One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.…You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been t he religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs.
— Bertrand Russell
Adherents to the world’s myriad religions may not always see eye to eye, but they do have one thing in common: they are all, every one of them, vastly outnumbered. No matter what you believe or how “mainstream” your religious convictions, if you take a good look around, you will find yourself among a surprisingly small minority. Christians as a whole make up the largest global contingent, yet they constitute but 32 percent of humanity. Christians are followed by Muslims (20 percent) and Hindus (13 percent). Chinese folk religions comprise the fourth-largest faith at 6.4 percent, followed by Buddhism (5.9 percent), tribal religions (4 percent), “new” religions (1.7 percent), and Sikhism (0.4 percent). Jews, who number about 14.5 million, make up only 0.2 percent of the global community, or about one person in five hundred overall. (Oy!)
But in truth, reality is worse than that, for these so-called “major” religions comprise dozens of subgroups, many of which profess to be the one true faith to the exclusion of all others. The largest of these by far is the Roman Catholic Church, whose 1.1 billion members make up nearly one-sixth the global population. All other sects are much smaller and so represent minorities that are minuscule by comparison.
Predictably, the proliferation of these small factions has created something of a siege mentality among the sectarian faithful. This mentality serves to bind each group closer together while at the same time alienating them one from another. And in keeping with the old adage about familiarity breeding contempt, groups that share the same fundamental beliefs (Catholics and Protestants, Shiites and Sunnis) are the ones that seem to visit the most egregious violence upon one other. But perhaps this is to be expected. After all, competition in the wild is always more intense within a given species than between different species, owing to their mutual reliance on the same limited resources.
Of course, not all believers in a personal god are so zealous in their beliefs, or so militant. Those who take a more moderate approach to their religiosity—and who presumably make up the lion’s share of the sectarian populace—are no doubt just as troubled by the actions of their fundamentalist cohorts as nonbelievers, if not more so. And yet these “religious moderates” persistently, if not willfully, enable the extremists in their midst by publically promoting the practice of unthinking faith. Why? Because religious faith is marketed not only as the one and only path to personal salvation but also as the very glue that holds all earthly societies together. Thus–all things considered–if a few of their brethren are drawn to the dark side of their faith, that figures to be a fair trade.
The problem, at its core, is that parishioners have been taught for generations—without acknowledging evolution of course—that religiosity is required to put the brakes on our base “animal” instincts and that without the church there would be no basis for human morality. Consequently, it is the perceived threat of social upheaval that ultimately moves many civic-minded churchgoers to go to church in the first place, whether they actually believe everything the church teaches or are simply playing along in a misguided effort to promote the greater good. This is not a secret. There are people populating pews today who, by their own admission, profess their faith more to promote civil order than to safeguard their salvation. They trust themselves to behave morally without the carrot of heaven or the stick of hell to guide them, yet have no such faith in the comportment of others. They are counting on heaven and hell to keep everyone else in line. But as Sam Harris so eloquently points out, “We need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to feel compassion for the suffering of others. Our common humanity is reason enough to protect our fellow human beings from coming to harm. Genocidal intolerance, on the other hand, must inevitably find its inspiration elsewhere.”
A Cruel Twist of Faith
But even at its genocidal worst, the miseries of religious faith are not confined to the pain inflicted upon others. Believers are victimized too, although the price they pay is not so obvious (least of all, to themselves). Their penalty comes in the form of a thousand cuts: the daily cost of holding a holy host of unrealistic expectations born of the belief in our cosmic centrality. Certainly, given what we now know about how the world works, there is no good reason anyone should struggle over why bad things happen to good people. Nor is there any real need to explain away the existence of evil (however you choose to define it). Yet an awful lot of hand-wringing still goes on over events that appear to belie mankind’s presumptive preferential status. Despite the (small c) catholic catchall “God works in mysterious ways,” many people of faith, much to their credit, remain profoundly troubled by the apparently arbitrary nature of things. And no wonder, because from an anthropocentric perspective it’s hard to fathom why innocent children should suffer from fatal diseases or to reconcile the fact that tragedy can befall even the most virtuous among us.
