I was brought up in the Christian Anglican tradition, attending Church of England primary and secondary schools. I wasn’t particularly religious. My attendance at church was usually at the behest of whatever organisation I was involved in at the time – a school Nativity, a parade on Remembrance Day or some such event. My participation in the ‘worship of God’ was part of custom – a prayer said before a meal, hymns sung at a wedding or a funeral. It was traditional and lent atmosphere to a formal occasion. To me religion was the membership of a club that society expected, an unquestioning box ticked ‘CofE’ when I deployed on operations or went into hospital. It was only when I had my DNA tested that I actually gave the matter some wider thought, albeit from a ‘lapsed’ Christian perspective. With its many denominations Christianity has the largest following in the world with over 2 billion members, followed closely by its fellow Abrahamic religion, Islam, with over 1.5 billion followers.
How can the revelations of genetics affect your belief in the revelations of religion? Before the advances of science, and more recently genetics, religion claimed to have all the answers to the origins of man. Your religious belief will generally be dependant upon when and where you were born and the culture in which you were raised. Recorded religious belief in history is as old as the history of writing itself, about 5000 years old. But in prehistory, archaeology shows that religious experience, in the form of ritual human burials, might go back as far as 100,000 years in the case of modern humans and as far as 300,000 years in the case of Neanderthals.
All of the known human cultures on every continent have creation myths about the origins of the world and of mankind. Australia’s Aborigine creation myth, which probably dates back 7,000 years, is known as ‘The Dreamtime’ – this when the Father of All Spirits ordered the Sun Mother to wake the Spirits, ancient men and women sleeping in the ground, who began to give birth to the children of the world. The Sumerians developed one of the earliest civilisations 5,500 years ago in what is now southern Iraq; the Sumerian gods were said to have created human beings from clay for the purpose of serving them. The ancient Egyptians believed that Khnum, the ram headed god, also created man from clay on his potters wheel. Judaism, Christianity and Islam share the story of a world-creating divine act over six days, with God creating Adam in his own image from clay and Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. The ancient Greeks and Romans shared much of their mythology. The older Greek belief was that man had sprung from the earth like the plants and flowers in spring; these primitive human beings were tamed and civilised by the gods. In the Hindu religion, this is one of many universes made by Lord Brahma the Creator, who also creates all living things from different parts of his body. The Mayan god made men from the dough and liquor of corn meal. The various tribes of American Indian each had their own creation myth; the Salish believed that Old One made people out of the last balls of mud he took from the earth; the Iroquois believed Skywoman fell to an island created by a giant turtle and gave birth to a daughter whose children propagated the human race; the Tewa believed that the ancestors of humans lived under the earth like bugs until The Great Spirit lead them to the surface where they became human. The Chinese believed that the universe was a black egg which Pan Ku broke in two to make heaven and earth; when he died, his body parts filled the world – with man coming from the small parasites on his body. The Norse believed that men were created by the gods Odin, Hoenir and Lodur when they came across two lifeless trees; Odin shaped the trees into a man and a woman and gave them breath; Hoenir gave them a soul and the ability to reason; Lodur gave them warmth; the man was called Ask and his wife was Embla, and they created mankind.
The creation mythology of all human cultures have similar threads running through them: supernatural beings acting as creators, the making of humans from mud, clay or from lower forms of life, the destruction of the earliest societies by their creator through great floods – with sole survivors chosen to escape and begin anew. The myth of creation by gods connected primitive people’s everyday world to the supernatural world. It explained the unexplainable. It also placed human beings in a hierarchy – below gods and other supernatural beings but above animals and plants. Can a modern rational mind look at any of these creation myths and separate one out as ‘The Truth’, particularly in the face of ever expanding scientific knowledge and reason? How did the one relating to Christianity come to dominate the modern world?
Christianity began as a minor Jewish sect in the eastern Mediterranean in the mid-1st century. At first Christians were persecuted by Jewish religious authorities, who disagreed with the new religion’s teachings, then by the authorities of the Roman Empire. State persecution continued up until the 4th century. Christianity’s ‘big break’ came in AD 312 with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. Legend has it that he had a vision of the sign of Christ on the eve of battle against a rival emperor, on whom he inflicted a crushing defeat against overwhelming odds. Some historians claim that Constantine’s conversion owed more to the potential control of an organised and obedient religion like Christianity rather than a celestial vision. Nevertheless, the Christian church grew and rose in importance under Constantine, until it was made the official religion of the empire in AD 380. From then on Christianity played a prominent role in the shaping of Western civilization. While the Roman Empire declined and fell, the Christian church consolidated its political power through the papacy. Through missionary work it rapidly expanded among the many tribes and peoples of Europe. Around AD 500, St. Benedict established a system of monasteries which became a powerful force throughout Europe as centres of culture, learning and science. The church developed far-reaching trade networks and became fantastically wealthy, though it gradually divided between a western branch, the Roman Catholic Church, and an eastern branch, the Orthodox Church. The Reformation resulted in further division into various denominations when religious thinkers like Martin Luther protested against key points of Roman Catholic doctrine. These challenges developed into the Protestant movement, which denied the primacy of the pope. The Reformation in England began in 1534, when King Henry VIII had himself declared head of the Church of England and dissolved the monasteries. During the following centuries, competition between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism became entangled with political struggles and conflict between European states. At the same time, colonial expansion brought about a new wave of missionary activity as Christianity spread to the Americas, Australia, East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.
