better. There is also a call for us to participate in the world to make it a better place. It is not surprising that in many parts of the world, UU members actively participate in progressive politics. There is also a series of affirmations that express the core convictions of anyone who becomes a UU:
- The inherent worth and the dignity of every person.
- Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and society at large
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
It also recognizes its sources:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors and ourselves.
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
- Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
I joined a UU group here in Puerto Rico which is very small in number, and that I hope that it grows and thrives. As a former Catholic, I’m still in the process of getting used to this new UU dynamic as well as this spiritual community. I’m also getting used to thinking like a Religious Naturalist using a theistic language. It is a tough journey, but I think those will be my grounds for spiritual growth in my near future.
I hope this gives you an idea of where I am right now spiritually.
Sorry that I haven’t been able to write for a long time, but work has been a bit more demanding than in previous year, especially when I am doing plans for my PhD in philosophy (or history?)
However, for the longest time I have always wanted to share with you a lot of what has been going on in my life, in my mind, and in my spiritual journey. Tonight I want to talk about several women, most of them bloggers, who have touched my soul and have influenced my spiritual life in one way or another. In some cases, they have actually changed my spiritual paradigms and praxis forever.
Most of these women come from a Christian culture, but some of them are definitely open to learn about other spiritual paths and traditions. All of these women are courageous, even when some of them don’t regard themselves that way.
This post does not mean that I agree with all of their views. However, it does mean that they are the sort of women you want to sit down with and listen attentively, because they always have something very important to say.
1. Leila A. Fortier:
Leila A. Fortier is one of those souls who have changed my spiritual life forever, especially through poetry. I had the honor of her writing a foreword for my book Creative Heart. A modified version of one of her paintings served as a cover for that book. Her poetry never ceases to stimulate my own, and has always led me to look at the manifestation of God in words and the colors of abstract representations. Her trips to India, Okinawa, and other countries have been moments of spiritual growth for her. Her new insights in light of these experiences show her deep spiritual wisdom, which have often lifted (and keep lifting) me from spiritual darkness. Her book Metanoia’s Revelation is a book I carry with me everywhere I go, especially when I want to be poetically and spiritually inspired. If you want to buy it, click on the image:
Leila has been a dear friend of mine all over these years, and her spiritual guidance has been one of the most transforming experiences. Currently she does not have a blog of her own. On the other hand, she does have a website (visit it here), and a Facebook page (visit it here). If you visit her Amazon.com page, and look at the picture in “More About the Author” section, you’ll see that she is reading my book It Needs to Be Said.
2. Rachel Held Evans
I discovered Rachel Held Evans when I was looking at BioLogos’ Videos. It was published online shortly after she published her amazing memoir Evolving in Monkey Town. You can see her in this video.
I started to follow her in both her blog and Facebook. I consider her to be a brilliant mind and heart (in both intellectual and spiritual senses of the word “brilliant”). She may not be a theologian, but her thinking far outways a lot of theologians I know. I finished her book Evolving in Monkey Town, and I felt that a lot of her experiences resemble mine in many ways. Of course, I never grew up in a Bible-Belt environment, so a lot of her experiences within that world sounds so foreign and strange to me. Yet, I’ve had my dose of Catholic fundamentalism at one time in my life, and had to struggle with a lot of questions which resemble those she had to deal with (perhaps she had to deal with them more intensely given her environment). Also, like her, I had to deal with a lot of people at the most extreme side of the conservative spectrum.
