Monthly Archives: April 2023

Theologies of Ignorance

Religion, along with the object of its worship, is supposed to have died at the hands of the New Scientists and philosophes of the 17th and 18th centuries. Gone, at least for thinking men and women, were the twin authorities of church and king, both of which claimed their truths from the mouth of God. But it turns out, magical thinking is alive and well. It lives on in the minds and hearts of all shades of the political spectrum, sometimes in the name of Science itself.

Denis Diderot

A few years ago, 200,000 people, characterized in the media as “ultra-Orthodox” Jews, climbed a tall hill in Israel to commemorate a rabbi of sacred memory. On their way back down, almost 50 of them died in the crush that occurred on the narrow slippery path. There are and always have been numerous Christian communities with similar beliefs about their own leaders and their unique, divinely inspired mission. When they are short-lived like the Branch Davidians, immolated in 1993, or the Jim Jones group who willingly drank poisoned Cool Aid in 1978 so as to enter the gates of paradise without having to wait for a natural death, we call them cults. If they have a history longer than a couple decades, they become sects or denominations. If they catch on in a big way, they qualify as religions.

The last time I checked, the calendar said 2023. An intellectual revolution was waged 300 years ago to liberate humankind from a thousand years of what those revolutionaries saw as superstition and primitive, non-critical thinking. We moderns live in houses equipped with high-speed Internet and flush toilets thanks to the Newtons, Voltaires, Mendelssohns, Humes, Diderots, Leibnitzes, and their intellectual colleagues throughout Europe. We have them to thank for a nation run not by kings and clerics but, on paper at least, by ordinary citizens. They encouraged us to use our minds without preconditions or limitation. They achieved what they did by dint of a courageous passion for the truth. They were not, like many of today’s atheists, brought up in free-thinking environments, smugly scratching their heads at the folly of religious believers. The men and women of the Enlightenment largely came out of strict religious families and attended religious schools. Many of them had nuns and priests as close relatives. The father of the Jewish version of the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn, was the son of a Torah scribe. Without him, the phrase “Orthodox Jew” would have no meaning today because there would be no Reform or Conservative—never mind “secular”—but only Orthodox Jews.

Yet in our time the word “science” has become a suspect, if not downright pernicious practice for a large part of a nation founded by some of those 18th-century revolutionaries. Tens of millions of Americans believe Evolution is just a “theory,” not a well-founded, rigorously-tested explanation for life on earth. Millions believe the universe was created 5,000 years ago, and the fossils we find in rocks are not the remains of life forms that existed hundreds of millions of years ago, but were put there by God to test our faith in his sacred Word….

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The Giraffe’s Long Neck, or Why Margaret Still Grieves

Our persistent urge to care for and about each other may have begun as a device to keep the evolutionary ball rolling. But in humans and in other species too it has taken on a life of its own that holds creation to account for its own lack of compassion.

Unless you’re a fish, the nerve that controls the muscles in your larynx and allows you to go on breathing without choking when you eat travels a roundabout route from your brain to down under your heart before heading up again into your throat. Why doesn’t the nerve go straight from brain to throat as it does in a flounder or a guppie? Because fish have no necks. When necks evolved, evolution didn’t bother to redesign the connection, so it just kept getting longer and longer. In a giraffe the impulse from brain to larynx can travel a dozen feet. In humans it extends several extra inches more than necessary (at least it does so after a fetus develops a neck).

What kind of way is that to run an evolution? In a world where so much seems so elegantly put together, how could clumsy good-enoughs like the route of the vagus nerve occur? Evolution had hundreds of millions of years to get it right. Why did it settle for work-arounds like the laryngeal nerve and other gerry-rigged operations?

More importantly, why did evolution or creation or God or whatever you want to call the forces driving not just biology but everything in the cosmos from star nurseries to starlings have to include pain and suffering? Unless you believe in Original Sin or subscribe to some other way of blaming the victim for their misery, there seems to be no reason why something as well-organized as life has to be beset by the miseries to which the flesh is heir. Life is precarious and fraught from start to finish, thanks to miscarriage, disease, predation and a host of other calamities….

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