Toward the end of my last year in high school, my speech teacher gave us copies of a textbook the district was considering adopting. I only remember one thing about it: in the front was an errata page that said the reference to evolution on page such and such would be removed before final publication.
I thought it was the silliest thing I’d ever seen. First of all, it was a speech textbook, not a biology one, so the comment on evolution was not a substantive part of the book. Secondly, if evolution wasn’t being taught in high school biology classes – and it wasn’t – it should have been.
At seventeen, I assumed the anti-evolution movement that brought on that errata was on its last legs. Surely in the modern world of the double helix and space exploration, evolution opponents would soon go the way of the Flat Earth Society. The few that might hang around would be irrelevant.
That shows just how bad I am at predicting the future. (Truth be told, very few science fiction writers are good at that.)
A few years before my father died – and quite a few years after the speech textbook incident – he and I were discussing the rise of the fundamentalist Christians who go overboard denying evolution.
I said I’d never expected the huge growth in fundamentalism that we were seeing. I’d thought such churches were dying out, and here they were, growing wildly with a theology based on denial of science just as many other Protestant faiths were ordaining women, addressing racism, and generally showing their relevance to the modern world.
My father said he’d also thought those extreme fundamentalist churches would have disappeared; he’d never expected the revival. He wasn’t quite old enough to remember the Scopes monkey trial – he’d have been about seven then – but he knew all about the culture that produced it.
My father grew up in a part of West Texas where the Southern Baptist Church held sway. Like a lot of people from that part of the world, he was technically a Baptist, though since he was also raised in cowboy culture, he didn’t take seriously the rules on drinking and dancing. When he and my mother got married, he became an Episcopalian, which fit his worldview quite a bit better.
In fact, he became an active Episcopalian over the years, helping to start and run our small hometown church, becoming good friends with the bishop to make sure we got the support we needed from the diocese, even teaching Biblical history (which he loved) in Sunday School. He never became a priest or even a deacon, but he had a special dispensation from the bishop to do his own sermons as a lay reader on the Sundays when we were without our own priest.
If he’d even taken seriously any of the fundamentalism he’d heard in his childhood, he’d left it far behind. He certainly didn’t doubt the theory of evolution.
I’m not sure what his religious beliefs were as a younger man, but over my uncle’s dinner table one night not long before his mind started to slip away, someone asked him how he thought of God. “I see it as a kind of force,” he said. He was in his 90s then. I didn’t want to ask too directly about Heaven.
I don’t believe in God myself. The whole idea of a creator makes no sense to me. If I have something akin to a religious belief, it’s in life itself. I believe (and I state this as a belief because I don’t think it’s something that can be proved) that life is such a powerful thing – a force, if you will – that it will out anywhere it possibly can.
My Aikido teacher calls a seed a miracle, because it contains everything needed to make a tree or other plant. I like that image.
I understand why people like church. First of all, there’s the community. People are social animals and a good church can provide a community that is broader than the one you might meet at work or even in your neighborhood.
And ritual is a fine thing, too, especially accompanied by music. I still get goosebumps listening to church choirs.
Of course, I fall in the category of spiritual but not religious. I like practices like meditation, chanting, even ecstatic dance. These things open people up to other ideas about reality.
I’ve never accepted the materialist idea of what you see is what you get. That doesn’t mean I believe in magic or other supernatural things. What I believe is that there are a number of things that we can’t explain yet. I have faith that over future centuries – millennia, maybe – we’ll come up with an explanation.
I believe in the cutting edge of physics, too, and suspect it will be the source of some of those explanations.
While I’m surprised that so many people are still seriously religious. I don’t mind that they are. After all, the presence or absence of God is by its nature unprovable, so all of us are dealing in belief.
I do mind when they condemn atheism, though, and I get angry when they attack other religions, both other branches of their own and those of other traditions. I’ve reached my limit with people who think they’re the saved and everyone else is going to Hell.
One of my strongest beliefs is in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, so I’m OK with people worshipping or not as they see fit. (I draw the line at human sacrifice.) Because I believe in that Amendment so strongly, I don’t think any religious group has the right to tell the rest of us how to live.
And they certainly shouldn’t be telling us not to teach evolution in the schools. There are plenty of court cases that have made that clear, but it still seems to be happening.
For my part, I don’t understand why someone is incapable of believing in God and evolution at the same time. I know many people who do. Seems to me a God capable of setting in place a system that creates life on its own and eventually results in people is a powerful idea of God.
Karen Armstrong says people used to believe in most religious stories metaphorically and that the current push for literal interpretation of the Bible and other religious books is born of a society that wants to be able to prove everything just as good science does. If that’s true, I think it’s a loss to what made religion special and worthwhile.
We held a memorial after my father died, with a retired minister he knew from the local Democratic Party leading the service. We prayed a bit and had some music and people told stories about my father.
It was very moving. Ritual. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in ritual.