A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Did Darwin Kill God?

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. So said Karl Marx, a great philosopher staunch opponent of religion centuries ago. But even before him there was another who stood up against the division that faith can bring to humanity; a man who possibly killed God in all his glory. In the beginning was the word, and the word was God. God is a very strange word. Unlike any other word it seems to be Ok to use it to mean just about anything you want. If I was to decide that from henceforth to me the word "turnip" means the sky and all that's in it, you would naturally think I was mad. If I was to decide that the word God means the one who answers my prayers, or the instigator of the big bang, or that statue over there, you might give me a daily morning slot on Radio 4. You might even make a sympathetic documentary about me.

God is an empty vessel into which human beings pour whatever they wish. In essence it is the idea of an entity that transcends the physical world and is sustained by faith. As an idea it can't be killed, but as a theory: as an explanation for the way things are, that is another question. For many people around 1859, the year of the publication of Darwin's 'Origin of Species', belief in God was based on the so-called 'argument from design.' The idea was popularised by an English theologian called William Paley. He posed the question: if you found a pocket watch on the ground how would you know it had been designed by someone with intelligence? You would know because of the intricacy of its parts and how they work together to fulfil its function. This is the feeling we have when we see life and nature, Paley argued, this is how we know it has a designer. For those whose belief rested on Paley's argument Darwin did kill God, if by this we mean that Darwin demonstrated how the complexity of life can arise naturally. Conor Cunningham's argument is that such people were never more than a minority. Paley's idea just happened to be strong in England in Darwin's day. It had taken hold in a very particular strand of English Protestantism.

The idea of seeing the beauty of God in his creation is probably as old as religion. What makes Paley's argument new is that it is an argument. It is a response to the rise of Science; an attempt to prove God's existence; an attempt to jump from the shaky ground of faith on to the safer ground of reason. Paley's argument survives today incidentally, rebranded as 'Intelligent design.'. That it caught on in England was no accident. England was, at the time, the powerhouse of Science. That the pocket watch analogy was popular in Darwin's time is also no accident. Victorian capitalism imagined itself ordered like clockwork according to God's design, carrying its engineering wonders along with its economic system, to the world. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is a God-free alternative. Darwinism and Religion got off to a bad start. Then things got worse. In Tennessee in 1925 teaching that humans had evolved from apes was illegal. A teacher called John Scopes defied the law and was prosecuted. A bizarre Court case was held that became centred around the argument between Creationists and Darwinians.

Creationism holds that the world and all the life that lives on it were made by God in six days, in the order described in the first few chapters of the Bible. The evidence for it is just that: that it is written in the Bible. Darwinism holds that the world is at least millions of years old and that life evolved on it by a process of random variation and natural selection. It has copious geological data, fossils, anatomical and speciation evidence in its favour. It had quite a lot even in 1925. It should have been an open and shut case. The big problem was that the case for the defence became associated with 'Social Darwinism', the reactionary ideology based on the slogan 'the survival of the fittest.' This is the theory that the capitalists are rich and powerful because they are the fittest and the workers are poor and oppressed because they are weak: and so it should always be. It is contentious whether the chief lawyer defending Scopes, Clarence Darrow, believed in this idea or not. What is clear is that he did not put up a strong case against it.

The prosecutor defending Creationism, William Jennings Bryant, was a Socialist, at least in so far as he hated Social Darwinism and wanted a society of equality. He was no fundamentalist and rejected literal interpretations of the Bible in favour of figurative and allegorical interpretations. His was a moral case: it was in defence of the poor and oppressed and it took place in the midst of the long interwar capitalist crisis characterised by ideological turmoil. The Creationists won the case. The result held back the teaching of evolution in American schools for decades. It gave confidence to the fundamentalists who played on the fears and prejudices of the large, rural middle class of the USA. It contributed to the solid backbone of support for US capitalism that held back the political development of the working class in the most powerful country in the world. Nevertheless, in many parts of the world, and even in the USA, religion is seen as a doctrine of resistance. It is clung to as a beacon of morality in a dark and frightening world. Capitalism is a world of corruption, conspiracy, violence, raw power, naked self-interest and the survival of the fittest.

