Thursday, April 28, 2011

Earth Day

The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is – marvels and mysteries acting upon our emotions and intelligence in ways so inexplicable that it would almost justify the conception of life as an enchanted state.Joseph Conrad, Author’s Note to The Shadow Land (1)

I recently attended an earth day celebration with one of my children. The kids sang a couple of songs celebrating the earth and proclaiming the virtues of tree planting and not littering. Of course, these are positive things to tell our children to clean up after themselves and to recycle where possible. But earth day, or international mother earth day as the international version is called, is not just about cleaning up litter or recycling – it’s much more than that.

The traditional Christian view that the earth and all that exists is the result of divine creation has been rejected as unscientific - fine to teach at home but not suitable for the classroom. However, the idea of celebrating mother earth is also unscientific when viewed through the paradigm of evolutionary theory.

The dominant scientific theory regarding the origin of the earth presents the world gradually through the process of evolution. Leaving aside any argument regarding the truth or falsity of evolutionary theory, is an evolved earth a sensible thing to celebrate? Earth day as a secular celebration is celebrating an earth that we find today as the result of evolution.

Evolution we are told occurred because of a unique set of circumstances that resulted in the world we live in today. If anything was the slightest bit different as evolution worked its way along, life as we know it would not exist. (2) So it isn’t as if mother earth somehow set out to make us what we are. So what are we celebrating on earth day – random chance that somehow worked out in our favor. That is a scientific and rational basis for a truly secular celebration of nature. But that doesn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. In fact the opposite is true. If you truly embrace the idea that life itself is the result of a series of random events the rational person won’t see much purpose. You can’t sing too many happy songs about that.

The Bible states that the wonders of nature point to God. (3) Evolutionary theory contends to have demystified nature and exposed divine creation as a myth. However, we are still spellbound by nature.

Atheists state that there is no need to appeal to the divine or the supernatural to experience awe and wonder. Instead they argue that nature itself is a wonder. See the quote at the beginning of this piece by Conrad that Christopher Hitchens quotes in his book God Is Not Great. But doesn’t this beg the question?

When surrounded by the wonders of nature do you think that it’s really amazing that everything here happened by chance? Or do you have an inkling that this couldn’t have just come about by pulling the lever on some cosmic slot machine.

Unless of course you think nature is indeed a terrible mess. But we have to be taught to think like that. Left to our own reflection on a summer day we have an intuition that nature is in fact truly wonderful. Beautiful even. Some atheists agree that nature itself is amazing and wonderful except when they want to criticize the notion that nature did not come about by chance but by design.

Earth day cannot be rationally explained. It is not a celebration of nature as the prevailing scientific worldview paints it. The best explanation is that it is the celebration of nature itself as if nature were responsible for making itself and us – as if it were mother earth. This is surely totally irrational. Yet many do it. We claim that science has disproved the idea of divine creation but instead of truly embracing the non-teleological nature of evolutionary theory (that is to say that nature is essentially random and purposeless) we celebrate mother nature as if it was teleological or purposeful.

The Bible states that humans have two modes when it comes to nature. Either we worship God as creator or nature itself (4). Paul of Tarsus wrote these words two thousand years ago, and despite the myriad of technological changes, very little has changed. This is not surprising as the Bible, whatever you think about it, provides much valuable insight into our world today, e.g., that there is nothing new under the sun (5).

It seems that the natural world inspires us to think there must be some purpose to all of this. We have to place this purpose somewhere – either in the mind of a divine being that created the world or in nature itself. Evolutionary theory prevents us from locating purpose in nature so either we remain consistent to this worldview and refrain from deifying random chance or embrace the idea that the natural world is evidence of something higher.

But if after tracing these thoughts through you still celebrate nature for its own sake you should remain aware that doing so is no more "rational" than worshiping God as creator of the world. If you can’t bring yourself to see nature as purposeless and random, maybe you should consider the possibility that there is a divine purpose behind the natural world.

1. Quoted in Christopher Hitchens. God Is Not Great. Twelve. P.73.

2. Hitchens. God Is Not Great. P. 92-93. Quoting Stephen Jay Gould.

3. Holy Bible. New International Version. Psalm 19 v. 1-4

4. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Holy Bible. New International Version. Romans 1 v 20 -23.

5. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. Holy Bible. New International Version. Ecclesiastes 1 v 8-10.

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