Because I am not a religious person and because it is a fairly simple idea I do not find Darwin’s theory on the origin of species through natural selection particularly hard to accept. Mostly I prefer scientific explanations to other kinds of explanations when it comes to my concrete understanding of how things work. Of course that’s not the problem. Eleanor did not ask me how my father died, she asked me why. And so we are back to why, and here things remain uncertain.
It has been noticeable that once they stop their fascinating analyses of how and begin to formulate answers to why, the scientists seem every bit as clumsy as the most amateurish theologians
A.N.Wilson, God’s Funeral
To me it seems that religion is helpful around why, and unhelpful around how we happen to be here. Science has it the other way round.
Watching Richard Dawkins gambol among the religious in his documentary series on Darwin I was struck in particular by a conversation he had with a priest in Kenya. The reverend listened patiently and incredulously to Richard’s long explanation of how evolution worked and then asked, “but what is the point of all of that?” Dawkins said, “there is no point.”
That is what is so alien about evolution to those who prefer a religious explanation of life. When two religions clash they clash over who has it right about the point of life, and the right actions to undertake to serve that point. Evolution on the other hand is pointless, and doesn’t tell you how to live. If you are looking for a more meaningful answer to the meaning of life than “to pass on our DNA” you had better not become a scientist.
To pass on our DNA.
Looking at your existence this way life would be pretty f**king awful and depressing. We had better think of something else.
The something else probably leads us back to Eleanor’s question: “Why do people die and why do people suffer?” Darwin and Dawkins have an explanation. Suffering’s use to us as a species is that it generates sympathy in the human heart, the desire to put a gentle hand on the shoulder of another, and sympathy is one of the cornerstones of community – something that binds people together. Community is important for humans because it makes us smarter, we learn to communicate and share ideas, and our chances of survival go up. Of course an ancient, instinctual source of sympathy (other than feeling bad for your mate when he gets eaten by a sabre tooth tiger) comes from the need of a parent to nurture their helpless child.
So now we have something like this:
- There is no point to life from a scientific view beyond reproduction, however
- Suffering, sympathy and community have given humans consciousness, and
- In these conscious communties we are able to rise above the simple imperative to reproduce and make other meanings for our lives (but we should probably remember more often that sympathy is one of the foundations of good community)
Which brings me up to date, because today was the first day back at school for 2010 and I am a Social Studies teacher – a teacher who tries to start people on the journey of thinking about their community. (I wrote most of this post last month – Man of Errors.)
Here is my Dad standing with his class a long, long time ago. They look like a lively bunch of kids. Half of them are grinning with teeth too big for their mouths, and they seem barely able to contain their joy somehow. The little character clutching the sign has cow lick hair, and his mate to the right is sitting up very proud and serious. Who knows where life took them. One or two might remember their teacher that year, but I suppose it’s unlikely.
A few years ago my Dad’s sister told me something that surprised me. She said that my father had always thought when he was a teacher that you should treat children with love, and that he couldn’t adjust himself to the idea of corporal punishment. I suspect this may have been at odds with the prevailing attitude in Otago in the 1950s.
It made me quite sad to hear this. Sad because I would have liked to ask him about it. I suppose that sadness was a kind of suffering. Not the kind that is worth much notice in a world of enormous pain; just the fleeting, small bump of regret that passes through the human heart sometimes. If it serves any purpose it might be to bind me a little closer to my mother, my wife and my child. It reminds me that I must introduce Eleanor to my Dad, and tell her about him as she gets older, because he would have liked to know her, and it reminds me again about the importance of love in a life, and in the interactions of people.
So I come back again to the words of Robert Kennedy on the death of Martin Luther King. These words are not much consolation for loss, but they are something. They are something to hold up against the question why, and something to teach my classes at school.
But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.