Sunday, March 15, 2009

Evolution and religion

Beautiful streams of vapor rise from the hot comforting cup of tea on my side as I sit in front of my computer today; the controversial topic of evolution and religion preoccupying my thoughts.

We celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin this year. No theory has shaken the foundations of religious belief as much as the theory of evolution. On the surface, the theory of evolution is a benign theory which beautifully explains the diversity of life on this planet. Its beauty lies in its utter simplicity -- simplicity which leaves the mind in wonder and stupor as to how it could give rise to all that we so deeply cherish and revere: life.

But simplicity has been the hallmark of all great scientific theories, not just evolution. Newton's laws of motion were utterly simple but they managed to explain an astoundingly wide variety of natural phenomena with astonishing accuracy. Those theories didn't disturb us because they didn't contradict so deeply with our religious beliefs.

Charles Darwin himself was raised a religious man. He believed that there was a God who created the world and life around us, and who was responsible for its smooth functioning. I am left in complete awe, admiration and respect for the intellectual honesty of Darwin when I contemplate how he had to grapple with the uncomfortable evidence which pointed in a direction opposite to what he wanted to believe in. His wife remained a devout Christian. I almost found it innocently cute when I read how his wife expressed her concerns on how his honest doubts might cause them to be separated in the hereafter.

Each one of us has to go through a similar spiritual struggle that Darwin did when confronted with the evidence for evolution. While accepting evolution doesn't mean you to have stop believing in some sort of higher power, it does mean that it will be dishonest of you to say that you believe in evolution and still think that your religion is nothing but truth. Nearly all religions make claims about the origin of humans, and their demise, and thus the beef with evolution.

Humans invented religions to serve as anchors and guides for leading a good life; to help people make sense of the world, even if that meant believing in elaborate accounts of supernatural beings without a shred of evidence. There are reasons why evolution scares so many people. One reason is that it points them to the troublesome evidence of their religion not being the True and Right account of Reality. The other reason is they might be troubled by the gruesome and brutal way natural selection works. The fittest survive. There doesn't seem to be a room for morality and kindness. But from that gruesome brutal fight for survival, we have evolved feelings of kindness, niceness and love because they provide an evolutionary advantage to us as a species.

I remain hopeful. If our ancestors could come up with the set of religious beliefs and practices that helped them lead lives of righteousness, honesty and loving kindness, even if it required believing in superstition, I am hopeful that we can do a better job, now that we have a better grasp on the actual nature of this universe and life within it.

I came across this interesting documentary last night which answers some questions that people have regarding evolution and its interplay with religious belief. I particularly liked the following line by Dawkins when he was discussing the menace of social Darwinism:

"We humans are the first and only species that are able to escape the brutal force that created us: natural selection. "

There is hope for a gentler, kinder, loving and more spiritual world. Hope that doesn't require us to run away from and reject the truth and hide away in our little comfortable imaginary cocoons but which exhorts us to embrace the truth and work for a beautiful and loving future for our descendants.

Have fun watching.




Or click here to go to youtube's playlist so that you don't have to manually select each part.

19 comments:

  1. how his wife expressed her concerns on how his honest doubts might cause them to be separated in the hereafter.

    Lolz. Yes, cute would be a way to describe this :)

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  3. hi there, I am here with my thoughts, as you know i am not a very learned person so will just share my thoughts, explanation of this topic from Islamic point of view is available on internet.

    First of all let me assure you whether Evolution or discovery of life on another planet or complete Cloning of humans will not cause a single doubt in hearts of those who have experienced divine. Such people are living a life having no worry of future and past. They are just happy and calm that their God is not bound by anything. God is [b]really[/b] all powerful. And God is strange. God creates laws and destroys them.

    Instead of trying to live in a state of mind where when you hear something you always first categorize it rational or irrational, logical or illogical. Try having such a spiritual experience yourself.

    I was talking to my Teacher few days ago. He said that every person has his own version of God. Some believe that their God cant do such and such things, he is bound by laws, their God is bound by their imagination. So, in reality God also doesn't go beyond than their imagination. God is really strange.


    The question is are you looking for a spiritual experience, When you say you want evidence in favor of Allah? Answer it as honestly as possible. :)

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  4. Ahmed, your comment is rather confusing. You seem to suggest that what I wrote is somehow a challenge to God. You make it sound like that humans are trying to do things through science and God is doing his own stuff, acting in strange ways, making and breaking laws. This is a *very* strange way to look at the world.

