Home

 Articles

 Op-ed

 Authors

 FAQ

 Leaving Islam
 Library
 Gallery
 Comments
 Debates
  Links
 Forum

 

 

 

 

  

Evolution and God

 

By James Byrne  

The loss of belief in God can strike any person: to one who has been taught from childhood to rely on God, the loss is devastating.  And, once lost, belief cannot easily be regained.  It is true to say that the loss of religious belief can break a person. 

I lost my belief in an external God about fifteen years ago.  I work in the biological sciences, but, despite this, I had always found the theory of evolution strangely sinister and had kept it at arms’ length.  Then, one day, I decided to confront it, examine it, and weigh the evidence.  Instead of going back to Charles Darwin or Alfred Russell Wallace I read from modern texts.  (Darwin worked largely from the examination of appearances typical of species: he did not have access to the present-day knowledge of genetic inheritance.) 

 

Evolution 

A great deal of rubbish is talked about evolution, partly because it is, in the repercussions of its implications, a rather slippery concept.  The name itself is not satisfactory.  But, at its simplest, it is easy to understand; its core can be expressed in a single sentence.  I’ll try.  The genetic pattern of a population changes with time.  That should be simple enough to satisfy the sternest purist.  The obvious question comes: what causes the genetic pattern to change?  Well, transcription error in the copying of genetic information as it is passed down from generation to generation.  Most of the ‘gene-stuff’ is redundant, so it is rare for transcription errors to result in meaningful change.  But sometimes they do.  And, as generations pass, the environment changes also.  Evolution implies, in large, a kind of subtle suiting of a life-form to the environment which surrounds it. 

You’ll notice, in the blandness of the above paragraph, a lack of any kind of anthropic or emotional view (with the possible exception of ‘error’.  Perhaps ‘wandering’ or ‘vagary’ would have been a better choice (1).)  The history of evolution theory has been littered with unwise slogans from its earliest years up until the present day.  The phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’ implies a heartless discard of the weak.  The phrase ‘the selfish gene’ implies a kind of malevolent intelligence.  Neither is true.  Loaded words like ‘blind’ and ‘chance’ fill the historical vocabulary.  It is no wonder that laymen, confronted with this kind of language, have preferred to stick with the idea of a Creator God who has made a universe, furnished a panoply of species, and who moulded, with his own two hands, the First Man, watching over him, giving him rules by which he may live his life and render due recognition to his Maker. 

In fact evolution works at many levels simultaneously, both of time and space: the genetic transcription ‘vagary’ can take seconds; the results may occupy millions of years.  A change that takes place in the compass of a micron can change the landscape of a continent.  Evolution is a place of possibilities.  I began to see that the theory, so often painted (even by its proponents) as mindless and materialistic (2), is actually quite beautiful.  It goes some way to explain the changing diversity of all plant and animal species, including man.  How can this be shown?  Quite simply because (to take our own case) a human’s genetic code is not that much different from a chimpanzee’s, or, for that matter, a mouse’s.  Most of our active genetic material has to do with the basis on which we have life itself; much of what remains has to do with what it means to be a mammal; some — a little — decides membership of the human species; some — a very little — gives the basis for what I am, ready to be shaped by the environment for which I have been prepared.  That’s one piece of evidence.  Another can be found by looking at the cells which make up our bodies.  Each one of them contains tiny organelles called mitochondria; these are the cells’ powerhouses.  Sometime in untold prehistory the ancestors of these organelles were free-living organisms with their own genetic storage mechanisms.  How they were incorporated into other organisms is unknown.  But we know that these cells-within-cells were once foreign: but without them it would not have been possible for us to come to existence.  So each one of us is actually a mixture of what, ancestrally, were once two species.  Possibly we are a medley of many once distinct free-living species.  I find this astounding to think of. 

Evolution has not done this: one tends to think in a slipshod fashion of evolution as being a shaping process, but it isn’t — it’s a kind of collection of processes, some of which are ill-understood, and some of which are probably still unknown.  And the most astonishing thing of all is that this collection of unconscious processes gave rise to consciousness.  And this quality of man’s — consciousness — allowed, for the first time, a witness of the Universe.   

One can draw an analogy (but not a good one) between the birth of consciousness and the swirling of cosmic dust which will break out into light and become a star.  But perhaps the analogy is better than I at first thought — it is our star, and our planet, both once dust, which have together made conditions right for life, and for the birth of consciousness.  We are indeed made from dust.

 

 

The God of Judgement 

An understanding of the processes implied in Evolution displaces a Creator God.  The break is clean.   Darwin apparently saw this.  He kept his work hidden for years, lost his faith and became ill.  His wife was a committed Christian, and he worried for her.   

When I lost my belief in a God who physically created the world I, too, was filled with anguish.  Something seemed to be missing: a little like holding on to a telephone with no-one at the other end, or, closer to home, the death of a father.  Some part of a childhood’s completeness had gone. 

When you lose something — if you can stand to do so — you begin to examine why you were so attached to what was lost; indeed, you begin to wonder what it was, that it was so dear to you.  Others have done this; poets, and thinkers of the past.  With great circumspection Omar Khayyam (a poet of great emotional depth and wit) looks at the world which surrounds him.  To me, his quatrains are a study of a loss of faith in a Creator.  The Qur’an teaches that Allah created man, of clay, with his two hands.  (Allah transcends anthropomorphism — as evolution ironically fails to evade it — and the reference to ‘hands’ is certainly figurative.)  Pots figure highly in Omar’s quatrains (3).  He watches the Potter making one: 

 

XXXVII 

For I remember stopping by the way

To watch a potter thumping his wet Clay:

And with its all-obliterated tongue

It murmured — ‘Gently, brother, gently, pray!’ 

