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A Rant on Religion

In a recent article in the New York Times, Cornelia Dean discussed the influence of Creationists on film productions for the big screens of Imax theaters, particularly those in science museums. It’s a small market for a very expensive kind of film, and the loss of ten percent of the market makes a big bottom-line difference for the producers. In "A New Screen Test for Imax: It's the Bible vs. the Volcano," she writes, "Several Imax theaters, including some in science museums, are refusing to show movies that mention [evolution]—or the Big Bang or the geology of the earth—fearing protests from people who object to films that contradict biblical descriptions of the origin of Earth and its creatures."

How the world is, with all its variety of forms and meanings, and how it ought to be, has been the source of disagreement, argument, hostility—and yes, even war, for as long as humanity has clumped itself into discernable groups. There is no end to this kind of conflict, nor will there ever be, as long as people see out of their own eyes and think with their own minds. It would be wondrously more peaceful to live in this world if we all had the same picture of what life is. But that won’t happen.

It’s tempting to say that if we all practiced tolerance and didn’t try to make everybody believe the same as I do, then we could have that precious peace. The trouble is that what I might believe is that every other opinion or viewpoint is dangerous to me, and so my safety somehow depends upon stifling those other opinions. It’s a catch-22, like a poster I remember in my school during World War Two, "Americans should be intolerant only of intolerance." A litmus test (which this is), no matter how noble its purpose, is a dangerous precedent. Someone, at some time, is certain to use it to defeat its very purpose. One only has to claim that someone else is "intolerant" in order to make them intolerable.

Religion has been a fermentation tank for intolerance probably since it began. In some cultures it separates people into "us" and "them" just as much as does skin color or other racial characteristics. The biggest difference is that religious belief is to some extent chosen, while racial or ethnic differences are not. For that reason, religious belief can manifest a political control issue without having to appear bigoted. The anti-gay activists, for example, claim that homosexuals "choose" their orientation, which allows the issue to fit into a right-wrong question. The basic impetus behind it is that everyone could—and should—believe as they believe.

It seems strange that people should feel threatened by divergent beliefs, even when those who diverge do not pose an obvious physical or political threat. That’s not to say that some groups have no justification for mistrusting members of certain other groups. Jews, for example, sometimes admit to fearing Christians or Muslims. But that’s not the kind of thing I’m referring to. The "Bible vs. the Volcano" issue is not one of people being threatened in any obvious way. It’s simply a difference in what some people believe is true (that God created the Earth in seven days, or something to that effect) and how other people interpret what we have in the way of evidence about the beginnings of the universe (that it has taken billions of years of an evolving process).

The evolution-creationism disagreement comes out as an educational issue: "We don’t want our children taught differently from what we believe." Somehow, it’s felt, differing beliefs will diminish us, or (in capital letters) "Us," as a group. Perhaps—and this is conjecture—to question an aspect of what some believe (that Scripture contains literal and everlasting Truth) throws into question the whole Bible, and thus all that they hold most dear.

Carving in stone the answers to questions of fact can be self-defeating, as our understanding of things change with new discoveries. It took hundreds of years for the Roman Church to admit officially that its teachings might have been mistaken about Copernicus and Galileo. It’s possible that the Medieval Church’s rigid stance on what was to be believed was a major contributor to its having eventually to give up much of its civil control to Protestants and secularists.

The situation wasn’t improved with the Protestant Reformation, since those rebels simply transferred the source of ultimate truth from the Papacy to the scriptures.

This difficulty isn’t the fault of religion, per se. The impulse to wonder, in the deepest way, that is the wellspring of all religion, is probably one of the most sublime influences mankind has exhibited. To question where we come from and where we might go from here keep our gaze above the spiritual horizon. Given the diversity of human cultures, it’s no wonder we’ve manifested that impulse in widely divergent belief systems. The difficulty comes from rigidity in the answers and the attempts to codify the systems beyond the wonder. For it is the wonder itself that inspires us to transcend ourselves.

I admit that I grew away from my own religious roots in large part because I could no longer integrate what I had been taught with what I was learning from the larger world. I had no problem with most of the ethical positions of my old faith. It was in the stories of how things came to be, taken as literal fact, that no longer satisfied me. Some people have managed to remain comfortable with those stories by considering their metaphoric meanings, or by accepting them as "the way people thought" thousands of years ago. I simply chose, in the words of Vincent Sheean in his book about Ghandi, "to throw them away and go, defenseless and undefending, toward whatever the truth may be."

Others may choose to believe whatever gives them solace in this sometimes frightening, confusing world. I have no quarrel with the teachings of prophets or with the interpretations and edifices built around their teachings, as long as I am permitted my own philosophies and my own inquiries. Should a museum director decide that a major constituency will not support the expression of some particular world view, that is understandable. Still, I lament the narrowing of vision. To me the whole point of spiritual wonder is to expand the cosmos, to stimulate, to foment, to arouse the best in us.

The meaning of evolution is transformation. There are worlds within our minds waiting to bloom, if we will but allow them.

 

Donald Skiff, April 1, 2005

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