Apologetics from the book of Job notwithstanding, it is difficult to reconcile how so many terrible things could be “allowed” to happen in a world that was created specifically for us. It just doesn’t make sense on any level. But rather than question our cosmic centrality, as logic would dictate, people have instead devised increasingly clever ways to defend humanity’s lofty standing against the burgeoning body of contrary evidence.
One way this is commonly done is by supposing that our status as autonomous beings must somehow depend on a divine laissez-faire policy. This approach effectively solves the “existence of evil” problem but at the same time precludes the possibility of divine intervention, thereby rendering all prayerful entreaties pointless. Evidently this is not a particularly popular choice among those who seek a more personal, working relationship with the almighty creator of all things. For them, belief in our cosmic primacy is better served by assuming that “God helps those who help themselves” (a truly ingenious dodge if ever there was one). The advantage of subscribing to this scenario–apart from preserving the power of prayer–is that it allows people to pretend that the misfortunes we read about in the newspaper and see on the evening news might have been avoided with a little faith and a dash of common sense. No matter what calamity might befall us, we can rest assured that it was not only avoidable but that someone (or some group of someones) was at fault. He smoked, drove too fast, drank too much, never saw his doctor, ran with the wrong crowd. She was irresponsible, overate, chose to live in a floodplain, should have avoided that part of town. It’s comforting to think that we can control our own fate with a little due diligence and that when bad things happen it is largely because of human recklessness.
Comments made in the wake of the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake speak not only to the pervasiveness of this attitude but also to its malleability. In a region of the world where Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity co
exist, few people of faith seemed willing to consider that the earthquake and resultant tidal wave—an event that killed nearly a quarter of a million coastal residents—might have had nothing to do with those living in harm’s way. Instead, the devastating wall of water was met with a flood of tortured explanations as people of every faith struggled to make sense of the tragedy. Some, like Catholic bishop Joseph Fernando, cautioned against trying to divine God’s purpose but confessed that precisely “why a God who glories in people would [also] wipe them out” was both a mystery and a problem. Imam Johari Abdul-Malik was a bit less circumspect, claiming that although Islam teaches that all such events are a deliberate act of God, “when we meet… our creator and we’re wondering ‘Why did this happen?’ we will be assured that the answer will be satisfactory to us.” Prava Dunasia, a Hindu spiritual counselor, went a step further. She insisted that God (a.k.a. nature) was angry with the tsunami victims because they abused the environment and did not “keep the balance” of nature as was their charge. Those who died, Dunasia declared, earned their punishment, either in this life or in lives past, in accordance with the laws of karma.
Some eight months later, victims of Hurricane Katrina were treated no better. While the Gulf Coast was still reeling from the devastation, a panoply of God-fearing potentates wasted little time in adding insult to the horrific injury visited upon the (mostly poor) citizenry of the Crescent City. Steven Lefemine, director of Columbia Christians for Life, managed to wring the visage of an eight-week-old fetus from the swirls of a satellite weather map and concluded, “God judged New Orleans for the sin of shedding innocent blood through abortion.” As reasonable as that explanation might seem, Michael Marcavage was certain that God had sent Katrina to New Orleans for another reason: to thwart an annual street festival celebrating gay culture. Declared Marcavage: “The day Bourbon Street and the French Quarter was flooded was the day that 125,000 homosexuals were going to be celebrating sin in the streets.… We’re calling it an act of God.” (If so, one could also call it an amazingly inept act of God, since the French Quarter was one of the few city districts that didn’t sustain much flood damage. In fact, Grand Marshal Lisa Beaumann was able to lead the Southern Decadence Parade through the streets of the French Quarter the following Sunday, several weeks before St. Louis Cathedral was back in business.) Even New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, a man who should possess—or at least display—a little more sense, couldn’t resist the urge to bend the will of God to suit his own purposes. According to Nagin, not only was God mad at America for invading Iraq, but he was also upset with black America for “not taking care of ourselves … our women, and … our children.” (How else to explain how the worst of the flooding just happened to occur in the least desirable, most flood-prone areas of the city?) Nagin added that, despite the fact that the storm had rendered most of black New Orleans uninhabitable, the city “will be chocolate at the end of the day” because “it’s the way God wants it to be.” Let us hope for Nagin’s sake that God also has a taste for nuts.