    If you re-read my post carefully, notice that I don't really mention God that often. I am mostly talking about "religion" and not God.

    You are committing the mistake of mixing religion and God. To you, and most religious people, God means the exact God that your religion talks about. It is my very humble request that please SEPARATE the God you cherish and experience with the God that Islam talks about. Until and unless you make that separation, you will NEVER be able to evaluate your religion objectively, you will continue to remain confused, and will probably continue to hold contradictory and confusing beliefs.

    Evolution contradicts with what most "religions" say about the origin of humans. It doesn't refer to any God whatsoever. It thus suggests, to me and many other people, that religions aren't what they claim to be. They are probably man made systems that aren't true accounts of reality. After all, if they were created by a true all knowing God, they wouldn't make claims that contradict with what we find about our world through scientific means.

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  5. Some people say that the theory of evolution is that it has a 'flattening' effect on one's view of the world. For example, Nietzsche says:

    'Formerly one sought the feeling of the grandeur of man by pointing to his divine origin: this has now become a forbidden way, for at the portal stands the ape, together with other gruesome beasts, grinning knowingly as if to say: no further in this direction!'

    You can read more about this here: http://www.westernbuddhistreview.com/vol1/god_is_dead.html

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  6. Damn, there were so many errors in that comment. I meant:

    "Some people say that the theory of evolution has a 'flattening' effect on one's view of the world."

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  7. Interesting article.

    It does seem to create an intellectual vacuum. Though as the article says, that feeling of nihilism comes more from having lost the belief in an elaborate other-world than because of the theory of evolution itself. If you had a satisfying intellectual account of how meaning and value is created, and how to lead a good life without appealing to anything divine and other-worldly, then evolution wouldn't flatten your world view. The Buddhists come close to having such a theory. Many western intellectuals have been trying to work towards a satisfying account of such things, though that feels more like a work in progress.

    It were us humans that created those elaborate other worldly tales to give expression and voice to some of our innermost feelings and experiences to begin with. Most religions will be hit hard by this intellectual tsunami but I don't think that we will retreat to savage ways and lawlessness. A lot of people will search for new more saner and reality-grounded ways to give expression to their feelings, emotions and desires but I am hopeful that we will get there. It might be a painful process but its necessary for us to mature and grow up as a species.

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  8. "It were us humans that created those elaborate other worldly tales to give expression and voice to some of our innermost feelings and experiences"

    Well brother this is where problem starts. If you have wrong base than everything on the top of it will be wrong. You have already concluded that all the info you hear and read about God is merely creation of humans. How you reached on this conclusion? It means that you have already decided that what ever you will hear about God is human creation.

    I suggest you read more about Abrahimic Religions and Islam in detail.

    Plz Read Quran, try to analyze it. Try to prove it wrong.

    Read about these prophets, specially read the history of Prophet Muhammad SAW. Pay attention and try to analyze what these great men have said. They are not fictional people. If you want you can even visit their Tomb.

    Feeling anger, proud and arrogance is the biggest hurdle in mans search for truth. when you dont know your job is to ask for it rather than denying everything. God only see your intention. Denying everything will not satisfy your heart.

    You yourself know that evolution or perhaps any other theory will not deny the existence of God. If it cant deny the existence of God then it can also not deny work of God. Infact science has only increased faith of people in God, this is specially true for Islam. If some people, out of their anger in not being able to see God, want to bring this theory as alternative to God then be it. Dont you see anger on their faces. Anger of not being able to see God.

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  9. Ahmad, man, just leave her alone, okay? She's not religious and Islam didn't work out for her. Why don't you focus on your own spiritual practice and not interfere in other people's lives?

    [ FYI -- I am an evolutionary mystic myself (i.e. a metaphysically-oriented evolutionist) though not an Islamic mystic. Personally I don't feel there is any contradiction between my theism and the fact of evolution. ]

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  10. "Feeling anger, proud and arrogance is the biggest hurdle in mans search for truth. when you dont know your job is to ask for it rather than denying everything."

    Where in the world is desiskeptic sounding angry or arrogant? It's *you* who seem to be ticked off at her inquiry into truth and the nature of reality. Nor does she ever deny the existence of God -- she sounds to me like she's a curious agnostic who is fed up of the moral hypocrisies contained in every religion. You *are* aware of the irrationalities and moral hypocrisies contained in every religion, aren't you?

