Saturday, April 19, 2008

Living with Darwin

Christian resistance to Darwin rests on the genuine insight that life without God, in the sense of a Darwinian account of the natural world, really does mean life without God in a far more literal and unnerving sense. Even those who understand, and contribute to, the enlightenment case can find the resultant picture of the world, and our place in it, unbearable.

...For many Americans, their churches, overwhelmingly supernaturalist, providentialist churches, not only provide a sense of hope, illusory to be sure, but also offer other mechanisms of comfort. They are places in which hearts can be opened, serious issues can be discussed, common ground with others can be explored, places in which there is real community, places in which people come to matter to one another- and thus come to matter to themselves. Without such places, what is left?

…There is truth in Marx's dictum that religion, more precisely supernaturalist and providentialist religion, is the opium of the people, but the consumption should be seen as medical rather than recreational. The most ardent apostles of science and reason recommend immediate withdrawal of the drug- but they do not acknowledge the pain that would be left unpaliated, pain too intense for their stark atheism to be a viable solution. Genuine medicine is needed, and the proper treatment consists of showing how lives can matter.

- Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith,
Philip Kitcher

Kitcher’s Living with Darwin is as elegant a defense of evolution against Intelligent Design as any I’ve read, and I recommend reading it if you’re interested in the subject. The part of the book that I most valued, however, was his conclusions about the place of religion in a society that accepts scientific reality. Kitcher describes two variations of religion; the first is “providentialist” religion, which is based on the idea “that the universe has been created by a Being who has a great design, a Being who cares for his creatures, who observes the fall of every sparrow and who is especially concerned with humanity.” The second variation is what he calls “spiritual” religion, which doesn’t rely on any description of the supernatural, but is solely concerned with the state of one’s mind and one’s relationship with others.

Kitcher, who, by the way, is a professor of philosophy, makes a strong case for the incompatibility of providentialist religion and current scientific knowledge, but, unlike a lot of what I’ve been reading lately on the subject of science, he doesn’t take that to mean that people should resign themselves to being without the comfort of religion. His entire essay is a wonderful argument for reinventing religion as a primarily social phenomenon, concerned with the present, not stories about the past or future.

His final few paragraphs, about the idea that “religion is the opium of the people,” got me thinking. There is actually quite a bit of similarity between the way I face physical pain and the way I think about religion. A lot of people with chronic pain try to keep positive by telling stories about the possibility that in the future they will recover; doctors recommend techniques to distract the mind from focusing on pain. Avoidance is a common coping technique, and when it comes to pain, it’s a perfectly healthy one, but I find that it does nothing to make me feel better about being in pain.

The best way I’ve found to stay positive is actually to spend a little time focusing on the pain, feeling exactly how and where it hurts, falling into it to see if, this time, I will be overwhelmed. I do this, and I find that, as bad as it gets, I can endure it. I may moan and cry, but when it comes down to it, I am able to make the choice to live in pain, and I find that strength an incredibly positive thing.

I think this is very similar to the way I refuse stories about the world that offer a more comforting version of reality. I want the world as it is, no matter how much it hurts. And its kind of funny that I can see how odd I am when it comes to my pain coping techniques, but I’m inclined to expect that everyone will react the same way I do to the conflict between religion and science. Reading Kitcher makes me think that it may be more important to carve a place for the religious impulse in science than is obvious to me.


Wheelchair Dancer said...

Hey Tayi!

This is not directly relevant to the post above, but I wanted to be in touch. WCD here.

I saw this really cool article in the NYT and thought it might offer some interesting angles on your pain and art project.

There is a whole exhibit of pain art that it links to. Here is the

NYT is and the pain art exhibit is linked from there. Some of the images are ... wow.


Wheelchair Dancer said...

UH oh. Sorry. Didn't work

Tayi said...

Thanks! I'll check that out.