Believing in Evolution

There is a substantial difference between knowing something and believing it. Belief is much more powerful as it goes beyond logic and connects with peoples sense of self.

This idea helps make  clear why there is a stigma about mental illness. The anxious person or the depressed person can know that they are ill, that it is possible to not be ill, often the problem is that they don’t believe that they can be well. I suffered from anxiety, there were brief times when I wasn’t anxious, instead of knowing I was well, I believed it was merely a temporary respite. It was when I believed that there was nothing wrong with me, when I believed what I already knew rationally, did I become well. so the mental illness stigma is perhaps because healthy people don’t recognise the difference between knowing something to be true and believing it. Perhaps for the healthy, they believe they are well before they have developed an explanation for why they are well, belief comes before knowledge in this instance.

As a scientist I both know and believe in the theory of evolution. I know, because I have studied, read and observed the evidence and accept evolution as a rational, empirically produced explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. I believe,  because I also accept the scientific process for discovering the laws of the physical universe, I accept the process as a valid way of generating truth.

Many scientists have difficulty understanding why those of religious faith lack a belief in evolution, indeed some of faith have difficulty believing in evolutionary theory. Religious faith is different to simple belief. Belief in God is different to beliefs about the physical universe, because belief perhaps comes before knowledge, rather than coming after knowledge. Religious belief connects to the self, before any empirical process of gathering knowledge. Faith concerns something beyond understanding of relationships in the physical observable universe. As a scientist I believe that it is possible for science to explain what God is, but that humanity may never establish a theory of everything. Sometimes, it is perhaps dangerous or less open to truth if belief comes before knowledge.

It is accepted that such theories as evolution or gravity are true. such truths can be established from raw data acquired from the physical universe. I believed these truths before I became a Christian and I know that there is no conflict between holding these beliefs in addition to religious beliefs, such as God having a role in the creation of the universe. The issue is perhaps that for some people the religious belief is more powerful to themselves than a mere rational piece of knowledge. To the atheist scientist, belief in scientific theory is more powerful than mere knowledge or understanding of religion, often atheists struggle looking beyond mere empirical understanding of the physical universe. To someone of faith, these powerful ideas can make the concept of evolution seem less important and hence less true. Yet people are not robots, they all harbour non-rational thoughts and ideas, the belief of humanists that there is perhaps, simply, that there is a physical explanation for these mental phenomena, but their belief may not be as strong as these less easy to break down logically ideas are not as fully explored, perhaps mentally acknowledged or as strongly believed. No individual person has a fully coherent explanation of themselves or the wider universe, yet every individual is on a journey to discovering truths.

I think I should point out, that I am in no way declaring any superiority for religious faith over atheism. What I am saying is that faith is worthwhile exploring. It is a question of balance, people choose what to invest our mental energies upon, there should be space for rational scientific inquiry as well as reflection on the question of faith.

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Fear of Ideas

All people fear new ideas to some extent, a fear of change and the unfamiliar.  Such fears are natural, but often embracing new ideas or ways of thinking can be immensely positive. The familiar, the status quo, seems safe, so why even consider change? Well, sometimes the status quo is bad for people as individuals and wider society. sometimes it is easy to forget that everything is a journey, we can take small cautious steps, we can always turn and go back or in a different direction. Such a steady cautious approach is safe, rather than leaping crazily across to another place, a place that is strange and unknown. Accepting new ideas doesn’t change who you are but can make you a better person, just take small firm steps.

I have written much on this blog about my overcoming anxiety. Making such a change was scary, there was a fear of my personality changing, a change in my values, a change in how I think. I think this was why I rejected, like many other anxious people, the calls of people to just let go of yourself or to just not be anxious, this is taking that giant leap into the unknown. Better advice to the anxious is to take cautious steps, allow people to reflect that the direction they are going in is one they are happy with.

This process of change, of alleviating fear, occurs in many areas of life and realising this, has helped me understand why other people are cautious of other ideas. For example, my becoming a Christian.  When I was young, I lived in a traditional Christian community in rural Wales. My generation were highly sceptical of religion, we regarded it as a load of nonsense. We regarded religion as scary irrationality. Growing up there seemed to be this maniacal street preachers, evangelicals waving their arms around as if possessed by spirit, a seemingly very conservative culture that stifled innovative ideas. Then one day i was exposed to the joy and wonderful music of renaissance polyphony and the choral works of J.S. Bach, this music helped me understand some of the core ideas of Christianity, that they were good, open ideas, that the complexity and suffering of human existence, could be understood as a whole, that it was okay to accept this and that doing things to make the world a better place was a righteous thing to do.. This music led me onto a journey of discovery of the Christian faith and along the way I became a Christian. Becoming a Christian was not scary, it didn’t change how I am, or my other beliefs, it simply helped me become a better person. It has helped me appreciate that there are no easy answers, no single mantra to base your life on, that faith, like anything else is a journey.