Many people deny that Science and Religion are in conflict. What they really mean is that Science and Religion don't need to be in conflict: If they can be compatible in your mind why can't they be compatible in everyone's? Science and Religion are not compatible in the mind of Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya) whose brand of fundamentalism threatens Turkey's tentative grip on secularism and civil rights. His campaign against evolutionary theory has exposed the weakness of career politicians who dance to the clerical tune. He boasts that he sent a copy of his 'Atlas of Creation' to Tony Blair, who he credits as a supporter. The position of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation isn't clear on the subject. The problem is the one we began with: God means different things to different people. For Oktar and others, God must have an intelligence, which is like, but much greater than, ours. If not how could he speak to us? God's word must be true, since if you doubt his word that he is the creator, how can you not doubt his laws too? If you doubt his laws where then is morality?

Religion thrives whenever it holds a moral torch to capitalism. In power, its morality, in the form of God's unquestionable law, becomes a stick to beat the masses. Its brutal imposition continues to blight the lives of millions of people in the world, for example in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and it now threatens millions more in Pakistan. In Somalia recently, a girl of twelve was stoned to death for defying God's law against sex outside of marriage; she had been raped by a gang of God fearing men. Denying the conflict between Science and Religion will not make it go away. It rages while moderates, like Conor Cunningham, with their different definition of God, look on bemused. Cunningham says:"For me God is the source of the gift of life, of all life. God is he in whom we live, move and have our very existence. And this is what traditional Christianity tells us: God is existence itself, he is the creator of time itself." I believe in existence and time. If I decided God meant these things then I would believe in God too. But I, like Oktar, can't help thinking that a true God would have intelligence and a sense of purpose, otherwise what would be the point? He might as well be dead. This definition of God is also shared by prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. They argue that Darwin effectively killed God by showing that all life could come about without intelligent design and without purpose.

Cunningham calls them Ultra-Darwinists, who have abused Darwin's idea. He is part of a strong current of thought that wants to redraw the line of division so that it falls not between Science and Religion, but between moderates, who see Science and Religion as compatibility, and militants, who are intent on a fight. To demonstrate this compatibility the moderates are always trying to find a place for God in the folds of scientific theory, for example, in the phenomenon of convergent evolution. Cunningham, in his documentary, talked about the recently discovered and barely explored fact that some birds have independently evolved common song patterns. In a telling throwback to the argument from design he took this example of what evolutionary theorist call ‘convergence’ as a hint of the divine mystery. Remember that William Paley did not simply stumble upon his idea. He put forward the argument from design in response to the challenge of rational Science. He was trying to rescue God from the increasingly shaky ground of faith. Whenever they step off this ground however, religious ideas are swept away. They seek the credibility of Science while looking for gaps to sneak God in. True Science however, not only accepts the facts but seeks only for the facts.  Judging by the ubiquity of religion there is little sign that God is dead. Why does it remain such a powerful and pervasive idea?

Dawkins and Dennett argue that ideas spread and are subject to selection just like genes. They call ideas 'memes': partly because it sounds a bit like genes (to stress the analogy) and partly because it looks a bit like 'me, me', which captures an important concept. A meme is like a 'copy-me' program that can spread like viruses do through the internet. The meme, like a program, only has to have the inclination and the means to copy itself. In short, its survival does not depend on any quality besides its self-copying power. Conor Cunningham is unhappy with this, particularly the way that it explains why religion is so widespread and successful. He says disdainfully: "All that matters is which memes survive, and their survival has nothing to do with their truth." This is a common misconception. Our minds are like the Islands of the Galapagos, each is an isolated environment in which ideas, like species, either thrive or go extinct. We harbour different memes because some minds select ideas based on truth, while others select ideas based on comfort or convenience.

