Surely by now, everyone is bored to death with the debate (if you can call it that) between evolution and creationism—everyone except those directly engaged in it. Those who know what science is have said all they can say, and will certainly not be convinced otherwise. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, have long ago made up their minds, or had their minds made up through obedience to literalist doctrine. The battle is over the minds of those who don’t know what science is, and yet are not necessarily fundamentalists. But the educational needs of this group are far greater than encompassed by the mere teaching of evolution.
The fundamentalist view was best summed up by a preacher in the film Jesus Camp. He said that evolution tells kids that they came from monkeys, whereas the Bible tells them that they came from God and are therefore sacred. Which teaching, he asked, is more affirming?
This is a seductive point of view, provided one doesn’t devote too much thought to the question. (And it would seem that shallow thinking is a sort of precondition of fundamentalist teaching.) The assumption, which is by no means atypical of the Christian world view in general, is that monkeys are not sacred. To be more exact, kinship with animals is denied while a special relationship to God is maintained.
Of course we are dealing with a specific cultural tradition, and the investment of absolute truth in a particular book, and this conflict therefore extends beyond
If we look to the mythology and folklore of the ancients—especially the ancient cultures preceding the establishment of large city-states, kingdoms, and empires—we see that animals occupy a prominent role. In tales of the hero’s journey, various animals typically aid the hero along the way, imparting wisdom and special skills to the hero in order to help him attain the goal. Very often it seems that almost all the knowledge and labor of the quest is provided by the animal helpers—all the human hero needs is a little bit of courage and determination, and the willingness to follow the animals’ advice. Animals are also frequent providers of cultural gifts, imparting the ceremonies, songs, and other life-ways of the people. Sometimes this is connected to the animals as sources of food (sacrificing their lives for the good of the people), but not always. In myriad tales, animals take on anthropomorphic characteristics—the things they do and say indicate a mythic blending of human and animal.
Kinship with the animals, and in fact with all life, was simply assumed by the ancients. Nothing could be more obvious or reasonable. Human beings found themselves in a world where other beings moved, fed, procreated, and died just like they did. Far from being ashamed of this relationship, human societies made it one of the central themes of their mythic and religious structures.
With the advent of authoritarian religious forms, accompanying the increasingly centralized city-states and kingdoms, this gradually changed. Humanity’s mastery over animals (domestication) helped foster a different relationship to nature. The great monotheistic religions of the
It would be foolish to believe that this development was nothing but a mistake, or a bad move. The gods (and God) taking on a human face meant that the human as such—including reason, justice, art, and human love—was growing and becoming more refined. Human capacities were increased immensely by the recognition of human consciousness and individuality.
There was a negative aspect, though. Alienation from nature resulted in an imbalance not only with the environment (the consequences of which are now facing us with dire immediacy) but with ourselves. For one thing, sexuality could never be divorced from the natural per se, so the human alienation from our own sexuality caused many complex and often contradictory problems affecting every aspect of life. The rise of science inevitably clashed with the religious world view, despite the fact that scientists themselves were heavily influenced by their own alienation. For science is preeminently the study of nature, and the proper and rigorous study of nature led to the inescapable conclusion that man was not separate from nature.
D.T. Suzuki once quipped: “God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion.” The mainstream religion we know today, the public face of religion, opposes the reality of connection with a mythos of alienated life that is increasingly beset with contradiction, taking refuge in obscurantism and fear.
If you question a fundamentalist regarding the characteristics of animals, it would be impossible for him or her to deny that human beings breathe, feed, defecate, circulate blood, procreate, and die in a manner identical to other mammals. The more reasonable among them would even admit the definition of man as a “rational animal.” But to admit that humans once were a species of ape, a species that has admittedly evolved into a form that seems unique (at least for this planet), but nevertheless “came from monkeys,” as the preacher put it, is to bend one’s mind more than the ingrained habits of human pride and entitlement are accustomed to do. It offends fundamentalists because it feels like humiliation—having to admit that our attitude to nature was wrong, perhaps even sinful, and having to admit that we share a fate with, as the good book says, the beasts of the field.