Religion, Evolution Not Mutually Exclusive

Religion, evolution not mutually exclusive

                       

                            Goldwin Emerson, gandjemerson@rogers.com

 

                              London Free Press, page NP 10, April 6, 2019


It is unfortunate when people who hold a strong belief in religion also believe the theory of evolution necessarily runs counter to their religious beliefs. Often this conflict arises from an inaccurate knowledge of evolution. Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace were two independent founders of the theory of evolution who published their parallel ideas about one hundred and sixty years ago.

 

An erroneous understanding of evolution occurs when people believe that evolution means changes occur randomly or by chance. Thus, they believe that the development of humans from earlier primates, or the marvelous development of eyesight, for example, seem too miraculous to have simply occurred randomly. From their perspective, it seems logical to conclude there must surely be a supreme being to produce the development of humans. In one sense they are correct. Such marvelous developments would not occur by mere chance, even in a universe that is so large that we cannot comprehend its immensity nor its approximate time span of 13.7 billion years.

 

But the theory of evolution does not indicate that things happened by luck nor by chance.  Darwin and Wallace proposed a directing principle called natural selection. Geneticists know that our bodies continually replicate new cells to replace aging ones. This system of replication is not perfect. Variations in the replication of cells are called mutations. Some mutations are functional but most mutations are dysfunctional. An extreme case of dysfunctional mutations occurs when we develop cancer or other defects  in cell replication.  In the long run, different species, including humans, benefit through functional mutations that are the most helpful in improving our capacity to survive. Darwin and Wallace called this process natural selection.

 

 


Natural selection provides direction towards helping the most fit and the most able to survive and reproduce by mutational changes that offer a survival benefit. In this important sense, there is a directing force in the changes which occur over long periods of time among all living plants and species. For example, animals such as zebras develop better muscles, keener eyesight and more acute hearing. This allows them to escape from their predators, the lions. The zebras that evolve the quickest are the most likely to survive, to breed and to pass on their evolutionary survival benefits to their off-spring. Interestingly, the lions also evolve to have better muscles and faster and keener hunting skills. The lions  that don't evolve will be hungry and unsuccessful and will not live to reproduce. So evolution is not random chance. It is directed towards survival improvement in living species and plants.

 

Natural selection is sometimes incorrectly equated to “survival of the fittest” where fittest is mistakenly understood to be “the strongest.” Yet, dinosaurs and ancient woolly mammoths have not been able to survive as long as much weaker insects like ants. Ants have been able to evolve. That is, ants which reproduce rapidly have been able to fit in to changing environments which enable them to use beneficial mutations.

 

Many religious believers observe the beauty of the sunset; they breathe oxygen needed to survive, and they think “What a wonderful  environment we have. If it were not made just the way it is, we could not live. It must have been designed just this way so humans can exist.”  For them, it is a kind of “proof” of a supreme being. But for Darwin, who recognized there are many changing  environments, even within our own planetary system, the view is different. The world was not “made” for humans. When it was formed billions of years ago, humans did not exist. Much later, over 3.9 billion years ago humans evolved from primitive life forms, enabling them to survive on planet earth. Like religion, this natural version of evolution can still fill our minds with feelings of awe, wonder and gratitude. But we may destroy our ability to survive if, by human action, we pollute our air and water, cause climate changes or use up our natural resources and thus change our planet to  more hostile environments.

 

It is regrettable when some sincere religious believers think that religion means they must give up belief in evolution, particularly if their understanding of evolution is based on  incorrect knowledge of the science that supports evolution. Evolution is not based on pure  random chance. It should not be rejected on that erroneous basis.  Religion and evolution need not be in conflict on this point. Fortunately there are many religious believers who also accept a scientific view of evolution.

Spirituality Has Numerous Meanings, by Goldwin Emerson

Spirituality Has Numerous Meanings, by Goldwin Emerson

The  London Free Press, February 16.2019

Acceptance of each other is an easy phrase to embrace in our minds, if not in our daily practices. When we believe that others share our ideas, philosophy,  politics or our religion, it is easy to accept them. Conversely, acceptance is more difficult when others do not share our way of thinking and acting. In spite of this, many conscientious people respect the religious choices, political views, occupational choices,  ethnicity and culture of those who differ from them and they try hard to be pluralistic and accepting without abandoning their own moral values.

As a secular person who holds humanist views, I suppose to some of my religious acquaintances, humanism and spirituality seem to be opposites. It is true that humanists sometimes feel uncomfortable about the term spirituality. We think the term “spirituality” ought to be expanded to include concepts beyond strictly religious terms.  Humanists choose words like awe, wonder, fulfillment, inner peace, enrichment and acceptance. Spirituality is also about human connections with animals, nature and with our fellow human beings. 

A common perception of some of my religious friends is their belief that humanists lack feelings of joy, compassion and wonder. For religious believers, spiritual experiences are expressed in traditional religious terms as though one could not be spiritual without being a believer in God. Although this reasoning is inaccurate, it is a matter of concern since it can become a barrier between humanists and non-humanists in understanding each other.

Humanists use the term “wonder” in referring to the natural world which offers experiences of awe, excitement and joy in the present. Humanists hope that thoughtful people will use good judgment and good moral values to use their ability to be rational in order to make positive things happen in this world, here and now. Religious friends ask me how I can be hopeful about human beings when there is so much around us that is not right. To be sure, it is easy to find examples of poverty, pollution, disease, war, starvation and crime. But these unfortunate conditions come about over the years, not by accident, nor by lack of prayer, but by poor decisions made by humans. If such problems are to be solved in the future, it will be by humans applying their best efforts. We need to have confidence that human beings are capable of recognizing and implementing good solutions to problems many of which are caused by previous poor human actions or thoughtless decisions. We need to apply rational and caring solutions whether we do so within or without religion.

Spirituality for both humanist and non-humanists alike remains. I am convinced I share the joys and concerns of the world as readily as my religious friends. I share with humanists and non-humanists alike, joy at the birth of a baby, happiness at the sound of children playing, satisfaction in helping those in need and gratefulness in receiving unexpected help from a stranger. I shed tears at the bedside of a dying friend. I marvel at the metamorphosis of a caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly. I am thrilled by the music of Mozart, the nature paintings of Robert Bateman, the beauty of the Taj Mahal, and I am delighted by the goldfinches at our bird feeder. I am emotionally enriched by the gift of human love. I am optimistic when I hear political leaders talk of peace rather than war. A scientific discovery promising a cure for a medical problem or a new and better vision of looking at the world gives me a spiritual lift.

 Some of my enthusiastically religious friends attribute spirituality to God dwelling beyond nature. I sometimes question whether their beliefs about the supernatural may encourage them too readily to hand over the task of improving our world to a powerful supernatural entity. 

Humanists share the emotions of joy and wonder with both religious and non-religious acquaintances. We share these spiritual emotions, not because they flow from heaven, but because they are part of being fully human.