Predictably, people living outside the United States tended to view the disaster in more ecumenical terms, seeing the hurricane as God’s way of punishing America for whatever transgression most irked the observer in question. In Israel, for example, journalist Stan Goodenough saw justice being served as thousands of American lost their homes just days after Jewish settlers were forced to abandon theirs in the Gaza strip. “Is this some sort of bizarre coincidence? Not for those who believe in the God of the Bible.…What America is about to experience is the lifting of God’s hand of protection; the implementation of His judgment on the nation most responsible for endangering the land and people of Israel.”
On the flip side, under the headline “The Terrorist Katrina Is One of the Soldiers of Allah,” Kuwaiti official Muhammad Yousef Mlaifi wrote: “It is almost certain that this is a wind of torment and evil that Allah has sent to this American empire.” Opinions may vary, but among the faithful it seems that whenever something horrific happens, someone or another is always to blame.
Indeed, an overriding sense of human culpability seems to inform a wide variety of opinions regarding such occurrences, the blame for which many are either willing to bear themselves or, more often, pass onto their neighbors in order to preserve the illusion that the world revolves around us humans. In Asia, for instance, Hindus in Sri Lanka were quick to blame the tsunami on drinking and drug abuse among foreign visitors, while their Muslim countrymen cited growing dissention within families as being the true cause. Meanwhile, a Catholic priest who lost a nun and eighteen parishioners in the floodwaters saw the disaster as recompense for regional ethnic and religious tensions. At a Buddhist temple in Kalatura, Sri Lanka, one man went so far as to blame a lone Christian for baking a cake in the image of Lord Buddha and then cutting it with a knife. Others at the same temple blamed Christians for killing animals and consuming alcohol on Christmas Day, less than twenty-four hours before the tsunami struck. They were at a loss, however, to explain why so many Buddhists had died, along with tens of thousands of children, their own among them. Astonishingly, one Baptist pastor in Minnesota claimed to have the answer. His explanation: “When I hear of a calamity like this, my deepest interpretation is God is calling [me] to repent. God is breaking my heart. God is pointing out my sin. God is telling me: be amazed you weren’t under the wave.”
Even more amazing is how anyone could consider, even for an instant, that the creator of all things had crafted this horrific tragedy as a personal wake-up call for anyone. This is no less absurd than my supposing that God had arranged this vile calamity for the sole purpose of giving me something interesting to write about. The very idea is so egomaniacal, in fact, that one is tempted to assume that such inflated feelings of self-importance must be exceptionally rare, if not outright pathological. But then again, how much less ego is involved whenever an athlete points skyward after scoring a goal or a sports fan prays for a last-second victory? That so many people are willing to entertain the notion that the Almighty might intervene to alter the outcome of a game (which would be cheating, by the way) while at the same time allowing horrific acts such as murder, rape, and even genocide to continue unabated is a testament to the lengths we are prepared to go to preserve the belief that, in the end, everyone gets precisely what he or she deserves.
Life Unfair? We Should Be So Lucky
Although the motives that underlie these apologetics are thinly veiled, at best, faith-based efforts to cope with life’s inequities might work much better if not for one little thing: the fear that life might be fundamentally unfair is not what truly troubles us. The thing that really sticks in our collective craw, even if we don’t always realize it, is that life actually seems all too fair. From the creationist perspective, it has to be supremely frustrating—and more than a little unnerving—to find that despite our preferred status, nature remains so willfully and persistently evenhanded. The physical world never cuts us a break: a microburst occurs over a runway and a plane goes down, babies and all. Lightning strikes a church, and it goes up in flames. An earthquake levels a village and kills thousands. A
massive landslide follows.