The idea of memes helps us to understand how ideas propagate. It shows us how cultural phenomena, like fashions or beliefs for example, are selected, not by design but by stickability. It tells us nothing about what makes some ideas come and go while others stick. In this way it is the same as Darwinian evolution, which tells us, for example, that finches with long beaks evolved into a new species because they survived on a particular island. If we want to know why they survived on that island we would have to look at its environment. Think of your mind as if it was a living eco-system in which ideas live, die and interact as wild creatures do in a forest. Like islands that produce strange creatures in isolation, as Mauritius gave us the Dodo, so humans go mad when cut off from the company of others. Most of the time most of us are, whether we like it or not, stuck with each other. Our minds are in the midst of heavy traffic. We are less like tropical islands and more like Motorway service stations.

We are thrown together by our unique way of producing and reproducing ourselves. Only a few species of insects come close to the complex division of labour that makes us what we are. Our social environment is about getting a wage, making a home, staying healthy, raising children, enjoying leisure, etc. It is, above all, about economics. Ideas that serve our economic life; make it more productive, more cohesive, more tolerable, will be selected. The human mind is a good environment for the God meme, but if our experience of the social and physical environment shows anything it is that things do not stay the same. The future will bring changes, like the climatic changes that have driven on the evolution of species. Although he is sometimes portrayed as the Anti-Christ, Marx said very little about religion. His most famous lines are not nearly as vicious as his slanderous detractors would like them to be: "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people."

This is the real reason why God is not yet dead. Belief in God does not rest on evidence but on faith, and this faith does not exist solely, or even primarily, to explain the world. It exists for other purposes: because of the impotence of being, the fear of death, comfort for the loss of loved ones, for the social support provided by a church, etc. Who would begrudge the poor and oppressed the little comforts belief in God brings? Sometimes people can look to religion in the fight against oppression and exploitation. In the absence of an alternative, people will accept ideas that are morally acceptable over those which have material evidence in their favour. This was the case in the Scopes trial. In Tennessee in the 1920's human minds were more open to memes of resistance than memes of truth: Creationism was preferable to 'social Darwinism.' The theory of 'Social Darwinism' incidentally, has no legs to stand on. It simply takes the status quo as indicative of fitness and imposes a distorted morality on to it. In short, it says: because we rule we ought to rule. The point of Darwinism however is to take purpose and morality out of the equation: whatever you think ought to be the case is a class perspective and is as unscientific as believing God made you on the Sixth day.

The problem with religion is that alongside its comforts, it can also give people a sense of belonging and identity, which can influence their politics. Religion often creates a false alliance between the millions who seek comfort and the few who seek power and privilege. Across the world capitalist states, from the Christian USA to Muslim Somalia, sanction and defend exploitation: they kill in the name of God: they exercise class morality disguised as God's morality. Marxism holds that society is divided into antagonistic classes. Moral clashes are an expression of this antagonism. By claiming a universal morality religion invariably imposes the morality of one class upon another. A trail of persecution, war and violence perpetrated in the name of God stretches way back into history. It can only finally be ended by a classless society through the final victory of the working class. The propagandists of Capital try to scare people into thinking Socialism would mean the suppression of religion. The opposite is the case. Most persecution of religions happens at the hands of other religions. Capitalism has a long history of fostering and profiting from it. A Socialist society would allow absolute freedom of thought, and the right to hold and practice any religion.

Marxism does not, as the so-called Ultra-Darwinists may be accused of, challenge religion without proposing something to be put in its place. A Socialist society would allow Science to flourish as never before. It would end the impotence, fear and the need for comforting illusions that characterises life under capitalism. It would set the mind free. Darwin did not kill God, just because God means different things to different people. His theory has helped to undermine faith. This is what animates theologians, whether moderates who want to find a place for God in the story, like Cunningham who sees God in the ‘mystery’ of convergent evolution, or militants, who run scared back to creation myths and the idea of ‘intelligent design’. Darwinism unleashed Social Darwinism: an ideology of raw class power. Likewise it has helped us shake off the illusions that stand between the working class and the realisation of its power. Freed from faith we can break the false alliances that help to maintain this system of exploitation. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels argued that capitalism itself, with its unrelenting rationalisation of human relations, eventually exposes class power in its raw form.

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