Sunday, 14 June 2009

Sunday Playground Sermon

The DNA Windows

Often, in the day to day business of getting along with each other, we make amusing but "boilerplate" responses to situations, which pass as jokes. In fact, most of us most of the time reach for a one-size-fits-all response when the occasion demands levity or lightness of heart. We can't all be Oscar Wilde. And it can be very endearing (not to say funny) to know that a certain colleague, under certain circumstances, will reliably murmur "How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Queen..."

As well as punchlines or catchphrases that have become detached from their original set up, there are formula jokes where the wit resides in filling in the blanks. I notice that a new formula joke has evolved in recent times: "In a fight between X and Y, who would win?" X and Y can be people (say, Phil Woolas and Joanna Lumley) or creatures (say, a shark and a tiger -- funniest answer: Depends on who gets the first home match), or anything, really. It's playground stuff, but the playground is a Petri dish of viral innovation.

On the grown-up playground, it seems the question is increasingly urgently being posed: In a fight between God and Darwin, who would win? Once, even to ask such a question would have landed you in hot water (or fire, or any number of ingenious torments -- the contribution of the Christian church to the technology of human misery has been outstanding). The battle lines at the extremes are pretty well defined: religious and Darwinian fundamentalists are squaring up to each other: "Yeah?" "Yeah!" "Yeah?" "In your face!". Somehow, the playground never seems far away.

But I think most people lost interest in an omnipotent deity with worryingly human characteristics when they first saw the "blue marble" photographs of Earth seen from space in 1972. The sad, lonely, scary, bleak truth was obvious, as soon as you saw that vulnerable little thing, like a baby in a pram abandoned at night on the hard shoulder of a motorway. It was a sobering moment, a time for humanity to "put away childish things."

And then came the images from the Hubble Telescope of the appalling grandeur of space. By retreating from literalism into humanistic metaphor, the intelligent, liberal wing of the Christian church had been able to hold on to the spirit, if not the letter of the Law. But no metaphors of love or sacrifice, no improbable analogies with lions and lambs can possibly apply out there in the seething nuclear dustfest of the Horsehead Nebula. Like the final jeopardy in the story arc of a thriller, it looked like Game Over for God.

But, wait... It seems that people are not going to accept that verdict. An old man with a beard and a thing about beetles? Clearly not. But there are still a million unanswered questions, loose ends, funny feelings and intimations. There's always that nagging feeling that there's more to all this than meets the eye, that peculiar sensation of "What am I doing here?" You have to wonder whether our urge to botanize supernatural beings and forces is in some way profoundly connected with our vaunted ability to explore and explain the Unknown. And then there's the utter weirdness of science at the quantum level, stuff like "entanglement" and "non-locality", and the quasi-theological speculations of cosmology... Those three dots trailing off at the end of the sentence are a typographic embodiment of the unresolvable problem. The god-shaped hole. Dot dot dot.

Annoyingly, some of the most aggressively closed minds seem to be on the hyper-Darwinist end of the spectrum. I have no religious convictions but I don't feel much in common with anyone who wants to live way over there. The hardest hardliners would dismiss those funny feelings and intimations that everyone experiences as mere affect, with an as yet undetermined evolutionary function. After all, if you stick an electrode in the right part of someone's brain, they will have a religious experience. God knows why, ha ha! But what if those feelings are the very foundation that supports our increasingly long and wobbly extending-ladder of knowledge?

I mean, only a lunatic -- armed with the knowledge that "tastiness" is ultimately just an indicator of edibility -- would decide to subsist on taste-free food supplements, and ignore messy, inconvenient real foods, wouldn't they? It would be as if artists were to create affectless art that explores interesting ideas, but leaves the viewer emotionally unengaged (hey, just a minute...). I do wonder whether to hold such reductively dry views might affect a person's ability to sustain an icky-sticky relationship with another real human being, and thus to reproduce... Now that would be ironic, in a Darwinian sense, wouldn't it? Perhaps that explains the otherwise inexplicable enthusiasm for research into cloning in an overpopulated word.

Of course, the hyper-Darwinist mode of argument will be familiar to anyone who hung around the Marxist left in the 1960s and 70s. There are few things as infuriating as a smug bastard with a one-size-fits-all Answer to Everything (or as satisfying as being one). It's the very opposite to the social oil of a boilerplate joke. But, as the hotdog vendor said to the Buddhist monk (who had demanded "Make me one with everything" and then handed over a ten-pound note), "Change has to come from within."