In the spring of 1815, a volcanic eruption on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa buried the entire kingdom of Tambora, killing an estimated 90,000 people. The towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii suffered a similar fate near the base of Mount Vesuvius some seventeen centuries before. The Shaanxi earthquake, which claimed an estimated 830,000 lives in 1556, proved to be the worst of a long line of devastating temblors to shake northern China, the most recent being a magnitude-7.5 quake that killed some 244,000 people in Hebei Province in 1976. And in January 2010 the citizens of Haiti, still reeling from a series of four hurricanes that had devastated the island nation not two years before, were struck yet again, this time by a magnitude-7.0 earthquake that effectively leveled Port-au-Prince, leaving nearly 200,000 dead and over a million homeless. Just fourteen months later, Japan suffered a tsunami triggered by a magnitude 9.0 quake that devastated the entire northern coastline and killed tens of thousands of people. The mayor of Tokyo helpfully advised: “The Japanese people must take advantage of this tsunami as a means of washing away their selfish greed. I really do think this is divine punishment.”
Famine and pestilence, flood and drought, tornadoes and hurricanes: they come at us in waves, as unrelenting as they are unpredictable. To paraphrase a favorite Monty Python sketch, it’s a depressing prospect for an ambitious species.
Then, of course, there are those countless personal tragedies that occur with mind-numbing regularity, as disquieting as they are persistent. The stream of human misfortune is so steady, in fact, that the search for examples need rarely extend past the local morning headlines. As I write these words, my local paper, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, reports that a young mother and her four-year-old daughter died yesterday of smoke inhalation as they tried to escape an early-morning house fire in a small town just north of the city. (Her three-month-old baby is reported to be in serious condition in a local burn unit). This comes hard on the heels of news about another local girl, just ten years old, who was killed not two days before as she stood with her mother on the sidewalk in front of their home. This unfortunate little girl, who surely deserved much better, was struck in the head by the nozzle of a fire hose that had fallen from the side of a passing pumper truck. Incidents of this sort are almost too sad to contemplate, especially where children are involved, and are enough to offend even the most world-weary onlooker. As New York Times reporter Alan Feuer once observed, “There are few things more confusing than a young girl’s coffin. It feels like a betrayal, or a broken promise. You see it, but it makes no sense.”
And yet this sort of “nonsense” just keeps on happening. What’s more, when these dreadful events couple with coincidence—as they inevitably will, from time to time—they can produce situations that seem extraordinary by anyone’s standards but are particularly vexing to the anthropocentric. Two brothers, for example, recently made headline news in the Pittsburgh area when they were killed on Route 38 in a small town just east of the city. Now given that over 40,000 people are killed on our nation’s highways each year—about one fatality every fifteen minutes or so—this story would have ordinarily garnered little attention. The Kerr brothers, however, died under far more curious circumstances, having met their ends in separate accidents occurring within two hours and one hundred yards of each other. According to the Post Gazette, the first brother (Steven, thirty-seven) died just before 9 p.m. when his speeding motorcycle left the road and struck a speed-limit sign (an ironic twist in itself). Shortly thereafter his younger brother Jeremy (twenty-nine), unaware of the first accident, was killed after running his bike into the back of a Chrysler minivan stopped in traffic. Family members can certainly be forgiven for believing that what happened to these two brothers was incredibly unjust. But in the broader context, nothing could be further from the truth. Life may not always be kind, but it is never unfair. The world, by all indications, remains perfectly indifferent toward all its inhabitants, be they human or beast.
