Dinosaurs and Heaven: Science vs. Religion

dinosaur angel

When I moved to Orlando I saw decals on cars that carried on a debate between science and religion.  One was a fish, a symbol of Christianity, and letters inside its outlines spelled out “truth”.  Another decal showed the outlines of the same fish, but little feet replaced the fins.  The letters inside spelled “Darwin”.  A third decal came in the form of a “truth” fish eating a “Darwin” fish.  I’m not sure if anyone’s thought up a fourth.

I’ve seen YouTube videos of mothers protesting against public schools teaching boys about dinosaurs.  They believe that a boy’s aggressive tendencies can be awakened by seeing pictures of T-Rexes, that these images “bestialize” their sons.  Some mothers insist that dinosaurs never existed as the Bible does not mention them.  The thunder lizards are a hoax perpetuated by paleontologists to get grant money from the government.

Other groups believe that dinosaurs did exist, but not before Adam.  They ignore evidence provided by carbon dating.   They claim instead that God snapped His fingers, and the earth suddenly teemed with all the creatures that would ever walk, swim, ooze and fly.  (Whoop, there it was!)

The graphics that illustrate this proposition lack imagination.  They usually show kids playing with baby brontosauruses while a volcano puffs benevolently in the distance.  But if you thought about the rampant conditions shortly after this Creation moment, you’d have to conclude that our planet was truly exciting for the species that currently survive.  Elephants would have had to outrun T-Rexes.  Lions and wolves would have  fought velociraptors over kills.  Owls and eagles flew along side pterosaurs, and sharks competed with fifty foot mosasaurs for the rights to seal hunting waters.  (If I were Adam I wouldn’t have lazed about naming this and that creature and pining for a soul mate.  Instead I would have found a dark corner in a cave and hid myself away while the rest of creation sorted things out.)

I once worked with a woman named Mrs. Putterbaugh.  She was deeply religious and did not approve of a coworker, my roommate Dave.  He was a master’s degree student in biology.  Dave believed that science would eventually solve all the mysteries of the universe and that any form of religion was an obsolete superstition.  She complained about his impatient dismissal of her beliefs and said, “The really smart ones have a hard time getting into heaven.”

She smiled at me as she said that, and I knew that she included me in the heaven bound elect.  She assumed two things:  1) I was not as smart as Dave; 2) my faith in scripture outweighed my belief in science.  My roommate was smarter, but my attitude toward religion at that time was almost identical to his.  If he and I had been plastered flat on I75 by a jack-knifing semi, we both would have been consigned to the flames.

I didn’t tell Mrs. Putterbaugh that it’s foolish to cling to myths disproved by science.  And I didn’t explain to her that the earth has existed for 4.5 billion years, that creatures gradually evolved over millions of years, and that T-Rexes never lay down with lambs.  She would have closed her ears and begun leaving Bible tracts at my work station.

Now I might fare better in a discussion with her.  I believe in the ability of science to describe and predict reality, but also believe that the practice has its limits.  We are puny creatures with limited means of exploring the vast reaches of creation.  It’s arrogant to assume that we will know and understand All if given a enough time to smash subatomic particles and balance equations.

Only God knows why He (She, It, The Cosmic Transcendence) bothered to let the universe be in the first place.  Science is good at figuring out what and how, but usually avoids why.  There are no equations that answer this question:  what’s the point of existence?

The Roman Catholic church has overcome it’s past of suppressing science, and generally embraces the idea that religion and science can coexist in harmony.  My fifth grade teacher, a nun named Sister Joseph Marie, commented, “The Catholic Church has no problems with Darwin and the theory of evolution.”  A classmate asked, “But what about Genesis?  Doesn’t it say that everything was created in six days?”  Sister replied, “What is a day to God?”

 

Lost Souls

Sister Mary Margaret, my eighth grade home room teacher, asked me to stay behind at lunch as she had something important to ask me.  I walked up to her desk after the other students had left for the playground.  She fixed me with her steely gray eyes and said, “Are you going to go to Archbishop Carroll High School?  I see that you haven’t enrolled yet.”  She tapped a list of names.

