Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Did God Evolve?

An evolutionist's speculation about religion

Professor Steve Jones looks at the careful relationship between science and religion

THE quiet, sometimes boisterous speculation and contemplation of God and His scrutiny by science has been a fairly regular occurrence over the ages. Tonight is no different. As a slight chill in the air envelops the passersby making the climb up the stairs towards the Museum of London for the latest Gresham College free lecture, the anticipation is already very apparent. For those many gathered in the Weston Theatre within the museum itself, the promise of an insightful and entertaining talk by the secularist of the year, Professor Steve Jones, seems a certainty.
     A naturally outspoken man, Professor Jones dives right into his perspective that ideas and beliefs evolve as much as bodies and brains - with the two processes being very similar in some ways. Indeed, his survey of religions throughout history aims to show some insightful consistencies - most notably, a clear connection between levels of belief and degree of social inequality. However, Jones's overall focus revolves around the point that, like Darwin's view on bodies, specific faiths have been driven by demographic success. According to him, one in particular seems safest and fittest to progress into the future, championing its cause over the atheists: Christianity.
     Jones's initial premise at the outset is that he doesn't know if God exists, but rather focuses on the fact that religion does; particularly, how we are affected by it and its future existence, as it is also part of evolution. He thus begins his lecture by telling us affectionately about a bronze statue of a chimpanzee that stood - and still stands - in a niche on the main staircase of the Zoology Department at the University of Edinburgh. It stares at a human skull in its fist, while also sitting on a pile of books - one of which has the name 'Darwin' written on the spine. On yet another book are inscribed the words: "Eritis sicut Deus". These words are from the third chapter of Genesis and refer to the moment when the Serpent convinces Eve to take the forbidden fruit, thus saying: "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Jones himself reflects on this episode in his book, 'The Serpent's Promise', when he writes: "Scientists are no more qualified than anyone else to comment on those two abstractions, but they have gained insights into the physical world rather more dependable than those of the Scriptures. Science (unlike the Serpent) has, in its brief history, lived up to most of its promises." The Professor's viewpoint is to focus on religion itself, not at the particulars of the bible. Today, he points out that more science with evidence is emerging in the analysis of religion and, naturally, Darwin is Jones's champion in the arguments he puts forth.
     Fascinating scientific observations linked with religion help to further the analysis. Jones discusses how questionnaires are effective in measuring the religious beliefs of people - another example of science and its application in the study of religion. He also notes that 15% of autistic people are atheist, seeing as they are more inward thinking; analytical people apparently don't believe in God. Gender also has a role to play. According to Jones, the Y chromosome carries the atheist gene. Here we see biology's correlation with religion. One other very interesting point that the Professor also touches on is the idea that the claims of visions by many people do not need to be related to divine messages. Rather, they can be linked to migraines and scotoma. Lewis Carroll's own experiences of the symptoms are reflected cleverly in his 'Alice in Wonderland': feelings of falling into a black hole (the rabbit); the universe feels like it is spinning, body stretching (Alice growing). Truly, religion can be seen and better understood through science.
     Which brings us to Jones's final analysis of religion and its correlation with science in this intriguing lecture. Mainly his view that demographic success will determine the future health and survival of global religions. He fairly points out that the most dedicated religious people reproduce more and are more fertile. He mentions the Amish as a clear example and their population explosion. Nevertheless, it is sub-Saharan Africa that has the greatest growth rate - sometimes seven or eight children per woman. India and China stopped their numerical progression in this field rather quickly. This all naturally has genetic effects. For example, skin colour changing over time. Jones concludes that it is indeed sub-Saharan Africa that has the greatest belief in religion. And this, combined with their high population growth leads the Professor to conclude that Christianity - through Africa and their strong Christian beliefs - will lead the divine way in the future.
     A stimulating evening that beckons endless debate and postulation, at the very least with a scientific mind and perspective. One can only spare Mr. Darwin one more moment to reflect on his words from 'The Descent of Man': "False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often long endure; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, as every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened."
     Not quite so simple when religion and human beings are involved.

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