If the news media have taught us nothing else, it’s that bad things—even the most bizarre and improbable things—can happen to anyone at any time. But even this is a benign fiction of sorts, because for every “newsworthy” tragedy that manages to grab our attention, there are thousands more of which we remain mercifully unaware. It is startling when you stop to consider that, as terrible as the aforesaid mishaps were, they made headlines less for their tragic outcomes than for their odd particulars. Less sensational but equally fatal accidents happen with such frequency that most are scarcely noticed at all, much to the benefit of our collective sanity. Add to this the tens of thousands of people who succumb prematurely to disease and violence every day (one every few seconds worldwide), and you begin to see the emotional torrent we are up against.
Clearly there is far too much misery in the world for any of us to take in without being completely consumed by it, and so we are compelled to allow these countless private tragedies to pass largely unnoticed. It’s not that people don’t care; they simply have no other choice. Mourn for them all, and grief is all you will ever feel. In fact, by the time you finish reading this paragraph, someone somewhere will have fallen victim to yet another deadly mishap, one they could not have possibly foreseen as they pulled on their socks this morning. Three of my own cousins have died this way: one crushed beneath a horse he hit with his car, one crushed beneath a car he was repairing for his sister, and a third (their sister) killed as her vehicle overturned after hitting a patch of “black ice.” All three were kind and caring people, all were loved by their families, and all were dead before the age of twenty-five. These calamities of chance—that is to say, those not caused by the willful action of others—happen nearly every minute of every day and are perfectly absurd juxtaposed against mankind’s preferred status in the grand scheme of things. It is, however, perfectly consistent with the notion that we are purely a part of the universe and not its raison d’etre.
But even if you’re set firmly in the “thy will be done” camp, there are plenty of things we see in nature that appear far too wanton and cruel to have been designedly created by a beneficent and all-powerful being. In the wild, there is no accounting for what is good or what is wicked. Nature simply goes with what works, no matter how unseemly it might, well, seem. To appreciate just how amoral the workings of nature truly are, one need only consider the lifestyle of Copidosomopsis tanytmemus, a type of parasitic wasp. The female of this species makes her living as countless generations have before her, instinctively depositing her eggs inside the egg of another insect (most often that of a moth). Once the invading larvae emerge from their first molt, they immediately begin feeding on the host’s larval organs before eventually turning their appetites on the host itself. Scott Gilbert, a professor of biology at Swarthmore College, describes the ensuing process this way: “By 40 days, the parasitic brood has finished eating its host’s muscles, fat bodies, gonads, silk glands, gut, nerve cord, and hemolymph, and the host is little more than a sac of skin holding about 70 pupating wasp larvae. After another 5 or 6 days, the new adults gnaw holes in the host’s integument [outer covering], and in a scene repeated in the movie Alien, chew their way out of the
host’s body. These adults then copulate (often on the body of their dead host), find another host in which to deposit an egg, and die shortly thereafter.”
Even allowing that insects cannot suffer to the same extent that, say, Sigourney Weaver can, to couch this reproductive strategy in creationist terms, attributing such acts to an omnipotent designer is extremely troubling nonetheless. Darwin himself fretted over this logical absurdity, confiding in a letter to American biologist Asa Grey that he (Darwin) could not bring himself to believe that “a benevolent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.” That any creature should be obliged to invade and consume the body of another is bad enough, in evolutionary terms, but it would be an unspeakably evil arrangement to institute by choice, as would necessarily be the case were an omnipotent creator running things.
In this respect, it must have come as something of a relief when scientists finally came to understand that predators and parasites were not purposefully designed but arose quite on their own as simpler organisms gradually developed more efficient ways to feed and reproduce themselves. In fact, were it not for the escalating arms race between predator and prey waged in the Precambrian seas, Earth today would harbor only the simplest of life-forms for lack of selection pressures to drive the development of things like eyes and ears, teeth and shells, backbones and brains. As ruthless as it may seem, the predator/prey dynamic is, among other things, what makes complicated life-forms possible. We know this because living creatures are never more elaborate than they need to be (again, consider the eyeless insects and fish that inhabit subterranean caverns or the flightless cormorants of the Galapagos archipelago, critters that ultimately shed the metabolically expensive faculties of sight and flight after they were rendered superfluous by their new environs). To be sure, when it comes to handing out complex biological machinery, Mother Nature is nothing if not tightfisted. “Use it or lose it,” you can almost hear her say in that maternal it’s-for-your-own-good tone of voice.
