image from http://wildlifesnaps.com/search_results.php?species_common=Martin,+House
Carnsore Point, Co. Wexford, Ireland. September 20th, 2009.
A poem by R.S. Thomas:
Summer is here.
Once more the house has its
Spray of martins, Proust’s fountain
Of small birds, whose light shadows
Come and go in the sunshine
Of the lawn as thoughts do
In the mind. Watching them fly
Is my business, not as a man vowed
To science, who counts their returns
To the rafters, or sifts their droppings
For facts, recording the wave-length
Of their screaming; my method is so
To have them about myself
Through the hours of this brief
Season and to fill with their
Movement, that it is I they build
In and bring up their young
To return to after the bitter
Migrations, knowing the site
Inviolate through its outward changes.
R.S. Thomas, included in R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems: 1945-1990
A Man Digging Potatoes, Thomas Frederick Mason Sheard
So far in this blog I have tried to offer ways for people unsure about religious language to find a way in, and I have objected to various unsubstantiated or ill-argued claims coming mostly from outside the Christian movement. However, in the interests of balance and straightforwardness, I want to admit this week that the worldwide Christian movement itself has deep problems and often does much harm. I think it does a huge amount of good too, but it has its own characteristic problems and they will not go away quickly or easily.
“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
― Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995)
This widely quoted paragraph is the subject of this essay. I am mostly concerned with the last sentence, but let me first briefly comment on the opening that builds up the dramatic power. When you read the comment on suffering, it seems at first like a valid observation, one that “sees through” the “illusion” of the goodness of the world to all the harshness of “the truth of things”. But think a little. If you had to write a couple of sentences in which you tried to capture a fair portrait of what happens in the natural world during the minute it takes to compose a sentence, would this be the portrait? Of course not. The suffering is not to be set aside, but it is less than half the story of most life, and it is less than half the story of life on Earth. Are all the careful, sympathetic and fulfilling studies presented by naturalists such as Sir David Attenborough just some sort of rose-tinted spectacles and wishful thinking? No. Go and look in your garden, or in the forest, or the jungle, or in the river, or the ocean, or on the African plain. Is it the case that starvation and misery is the “natural state” of affairs? Or are they part of a natural state of affairs which has here been grossly miss-represented?
This post is about biological evolution, and about the abuse of education and the abuse of the public promotion of science.
I will be speaking next Monday (23rd Feb) in Birmingham at an event called “Can Christianity Help Science Improve the World”, alongside Peter Atkins. The event is organised jointly by Christians in Science Birmingham and the University of Birmingham’s Atheist Secular and Humanist society. Arts lecture theatre, 7pm-9pm.
The following are some reflections on Soil and Soil.
Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul (Aurum Press 2001) defies the normal categories of writing. It is political and spiritual at the same time. How do you do that? McIntosh shows the way. He is driven by concern for social justice, and also by the feeling that yes, for goodness’ sake, we are spiritual creatures and are allowed to sing. We are allowed to do dumb things like take our boots off in order to enact physically our recognition of the holiness of place. This does not negate, but rather empowers the crucial exercise of getting facts straight and getting objectivity in view. Also it does not negate but rather empowers the otherwise dull drudgery of writing to an M.P. or organising a petition or getting permission to address a public enquiry.
Held by an image of our outer space:
Spots, dots, and whirls of white and red,
Time-tunneling in silent grace,
Parsecs where only thought can tread.
Blue blazes of the younger fire,
Red smudges of the ancient mist,
Vast mergers of the flowing gyre
Down ages of the world persist.
These distant forms of space and truth
Work back upon the thoughts we frame;
Prayer puzzles through a shaping sieve:
Dead words or else a larger name.
Still, quietly ask the teeming sky:
Draws over there that which can love?
Lights there a dance which can rejoice?
Rests there a hold of things above?
The above image by James Woodend, UK can be found at Images Inspired by Nature. It is the winning image in the Royal Observatory’s annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year award, 2014, in the category Earth and Space.
This week’s entry got delayed by the beginning of Oxford term and some other writing commitments; apologies about that. Also, this is a week in which people have been much concerned with issues surrounding freedom of speech and its violent opponents. A brave champion of human rights that I would like to mention is Raif Badawi, now a prisoner of conscience in Saudi Arabia and subject to barbaric and unjust forms of “punishment” for actions that, as far as I can tell, were in fact balanced and truthful.
How to write a blog about science and religion in a world where things like this are going on?
How much we all need to champion reason and rationality, along with all the other components of a full and grown-up humanity!
This essay, as I said in my previous blog post, is about the fact that reason and rationality are not alternatives to trust in the “Father” spoken of by Jesus of Nazareth, but, on the contrary, they are its partners. They are championed by such faith.
This blog has a “science and religion” theme because it is helpful for a blog to be focused: you can’t take on every issue at once. Of course science and religion do touch on pretty much every issue, but when they are mentioned together this tends to focus on interest in rationality and the questioning of religion.
There are three types of issue that tend to come up in this area.
Once upon a time there was a race of bipedal creatures. They ran around all over the place, meeting, exploring, finding food, going hungry, hurting themselves and each other, taking care of themselves and each other, and gazing at the stars.
These creatures had an unusual sort of anatomical feature: their two legs needed different types of food. Many foods could nourish their whole body, including both legs, but some types of food were only good for the left leg, some for the right. So, as a result of this, most of the creatures had one leg longer than the other and they walked about in a sort of lurching way. They did their best to find foods for both legs.
Gregor (Johann) Mendel
There seems to be a bit of a tussle going on over who can lay claim to the work of Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk who pioneered the quantitative study of inheritance and thus genetics. Was he a religious man doing good scientific work, an example of the fact that the two not only go together, but the former can promote the latter? Or was he a deist, perhaps a closet atheist, making a pragmatic choice to go along with some irksome religious constraints in order to gain the leisure to practice science without any genuine recognition of the role of prayer, or of the leadership shown by Jesus of Nazareth? For example, in his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins (writing a brief statement on this) chose to say