But, look, here are some random questions for any open-minded religious people. For the sake of argument, let's accept the existence of something we can call "deity". And let's accept we know absolutely nothing about it/him/her/them/x. Let's not pretend that this is an area where anyone has any direct experience (other than those funny feelings and intimations) or knowledge (other than the humane, practical, pastoral sort).

What if "deity", like us, is still evolving? I once had a terrible dream, in which our world was created and directed by a deity, a being simultaneously infinitely more powerful than a human, but considerably less intelligent, like a Mighty Baby. It persistently misunderstood everything, as it had no sense of humour, no sense of irony, was totally literal minded, and confused by figurative language. You did not want to attract its attention.

What if the outcome of our story is not known, and will never be known? It seems essential to the appeal of religion, at least in its popular guise, that outcomes will be known: that everything will have been recorded and finely, fairly judged, that everyone's story will get the five star treatment. No blank tapes, no arbitrary decisions, no unmarked homework, no child left behind. That "deity" will be standing at both ends of the ride of the universe, like a parent despatching then collecting a child on a fairground adventure. But what if "deity" doesn't stick around for, or doesn't make it to, the end of the ride? Does that mean there is no story to tell?

Sophisticated religious people reject the "childish fairy tale" accusations of the anti-religious as a straw man, a distortion of true religious belief. But they underestimate the power and attraction of those fairy tale elements. Listen: you guys really got our attention with all that talk about an afterlife, judgement, heaven and hell, miracles, and all. For, like, centuries. What do you mean, you never really believed it yourselves? So what does a "grown up" religion look like? Is it Thought For The Day on Radio 4, for example? It surely can't be those happy clappy churches that try to write tragedy out of the human script and replace it with groundless optimism, and prayers for business success? Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz...

It was once feared that, without some kind of religious policing, society would descend into libertine anarchy. But ordinary humanist shared self-interest seems a sufficient brake on the day-to-day sins of humanity, and nothing -- religion included -- seems to have had much effect on our worst excesses. In general, people are surprisingly good, even if they are also appallingly selfish, lazy, tasteless and poorly read. If no-one other than fundamentalists is still offering the payoff of an afterlife with points for good behaviour, then -- no matter what else is true -- why should anyone buy what you're selling?

OK, that's all for today. In a minute you can all go back into the playground. Wait! When the bell rings, Dawkins! And don't think I can't see what you're doing there to Rowan Williams...

Postscript (postpost?):

Since writing this post, I read a review in Saturday's Guardian of what sounds like a very interesting book, "Sum: forty tales from the afterlives" by David Eagleman. It says
"he imagines 40 different versions of our post-life existence. These are by no means all pleasant. Eagleman's mission is to unnerve."
As one of the 40 ways is one where "you discover that your creator is a species of small, dim-witted, obtuse creatures" who keep asking you "Do you have answer?" this is clearly my kind of book, and I intend to order a copy as soon as I've hit the Publish Post button.


Damn, I forgot to sneer at Pascal's Wager.


Kent Wiley said...

Is that E.T. lurking outside the stained glass windows?

Mike C. said...

Ha! Excellent! The Church of Roswell and All Aliens... Note the space helmets in the bottom image, too: guess I've been rumbled. I'll get me coat and head back to Alpha Centauri.

dougplummer said...

I happened to spend the day with a group of psychotherapists and a neuroscientist whose specialty is affect. In talking about the affect areas of the human brain, he says there is more cerebral real estate devoted to the sensation of reverential awe than to any other emotion. We are hard wired to have spiritual sensation, no less than we are to feel love, hate, sadness or fear. We are human because we have the capacity to know God, though I think this fact is not a useful implement in the battle for or against the truth of the object of our belief.

Mike C. said...

Doug, now that's what I call a Sunday! I could have done with a couple of visiting psychotherapists myself, as my kids are in the middle of important exams...

For some reason, this all puts me in mind of that Gary Larson cartoon, where a sheep pauses mid-mouthful, with an expression of aghast revelation: "Wait a minute! This is grass! We've all been eating grass!"