However the simiilarities between our spiritual journeys, a lot of her ways of dealing with the questions over the fundamentals of Christianity show her depth of her thinking in genuine Christian spirit. Her blog has helped me learn new ways of understanding my faith and others’ faiths. For me, God acts through her love, thinking, and understanding. I hope to be able to read her new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. The subtitle is: “How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on her Roof, Covering her Head, and Calling her Husband Master” …. so, it will be an interesting reading! Buy her books:
3. Elizabeth Esther
I knew of Elizabeth Esther through a Rachel Held Evans’ blog post. First, I learned that she went to Bolivia, because of Elizabeth’s and Rachel’s World Vision sponsorship. Not surprisingly, both of them are friends and support each other on the web. Later I learned that she had a very traumatic past with a Christian cult, and was a victim of the teachings of the very controversial Michael and Debi Pearl. Eventually, she became a Roman Catholic, although she has a more Pogressive view regarding some subjects, and sometimes has struggled with some other teachings and activities of the Church. She is also very politically open about her opinions. She is a conservative I love to love. During her discussion of political issues, I always feel that her opinions are genuinely founded and guided by her Christian ideals. Before the elections, she posted a series of discussions with a Democrat blogger. I’ve never seen in my life such a lively and lovely political discussion with a high degree of respect. I underscore this, because these blog posts have uplifted my soul and have given me much hope for the future of the United States. I also deeply enjoy her intelligence and sense of humor. In these and many other ways, her blog has been a lighthouse. Sometimes her writings about her spiritual struggles resemble a lot of my own, and her courage has been very inspiring for me. You can go to her blog, her Facebook page, her Twitter page and her video blog in Youtube. She has not published a book yet, but she is going to do it soon. Apparently, her book will be called: How I Left the Church to Find God. I wish the best for her. I can’t wait to read it. You can sense that I have a deep admiration for her, right?
4, Christian Heretic
As you might suspect, she is one of a kind. I am proud to consider her a friend, and I love her dearly. Although I’m not exactly a fan of calling oneself “heretic”, under the current Christian environment in the U.S., I completely understand it. She regards herself as a follower of “Jesus the Christ”, the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, and the Mahatma Gandhi. The reason why she has touched my soul so many times is because she has unorthodox views of spiritual life. Many times she has had a spiritual insight I find nowhere else, and has teased my mind and heart every now and then with her views. Currently she has a blog, and a Facebook page.
5. Laura Ziesel
She is a spiritual thinker I love to admire. Her theological writings online, though, are not in the ivory tower sort of academic sophistication, but rather spiritual and intellectual insights on every day life and our relationship with Jesus Christ. Like in the case of Elizabeth Esther, I first learned of Laura Ziesel through Rachel Held Evans’ blog. She is now in a ministry looking forward to the day when “God’s Kingdom is fully realized on earth, as it is in heaven”. Her blog has been another big shining light whenever I am in spiritual darkness. You can visit her website (blog), her Facebook page, and her Twitter page.
(c) 2010 Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
The Old Ways of Explaining Nature: Religion, Philosophy, and Science
The path to discover human nature is not easy. The first questions were asked in the realm of religion as well as the origins of the cosmos. Then another different field, philosophy started to question religious beliefs, and called for a secular approach to the universe. With philosophy, natural science began. Thales of Mileto did provide the first secular theory on the world, even though much of the ideas in it came from different parts of the Mediterranean Sea. He looked at many of the religious traditions and saw something in common: that the Earth was essentially land floating on water, or spread on the water. Before that, science was intrinsicably mixed with religion. Today we tend to laugh at ancient religious ideas of the past, practically arguing that they were non-sense and essentially irrational. We read Genesis, and mock the two very different incompatible stories of creation (Gen. 1-2:4a; 2:4bff.), regard at the story of Adam and Eve as amusing, and so on. In reality the first version of creation is a proto-theory of how the universe came to be, the second story of creation has a more existential aspect to it: not only did God create everything, but also it tries to explain where does evil in the world come from.
It is not correct to say that these are just pure irrational fantasies of religious people whose thoughts were superstitious. Of course, there are political, sociological and conceptual aspects to both stories of creation that deserve to be studied in context. For any such analysis, I highly recommend Richard Elliot Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? But right now I’m not going to dwell on the sociological backgrounds of both of these stories. The idea that God or gods created the universe is not crazy. It is perfectly reasonable. Just go out and look at nature itself, with all its order, beauty, natural laws, and complexities that operate in an organized manner to make life possible. The God hypothesis, in lack of any other reasonable hypothesis at the time, was valid.
