Sunday, 20 October 2013

Christian, Muslim, Athiest? We are all Jews

I recently had a moment of blinding enlightenment. Just as St Paul saw a vision on the road from Damascus which changed his life, I too have had such a moment. Unlike St Paul, I won't be changing my name or writing new chapters of the bible (unless anyone decides to add this particular blog to the New Testament, which I suspect, even with a new, more liberal Pope) is highly unlikely. It happened about four weeks ago and the true impact of this revealation has been festering in my mind since.

The experience happened in a most unlikely setting. It happened in the changing rooms of my gym, just as I was getting dressed after having a workout and a shower (behave yourself and stop sniggering). I had the changing room to myself and as I was drying myself, I suddenly was overcome with the realisation of a major truth. Now this should really be blindingly obvious to everyone, but given the number of people have died as a result of disputes over the nature of the question, it clearly hasn't sunk into our thick, stupid, uneducated brains.

So lets start at the beginning. It doesn't matter what religion you are. Maybe you have no faith. Maybe you despise faith and organised religion. There is a fundamental truth we all have to accept. A long time ago, something rather strange and incredible happened. That strange and incredible thing was a cell flickered into life. Not only that, but it divided in half and the two halfs divided in half. From that event, every creature, every form of life we see took shape. Now if you follow the Richard Dawkins school of thought, an entirely random process of natural selection has got us here. If you are devoutly religious, you think that somewhere, somehow, there has been a divine intervention and what we see is the result of wonderous influences, which we don't begin to understand or comprehend. I'll add a caveat and say that if you are a creationist, you believe it all started a few thousand years ago and the wonderous process happened in a timescale compressed beyond all scientifically explainable comprehension. You also believe that God or the Devil stick loads of strange artifacts around to confuse and confound us. All of that isn't what I want to discuss, but it is an important starting point.

Anyway from that incredible event, a cell dividing and continuing to divide, about 2 million years ago, we saw the first fossil records of someone who looked a bit like us. We don't really know too much about these early members of the family Homo. There were strands, Homo Erectus, Homo Neanderthal, and lastly us Homosapiens. We have been quite a successful branch of the family. We've outlived all of our cousins and we have bent the beautiful planet Earth to our needs.

Homosapiens, from our earliest incarnation have sought to do two things. We've sort to understand this chaotic environment we've found ourselves in. We've written books and built up traditions to help us cope with a seemingly impossible set of conditions and an ever changing environment. These traditions are called religions. Then once we've formed our set of beliefs, we have gone to war with everyone who believes something else, no matter how minor the differences are. We seem to need to have a tribe to belong to. Once we are in that tribe, nothing makes us more happy than to wreak havoc on someone elses tribe. We always find some excuse. We always think we are special, we are chosen, we have gifts. These are dangerous, but the most dangerous thing we have is the unshakable belief that we are right. That is what causes the wars, the suppression and the agony. When it comes down to it, we can't stand the thought we might be wrong.

There is however a deeper truth, one which we seem to forget. This truth is that we are all different to each other in a myriad of ways, but in essence we are all the same. There is not a branch of the family homosapien that cannot procreate with a member of another branch. We all share the same DNA. In fact the wider we spread our net when seeking partners to breed with, the better for our offspring. Genetic deformity seems to be a product of inbreeding, not reaching out, not looking beyond our own community. Geneticisits can analyse our DNA and tell us where our family tree originated. The different strands of the Homosapien family have all manner of strange roots. Geographically isolated communities, such as Australian Aboriginals have a distinct and well defined make up. Residents of cosmopolitan communities such as London have a whole rainbow of strands in our DNA. Whatever roots we have, the net product is the same. We are all human beings, we all bleed when we are cut. We can all be happy, sad, violent, moody, depressed. We can all do great things and we can all do nothing with our lives. What we do is often, but not always dictated by who our parents were and what chances they gave us. As I said, often but not always. Look at Mo Farrah. A twin, who won an Olympic gold. An inspiration. He has identical DNA to his brother but circumstances have given their lives different paths.

