Sunday, January 29, 2006

Science and Spirituality Sunday - "Original Sin"

Today I'm starting a series on science and spirituality. I hope that I'll be able to write an article on this specific topic once a week, and Sunday has a certain ... je ne sais quoi. Well, not really - it's a day on which millions (billions?) of people around the world set aside at least an hour from their day to attend spiritual gatherings. And ... it has a nice alliteration thing happening with those other "S" words up there :)

I did a little search on Google News for "evolution education", and turned up a great article over at the Centre Daily (the newspaper of State College, PA, here in the USA) called "The argument over origins". The authors, Burrell and Mason, do a really nice job summarizing many of the issues that are involved with evolution education, focusing specifically on the issues of Intelligent Design, creationism, and religion in teaching high school Biology. I particularly enjoyed how the authors point out that students enter the classroom with their own ideas, which sometimes include particularly strong religious beliefs that they would like to discuss. Later in the article, the authors also give a brief mention to the difficulties that teachers and students alike might, or do, face, when the door is opened to such belief-oriented discussions.

As a teacher, a scientist, and a spiritual human being, I can't help being a little bit sad at the degree to which these important issues have become points for all-out fights to commence, dividing communities at various levels. I was raised within the Roman Catholic church, baptised and confirmed, but left the organization after my parents divorced in high school and were denied communion with God. As a child of a very unhealthy parental relationship, I couldn't understand why this incredibly good (but difficult) decision that my parents made would be punished. I mention this only to demonstrate that I am not unfamiliar with scripture - my own, personal relationship with it has changed, but I still find the teachings of Jesus Christ to be incredibly challenging and inspirational. When I went off to college and realized that I needed to decide upon a focus for my studies, I chose neuroscience because it seemed as though it would help me to understand spirit and mind more fully. In the following years, I've learned a lot about the inner workings of the brain and the concept of biological evolution, and I've found that knowledge to enhance my spirituality, not diminish it.

I suppose that one of the major distinctions that I've come to understand in this process is the difference between religion and spirituality. Some people might be tempted to think that by leaving the Catholic faith, I somehow became less connected with my own spirituality, but yet I've found the opposite to be true. I think that a deep understanding of science, and specifically evolution, has helped me to find an even deeper meaning in the very same teachings that I learned in church as a younger person. One such idea is that of original sin (see entries in the Catholic Encyclopedia and Wikipedia).

The main idea of original sin, from the Christian perspective, is that God created humans with free will - we can follow the rules that God sets forth, or we can break those rules. In the Garden of Eden, where God created humanity, his first creations, named Adam and Eve, decided to eat the fruit of a tree that God had forbidden them to eat. After that decision, Adam and Eve were no longer welcome in the Garden, and suffered a demotion in their relationship with God. As a result, all of the children of Adam and Eve (which implies all of humanity) are thought to have a diminished relationship with God (instead of having a relationship like Adam, Eve, and God had before the disobedient behavior occurred). Within this context, the goal and responsibility of humankind is to employ free will, in the face of great suffering and struggles, to build our relationship with God back up to its highest potential.

I think that science, specifically evolution, can also weigh in on the topic of original sin. Although the context is different, I think the main ideas that come out of the religious perspectives on the idea of original sin are that we are not currently as good as we could be, and that the struggles we face in life are actually opportunities for our improvement. To me, this sounds strikingly similar to the idea of increasing biological complexity through natural selection. In the framework of evolution, individual organisms are more or less suited to the demands of their environment, and those environmental demands act as one mechanism to increase the fitness of a population of organisms over many generations. The major difference between the religious and evolutionary perspectives on original sin is the ability of the individual to reach the highest potential within its lifetime. Christianity claims this is possible (specifically through the acceptance of Jesus as the bearer of all sin). Evolution, however, rejects this possibility (specifically because the forces of natural selection act on populations across many generations).

So, I come back to my point on the distinction between religion and spirituality. I find that both share qualities - both address the highest realms of human consciousness and our relationship with others and our universe. However, religion implies that a person follows a specific set of rules in order to develop the spirit, while spirituality allows for a less dogmatic approach to personal development and self-actualization. A religious approach does not permit the dogma-breaking assumptions that evolution implies about the origins of life. However, a spiritual approach allows some relaxation in the interpretation of scripture, so that literal meaning is not quite as important as the larger message. And so, I suggest that the spiritualist can find great comfort by uniting the great messages from scripture and from evolution regarding the idea of imperfection. We can adopt some aspects of the religious approach, challenging ourselves to employ our free will in our struggles so that we can have the best relationship with divinity as is possible in this human form. We can also adopt some aspects of evolutionary theory, finding comfort in the knowledge that there is a natural mechanism in place for the improvement of the capacity of future generations to relate with the divine.

In the religious view, I find hope for myself, but little hope for future generations, knowing that in this model all individuals begin their relationship with spirituality at the same diminished level. In the evolutionary view, I find little hope for myself, but great hope for the ability of future generations to start their relationship with spirituality at a greater level than my own. With a spiritual view that combines aspects of religion and evolution, I find hope for myself and hope for the future.

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