As a matter of fact, a lot of ideas developed by religion were perfectly rational. Most people consider the Middle Ages to be the "dark ages". When we say "Medieval", we mean almost living in a period of pure ignorance. However, science did thrive during the so-called "dark ages". On the second half of the Middle Ages, universities were established all over the Italian Peninsula, clergymen and monks carried out experiments and discoveries, architecture evolved (think of the Gothic cathedrals), there were advances in medicine, chemistry, optics, geography, mechanics, reconceptuation of physics and biology, even theory of flight (Jones & Ereira, 2007, pp. 115-138). The basis for future philosophy of science and the much of the principles of knowledge we still discuss today were also established during the Middle Ages. Think of Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, William of Occam, Nocholas of Autrecourt, among many others (Losee, 2001, pp. 26-45; see Grendler (2004)). Roger Bacon, a monk himself, discovered that white light contained the colors of the rainbow, long before Newton. The Galilean, Keplerian and Newtonian scientific theories would never have come to be without these important contributions. Many people even insist on clinging to total falsehoods to hold that the Middle Ages was decadent. The famous dispute that, according to popular culture, between Columbus and the theologians in Salamanca were a complete fabrication by Washington Irving. In reality, everyone knew at the time that the Earth was a sphere, and not flat. This was known since Ancient times, even Erastothenes was pretty close to the Earth’s actual size! Hey, even the Bible says that the Earth is a sphere! Haven’t you noticed? (Prov. 8: 31) St. Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon made very clear reference to this fact. Why in heavens would religious people in the Middle Ages be so interested in science? Answer: they were trying to understand God by studying His creation, the better we understand how the universe works, the more we understand God Himself. In fact, technological innovation on the basis of science would help us be His co-creators along the process.
The Renaissance, though, regarded today as a period of recovering the "light of knowledge" was a period of decadence in many ways. For instance, the Renaissance comes to be at the end of the bubonic plague that swept Europe. Contrary to what people think, there were no witch hunts during the Middle Ages, they happened during the Renaissance. The infamous Malleus Maleficarum was written during this period (1487). If you are woman, you would prefer to live in the late Middle Ages than during the Renaissance, when women in general were very much repressed. Europe was in religious, political and social decadence. The "Galileo Affair" took place during this period. Most people who haven’t read at all about the subject, take it to be a science vs. religion affair, showing that religion is in a constant battle with science. Although religious elements were involved in the affair (e.g. Joshua commanding the sun to stop), but in reality what the depth of the discussion had to do with the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic scientific view of the world. I recommend the works of Maurice Finocchiaro and Ernan McMullin about this important subject (see the Reference section below).
Two Doors to Understand Human Nature
However, it was not even until recently, the second half of the nineteenth century, that two doors were open to understand human nature. They were opened by three eminent figures: Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), Charles Darwin (1809-1882), and Georg Mendel (1822-1884). The first two elaborated separately a theory of evolution through natural selection. At that time, many scientists and learned people, including some people in the clergy, knew that the Earth was far older than six thousand years, and even that everything pointed out to the Earth as being beyond a million years old. Everyone knew that animals evolved, and that there were animal species that became extinct while other species came into being. Wallace and Darwin said that gradual mutation and natural selection were both keys to understand how species came to be. It was first known by Wallace in an article titled "On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of Species", published in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History (1855). However, we know more about this theory because of Darwin’s later publication The Origin of Species (1859). Even when it was published after Wallace’s article, the latter did recognize that Darwin did not plagiarize him. Much later, due to the elegant way that Darwin explained their theory of evolution, Wallace created the term "Darwinian" to describe it.
If we look at the theory of evolution proposed by Wallace and Darwin, we discover that the theory is a set of five different theories (Futuyma, 2009, pp. 8-9):
- Evolution occurs because of changes in organisms’ traits over time.
- Every single organism that exists on this Earth has common ancestors with other organisms. All living beings share a common ancestor. This essentially means that we cannot conceive evolution as being a "linear" process, but more like a tree or a bush, where branches of species come from other branches.
- New species and subspecies of organisms come to be in a gradual manner, i.e. given enough time. Speciation can happen in hundreds, thousands or millions of years.
- Changes among species often happen because of isolation of populations due to external factors or due to different phenotypical traits that let some survive in one environment while others are best suited for another.
- Finally, there is natural selection, that is, an organism has the specific traits that are necessary to survive a certain environment in nature, those organisms lacking it will not. Only those adapted to a certain environment will eventually survive in it.