So anyway, as we consider this family, of which we are all part, let us consider the religion. For the purposes of this debate, let us consider Athiesm to be a strand. It is a set of beliefs. We classify ourselves as a Jew, Christian, Muslim, Athiest, etc for all manner of reasons. I'd guess that the primary reason for the majority of us is that our parents chose to raise us in a systems. We adopt the tribe and we feel comfortable within it. Many of us, as we reach adulthood may question these beliefs. Many of us will change clubs (as it were). Sometimes this change is imposed on us. Great Britain used to be staunchly Roman Catholic, until Henry VIII fell out with the Vatican. Then belonging to the faith became a crime. In more recent times, religion has seen persecution from Athiest Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Russia and Indo-China. With the fall of Communism in Russia and liberalisation in China, that suppression has thankfully abated. Now the largest cause of concern is the clash of religious cultures between Islam and the West. This is not a simple thing to quantify. Islam has many strands and most believers are decent people who, like the rest of us, simply want to live their lives and go about their business. On the Western side, there is no great desire to convert believers of Islam into any faith. Athiests believe that religion is outdated and education will make radical Islam disappear eventually (I somehow doubt this, but it is a point of view). Christians gave up on the concept of crusades centuries ago. I am not at all sure what the majority Christian view of Islam is. As I understand it, the Catholic Church recognises Muslims as brothers who believe in God (although I am sure there is much "debate" about this in many circles).

Perhaps the greatest friction is between the Jewish community and the Muslim community. The reasons for this largely started with the creation of the State of Israel by United Nations mandate in the 1940's. Prior to that there was little antipathy. What is odd about this is that the Jewish religion does not actively seek converts and Islam categorically states that its adherents should treat "people of the book" (ie Jews and Christians) with respect. Going back to our discussion at the start of this blog, we talked about that cell dividing in half. When that cell divided, it did not start a war with its brother. Eventually and by a mechanism no one understands, those little cells invented sex. This was where two completely different cells did the opposite thing. They came together to make a new cell. The result was that both cells created something different, but also better and stronger.

And that is at the heart of the revealation I received. The human races has spent millennia dividing. We have developed faiths, religions, beliefs and traditions. The time has come for us to all grow up. We have to learn to accept each others differences and learn from each others traditions. There is no tradition and no person that is beyond learning. I spoke to a geneticist who told me an interesting thing. If you look at the typical DNA make up of someone with a strong Jewish ancestry, it is virtually identical to many Palestinians (both Christain and Muslim). In fact there are far more Muslims who are genetically Jewish than there are Jews in the world.

The point is that however we pigeonhole ourselves, we ultimately are all members of the human family. In some ways we are all Jews, Muslims, Christians. Our culture and our values have been influenced by all of these traditions. Muslim scholars invented modern mathematics, the idea of laws is a very jewish tradition. Christianity influenced our views on social justice and forgiveness. Athiesm has helped developed free thinking. We all share the benefits of these developments.  .Whatever threat we perceive from the other tribes, the greatest threat is from our own inability to tolerate the fact that other people disagree with us. Winston Churchill once said "Jaw Jaw is better than War War". We cannot fight closed minds by closing our own minds. Before we seek to "change other peoples ways" we should understand them and seek to engage them. If we believe we have a better way, that doesn't necessarily mean it will be better for someone else. They may be happy with their traditions and beliefs. Aggressive confrontation of those will merely seek to bring down walls. Agree to differ and find things in common. When we have these, I believe the other disagreements will just melt away, unless it is us who is in the person with the problem.


Jim said...

I quite like this on the whole but there are a couple of naturistic corrections:

"That strange and incredible thing was a cell flickered into life. Not only that, but it divided in half and the two halfs divided in half. From that event, every creature, every form of life we see took shape."

The first replicating molecule wasn't a cell. The cell evolved from much more basic self-replicating molecules. This is strange but it isn't incredible. It is called abiogenesis and to varying degrees can be reproduced in a lab.

"Now if you follow the Richard Dawkins school of thought, an entirely random process of natural selection has got us here."

Actually, not. In fact, he has spent much of his career saying exactly the opposite:

"Evolution is non-random selection"

It is a bit like when you said Dawkins thinks that "science disproves god". No, he never did! In the God Delusion he explicitly says this is not what he believes, but that he thinks the probability of there being a god is low.

I don't think you are being intentionally dishonest. I think what is happening is you are writing about Dawkins but instead of talking about the man himself you are mistakenly writing about the characterture that creationists draw of Dawkins and other scientists.

I think this piece would be fine without bringing him into it. Or, if you think it is better with him in there, you could replace "random" with "naturalistic" to correct it.

Jim said...

Full show here:

It is quite good.

Rog T said...


