Born this way?

24 Aug

by David Norris

I’m embarrassed it took this long, really.

New Christian converts have barely finished asking God to “kindly please not smite them” before a copy of the Gospel of John is practically shoved into their hands, and yet it took me nearly six months to crack open Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene.” (Yes, there are plenty of mixed feelings and eye rolling about Dawkins to go around, but this should be required reading for any burgeoning skeptic or nonbeliever.) This past February I finally came out as an agnostic naturalist, but it wasn’t until a month ago that I even owned a copy of that book, or until two weeks ago that I finally cracked it open and decided to find out for myself what all the fuss is about.

Growing up as a fundamentalist Christian, the name “Dawkins” was almost synonymous with “Satan.” He was an evil (albeit misguided) scientist trying to lure the Faithful away from the fold and into his godless atheism. Yet (and I’m still devouring it) once I started reading and considering what he was saying, I found myself almost giddy, reveling in his language about survival machines, natural selection and replication. The thought of how life on this planet came about through processes that happened over a time frame larger than the mind can’t even comprehend, and the sheer beauty and awfulness of it, was almost a religious experience in itself. I’m this close to running out and getting one of those Darwin fish decals to slap on my car.

The other night I was visiting a friend of mine who is a more “non-traditional” Christian. She’s pro-gay rights, pro-choice, a Democrat, and many other things most fundies would consider blasphemous. We got onto the topic of evolution—something she accepts as fact without issue—and, naturally, “The Selfish Gene” came up. During the course of the discussion, she posed a query: What advantage might there be for an “inherited” belief in god? This came up after I suggested that the idea of “god” was probably a cultural construct, and she countered by saying she’d grown up in a non-religious home but had always had a sense of “god.” So, if there is no God and the universe and all life within it happened spontaneously, why do some believe in a deity while others do not? Is it a trait handed down through generations, like left-handedness or eye color?

It makes sense, actually. Having a religion would have carried some evolutionary advantage for our early ancestors. With their limited scientific knowledge, holding religious beliefs may have helped them cope with stressful situations such as disease, accident, natural disasters, animal attacks, and attacks from other hostile tribes. It would have facilitated social bonding and the fostering of community. Religious rituals also carry powerful symbolism, and the sense of belonging derived from going through such rituals would’ve been vital to our tribal ancestors.

It also seems a by-product of our consciousness and awareness of our mortality. You don’t want to think about your friend having just died because that means that someday you too will die and cease to exist. So it seems most likely that we created an afterlife and a God (or gods) to look after us both there and in this world too. An all-powerful God also appears to fill the parental void left once we grow out of childhood and into a cold, inhospitable world without a parent (i.e., ‘god’ to children, giver of life and gifts).

So here’s where this is going: If indeed “God” is merely a delusion, should we as a nation be basing deeply held political beliefs on such a foundation? As a skeptic invested in civic life, this worries me probably more than anything, especially when I hear politicians invoking religious, even eschatological language and rhetoric. Would it have been less American on 9/11 for George W. Bush to quote Psalm 23 or end his national address with “God bless America”? Or would Barack Obama have been any less patriotic had he not ended with “May God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America” on the night he announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed? Furthermore:

  • This past April a 1996 ban on the federal funding of stem cell research in the United States was finally lifted—a ban that George W. Bush affirmed in 2001 when he said that “human life is a sacred gift from our creator.”
  • Israeli-U.S. relations have been historically shaped around the biblical belief that Israel is God’s “chosen nation,” and that any government that aligns itself against Israel aligns itself against God. That’s foreign policy based loosely on a religious notion.
  • “Blue laws” remain in effect in state ordinances around the country, including in Minnesota, that prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sundays, originally under the idea that people should be in church, and many states also require car dealerships to be closed. Originally these laws were in accordance with the “day of rest” commanded in Exodus 20.

More recently has been the battle over same-sex marriage, vociferously led by GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. At the root of this conservative opposition to GLBT rights is the deeply held belief that, according to the Bible, God ordained marriage as between one man and one woman. They also point to several key scripture passages that they consistently use to label the GLBT community as “unnatural” and to deny them equal rights under the law. Law currently shaped by religious ideology, mind you, not law informed by unprejudiced, scientific and logical fact and evidence.

So what happens when you view the Creation story not as a factual account of the origin of the human species but as a variant of common creation myths in the Ancient Near East—including the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish? And what further happens when you view this story not as literal, God-given fact but as an attempt to explain where we came from? From there the narrative of scripture as Truth Handed Down From On High begins to unravel because so much depends on the veracity of this first story, at least in the view of fundamentalist Christians, which (looking at this as a former fundamentalist myself) is partly why this is such a critical issue.

And yet, religion is shaping and forming domestic policy, defying the Jeffersonian concept of a “wall of separation between church and state.” Skeptics are famous for debunking the paranormal, homeopathy and cultic belief systems, turning the same piercing scientific objectivity on them as we do for any academic subject. What would happen if we were to apply that to American civic life, calling out political leaders when they fail to uphold the Constitution they swore to protect and instead uphold religious ideology?

Because when last I checked, America still wasn’t a theocracy.

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