“No, my family can’t afford to send me.  I’m going to Fairmont East.”

“You could get a job,” she said apparently unaware that fourteen year old boys were not allowed to work in the state of Ohio and that the tuition at Carroll, comparable to state university fees, could not be earned part time at minimum wage.

“Mom wants me to focus on my studies.  No jobs…She and my Dad and sister all transferred to public schools after eighth grade,” I said.

“You’ll drift away from the faith,” she told me.  “Your soul will be lost.”

“My parents and sister are still Catholics,” I pointed out.

“Your soul will be lost,” she solemnly repeated.

I studied the flakes of dandruff that accumulated daily in shallow drifts on the shoulders of her dark habit and tried to find something to say.  One possibility, telling her that hell seemed preferable to an eternity spent with the likes of her, tempted me.  My instinct for self-preservation kicked in and I said, “I’m not going to Carroll.”

She squinted at me and a blush of red deepened on her cheeks.  She had been angry when she called me aside, and now my bluntness had made her angrier.  I didn’t care.  I knew that I’d be free from her and my parochial school in a few weeks.

My parents sent me to a public school for ninth grade and signed me up for CCD, a Monday night program at church that taught religious education to kids who had endangered their souls by attending public schools.  The classes were segregated by gender but undivided by age.  Few boys were older than I, but many were two years younger.  Their hopes of salvation had begun to fade even earlier than mine.

Our classes were taught by fathers from the parish, and few had training in education and theology.  The lessons faltered whenever questions beyond a Dad’s level of knowledge had to be suppressed and pushed aside.  Our instructors droned out a rehash of the doctrines drilled into us in lower grades.  These tenets could be reduced to the following:  Do what Mother Church tells you without question and get a free pass to heaven.

One night after class I ran into a guy I hadn’t seen in a few years.  His name was Ben, and he used to team up with a dim-witted giant who did his bidding.  Ben enjoyed picking fights and bullying boys larger than he was.  If they defended themselves or returned his insults he unleashed his bodyguard on them.  I once saw Matthew B., a rawboned kid with lethal elbows who played center on our basketball team, get beaten to the ground by Ben’s stooge. Ben looked on and smiled wistfully as if enjoying the beauty of a moment that would fade all too soon.

I passed by Ben as he sat slumped on the cement floor of the corridor leading to the exit.  I didn’t say a word to him.  He whispered, “Hey, pussy!”  I looked over my shoulder, not knowing at whom he had directed his insult, and saw him staring at me with sad, tired eyes.  I kept going, and he called after me, “Aren’t you going to come back and beat me up?”  He laughed as I pushed open the door and walked outside.

Years later my mother wrote that my sister’s youngest boy, Chris, had penned an essay that had been published in the parish newspaper.  He had attended the same parochial school as I, and apparently gotten the same warning when a nun found out that he also planned to go to Fairmont East.  I read a clipping of his article that Mom had included in the letter, and Chris’ words were a desperate plea for help as he entered into a world of non-Catholics conspiring to steal his salvation.  I thought, “Holy shit, boy.  They really got to you.”

Ten years passed and I attended Chris’ wedding.  Both he, his bride, and his bride’s family were former Catholics.  The wedding ceremony acknowledged the possibility of spiritual bonds in marriage, but there were no Bible readings.  The officiant was the mayor of a suburb of Cleveland.  I learned that the bride’s family were staunch agnostics and had removed their children from a parish school after a conflict of some sort.  I thought, “Good for them.”

I talked to Chris a few years later and mentioned his article in the parish newspaper and his later conversion to agnosticism.  “What happened?” I asked him.  He smiled and said that he had been dating a girl at the time he wrote his essay who was a bit hysterical about religious matters.  She had influenced him, but when he started to attend a public school his fears vanished.  He said, “The people at Fairmont East were so much nicer to me.”  I felt pride as I smiled back at my confident, free-thinking nephew.  According to the nuns Chris had lost his soul, but he appeared to be doing quite well without it.