I am quite happy with what I wrote. I am sure most people completely understand. There is no attempt to slur the Archbishop of Athiesm, Mr Dawkins, the reference is a passing casual one. As to your comments about molecules rather than cells dividing, it seems a rather pedantic point you are making. It rather reminds me of the congress of cardinals debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

I'm always happy for people to leave comments as you've done, if they feel they have something to say. If I think I've got something substancially wrong or mislead people, I will change it. In this case I don't, however if people read your comment, they can see that you have a different view, so as far as I'm concerned that is enough


Jim said...

It isn't really about Dawkins. The problem is that if you say "an entirely random process of natural selection", that's just not what evolution is. It is like if I wrote "some people believe in Christianity, the belief that Budda is a pretty groovy dude". It isn't that I'd be being malicious, I'd just be being wrong.

The point about cells/molecules wasn't meant to be nitpicking. I detected (and apologies if this isn't so) an attempt to discredit science by describing something that is of course ridiculous - that cells came into existence spontaneously. If scientists really were claiming that you'd have every right to scoff at them!

Again, this is a common tactic on the extreme fringes of christianity where science is seen as a threat. Instead of addressing science itself, they will address a parody of it. I don't think this is what you intended to do but I think you might have heard people making these extreme arguments and been taken in by them to a degree. Maybe not in your opinions, but in your misunderstanding of the things you are discussing.

Thanks for the chance to comment. I personally would correct an article I wrote when I knew it contained errors.

I hope someone reading this skips past the weird bits and just reads the nice bits about all getting along. As I say, other than the weird bits, I quite like this post.

Rog T said...


I had to snigger at your comments.
It seems many of your persuasion assume anyone who disagrees with them is a) thick and/or b) dishonest.

You assume I know nothing about biology and genetics. You couldn't be more wrong. I was accepted to study biology at University in 1981. I didn't go because I chose to move to Stockholm to further my musical career. Since then I have kept fully abreast of developments and regularly read all manner of scientific journals such as New Scientist and Scientific American amongst others.

A cell is the basic recognisable unit of life. The point at which life became viable was when cells started to divide. Prior to that any life form was not viable/sustainable. That was the single moment when Life as we know it "took off". What you are talking about is a building block. Your claim is rather like saying a brick is a House.

You have misrepresented me as I didn't claim that "cells magically appeared". To the best of my knowledge we can only speculate about that process as it hasn't been replicated. That doesn't mean it couldn't be.

Secondly you imply I scoff at scientists. Nothing could be more inaccurate. Show me where I scoff at them?

Thirdly you imply I deliberately misuse the phrase "random natural selection". As I understand it, genetic mutation is completely random. Since being diagnosed with cancer, I have studied the issue of cell mutation at length. I may be being presumptuous, but I suspect I understand this process as well as just about anyone who hasn't got a specialist doctorate in the subject. The way natural selection works is that beneficial mutations give a competetive advantage so they are more likely to survive. It is not a give that they will, they just have better odds.

This process can most easily be observed and explained in areas such as bacteria developing resistance to anti biotics. As such, it is not inaccurate to use the phrase random natural selection as a throwaway phrase in an article which is not a scientific paper about genetics. As a blogger, my first mission is to make my blogs interesting and readable. I doubt any sane person would decide to change their religious (or not) beliefs as a result of reading this phrase in this blog. It is not the purpose of this blog to promote any form of belief. The role is to allow me as an individual to share my views and opinions. I always state that I am a practicing Roman Catholic solely so people realise that I have a viewpoint which colours my view. To do otherwise would be dishonest.

I am surprised that you should get so defensive over that message. If I was writing a blog saying "join my religion because genetics is wrong" you'd have a point. As it is you've objected because for some strange reason you disgree about at what point something became recognisably a viable life form.

I don't think that Dawkins speaks for all athiest perspectives any more than the Pope speaks for every religion. He is just a recognisable figure who for the purposes of this blog was chosen to illustrate a point. If I'd used Joseph Stalin or Mao instead, would you have felt it was fairer?

Finally, just to prove that we can all nitpick you state "some people believe in Christianity, the belief that Budda is a pretty groovy dude". I see no reason why a Christian shouldn't believe Buddha is a pretty groovy dude. I'd say he's an important figure and one worthy of serious study. There is some evidence that Christian thought has been significantly influenced by such thinkers.

You need to accept that you have approached the blog with a fixation that you need to find fault with it as you have a different belief set to me. This has resulted in comments that are misrepresenative and misleading.