How can you see hummingbirds, roses, orchids and not believe in Lord’s splendor? But, if you’re going to look at those things, you should look at other things, too. Think of an African boy with a parasitic worm boring into his eye. If you tell me God not only created but cares for us all, what about that boy? Are you telling me he says: “I understand. God deliberately created a worm that is going to blind me?” I find that intolerable.-David Attenborough in a recent New Scientist interview.*
As an optimist, I believe people are curious by nature and don’t want to be willfully ignorant ( atleast, this is true for the young ones who haven’t been brainwashed). This is cause for hope. This is also cause for one of the fundamental problems confronting believers, creationists and all other faith-based whipper-snappers.
Knowing is, in modern times, essentially knowing something scientifically. This kind of knowing is anti-authoritarian and deeply deeply subversive. In its heyday, before and during Galileo’s time, Catholic church was in absolute control of the society. But, even with inquisitions, burnings at the stake, boiling people alive in a cauldron of oil, the Church could still not keep people from learning sensible things, such as, god did not place earth at the center of the universe. Once a sensible idea takes hold of ones mind–we all know this from personal experience–, it causes friction among those mental cogs that turn irrationally.
The convoluted explanations that religious people and creationists give, especially when their untainted young ones ask simple questions about the world, is an expression of cognitive dissonance. When I was young I asked one of the elders of my family why my niece, who had acute cerebral palsy and stunted growth, was mute. His explanation oscillated between extreme anger at god and complete faith in god. It was disconcerting to me as a young child to see an apparently reasonable adult answer like a drunk when asked a simple question. I understand his pain now. I believe that if he had known how mistakes happen randomly in biology, it may have helped. My niece’s condition was nothing personal. Presence of god only makes us angry, shameful, fearful and incoherent (because we look up to him and he fails repeatedly). We do not need god’s approval nor his existence to care for our loved ones, do we?
The dissonance caused by rational and irrational ideas inhabiting the same space between one’s ears runs deep, especially in those whose faith goes hand in hand with their artistry. In a recent visit to Rome, I saw artistic expressions of this dissonance in many exquisite paintings and sculptures in Churches and Museums. They ‘paint the mortal shame of nature with the living hues of art’, wrote Tennyson about this kind of sensibility*. A lot of religiously inspired art, Christian art in particular that I saw in Rome, deals with this fundamental incompatibility: What life actually is–no personal god, no grand purpose, and what religion makes it ought to be–god has a plan for you.
*From the poem “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After”. A fiery and visionary poem that was written as a sequel to the original ‘Locksley Hall’. Here are a few lines:
Authors–essayist, atheist, novelist, realist, rhymester, play your part,
Paint the mortal shame of nature with the living hues of Art.
Rip your brothers’ vices open, strip your own foul passions bare;
Down with Reticence, down with Reverence–forward–naked–let them stare.
Feed the budding rose of boyhood with the drainage of your sewer;
Send the drain into the fountain, lest the stream should issue pure.