Happily, a great many things that would otherwise amount to perverse cruelty in the pre-planned world of creationist cosmology are reduced to little more than an unavoidable by-product of biological complexity if we regard the universe as purely mechanical. Nature is either entirely neutral toward all living things or she is incredibly nasty; there is no third option. Perhaps this is why there are so few creationists among professional biologists. Unless you are prepared to abandon all curiosity about the workings of the living world, maintaining the illusion of cosmic primacy remains a thorny proposition studded with emotional conflict. If you are a creationist and wish to remain that way, it seems the less you know about the world’s ecosystems the better.
An Attitude with Attitude
But why should scientists, or anyone else for that matter, care what creationists think? What concern is it of ours? If these people are troubled by the inconsistencies their worldview presents, isn’t that their cross to bear? And if they aren’t, what difference should that make to anyone else? The answer, quite clearly, would be “none at all” if these beliefs bore no ill consequence for the rest of us. But alas, such is not the case. In the end, what makes this the business of rationalists is not the pained inconsistencies that mindful creationists foist upon themselves but the ripple effects that everyone else suffers as a consequence. And this intractable mind-set, like all such dogmatic belief systems, is a veritable wave-making machine.
The reason for this is hardly a mystery. Because people are naturally drawn to the company of like-minded individuals, folks who are taught to rely on the wisdom of others tend to reinforce in one another an autocratic attitude that discourages tolerance for dissenting points of view. This is especially true when it comes to accepting beliefs that look to make our lives easier, which in this context means less complicated. Comfortably insulated from the vagaries of human existence, this mystical mind-set tends, with time, to become neatly parsed into black and white, good and evil, right and wrong: a stark and rigid point of view where shades of gray are seen not as invitations to explore a subtler reality but as muddling obstacles to some predetermined truth.
To those committed to this brand of binary logic, it only stands to reason that because they are right (that is, virtuous), all those who disagree must therefore be wrong (that is, wicked) and in need of reform. There is thus a strong tendency for these groups to want to impose their way of thinking—if that’s the right term—on everyone else. And this inclination is only intensified by biblical teachings of collective guilt, wherein God is said to punish whole communities for the sins of a few. As Shadia Drury, professor of philosophy at the University of Regina, once remarked in these very pages: “If you believe that God will punish you collectively for the private vices of some of the members of the community—by using hurricanes, floods, famines, earthquakes, or terrorists—you will naturally take a lively interest in the private affairs of others.”
Make no mistake, a mind-set based on unthinking faith is generally not the type that is content to exist within the confines of its own borders; this is an attitude with attitude, an aggressive belief system that insists on being believed and often compels its adherents to work to impose its mores on the greater public at large. This can’t be healthy. Some observers have even gone so far as to portray this worldview as the ideologic equivalent of a cancerous growth. And considering how sectarian “values” have managed to insinuate themselves into the body politic, the metaphor seems painfully apt. The fact is, these moralistic metastases have become alarmingly abundant as of late and, like their corporeal counterparts, the damage they inflict depends largely on where they happen to crop up.
One case in point is the current flap over stem-cell research, where faith-based views on the “ensoulment” of the human embryo have, for a great many diseases, essentially slowed the race for a cure to a crawl. Another example, closely related, is the seemingly endless controversy over abortion rights. The question of when, and under what circumstance, it is appropriate to terminate a pregnancy is complicated enough when viewed from a purely empirical perspective, but add religion to the mix and the problem becomes completely intractable. So too has the issue of civil rights been complicated by the preformed notions of the piously minded, embodied most recently in the political row over whether gay couples should be afforded the same legal rights as more “traditional” families.