Another issue, I am passionate about and  often write about is food. I became a vegetarian at the age of 15 because I became aware that many animals reared for the meat I ate were kept in inside with restricted space, this seemed cruel and wrong on animal welfare grounds. I now ethically source meat, I don’t believe it is wrong to rear animals for meat, but in rearing animals there is a contract that the animals should have a reasonable quality of life and be able to express natural behaviours. What I have come to realise is that there is a wonderful synergy that can be achieved with animals welfare, sustainably looking after agricultural land and the wider environment, sound economics, healthy food and a greater enjoyment in eating. Though it seems there is a fear of changing diet and shopping habits, even with such positive outcomes. Though i appreciate I arrived at this synergy by taking slow steps and consideration of each step. I used to fear that having high animal welfare standards may mean that it was not possible to feed all the humans on the planet by farming in such a way and may cause environmental damage. I was so pleased to realise that this isn’t the case, positive change benefits other areas. My message on food is that only eating meat as a treat and not everyday is healthier, cheaper, more sustainable and maintains animal welfare. Meat from animals that can range freely and are fed in a sustainable way, develops muscle, which makes the meat tastier and increases nutrients in the meat, making it healthier for the animals and the consumers. Rearing animals, working with nature, rather than against it, not only seems better, it is also better economically. So, I would encourage people to ethically source meat and save money by cutting out eating low quality meat in every meal, ultimately it’s cheaper and more enjoyable.

I think the idea of being open to new ideas and ways of being is so important, to better ourselves individually and wider society. However it is important to journey slowly and carefully, keeping our feet firmly on the ground as we do so.

This is why I was upset by the words of Donald Trump this week. Often politicians and other orators need to be regarded cautiously, they appeal to core conventional beliefs of a culture, then can take great leaps into the unknown, without questioning, without scrutiny. using Trump as an example, he states that there is a fear in Western societies of terrorism and in this most people will agree. However then Trump leaps onto blaming Muslims moving into the US as part of the problem, when there is no rational basis for this belief, it simply plays on fear and encourages fear, when fear is the actually the enemy. If Trump was a great expert on the history and politics of the Middle-East, then he may be worth listening to, however Trump himself has stated that he knows little of the history or politics of the Muslim world, thus he is not qualified to make meaningful comment. We are perhaps fortunate in Wales to have a significant Muslim population, there are a part of our communities, our workplaces, so it is clear that they are as decent people as any other sub group. The knowledge that the family down the street are ordinary decent people and are not secretly plotting the overthrow of civilisation, to think that they were would be extreme paranoia. However where there isn’t a normal family living in your locale it is much easier to play on the fears of the unknown.

Slightly Different Worlds

It is often said that one shouldn’t discuss religion or politics in polite society. Surely openness and discussion are good things. If people discuss such a topic as whether they prefer cats or dogs, then usually people respect that other people view the world in a slightly different way. So, what makes religion and politics different?

In the week after the UK general election people have been talking about and venting their feelings about the results, there is often anger and bafflement. This anger is expressed by such sentiments as “How on Earth can people vote Conservative/Labour? what is wrong with these people?”. Upon discovering that friends and colleagues, supported the other side, there is a difficulty in accepting such a fundamentally different world view and moral stance. I used to be distraught that around a third of people vote for a government I despise, people on the other side express the same feeling. Surely such a large proportion of the population can’t be that misguided, I would argue that they are not.

I remember having a long, late night conversation with a friend who was of the right wing persuasion. We discussed what we both identified as the problems in society and the type of society we each felt that government should work towards, surprisingly they were virtually the same, we shared the same values, where we differed was in how to bring about this better society. Thus, it is perhaps not morality or principle that is the problem but the application of it.

I am in the advantageous position of having been an agnostic and then became a Christian. I can understand both positions. In religion there is a lot of misunderstanding between the theists and the non-theists. As with politics, this misunderstanding causes problems for people. There is much argument between the two positions. What I find is that the issues that Atheists and Christians squabble over not that important. The difficulties Atheists have with religions, such as the accuracy of the Creation story are, to me, rather low down the list of things that are important to me as a Christian.