The second door was opened by Georg Mendel and his pioneering work on genetics. He did notice that there were natural laws ruling the way organisms inherit their traits. In 1909, this new field of genetics elaborated the notion of "gene", which was defined back then as a single unit that is inherited from an ancestor or ancestors. Today we know that genes are associated with a molecule called Desoxyrribonucleic Acid (DNA), our own genetic code. DNA is a very long molecule with a sequence of units called nucleotides, molecules which determine the way an organism will develop. A specific sequence of nucleotides that produce a particular protein constitutes a gene. Depending on the location of the gene within the genetic code, and whether it is turned "on" or "off", a phenotypical trait will be present or not in a living being.
Richard Dawkins has pointed out that it would be wrong to describe DNA as a blueprint or set of instructions. The reason is that it gives the false impression that "someone" wrote the instructions down, or that "someone" made a blueprint. Logically, whoever makes a blueprint has a "plan" to make a building in such and such a way. When you look at the DNA, the least you see is a "set of instructions" or a blueprint. It gives no sign of being "designed" by anyone. Dawkins explains why thinking of the DNA as a blueprint is a fallacy at best:
A true blueprint of, say, a car or a house embodies a one-to-one mapping from paper to finished product. It follows from this that a blueprint is reversible. It is as easy to go from house to blueprint as the other way around, precisely because it is a one-to-one mapping. Actually, it’s easier, because you have to build the house, but you only have to take some measurements and then draw the blueprint. If you take an animal’s body, no matter how many detailed measurements you take, you can’t reconstruct its DNA. That’s what makes it false to say that DNA is a blueprint.
It is theoretically possible to imagine — maybe that’s the way things work on some alien planet — that DNA might have been a code description of a body; a kind of three-dimensional map rendered into the linear code of DNA ‘letters’. That really would be reversible. Scanning the body to make a genetic blueprint is not a totally ridiculous idea. If that is how DNA worked, we could represent it as a kind of neo-preformationism. It wouldn’t raise the spectre of the Russian dolls. It isn’t clear to me whether it would raise the spectre of inheritance from only one parent. DNA has breathtakingly precise way of intersplicing half the paternal information with exactly half the maternal information, but how would it go about intersplicing half a scan of the mother’s body with half a scan of the father’s body? Let it pass; this is all so far from reality (Dawkins, 2009a, pp. 214-215).
Genetics was later integrated to the Wallace-Darwin theory of evolution to constitute what is now known as Neo-Darwinism, or the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. What is the difference between Darwinism and Neo-Darwinism? The difference is not much in terms of what we have described above, except for one fact. Darwin nor Wallace paid much attention to Mendel’s work, and had absolutely no idea what DNA was, not even what a "gene" was. We now do! Neo-Darwinism states that what is being selected by natural selection is not a set of phenotypes, but the genes that make those phenotypes possible. It also states that the reason why organisms change is because of accumulation of genetic "errors" over time, making a set of organisms to mutate. Today geneticists know that genetic errors happen every now and then, and that generally these changes are harmful to organisms. However, from time to time, there is this significant genetic change that will be beneficial to an organism. Because that particular genetic change lets an organism survive an environment, then THAT genetic "error" is selected because it is the one that keeps replicating through an organism’s reproduction.
Richard Dawkins invites us to use a metaphor in order to think on how evolution works: the selfish gene! (Dawkins 1976/2009b). Let’s imagine that genes replicate so that they will keep existing, and they are competing against other organisms which carry rival genes. Thought of this way, a gene "uses" the organism (so-to-speak) as a mechanism to guarantee its survival and continue replicating. Get it?! It is not about us … we are just here for the ride! In reality, genes drive us to survive. For purely selfish reasons, genes enable us to have all kinds of behavior to guarantee its existence, including, being altruistic, or being able to create solidarities and systems so that it survives! Now, let’s remember, this is all a metaphor. Obviously genes cannot be selfish, but if we are careful and keep away on several misunderstandings and shortcomings regarding the metaphor, it can be pretty useful. In fact, it can also open the door to understand what human nature is, our own unique characteristics as a species, why we have been so successful surviving, why are we selfish or why we cooperate, why are our instincts there, what is behind our intelligence, and whether we can rebel against our "selfish" genes. It might even go as far as to tell us why there is religion, why are there nations, why certain economic and political systems work and why others simply won’t.