Less obvious, but perhaps even more pervasive, is the damage inflicted on society in general (and young people in particular) as people of faith struggle to shield themselves from their animal heritage, especially where matters of sex are concerned. Christians and Jews are taught that it is a sin to covet anything that is your neighbor’s, which is widely interpreted as a divine dictate against desires both material and sexual. This is not just a good idea; it’s the law (see the tenth commandment). Such animalistic cravings are so reviled, in fact, that they are also listed among the seven deadly sins. Now mind you, this is not adultery we are talking about here—that’s covered under Article VII of the Decalogue. No, this path to eternal damnation is paved with desire, the selfsame corporeal craving that nature has spent h
undreds of millions of years instilling in us. Now that is unfair.
In the view of many, the consequences of lifting the veil that separates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom would be a terrible thing to behold. Why, just imagine what dire consequences might ensue if young children everywhere knew where babies really come from and how the human reproductive system really works; if kids knew what to expect from puberty and understood the biological underpinnings of these changes before experiencing them firsthand; if everyone were to reach sexually maturity aware of the dangers of unprotected sex and the mechanics of contraception. And who knows what might happen if youngsters were ever to become savvy enough to recognize a sexual predator when he or she sees one, either in person or on the web. It’s pretty scary stuff.
The irony, of course, is that the more parents try to shelter their kids from the “evils” of carnal knowledge, the more curious children become, and the more titillating it becomes. How else to explain the fact that certain words heard on every playground in America cannot be uttered on network television? (These salty modifiers do have their place after all. As Mark Twain once observed, “under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”) It’s as if parents were convinced that sexuality is a learned behavior rather than a biological urge and that denying kids access to the information can effectively curb it.
But this is child’s play compared to the damage this form of sexual repression is truly capable of exacting. To appreciate just how destructive this mind-set can become, we need look no further than the carnage being visited upon the unfortunate citizens of Iraq. John Hendren, foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, recently gave voice to the kind of unspeakable acts that only true piety can inspire. Sounding as though he could scarcely believe his own story, Hendren reported on NPR’s Morning Edition that shepherds in a rural neighborhood in western Baghdad were murdered, according to locals, for failing to diaper their goats. (Yes, you read that right). “Apparently, the sexual tension is so high in regions where Sheikhs take a draconian view of Shariah law that they feel the sight of naked goats poses an unacceptable temptation … and that seemed about as preposterous as Iraq could get until I heard about the grocery store in east Baghdad. The grocer and three others were shot to death and the store was firebombed because he suggestively arranged his vegetables…. [A]n Iraqi colleague explained matter-of-factly that Shiite clerics had recently distributed a flyer directing grocers how to display their food. Standing up a celery stalk near a couple of tomatoes in a way that might–to the profoundly repressed–suggest an aroused male, is now a capital offense.”
Think about what this says about us as a species. We humans are far and away the most intelligent beings the world has ever known, the architects of many great and wonderful things. Art, music, science, literature, chocolate, baklava: who but only the most sublime of creatures could visit such splendor upon Earth? William Shakespeare, a fine example in his own right, expressed it thus: “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!” True enough. And yet here we are, four decades after the first (some would say alleged) Moon landing, being driven to a murderous rage over goat panties and naughty veggies. While there are not many things that can be said about this world with absolute assurance, this much is certain: this is no way for an intelligent species to behave.
Something is terribly wrong here. It’s as if the human psyche has been usurped by a cultural meme powerful enough to short-circuit our moral intuitions, to say nothing of our common sense. Surely there is no telling what mankind might deign to accomplish if the considerable energies we now expend denying our animal heritage should ever be directed toward more fruitful ends.
Dennis R. Trumble is a project scientist and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming book, The Way of Science: Finding Truth and Meaning in a Scientific Worldview (Prometheus Books), which examines the increasing importance of scientific literacy and critical thinking in modern society.