It’s hard to ignore the billboard battle going on right now and it looks as if the atheists have the high ground. Their claim: religion has no monopoly on morality. Hard to dispute that one. Of course, neither does atheism. It seems that morality is fleeting and held loosely by all of us, no matter what our belief system. Mankind has proven itself to be uniquely self-destructive even as it aims to prosper. Or is it because we aim to prosper that everything we touch seems to spoil?
I think it’s interesting that some extreme Christians and atheists alike have found ways to excuse mankind’s most egregious acts. One Christian response evokes the idea that the Earth was given to us by God, that Satan is messing with our intentions and sometimes horrible things must be done in order to save souls for the after life. Some atheists claim that the things that we do are neither good or bad, they just are – that what we do is only natural and part of the evolutionary process. Natural selection often appears cruel, but it is necessary for the perpetuation of the species.
First, let me be clear: I think that the theory of evolution is the best means by which to address the questions we have about life on this planet. I do not take Creationism seriously nor am I enamored with all the aspects of Intelligent Design. That being said, I’m trying to figure out what evolutionary point there is for speculating on these, or any other ideas at all. What is the point of thinking about things that don’t put a roof over our heads or food in our bellies? I’ve started to wonder if the development of the self-aware human mind has done anything to help perpetuate our species. Does philosophy, poetry, music, art or religion help humanity in any practical way? (A lot of people say they don’t). Some prominent atheists have even suggested that there are genes for these behaviors. But why? From an evolutionary perspective they seem like such wastes of time. You’d think these frivolous tendencies would’ve been filtered out.
Not only that, but it is the human mind, with all its technical capabilities, that has placed our planet in jeopardy. Without the human mind there would be no sword, no arrow, no cross-bow, no cannon, no rifle, and no H-bomb. Without the human mind there would be no smokestacks, no highway deaths, no slums, no Love Canal, no Chernobyl, no red tide, no DDT, no flooding in New Orleans, no genetically modified plants or animals. Many of the great threats to our existence would not exist themselves.
So, how can the human mind, with its capacity for leisure, greed, curiosity, art, beauty, hatred, discovery and religion, be a product of evolution? It seems that the more ‘primitive’ minds of other species serve them better. Sure, they can’t ultimately defend themselves against the violence of humans, so I guess that natural selection has given us an advantage in that regard. We can kill them better than they can kill us. But our technology doesn’t always come out on top, at least not with microbes, rats and roaches. But because of our technology, we are capable of destroying ourselves, like no other species we know of. It almost looks as if the human mind is ultimately self-destructive and not a product, but a contradiction, of natural selection. If so, then does the self-aware human brain, particularly when examined under the light of natural selection, possibly support the idea of something supernatural going on? And if so, then what does our capacity to do both good and evil say about this supernatural aspect?
I don’t think faith concepts should be discarded or ignored because of any ugliness and violence associated with them, anymore than faith should be blithely endorsed because of those parts that are beautiful and life affirming. I think that these controversial billboards, both theist and atheist, represent minority perspectives. There are a few people on both sides of this debate that listen more than they shout. Those are the ones we should engage with and hopefully learn from. We are better off ignoring the rest, no matter how loudly they yell or how big their signs are.