Actually, the same problems exist both within the Christian community and the secular community. Both those of faith and none develop their own moral principles. Generally, both systems of acquiring moral principles are equally sound and the ethics of Christians and Atheists are similar. I acquired my moral principles before acquiring faith, those moral principles hardly changed since becoming a Christian.

Moral truths are a good thing, connecting with and understanding a moral principle is one of the great ‘yes’ moments in life that are cherished by us as individuals. I think the problem is with application. when the individual understands a moral, social, religious or political position, it does resonate deeply in our subsequent thinking. As these truths seem pure and universal, it is very tempting to apply them vigourously.  However applying any moral code to extremes, no longer is an expression of the moral principle. The principle becomes lost, fragmented and distorted through ruthless application, without resort to the original moral truth. It is this, which causes conflict and misunderstanding between religions and political creeds.

The bedroom tax as an illustrative example:

The U.K. has a state welfare system whereby, if someone is unfortunate to not have a job, the state pays you welfare to cover the minimal cost of living,  in a post-industrial society that minimum cost is quite high, as housing and food are relatively expensive. During my lifetime the U.K. has the problem of the ‘benefits trap’, whereby if you take on part-time or low paid employment you may be worse off financially than staying on benefits, especially if you have a family to support. Adherents, such as myself, of both left and right wing persuasion have long argued that this system should be reformed and that people should always be better off working than relying on benefits in the medium to long term. The last government stated that they would tackle this issue, which was great.

However the application of the reforms were damaging. The government introduced the ‘bedroom tax’. So, if you became unemployed and happened to have a spare room, your housing benefit (to pay for your shelter) was taxed. This meant that those effected struggle to pay for essentials of food and heating and have no money to invest in seeking employment.

To those of the left this seemed cruel and heartless. Why should the unemployed bear the brunt of the failures of the wider economy? People have died because of it. Hence many on the left of politics brand the right as compassionate.

People of the right wing persuasion are not uncompassionate. The principles of the right are that to reduce the state, so people pay less taxes, that people should not be reliant on state handouts, paid for by other taxpayers. That a stick and well as a carrot are necessary to encourage people into employment and contributing to society. People of the left don’t disagree with these principles as such, they just interpret them in a slightly different way. However it seems that advocates of both the left and right are incensed when the application of  principles causes a conflict with a universal moral principle. To the critic the moral principle is more important than the ideological application. Hence, the left brand the right as cruel.

This ideological wrangling, the differing interpretation of a moral code can seem more important that the pragmatic reason which better fits the intention of the universal moral truth. The bedroom tax is immoral. The U.K. has a monetarist economy. Such an economy requires something in the region of 3-5% of the available labour force to be unemployed, because full employment  leads to excessive high wages that would damage business and cause rampant inflation. It is more economically efficient to have up to 5% unemployed, so it is important to treat those unlucky enough to be unemployed for a time with dignity and respect.

Whilst it may seem shocking and repugnant to discover people with religious. It is important to not take the result of the application of moral or political views that differ from our own as scary or fundamentally wrong. The vast majority of people have good sound moral values. It is imprtant to discuss these things openly, the narrative behind the acquiring of such standpoints. By keeping talking to focus on the truth and realise that whilst we may live in slightly different worlds, to not judge others so harshly.

“Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in they brothers eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye” Matthew 7:1-3 (KJV)

(Mis-)Understanding the World

As humans we all think very differently. sometimes i think that it’s amazing that we are able to communicate with one another at all. There is so much misunderstanding in the world. I used to be very cynical about others peoples beliefs. There is so much trouble in the world. I struggled to understand and be distressed by such things as: why people keep electing the same bunch of idiotic politicians, why do people wear fur, why do some Christians struggle with the theory of evolution, why are some people are racist.

One explanation is that people find it hard to understand ideas that appear to contradict deeply held beliefs. That to understand the reasoning behind a set of ideas requires giving up certain ideas or at least considerable modification. People all have different learning styles, decision making algorithms and ways of thinking.

I would argue that there are both good and bad ways of thinking. The difficulty is that some good ways of thinking are not universally applicable. conversely bad ways of thinking seem to work, to lead to truths some of the time.