During the 18th and 19th centuries scientists and thinkers began to question Christianity’s cast iron version of ‘the Truth’, in what became known as the Age of Enlightenment. In the 1650s James Ussher, the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, had set out a chronology of the history of the world based on a literal reading of the Bible, calculating the date of creation at 4004 BC. It was influenced by the widely-held belief that the Earth’s potential duration was 6,000 years (4,000 before the birth of Christ and 2,000 after), corresponding to the six days of Creation and the biblical quotation that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”. However, by the 1780s the study of rock formations by geologists made them realise that the world was much older. French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was the earliest champion of a theory of evolution, outlining his thoughts as early as 1800; however, his theory was considered controversial and generally rejected during his lifetime.
In 1844 the book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was published anonymously in England – its author was only officially revealed 40 years later as Robert Chambers, a Scottish journalist. It suggested that everything in existence had developed from earlier forms: the solar system, the Earth, rocks, plants, fish, reptiles and birds, mammals, and ultimately man. Although the scientific evidence behind it was questionable, it explored groundbreaking ideas like the origins of life by spontaneous generation; geological progression in the fossil record from simple to more complex organisms, culminating in human beings; and man’s ability to reason as an evolutionary process that could be traced backwards through the lower orders of animals. The book quickly became an international best-seller. At first scientists and the clergy ignored it, and then publicly denounced it. The clergy in particular saw it as dangerous, containing ideas which undermined natural theology and social order.
However, the book registered with popular opinion and smoothed the way for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – the emergence of species of life from common ancestries by natural selection – which he eventually published in his book On the Origin of Species in 1859. The Church of England’s response to Darwin’s work was initially mixed. Some dismissed the ideas, but some liberal clergymen interpreted natural selection itself as being God’s design. The Origin of Species was translated into many languages and became required scientific reading. Darwin’s theory also became fixed in popular culture. Cartoons parodying him as an ape just served to popularise it further and helped to identify all forms of evolutionism with Darwinism.
Without any understanding of modern genetics, Darwin managed to come up with the idea of inherited traits and their mutation over time. Genetics has gone on to provide solid evidence in support of natural selection. Ironically it was a religious man who was to become ‘the father of modern genetics’, an Austrian monk named Gregor Mendel. Mendel was a contemporary of Darwin and published his findings on inherited charactertistcs in pea plants in 1866, but his work was largely ignored for 40 years. Only after the integration of Darwin’s theory of evolution with Mendel’s ‘re-discovered’ laws of inheritance did natural selection become accepted as fact by scientists. As the science of genetics advanced throughout the 20th century, modifications to Darwin’s original idea were incorporated to create a ‘modern synthesis of evolution’ known as neo-Darwinism. Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history for promoting the way that we understand our origins. But his ideas, and their impact on the long-held belief in the special place for humans in the natural world, still provoke passionate support and opposition to this day.
Today Darwin’s most vocal supporter is probably Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist and author. His 1976 book The Selfish Gene popularised the gene-centred view of evolution. Dawkins is now most famous as an atheist and for his criticism of creationism and ‘intelligent design’. He believes that religion is incompatible with science. In an article for the Guardian newspaper in 2002 he described the Young Earth creationist view, which harks back to Ussher’s chronolgy that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, as “a preposterous, mind-shrinking falsehood.” In his 2006 international bestseller The God Delusion, Dawkins argues that a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that religious faith is a delusion. He strongly opposes the inclusion of intelligent design in science education and the teaching of creationism in state schools. Dawkins believes that religious faith is one of the world’s great evils, particularly the extremism of Islamist terrorism and Christian fundamentalism. In the Guardian article Has the world changed? following the September 11, 2001 attacks, he stated:
“Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that. Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense. Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness. Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others. Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition. And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism. Let’s now stop being so damned respectful!”
There are notable scientists who have a deep religious faith. Francis Collins is an American physician-geneticist who has headed the Human Genome Project. He was a one-time atheist, but dealing with dying patients led him to question his religious views and he became an evangelical Christian. In his 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Collins considers scientific discoveries an ‘opportunity to worship’. He also rejects Young Earth creationism, but defines his own belief system as evolutionary creation – that “God created life through evolution”, which he terms ‘BioLogos’. The BioLogos website provides resources for those interested in the compatibility of science and religion, though it has drawn criticism from both creationists and atheists alike. It does provide some interesting Christian perspectives on the key questions relating to the origins of man.
