Two commonly held beliefs about the origin of human life are: life arose from the early oceans of our young planet through the random processes of evolution; or, human life was created by God. Each belief has a large, devout following of true believers – people who will not consider any other explanation. Many of us have had uncomfortable encounters with ardent devotees of either belief and have come away from those encounters bewildered and confused when a simple statement or comment is perceived as a (unintended) full-scale insult or offense in the blink of an eye. Misunderstandings occur easily, sometimes intentionally, and such misunderstandings do a tremendous disservice to believers of both points of view. At times we feel that finding common ground is beyond our capacity, but I believe we can reach an understanding of each other’s beliefs. Our species has that ability.
Very briefly stated, my understanding of the religious point of view is as follows. People who hold the belief that God is humankinds’ creator find within this belief an importance and exceptionality to human life that places it above all other forms of life, even as those other forms of life are created by God. Human beings were created in God’s image, he blessed them, admonished them to fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over every living thing – all was made for humankind (Genesis 1:27 – 31). As humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation, the miraculous nature of our existence is inherent. Each human starts life via the breath of God; each life is a specific miracle brought to consciousness for a specific purpose and from a specific reason. There is no randomness in God’s creation. All creation has a place, a purpose, and reason for being. And at the top of God’s earthly creations is humankind, and the only form of life aware of its own mortality – and by extension the mortality of all other life.
And again very briefly stated, my understanding of the scientific point of view is as follows. All biological life originated from chemical interactions of simple molecules in the oceans (or in the atmosphere and then rained into the oceans) of our very young earth. These interactions are an entirely chemical process driven by these simple molecules’ ability to reproduce themselves (an early RNA molecule that could replicate itself), and develop into more complex forms through random mutation. Most of these organisms died but those with mutation(s) that allowed greater ability to obtain nutrients survived to reproduce. From successive generations, even more complex life forms were created – again, through the process of random mutation. As these life forms interacted with the environment, those with characteristics that enabled the organism to survive long enough to produce multiple generations out-competed those organisms that were less successful in reproducing. Countless hazards were encountered and many extinctions occurred in the early life of our planet. The fact that from single-celled organisms human life developed is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that Homo sapiens have awareness of self and are cognizant of the mortality of all life. Most biologists still believe that no other member of the animal kingdom has this awareness (there are some of us who strongly disagree). But the primary aspects of the scientific view of the origin of human life is the fact that our species has evolved to this level against enormous odds, and that we are not the pinnacle of evolution. Life on earth continues to evolve. It cannot do otherwise.
I see a common thread in these beliefs. Human life has received, either from God or through evolution, a gift of importance and value beyond any gift conceivable. This gift is the knowledge and awareness of mortality. We are aware of the fact that all life on this planet has a limited life span. This knowledge is with us at all times; it guides our actions and thoughts regardless of whether or not we acknowledge this. Some people fear death, some welcome it, some worship death, and some people fight it. But all beings are subject to it. What has always appeared absurd, and exceptionally cruel, to me is that humans allow themselves to feel justified in intentionally harming or taking life from another. Where does this justification come from? What has so much power that it can convince a person that another deserves harm, or to die? Whether one believes the religious reason for life or the scientific basis of life, the implication in both viewpoints is that all humans are kin. We share a common ancestor(s), be it a single-celled organism or Adam and Eve.
When ideologies (religious, political, or scientific) become so entrenched in societies that they override our sense of common humanity, catastrophic events can result. History is rife with horrific acts one human and/or society has committed against another. Each act is justified through a combination of belief of superiority, viewing those as “the other”, and denial of responsibility for our own actions. The common declaration, “I did this because you did that. . “ should be replaced with “I chose to do that because I . “. The easy path of retaliation should be rejected and replaced with attempts to understand why the initial act occurred. When no understanding or common ground can be found, when the differences in belief appear insurmountable (and this does happen), accepting the distance and walking away is best. If we make a conscious decision to recognize the common humanity of another, regardless of our differences, we can succeed. A primary factor that hinders our efforts to overcome conflict is that we are trapped within our own mind. Try as we might, we cannot completely see or understand anothers’ point of view. No one can. We have the ability to empathize with each other but we can never completely know all the nuances of thought, belief, and feeling that make up the other person. Because much of how we interact with each other and our world is unspoken, and often fleeting in our own consciousness, we frequently don’t have complete understanding of our own actions. Insight is difficult to obtain. It requires a lifetime of constant effort, and to believe that we know all the reasons beneath an act of another person is extreme arrogance.
But, even if we cannot completely understand and find common ground within in our human family, we can allow each other their own point of view. We do not need to respond to every harmful act. We do not need to correct beliefs we see as flawed.
Pacifism is not popular, nor is it admired much anymore. Currently, it is viewed as cowardice, admission of guilt, or simply utterly ineffective. But it has succeeded in past conflicts, and it can succeed still. Education, compassion, understanding, and a willingness to accept anothers’ beliefs as they stand are the hallmarks of a true human society – a true human family.
We are kin. And we should do no harm to each other.
We can do this.