I used to suffer from chronic anxiety. To overcome this anxiety I realised that this was simply a bad way of thinking. anxiety is also self-enforcing, like a bad habit. It wasn’t easy to let it go and adopt a new way of thinking. It wasn’t easy, partly because of fear of changing other deeply held beliefs though the logic of the new way of thinking.

Really, there is nothing to fear. A good way of thinking, will lead to truths in a better way than a bad way of thinking. One of the things I found unnerving about my change in thinking was being able to understand religion and found that I had become a Christian. i can almost laugh about now; i thought that i might somehow believe that blowing up non-believers was justifiable, but that was a myth.

As humans, we have to accept that as individuals we will never get everything right, our ways of thinking, even good ones should be questioned and re-evaluated every once in a while. We will always have some mental blocks on understanding certain things. We should strive to unblock them, to focus more on the mental process rather than the conclusion. and of course to remember to live and not spend our entire lives re-evaluating ourselves, which I spent too much time doing. Rules are good and useful, we should never rigidly adhere to the conclusions based on these systems, as they are sometimes wrong.

Literalism and Authority

The recent tragic death of Leelah Acorn, and her suicide note plea, published on tumblr to ‘fix society’, is something for us, as human beings to reflect upon.

I am not a parent, but I know that parenting is a tough challenge as someone is brought into this world for whom you have unconditional love, but that someone is their own person. Parents are people who are in a position of authority over their children. Children have an insatiable curiosity about the world and themselves and often, especially with younger children the role of the parent is often to curtail the childs freedom to explore, to prevent them getting into danger, for example keeping knives and matches away and telling children not to play with them.

As children grow decisions about what behaviour to restrict become more complicated as young people become capable of making their own decisions. One of the hardest lessons to teach children concerns authority.

The lesson being to respect authority, whilst developing a healthy disrespect for authority itself. This seeming contradiction is a challenge as parents are an authority figure themselves. It is important to distinguish that authorities do make the wrong decisions, but that such poor decisions are not a reason to completely reject the authority entirely. The territory of grey areas and compromise is a difficult arena for developing people to appreciate.

As adults we live in countries with systems of laws created by governments. Most people are aware that governments generally don’t make the best decisions. Government decisions should be the result of compromises and the production of laws that are at least an improvement on previous laws. As citizens we have to obey/ respect the law of the land even when we know some laws are unjust, that our economic systems are imperfect. As individuals we learn to accept the imperfection of laws. For example, when homosexuality was illegal and homosexuals had to respect this law by not expressing their sexuality publicly.

I have a disdain for those who take a fundamentalist literal interpretation of the Bible. This is overly simplistic and restricts the ability of the individual to interpret Gods love for themselves. For example the creation story of Genesis that the world was created in seven days whilst containing truth, is not literally true, it seems that some people, the ‘creationists’, have difficulty with this distinction. There is immortality for good souls in Heaven, but Heaven is not a realm where souls have corporeal existence, there is no sense in attempting to define literally what heaven is as a single concept. The concept of heaven is not a literal one but a spiritual one. As a scientist, I am aware of the distinction between the scientific method of testing of theories in a logical manner and the personal subjective view of existence. The teachings of Christianity are not about a dogmatic adherance to a set of rules, but provide the means for accessing the tools with which to help make decisions.

Generally there seems to be too much literalism in the world. For example the pop star,Charli XCX has recently released a track with the lyric: “I don’t wanna go to school I just want to break the rules”. Some of the YouTube comments of the video suggest that the singer is being irresponsible in encouraging young people not to go to school. Such comments demonstrate how pervasive literalism is, for the message of the song is not discouraging people from attending school, but rather an expression of the importance of questioning authority. This is very similar to Pink Floyds “we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control”, the members of Pink Floyd, themselves University educated.

Parents wish their children’s lives to be perfect and for their children not to suffer from issues that they themselves struggled with as young people. It could be argued that people spend their teenage years and 20’s in getting over their parents, to continue to love and respect their parents for trying to be good parents whilst acknowledging their parents imperfections and mistakes. The struggles an individual person has growing up to realise themselves and find a workable compromise with various ‘authorities’ will be different to the individual experiences of their parents. Sometimes parents need to take the time to reflect that their children are different, that society has changed and whatever the rules are, they are in a continuing state of flux.

Basically, as humanity we need to be less literal, appreciate the fussiness that there are no absolute authorities for individual experience in the real world outside of scientific laws and learn to love and respect each individual person for who they are, especially as everyone continues to better define and be more at ease with themselves through reflection and interaction with other voices. For all authorities to be open and honest about their limitations.