For example, were Adam and Eve historical figures? How can the story of Adam and Eve fit into an evolutionary history where the Earth is billions of years old and humans originated hundreds of thousands of years ago in Africa? To answer this, BioLogos differentiates between a literal and a figurative interpretation of the Book of Genesis in the Bible. The literal reading says that God specially created Adam and Eve from dust, and that all humans are descended from these original parents. BioLogos says that this does not fit the scientific evidence. Difficulties also arise with the human race beginning with only two initial people. For example, where did the wife of Cain (Adam’s son) come from? The only literal interpretation is that she was Cain’s sister, conflicting with later biblical commands against incest. Genetic evidence suggests there was a much larger population at this point in history – a population of several thousand people from whom all humans have descended, not just two. Fossil and DNA records also provide evidence of the relatedness of humans and other animals, e.g. chimpanzees, which counters the literal interpretation of the creation of humans ‘from scratch’. The figurative interpretation of the creation story concentrates on the Fall, representing every human’s individual rejection of God; it was not a historical event but an illustration of the human condition that is flawed and sinful. In this view, Adam and Eve were not intended to be presented as historical figures. The figurative interpretation is less popular with many Christians, but because literal interpretations cannot be reconciled with the scientific data, Christian thinkers have been required to consider novel ways of handling the Bible’s words. Is this acceptable for a Christian? BioLogos concludes that many faithful Christians throughout history have subscribed to nonliteral views of the biblical accounts of creation.
The most interesting questions that BioLogos posed are – who was Mitochondrial Eve, who was Y-chromosome Adam, and how do they relate to Genesis? It answers the first two questions very succinctly, as you would expect with input from the former head of the Human Genome Project. However, it fails to answer the final question at all. Perhaps this is not surprising.
Most serious Christians today accept Darwin’s theory of evolution and have modified their interpretations of the Bible to accommodate it. However, it remains a slow process – the Roman Catholic Church did not officially acknowledged that the theory of evolution was compatible with Christian doctrine until 1950, over 90 years after Darwin published his work.
Our Neanderthal Genes
The most recent development in genetics, forcing us yet again to question our human origins and identity, is the discovery in May 2010 by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology that up to 4% of the DNA of present day Europeans and Asians might be inherited by Neanderthals. In an article for the Council for Responsible Genetics Terence D. Keel states that “there is no greater question than ‘where do we come from?’ But lately, figuring out what makes us human appears to be a moving target.”
The reaction to this development by the religious world has been dismissive. BioLogos features an article by Denis Alexander, a commentator on science and religion. He describes the finding that non-African humans are genetically closer to Neanderthals than African humans as ‘provocative’ but finds it difficult to know why it should have any theological significance. For him, the idea of humans being made ‘in the image of God’ does not simply constitute a list of human qualities such as rationality, consciousness and moral awareness. His focus instead is on the way that humanity relates to God. He says that more discoveries will continue to appear as human genomics extends its reach, but “they do not appear to raise any new theological questions”.
We have not had long to wait for those further discoveries. In December 2010 it was reported that the Max Planck Institute had discovered another previously unknown kind of human – the Denisovans – and that they also probably interbred with modern humans. Living Pacific islanders in Melanesia may be their distant descendants. National Geographic describes this as a “new twist in human evolution” and adds new evidence that different types of humans – modern humans and Neanderthals, modern humans and Denisovans, and even Denisovans and Neanderthals – mated and bore offspring. Professor Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist, said on the BBC News website, “It is fascinating to see direct evidence that these archaic species did exist (alongside us) and it’s only the last few tens of thousands of years that are unique in our history, that we are alone on this planet and we have no close relatives with us anymore.”
The Max Planck team has been careful not to call Denisovans a new species of human, labelling them instead a Neanderthal ‘sister group’. If modern humans and Denisovan humans were separate species, their hybrid children probably wouldn’t have been able to reproduce – that Denisovan DNA passed down to today’s Melanesians proved that they did. The ability to interbreed implies that modern humans, Denisovans and Neanderthals are all subspecies of Homo sapiens. While scientists may consider the issue of species as a red herring in terms of scientific debate, it is an important distinction for religion and human identity.
Do We Need Religion?
Has any of this changed my own view of religion? Can billions of people around the world be wrong? Although Richard Dawkins is a strident type of atheist, his arguments are very persuasive. It’s clear that the religion has been under sustained attack by logic and reason for the last 300 years – religious myths on the origins of humans and other animals have been totally exposed. Further advances in genetics continue to chip away at religion’s ability to provide meaningful answers. The need for Christians to interpret the Bible figuratively rather than literally in their desire to be taken seriously just underlines this – their resulting vagueness in answering life’s big questions is frustrating to someone who wants a straight answer. It points to religion being man-made. That doesn’t necessarily make religion worthless, particularly if it provides companionship, or is a banner for good deeds, or is a comfort in times of stress and distress. However, I am suspicious of organised religion – its fixed beliefs, its moralising, its tribalism and its use as a means of social control and to achieve political ends. To attach such importance to religion that you would kill or die for it is delusional.
I conclude that I don’t need religion in my life. However, but I do try to follow 3 ‘commandments’. Two are ‘Darwinian’:
1. Ensure my genes are successfully passed on to future generations (i.e. look after my family and their descendants – this is the only ‘life after death’ I want or need).
2. Strive to be happy in this life (the odds against getting one at all are astronomical and it’s the only one I’m likely to get).
The third is from Jesus of Nazareth:
3. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
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