I recently had a conversation with a man who had lost his son. He answered the phone and was pleased to hear from me after many years. We had a wonderful conversation and I was glad that I called. He told me what had happened. He talked about how he was doing. And he waxed philosophic on the meaning of it all.
“How someone can look at a tree or a human body or even a human eye, and not see that there is some design to all of this,” he thought out loud. He went on to describe the wondrousness of nature and his theistic leanings, and to express bewilderment at how anyone could accept evolution and other things our public schools and universities are teaching now-a-days. “It’s so much easier to believe in god—so much easier to believe a god did all this.” Yes, he actually said that. And yes, he did use the human eye example.
Obviously I don’t share his views. But I do share, to some small degree, his loss and his hope that things can and will get better as we all come to grips with the death of a loved family member and all that the young man had come to represent for each of us—whether as a fond childhood memory or a son.
We often get letters from atheists asking how to handle social situations where theistic ideas are laid bare to them from those they love or respect. Whether other atheists agree or disagree with me, there is no way I was going to address my opposing views to this man in this circumstance. He wasn’t asking me what I thought. He wasn’t requesting my approval. He was communicating feelings and simply wanted to be allowed to do so. And if I could help him feel comforted by merely listening in this moment, without expressing judgment, I felt I could offer him at least that much.
So, I continued to listen. And he finally began to talk about other things. He is an impressive man of many talents. Not complicated or intellectual—but interesting and clever. He owns some land where he raises orchards and honey bees. Not a large farm, but enough to keep him busy in his mid-70s. And being a garden enthusiast myself, I found I was quickly drawn into some of the most interesting conversation about nature I’ve had in awhile.
I need to try grafting—he insists. I have an apple sprout. When it gets to be as big around as my finger, I can cut it just so, and add a fruit apple stem to the stalk, in order to grow the fruit variety of apple on this useless sprout. And, as it turns out, I can keep on grafting different varieties, and they will all grow on the same apple tree. He has in his garden an apple tree upon which he now boasts 21 different varieties of apples growing on a single trunk.
Many people don’t realize that most of the plants that supply us food don’t exist in the wild. If I grow an apple tree sprouted from seed, it may never fruit. And if it does fruit, there are nearly perfect odds the fruit will be bitter, small, and inedible. Growing an apple tree from a Red Delicious apple seed will not yield you a Red Delicious apple tree. Some of you may have known that—but I’m guessing many of you may not have. To grow Red Delicious apples, you have to graft a Red Delicious apple stem to an existing apple tree trunk—of any variety (even a rouge like the one I have sprouted). The graft will produce Red Delicious fruit. You can’t grow modern domestic apple strains from seed. I don’t know if there are exceptions to this—but in general, this is the rule with much of our fruit bearing domestic crops. They don’t exist in the wild. And if all we had was seed, we would have to rebreed it from existing stock—re-engineer it, genetically, using a lab or evolution and artificial selection to recreate “Red Delicious” apples again.
Not only is the man on the phone aware of how this works—he knows more about it than I do. The only way to create something like a Red Delicious apple, in the days before genetic modification in a lab, was to use evolution and artificial selection to make it happen, yourself. You had to direct nature away from natural selection and use artificial selection to get what you wanted. Most people understand this is how we have dogs in our homes that differ drastically from dogs and wolves in the wild. In fact, we have dogs in our homes that differ drastically from other dogs in other people’s homes.
But he understands we breed strains of plants that become unable to reproduce themselves without human intervention. And he knows how it works and takes great pleasure from actually doing it—from diving into nature and taking control and directing nature and making nature do all sorts of weird and “unnatural” things that, ironically, only nature can do for him. He knows nature. He works nature. He sees nature with his own eyes.
But he doesn’t believe nature.
This same man has seen firsthand how nature can change and produce and reform and repurpose, how it can be made to stretch with agility and be tortuously forced to produce extremes of diversity through such minor interventions as a cut in a limb or picking this type of parent stock over that one. He has seen nature.
But he doesn’t believe nature.
“Who could believe evolution?” he sincerely wonders. And for now, I won’t reply to him. Now is not the time to argue with a bereaved parent. But in my own mind I cannot help but ask, “Who can see nature and do what you have done with nature, and still not believe what nature can do?” The diversity, flexibility and novelty of nature is something to behold. To see someone else behold it and then reply, “it’s so much easier to believe a god did it,” is hard to fathom. Perhaps it is a compliment to nature that what it does is so unbelievable to so many that they think something more must be involved?
To see nature do it, and then say "nature can’t do it—it must be a god," is interesting to say the least. I’ve never seen a god, let alone seen a god do anything amazing (or anything mundane for that matter). So, how could it possibly be easier for me to identify a god as the cause of what I observe that nature does, than to identify nature as the cause of what I observe nature does? How did “god” come into this equation? At what point do we employ a touch of god to get the grafting to work or to breed the new spaniel? Which step was “add a bit of god” in that?
The fact is, there is no “add a bit of god” step. And everyone who works with nature knows that it does what it does how it does it. If we didn’t understand that much, we would be unable to guide it and use it as we have and as we do. We know, to some useful degree what nature is, what it does, and how it accomplishes those things. That’s how we put it to work for us. And still, it manages to come up with new and interesting things nearly every day to continue to amaze us with its revelations.
If we understand a process, why should we employ god—an unnecessary, extraneous step—to explain it?
And if we don’t understand a process, I must still wonder why should we employ god to explain it?
If I have never seen a god and don’t know what a god is or how it functions and operates and what actual impact it has on anything—how do I employ it and use it to produce explanatory function for anything in nature? How is what cannot be observed, examined or understood, useful or helpful in understanding anything? If I don’t understand natural process Y, and I say it’s the result of undefined function X—what have I learned? What have I explained or added to our knowledge? How does that help at all? And why would I put such a baseless thing forward as useful or real?
How can a person so involved in nature and natural processes accept that a divine cause is required for what he can plainly observe nature doing—apparently, by all observation, unaided?
Ironically, most creationists would respond that I’m stripping god of his rightful credit by endowing nature as its own source. But really, if I go by what is supported via the evidence and reason, it’s clearly the other way around. Nature, a wonder to observe (and, importantly, it can be observed) is not served by handing credit for all it does and all it can do, to god-X (and note that, importantly, god-X cannot be observed). Fortunately for nature, it does not appear to have an ego to bruise. But if it did, it might wonder, “on what grounds can any reasonable person assert that I can’t do what I clearly do? How does anyone know what I can do, but by observing what I do before their very eyes?” And if there were some world behind the world, how could we reasonably credit it, while it works in shadows, hides its hand, and pretends to not exist—putting forward a façade that nature can do all this hidden world is supposedly “really” doing? If there were such a hidden world, there would be nothing to observe or examine to make anyone think it exists.
How would that be easier to believe than what can actually be seen, examined, and understood? For me, it’s not hard to believe what I can observe and examine and come to understand. But it’s very hard to believe that which is supported by nothing I can see and examine—and which, due to that, could never be understood, and therefore never believed, because there is no way to reasonably assert belief in things we cannot or do not understand.