All of these questions pertain directly to three subjects: human nature, ethics and spirituality.
Evolution, Religion, and Spirituality
Without a doubt science has always been a challenge to many religions around the world. I’m not saying that science and religion are in mortal combat. As we have seen, this has been rarely the case, most of the challenges by religion towards science are due to sociological reasons, and some few times have to do with religious beliefs themselves. However, when religious beliefs themselves become a sociological problem for the advance of science, we should seriously question religious beliefs if the grounds for opposing a scientific theory or scientific practice are not ethical, and if the grounds are ethical we should question them.
Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion or The Root of All Evil?, or Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell are a disgrace in this area, not only because they show huge ignorance on religion, theology, and even the most basic sociological aspects of religion, but also because it does not help in this dialogue between the best theologians religions have to offer and scientists. Ironically, books like Dawkins’ or Dennett’s, which pretend to make a scientific approach to religion to say it is all a delusion, suppose the existence of metaphysical and untestable entities (such as memes), only look at those scientific data that favor their views (which they accuse religious people of doing), and use a lot of clichés and stereotypes without looking futher into the many sociological aspects of religious movements. They even agree a hundred percent with the most fundamentalist sectors of certain religions when they say that there is inconsistency between God and evolution. There have been extensive works by serious theologians and philosophers which respond to their statements (see below: Haught (2008), McGrath (2007), McGrath & McGrath (2007), Miller (1999), Mooney & Kirshenbaum (2009), Ruse (2000), Ruse (2010), and Wade (2009)), so I won’t elaborate on Dawkins or Dennett here. I only wish to point out that such positions on the side of science are really counterproductive to science. Contrary to what Sam Harris (2004, p. 15) believes, it is they (the radical atheists), not us the religious moderates or the atheist moderates, who engage radicalism in religion, because in the eyes of fundamentalists they prove exactly their own point of view: evolution and God are mutually exclusive, and that holding evolution as true means that ethical norms are illusory and inexistent (a belief that Dawkins and Dennett seriously hold).
On the other hand, it would be incredibly naïve if we suppose that there is no unease between science and religion. Some like Francisco Ayala, Kenneth Miller, John Haught, Denis Edwards, Karl Giberson, Alister McGrath, Darrel Falk, Francis Collins, and others have been working on a new understanding of God in light of the discoveries of science, trying to "bridge the gap" between science and faith. There are even those like Michael Dowd who brilliantly integrate evolution, neuroscience, physics, hermeneutics and spiral dynamics into a metareligious theology which can enrich many religions, spiritual paths, and even sketpticism and atheism.
These articles are the result of certain reflections I’ve carried out regarding evolution, ethics and spirituality. My view is that of a Catholic, although people of other denominations and religions can be able to appreciate the very important implications of human nature towards ethics, religion and spirituality. I hope you will join me in this exciting trabel I’m going to embark.
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Darwin, C. (2008). The origin of species by means of natural selection or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. US: Bantam Classic. (Originally published in 1859).
Dawkins, R. (2009a). The greatest show on earth: the evidence for evolution. NY: Free Press.
Dawkins, R. (2009b). The selfish gene. US: Oxford University Press. (Originally published in 1976).
Dowd, M. (2009). Thank God for evolution: how the marriage of science and religion will transform your life and our world. US: Penguin Group.
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Miller, K. R. (2006). Only a theory: evolution and the battle for America’s soul. US: Viking.
Mooney, C. & Kirshenbaum, S. (2009). Unscientific America: how scientific illiteracy threatens our future. NY: Basic Books.
Ruse, M. (2000). Can a Darwinian be a Christian? NY: Cambridge University Press.
Ruse, M. (2010). Science and spirituality: making room for faith in the age of science. US: Cambridge University Press.
Wade, N. (2009). The faith instinct: how religion evolved and why it endures. US: Penguin Press.
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