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writing for godot

You can’t rationally argue out what wasn’t rationally argued in

Written by LAMAR HANKINS   
Thursday, 25 March 2010 11:04
Freethought San Marcos

"You can’t rationally argue out what wasn’t rationally argued in"

Freethought San Marcos: A column

The quotation that serves as the title of this week’s column has been attributed to George Bernard Shaw, although I haven’t been able to confirm its authorship. It is an accurate observation about my review last week of Jerry Coyne’s book “Why Evolution Is True.” The many people who commented on the column included some with doctorates in biology and other fields, proponents of intelligent design, some who preferred name-calling and categorization to rational argument, some who are concerned with evolution’s affect on religion, and others who wanted to discuss tangential matters.

Shaw’s observation (if it is his) seems accurate in this instance: those who hold beliefs about evolution not based on empirical evidence cannot be convinced otherwise by rational argument or scientific evidence. From the comments I received, it is clear that some who oppose the Theory of Evolution do not understand it. One commenter wanted proof by way of a demonstration project that would duplicate the evolution of a monkey by presumably creating on the moon the same conditions that existed on the earth 3.5 billion years ago when a single-celled organism started growing. Anyone who believes that such a project is possible clearly does not understand much about the moon, or the early earth, or the process of evolution.

One commenter thinks that those of us who believe that evolution theory is essentially correct want to remove religion from society. That would never be my purpose for two reasons. I am not interested in such a goal because it offends my belief in the autonomy of all individuals, and I don’t believe it can be done any more than I believe we could reproduce earth’s evolution on the moon.

The only connection that I see between religion and evolution is that most fundamentalist believers seem to think that evolution destroys their religion, but I went out of my way to suggest that this is not my purpose in discussing it. I am much more interested in promoting the creation of a populace that can think critically and logically. The evidence for how poorly our society has done with this goal is that so few Americans believe that the Theory of Evolution is proven, at least substantially. There are many disagreements among experts about many aspects of evolution [see Michael Shermer's report of the proceedings of the 2005 World Summit on Evolution titled "The Woodstock of Evolution"], but logic leads me to agree with the thesis of Jerry Coyne’s book: Evolution is true.

Another commenter decided that it would serve his purposes to call me an “atheistic jerk.” Saying that someone is an atheist doesn’t say very much about that person. It posits that the person doesn’t believe in a supernatural god–that he is a nontheist–but it tells the reader little else. Those who have read my columns for the past few years should know a lot about my values–values that I was taught as a young person. I have found that the Boy Scout Oath I learned as a teenager is a good summary of the values, simply stated, that I grew up with and still try to follow: I strive to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

Of course, all of these simply-stated attributes of a good Boy Scout require some expansion for an adult. The way one fulfills these aspirations as a child necessarily changes with age. Being helpful, for instance, might involve helping the proverbial older lady across the street as a youth and evolve into supporting charitable work as an adult. Thrift, as a youth, could have involved saving a small amount of one’s allowance or earnings as a child. Today, thrift might encompass living as “green” as possible, a goal I support.

In addition, I have other values as an adult that are missing from the scout oath: I believe in free inquiry unshackled from the tyranny of any authority over the human mind; I believe in the separation of church and government; I believe human beings should be able to make political decisions in a democratic fashion; I believe in personal and economic freedom; I believe my life should be based on reason as opposed to magical thinking. While this is not an exhaustive list of what I value, it helps explain the foundation of my life.

And the last value expressed in the scout oath continues to have meaning, though being reverent has changed for me through the years. As a young person, I associated reverence only with religion. As I matured, I began to see that reverence is not limited to religion. I have always had a special attraction to nature and have often been in awe of it. I am not given to frequent public exclamations of its beauty, but I do have an enormous appreciation for its beauty at both the micro and macro levels. I am able to lose myself in the experience of the natural world. In this sense, I consider that I am reverent.

Another of the ways I am reverent today comes through a greater understanding of evolution. By studying writers like Darwin, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Jerry Coyne, I have learned a profound reverence for all of life. It was revelatory to me to understand the connection of all species. I have come to see evolution as much a miracle as some religious people believe that it was a miracle, so the story goes, when Jesus fed the multitudes with five loaves of bread and two fish. Evolution is an extraordinary process that creates in me the sort of awe my grandmother experienced from speaking in tongues.

We owe Darwin and his followers a great debt for describing to those of us who are not scientists the way life has developed, with all of its complications, complexity, anomalies, wonders, and mystery. To understand that male peacocks have their exquisite plumage to attract the females of their species means more than the expression that describes someone as “strutting like a peacock.” There is purpose in those beautiful feathers with their many eyes (the more the better). It gives me great joy to understand the relationship between whales and hippopotamuses. To learn that in utero humans spend part of their journey very hairy, but are born with mostly smooth skin helps me to see the close relationship humans have to other mammals.

I have a special place in the cosmos. To be alive on the earth at this time (or at any time) is an incredibly special circumstance that I am privileged to have and to share with all living things in a continuous line of kinship that to me surpasses the religious pronouncement that “we are all sisters and brothers in Christ.” To me, all species are relatives, each of which has a unique lineage that binds us all together. I don’t believe this because of some religious conviction. I believe this because it is fact and it is science.

So, to call me an atheist (even if it’s true) tells you nothing about my values, my beliefs, my joys, my concerns, my interests, my loves, my life. It reminds me of the statement attributed to the 20th century British historian Sir Stephen Henry Roberts: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all other possible gods, you’ll understand why I dismiss yours.”

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins


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