 

The Sanctity of Guilt

Religions elevate different emotional states or personality traits to the highest standard of moral behavior.  Christians praise self-sacrificing love.  Readers of the Bhagavad Gita learn that they should not be concerned by the results of their actions, but that they should make sure that every step taken is one of devotion to God.  Quakers believe that an Inner Light is available for guidance, and if it is consistently followed the believer will live a life in harmony with the whole of humankind and nature.  All of these core beliefs are powerful tools for setting social mores, to leading people toward happier and more productive lives as well as to spiritual peace.

The interesting but sad history of nearly every faith is the perversion of their core beliefs into repressive, rigid codes that are used by a hierarchical structure to garner and maintain power and wealth.  Secondary tenets are usually added onto the original inspirational teachings of the founders of a religion, ones that aid and abet the franchise building of current spiritual leaders.

I grew up in the Roman Catholic faith.  The power structure of the church, at times, was emphasized from the pulpit more strongly than the Sermon on the Mount.  We weren’t encouraged to read the Bible in our spare time as we might get ideas that ran contrary to the teaching of our parish priests.  Certain passages of the New Testament were ignored (Jesus had brothers and sisters and a mother who was worried that He would embarrass the family in front of the neighbors.), while others were heavily underlined (Mary’s miraculous state of virginity when she became pregnant and gave birth to Jesus).  Loving sacrifice, when it was taught, was usually tied to giving generously to charities sponsored by the church and to the church itself.

Secondary tenets were added on to ensure our docile acceptance of church doctrine and its hierarchy.  Obedience was emphasized, as was humility in the face of God’s amazing power.  God’s representatives on earth were the priests, bishops, cardinals and the Pope, so kneeling before them and accepting their direction without question was an act of piety.

Guilt was a big thing too.  We were taught to feel guilty for merely existing.  Baptism released us from an original sin passed down to us from Adam and Eve that we had acquired simply by being born.  Jesus died for our sins, even the ones we had only imagined.  We were told that we constantly sinned in thought, word and deed, and by acts of commission and omission.  From one sunrise to the next we were actively engaged in fouling our souls, and only by rushing to confession to seek out church sponsored forgiveness could we expunge a few stains.  The agonies of our Savior on the cross were described in detail to reinforce the idea that we, the faithful, were a bunch of miserable shits requiring an extreme sacrifice to square our debts with God.  And, of course, if we were ingrates and failed to toe the (church) line, then Jesus would act as our judge and condemn us to eternal hell….So much fun.

Guilt became an act of piety.  If folks had moments when they felt a little too good about themselves they would be reminded of their faults.  A “big head” meant that one had forgotten about his or her innate fallibility.  It was better to counter any moment of satisfaction with a self reminder that one had screwed up in the past and would do so again.  If persons felt that they had made some strides in conquering a bad habit they kept it to themselves, or even suppressed any thoughts of accomplishment.  She had been taught not to trust in herself–only God (and a priest) could really recognize the true state of her soul–and God might be tempted to throw harder challenges at him if he got cocky.

In recent years the child abuse scandal has finally exposed the depths of corruption in the church.  The revelation that the organization was designed mostly to promote and protect its own, namely the clerics  and not the lay people, was a heartbreaking surprise to those who had spent their lives revering the official caretakers of the church.  The faithful parishioners had hoped that there really leaders more chaste and holy than themselves, that all those years of guilt-tripping had been a meaningful exercise in becoming more like the clergy if not like Jesus Himself (the unattainable goal).

The truth has come out, but the question is, “Will it set us free?”  Can we go back to the original teachings of an avatar, saint, or savior and discern their core message?  Can we put divine inspiration into effect in our own lives without guidance from a teacher who may or may not be corrupt?  Is there a church that hasn’t debased the revelations of its founding prophet?  And if we rely solely on ourselves will be fall prey to self-delusion?

I’ve been left to wander after leaving behind the Catholic church.   The faith into which I was indoctrinated still has a lingering influence, and my fall back stance whenever I am praised or criticized is an uneasy mix of humility and guilt.    I meditate and have dabbled in studying Buddhism and Hindu belief systems, but have never found a true spiritual home.  As far as I know there have been no organizations created by human beings that can ever establish a heavenly space here on earth.

Perhaps the most that we can hope for is to see occasional glimpses of a better way of existence.