Later, he imagines a colloquy of pots in the Potter’s shop, at the end of Ramadan, waiting for the rising of the Moon.  The vessels are considering their Maker, and asking the reasons why they were made: 

LXXXII 

Said one amongst them — ‘Surely not in vain

My substance of the common Earth was ta’en

And to this figure moulded, to be broke,

Or trampled back to shapeless Earth again.’ 

Each vessel seems to have a flaw in it: why did the Maker make these flawed vessels? 

LXXXVII 

‘Why,’ said another, ‘Some there are who tell

Of One who threatens he will toss to Hell

The luckless Pots he marred in making — Pish!

He’s a Good Fellow, and ’twill all be well.’ 

It is the most flawed vessel which asks the most searching question.  This is the question which, above all others, tells of Omar’s loss of faith. 

 

LXXXVI 

After a momentary silence spake

A Vessel of a more ungainly make;

‘They sneer at me for leaning all awry—

What! Did the Hand then of the Potter shake?’ 

Omar was one of the most accomplished mathematicians, not just of his own age, but of all time.  He was not going to fudge the question.  Neither was he going to be open about his parable: that would have cost him his life. 

Considering Omar’s verses makes us think of the question: ‘If there is no evidence for, and no (creational) need of a Creator-God, why do so many people wish to believe in Him above all else?  Indeed the wish seems to be a part of us.’  This is a difficult question to answer, but perhaps not so difficult to consider.  Let’s take the tail of the question: the wish seems to be a part of us.  If you look round the world, in different times and places, the wish for a Creator-God (or at least a Ruler-God) is more or less universal.  This figure, this object of worship, takes many forms: God, Emperor, Nature.  Physical objects: the sun, a mountain; water.  The object seems to vary with the sophistication of the society.  We have said above that there is no creational need for a Creator-God.  But perhaps the need is within us, and for an evolutionary reason.  That is to say, worship gave, by Worship, an evolutionary advantage to those far-distant communities in whom a communal faith emerged.  It need have had no necessity beyond that.  It was an illusion: yes, but, during times of dearth, hardship and war, it seems to have been a necessary illusion.   

It was also a very dangerous one.  Throughout the entire period of recorded history the idea of an extrenal God has been used for social control by one group over another.  Sometimes this has been relatively harmonious.  More frequently it has been bloody, war-like and wasteful of talent.  It has rarely encouraged new thinking (4). 

In epochs where it has been safe to do so — and until recently these have been very rare — freethinkers have somehow perceived that this need was an illusion.  Perhaps the most telling word for a God of Judgement was coined by William Blake.  Blake called him Nobodaddy. (5) 

 

The God of Immanence 

Does this mean that God does not exist?  Of course not.  In fact a study of evolution shows us a divinity much more real than a Creator or a Judge.  A few paragraphs ago we drew an analogy between the swirling cloud of dust which became a star, and a lifeless and unwitnessed planet, under that sun, giving rise to witnessing consciousness. 

Consciousness is a word that should be used sparingly.  Some artificial-intelligence scientists say that if you think you can explain the nature of consciousness, then you are perforce wrong.  Words can point to it, but, in the end, it eludes them. 

That is because thinking has to do with the intellect.  Perhaps, in the beginning as well as the end, consciousness is not so much to be thought about as known, and being known, realized.  Consciousness is, at its core, the realization of an all-witnessing divinity, independent of time and place.  It bears no weight of an ego and its desires.   

Where there is love, divinity comes to be.  Where there is compassion, divinity comes to be.  Where there is mercy, divinity comes to be.  Where there is kindness to a stranger, divinity comes to be.  

Divinity does not need the straining of belief: it is. 

 

Notes 

  1. The virus which causes Aids, the HIVirus, replicates its coat with numerous errors because it ‘misreads’ its genetic code.  This confers an advantage on it in its eluding of the host’s immune mechanism.  It’s almost as if  a combination lock were randomly twirled.  The virus tells ‘lies’ to further its ‘cause’.  All this happens, and the host dies (and the virus, too, unless promulgated to a new host): but the anthropic reading—where I have put the words in quotation marks—implies intelligence where there is none.
  2. Materialism.  Many Christian and Muslim commentators say that evolution is a godless and materialistic doctrine.  I hope I have shown in this brief essay that it is not.  Materialism, on the contrary, is the shallow belief in the reality only of what can be seen and touched: in the end it is the very shallow belief in the reality of what can be seen and touched and owned.
  3. From the Quatrains of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald.  I’ve read a number of English translations of the Quatrains; Fitzgerald’s is subtly simple: I’m told it allows an insight into the underlying ambiguities of the wit of the original.
  4. In fact it implies idolatry.  Let’s be clear about this.  The Greek root of the word ‘idolatry’ is the worship of images.  Text or scripture — that which is written — can convey an image of an image even more clearly than can representations of stone, or wood, or even clay.  How often mankind does the thing it says it hates.
  5. William Blake, foursquare in his opinions at a time when it was becoming safe to voice them, averred that only an immanent God could allow new creation.  A God of Judgement was, in his opinion, an illusion conjured up from the ego, a ‘Nobodaddy’: a figure which can be the father to no originality of thought.

 

 

 

 

Articles Op-ed Authors Debates Leaving Islam FAQ
Comments Library Gallery Video Clips Books Sina's Challenge
 

  ©  copyright You may translate and publish the articles in this site only if you provide a link to the original page.