Survival of the Nicest?

I’m working on my second book for this project– Francis Collins’ The Language of God.  After finishing the Dawkins book I felt the need to take a detour into what for me is less heavy reading– namely, Ted Kennedy’s memoir True Compass and Brian McLaren’s manifesto for progressive Christianity, A New Kind of Christianity. I imagine this will become necessary along the way to provide a mental break as I process reflections on this important topic. I have also, however, found that this project keeps relating to my other reading. Kennedy and McLaren have both made their peace with the intersection of science and religion– Kennedy as a public servant and devout Catholic, McLaren as a former English literature professor, turned pastor, turned prophet-of-the-new-church.

But I digress. Along with my books, I make a habit of reading articles from the New York Times and other publications every day via Google Reader. A little while ago, I came across this op-ed piece by columnist David Brooks, whose thoughtfulness I have always appreciated even though I do not always agree with his conclusions.

For those readers who might be worried about filling up their NYT monthly quotas too soon, in a column entitled “Nice Guys Finish First,” Brooks summarized a series of new books detailing the relationship between evolution and cooperation. He argued that “the human mind veered away from that of other primates. We are born ready to cooperate, and then we build cultures to magnify that trait.”

This article caught my attention because it raises an interesting point: why would human beings be wired to cooperate in a story dominated by the traditional “survival of the fittest” narrative? If competition to be the strongest and the fastest and the best got us to where we are today, why would humans have become a species so inclined (usually) to cooperate with one another? Sports and other competitive activities aside, we know when it is best to cooperate. Brooks cites the example of how an infant of twelve months will inform others about something by pointing, something that no monkey will do. I prefer to think of the role-playing game I played with some of my friends the other night, in which the narrator kept trying to get us to “separate” but we refused to do it, and which we won by playing a cooperative game of Jenga (long story).

The conclusion that Brooks reached in his column was interesting: “For decades, people tried to devise a rigorous “scientific” system to analyze behavior that would be divorced from morality. But if cooperation permeates our nature, then so does morality, and there is no escaping ethics, emotion, and religion in our quest to understand who we are and how we got this way.”

I have mixed feelings about this– on the one hand, I agree with Brooks that divorcing ethics and morality and religion from how we became who we are today is a bad idea. Ignoring or minimizing the impact of any of these things eliminates an essential part of the human experience. On the other hand, I’m not necessarily convinced that science shouldn’t try to explain these things– science is a quest for answers, and these are big questions that need to be asked. In the case of the cooperative instinct, the “survival of the fittest” principle doesn’t necessarily mean an instinct to fight– apparently somewhere along the line, it turned out that the most appropriately cooperative person WAS the “fittest.” These things aren’t mutually exclusive.

That cooperation is a positive trait that could have developed by evolutionary means, I (in my humble, nonscientific way) have no doubt. I also do not doubt that “ethics, emotion, and religion” have a role to play in the “quest to understand who we are and how we got this way.” But I still am not sure that I agree with the way Brooks reached his conclusions, and it still fails to reconcile the tension between science and religion. And so the quest continues.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

I’m sure that everyone has heard by now that the world did not, in fact, end on Saturday May 21, 2011, as was predicted by Harold Camping and his followers.

I must admit that I felt an odd blend of emotions in the lead-up to and aftermath of Saturday… a mix of theological revulsion, pity for the followers who had quit their jobs and caused strife in their families, thorough amusement at the Twitter and Facebook responses I was reading (#RapturePickupLines, anyone?), and a weird fascination with how the whole thing was happening.

By way of a news update, yesterday Camping announced that May 21 was more of a “spiritual” coming of Christ (more than another Saturday?) and that a merciful God must have decided to spare the world five months of Tribulation…but that his prediction that the whole world will end on October 21 was still correct. Here we go again.

Among the more interesting pieces I’ve found since Saturday are two responses to Camping from figures who have been fairly active in debates over the role of religion: John Shelby Spong, the ultra-liberal former Episcopal Bishop, and Richard Dawkins, the famed atheist and evolutionary biologist. In these pieces, Spong claims that Christianity should not be identified with Camping’s “nonsense,” and that science explains the end of the world. Meanwhile, Dawkins writes that science explains the end of the world and that anything taught by religious “traditions” is nonsense.

I was fascinated by the fact that, while the spirit in which the message is conveyed differs, Spong and Dawkins were basically expressing the same idea. Religions should not be troubling themselves with something like the end of the world, because science has already been explaining it. There is empirical evidence for how and (roughly) when the world is going to end, so these predictions of the Rapture are hogwash. (Incidentally, the Rapture is hogwash for more than one reason– I recommend this article from Methodist pastor Mark Schaefer for an in-depth explanation.)

I tend to agree with Dawkins and Spong that religion should not be troubling themselves with expecting the end of the world. First of all, it is both morbid and useless to worry over something that you cannot control. Second, and more importantly, the end-of-the-world mindset can encourage people to forget about responsibilities in the here and now. It broke my heart to read a story in the New York Times about a family in which the parents believed in the May 21 prophecy and the kids didn’t, in which one of the kids no longer felt motivated to pursue future plans– not because he believed the world was going to end, but because he no longer felt support from his parents for his hopes and aspirations. This is just wrong.

Expecting the end of the world can also lead to nihilistic politics that absolve us of our responsibilities to each other and to the earth. What would motivate us to care, if the world is just going to end soon anyway? Ironically enough, these sorts of policies make it more likely that humanity will destroy itself sooner versus later. As Spong wrote in his article, “Human life will come to an end a lot sooner if politicians lead us into either nuclear holocaust or environmental disaster.”

It is precisely this reality that religion should be fighting against. Religion should be a voice against dangerous (and anti-scientific) mindsets that would hasten the end of the world simply by believing it is imminent. Maybe the Biblical statement that “none shall know the day or hour” was meant to stop us from worrying about the problems of what is to come in the distant future, and keep us focused on solving problems that affect real people in the present and immediate future.

In the beginning…

God created the heavens and the earth. So says the beginning of the book of Genesis. As most people with half an ear open will be aware, though, not everyone believes this to be true. In fact, the large majority of the credible scientific community (and a fair chunk of the theological community) would disagree with a literal reading of the Genesis 1 story. When combined with the roughly 40% of Americans who deny the theory of evolution, we have the makings of a deeply contentious relationship between science and religion.

It is this contention that sparked the idea for this project. In conversations with some of my atheistic friends, I have been told that religion and science– most specifically, evolution and creationism– are irreconcilable. The ideas are too disparate, the methods are too opposite, I am told. They are different in every possible way. They may be right, but I am not willing to concede the point without examining the ideas further.

I am a progressive Christian, a United Methodist, and a longtime student of the humanities. Unlike many of the people whose books I will be reading, I do not have any formal training in science or theology; however, I have a deep appreciation for both, and I want to know more. I want to develop my own ideas by reading what others have said. To do this, I will be reading and responding to books by people from all sides– evolutionary biologists and theologians, atheists and evangelicals and everywhere in between.

I believe common ground can be found. I believe that an intrinsic sense of wonder is shared by both scientists and people of faith, and that this commonality means that science and religion need not be permanently at odds. I could be wrong. This is my quest to find out.