On science and religion
«Earth is our mother, and we are its sons», according to an old Hindu saying.
Human kind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it», someone wrote, proclaiming rather obvious evidence (and attributing it to Chief Seattle...).
At the bottom of our hearts we all know of the web connecting us with other animal life, even when we sometimes deny it.
But we also don’t like to be animals, or to be mere animals. We don’t like the idea of being close relatives of apes, or descendants of insignificant bacteria; we don’t like not to be at the centre of the Universe. Hence the resistance to scientific revelations of our affinity with apes and other animal life.
It wasn’t by chance that for years Charles Darwin postponed his Origin of the Species. He anticipated the reactions awaiting his discoveries (which denied his previous most intimate religious creed and hopes.)
The scientific view has put an end to the traditional place of man in the Universe. With scientific revelations, man has lost his special statute, and become just a trivial product of a «blind watchmaker», to use a metaphor of Richard Dawkins. We become apes descendants and «survival machines», largely captives of genes.
We can obviously contest some interpretations of the scientific data. We aren’t «survival machines», «robots» or «apes», in the narrowest senses of these words. Richard Dawkins, who uses them, admits this. We are born egoists, but we can teach ourselves «generosity and altruism», he says. We have the possibility of upsetting the gene designs, «something that no other species has ever aspired to do».
But should or can we refuse scientific statements when clearly supported by experiments or proof? If we want to be honest with ourselves and embrace the truth, the answer can only be: No.
The cruelty of life incites us to dream and fantasy. Death and pain, always surrounding and peeping in, are an invitation to evasion. A part of us tends to deny reality. «Men have always denied reality with all their might» (Jean Servier). This is something we can excuse as part of our weaknesses.
But we can’t live off chimeras, illusions, or cling to old fashioned honoured ideas or puffed up notions of our essence just to satisfy our dreams. We shouldn’t feel ashamed about our low and humble origins. It isn’t them that depreciate us.
What can make us lose our prestige isn’t our belonging to the ape family or our insignificant role in the Universe as revealed by science. What can discredit us are our wrong acts - including our refusal to accept the truth, or the intellectual cowardice that leads to the acceptance or the promotion of myth and untruth.
Our dignity is in our thought, is in our capability of discovering, creating and accepting truth, raising our standards through our intelligence, going beyond the illusions dictated by our senses. Our dignity is in truth, however much she cracks our dreams of greatness and immortality. It isn’t in the denial of reality.
«Our insignificance as human animals can’t affront our conscience and the dignity of rational men», stated Immanuel Kant in a rather inflated way, but stressing our intense desire to be rational. But if so, it would be good not to plunge into myths...
Recommended reading (scientific book on genetics and much more):
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
See also: Quotations on Science and Meaning