Richard Dawkins wrote a book entitled Climbing Mount Improbable when he looked at the evolution of complex structures, such as the eye. He emphasized that evolution didn’t happen all at once, that an organism with no eyes didn’t miraculously give birth to offspring with fully formed eyes. No, Dawkins said, what happened was a series of very small changes, each of which gave the organism a slightly better chance of survival, each of which was possible, but which led inexorably to the progress to a fully fledged eye.
I think something very similar to this is happening with religion, especially with evangelical Christianity. People do not suddenly one day wake up and realize that they are atheists, but they gradually, slowly, almost imperceptibly adapt to reality. The steps are small, individually possible, and enable the Christian not to lose all the advantages of his faith, the friends, the fellowship and the “sacred space” in his life. The first step is from young earth to old earth creationism, then to Intelligent Design, then to theistic evolution, then to universalism (“I don’t really think God could send all those nice people to hell”), next a belief in supernatural intervention goes, leading to a redefinition of “God,” and then a final, small step over an almost imperceptible border to nonbelief. Churches themselves also follow this path. In the same way as the many small steps to make the eye are each an advantage to the organism, so each step along the path from Young Earth Creationism to Deism is a little less at odds with the real world, so truly a little more adapted to the environment. Church institutions can also follow this path, if more slowly than an individual can, and we can see a slow progress to a more enlightened liberal viewpoint.
I was able to witness this phenomena firsthand when I found myself in a course at a Christian holiday camp in the UK. This was a large conference, not for a single church, but designed to draw people from all churches across the south of the UK. You should therefore expect as near as you can get to a representative cross section of beliefs to be represented (with perhaps a slight bias towards the more fundamentalist viewpoint, if anything). Anyway, the camp held a “Think Again About the Beginning” course which was designed specifically as a nonthreatening opportunity for nonbelieving family members or “doubting Christians” to come along and be persuaded into the fold. With great delight I went along, almost spoiling for a fight, looking for the best challenges they could offer, determined to stand defiantly in front of the biggest gun they could fire at me, and see what they could do.
The meeting started off with a discussion about the origins of the universe, showing, of all things, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, a huge tortoise with four elephants on its back and a disc shaped world on the back of those elephants. This was briefly followed by a look at the Hindu creation myth, with Brahma coming in the form of a snake, and then a few worlds from Genesis: “God said, let us make man in our image.” There was then an opportunity for discussion.
“Well,” I ventured, testing the water, “perhaps Genesis 1 is no better than these other myths, like the Great Atuin.” Silence. Nods of agreement. “Yes,” they agreed “it is symbolic, poetic language and should be read in terms of what its underlying moral is, not as the literal truth.” I was flabbergasted. Where were the fundamentalists? Was there nobody ready to defend a literal interpretation of the bible? Later on I put it to the group, “Our table believes there is no real difference between the account in Genesis and the great Atuin and it shouldn’t be taken literally; does anyone disagree?” Silence again. “OK,” I said “so there’s nobody in the room who thinks the world was created in six days?” Again no opposition.
A discussion about evolution followed. Everyone agreed that evolution could take place within a species. But perhaps there was room for creation of species, they speculated. “But” I replied, “the process of speciation is well known; once animals are physically separated so they can no longer breed, then they are by definition different species.” Again agreement. No stubborn defense of the indefensible.
As the discussion continued somebody from another table commented, “Well, Charles Darwin became a Christian on his death bed.” I begged for the microphone and said bluntly “I don’t think that’s true,” and then added, “Look it up in Wikipedia.” The leader took the microphone from me and confirmed what I had said, not what the Christian had said. Darwin did not become a Christian on his death bed he assured everyone. I very much admired him for valuing the truth above what would be nice for him to believe.
So that was it. What a turnaround. No opportunity to find people willing to defend the six day creation. No real attacks on evolution, only a few half hearted murmurs in favor of intelligent design and “It must all have a purpose.”
I look an all this as a really positive result. As far as I can tell, Christianity in the UK is moving slowly in small steps towards rationality and away from the excesses of fundamentalism that we harp about. And rationalists should recognize this, helping people to make the small changes they are willing to take rather than making them change all their beliefs at once and thus giving them an impossible hurdle to jump over.
There is a point where I must disagree with Richard Dawkins. This is in the way some scientists redefine “God” as poetic language for the wonder of creation. I think this redefinition is an essential part of that smooth path from believer to nonbeliever. At some stage, towards the end of the journey, people may still be reluctant to abandon the concept of God altogether, but they may nevertheless realize that God can’t rationally have human emotions, that he doesn’t answer prayer, but perhaps there is a last refuge for him as a creator of the wonder and awe we see in nature. Allow people that weak definition of God. Smooth the path and many will walk down it.