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  11. God Created EvolutionMarch 18, 2009 at 7:50 PM

    I never understood why believers in God were against the theory of evolution. In Hinduism we understand that the Earth is many millions of years old. I think it must be only the Abrahamic faiths that think the Earth is young?

    God is the ONE UNIFIED BEING behind all existence. Evolution had a beginning and that beginning was with the beginningless "god", or what you can call primordial energy.

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  12. @StumblingMystic

    Ok, my friend i will not comment alot. Actually i comment here because i gone through the same phase in my life as the writer of this blog.

    I must admit i was little angry. But reason for my anger is different. I am not saying that DesiSkeptic is angry or arrogant. I was talking in general manners. Infact DesiSkeptic is a very polite person.

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  13. @ahmad

    You did not take my earlier comments into consideration when replying. Evolution doesn't deny the existence of God. It makes no statement as to the existence of God whatsoever. It suggests that all religions whose creation stories contradicts with evolution are probably false man made religions. Its a very hard thing to do, more so when you are closed to the possibility of your religion being wrong, but please try to separate God from religion when evaluating your religion. Otherwise you will be swept away by your emotions and bias and will not be able to think straight.

    @stumblingmystic

    I don't think I would classify myself as an agnostic. I mean its not like I don't care what other people believe in. At some level, I care deeply particularly if what they believe in can have disastorous consequences for humanity, and if parts of what they believe in can be clearly shown to be irrational and immoral. I am far from an anti-theist however. I don't hate God. English doesn't seem to have good words to describe a state of non-commitment which is what my attitude is towards God. I acknowledge the reality of feelings and experiences that most people would classify as spiritual but I wouldn't go so far as to bring elaborate and detailed notions of God into existence to explain those. That seems presumptuous. If God is simply a word you use to describe or refer to some aspect of those feelings then I am much more comfortable with it.

    Finally, English seems to be a very gender-neutral language. Just for the record, and not that it makes any material difference, but I am a he :-)

    @God Create Evolution

    Not all Abrahamic religions say that the Earth is young. Islam doesn't. Not sure about Judaism. The beef with evolution is that evolution contradicts with the Adam and Eve creation theory and man somehow being special than the rest of the animal kingdom.

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  14. Well, regardless of whether the Quran is anti-evolution or not (and I personally don't think it is), most traditional Muslims are anti-evolution to the core. It's because of the anthropocentrism -- they can't accept that humanity evolved from animals. Here is one traditionalist Muslim shaykh's essay on this topic:
    http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/nuh/evolve.htm

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  15. "Finally, English seems to be a very gender-neutral language. Just for the record, and not that it makes any material difference, but I am a he :-)"

    lol -- for some reason you seemed far too polite and non-aggressive to be a guy!

    Gosh, we are all so mired in gender stereotypes, it's ridiculous! Some people have assumed from my writing style that I'm a guy but I happen to be a woman. Haha.

    Wow, it's so cool to meet enlightened guys from Pakistan! I hope you don't find that remark condescending -- it's just that this is quite rare in my experience. Good on you!

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  16. @stumblingmystic

    That was an interesting read.

    Its interesting how religious scholars undermine scientific theories and conjectures by pointing out that its based on this or that unwarranted philosophical assumption or something along those lines.

    The stark contrast between the tone in the article is almost comical. At one point the author is engaging in a highly philosophical debate about what we can and cannot know, and then comes a verse from the Quran, filled with ridiculous amounts of "unwarranted" claims such as man being created, Satan not bowing down to him etc. Sigh.

    Blind faith can SO suck out the curiosity and fun from living and exploring this world. It requires you to bow down and accept (often times ridiculous sounding) claims, suppressing and crushing your natural instincts because of some text considered holy in your society.

    Its totally mind numbing and soul crushing. Almost makes me feel suffocated.

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  17. Thanks for all the kind words. I will gladly take the politeness and non-aggressiveness remark as a compliment.

    And yes, we all do tend to stereotype a lot. Though meeting people and having experiences that break them is always fun. A life where you could put a definite label on everything would be rather dull :-)

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  18. You're a boy? That surprises me somehow. Your writing is rather feminine. All this time I had this detailed picture of this short-ish brown girl who drinks coffee and blogs about honest disbelief.

    0 _ o

    She looked a bit like me, come to think of it.

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  19. Its funny. I had assumed that you were a boy until stumblingmystic pointed out otherwise. We might be predisposed to seeing other people in our own image I guess :-)

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