Richard Dawkins was allowed an “alternative” Secular Thought for the Day in August 2002.
This is the closest we have had so far to a humanist “Thought” on Radio 4.
When a terrible disaster happens – an air crash, a flood, or an earthquake – people thank God that it wasn’t worse. (But then why did he let the earthquake happen at all?)Or, even more childish and self-indulgent: “Thank you God for the traffic jam that made me miss that plane.” (But what about all the unfortunate people who didn’t miss the plane?)
The same kind of infantile regression tempts us when we try to understand the natural world.
“Poems are made by fools like me . . . But only God can make a tree.”
A pretty song, but an infantile explanation. It’s too easy. Lazy. The moment we put a little effort into thinking about it, we realise that God the creator is no explanation at all. He constitutes a bigger question than he answers.
Once, we couldn’t do any better. Humanity was still an infant. But now we understand what makes earthquakes; we understand what made trees. Not just trees like oaks and redwoods, with their underground root system like a huge, upside-down tree.
The arteries that leave the heart branch and branch again like a tree. There are about 50 miles of blood vessels in a human body.
Nerve cells, too, branch like trees. They are so numerous in the teeming forest of your brain that, if you stretched them end to end they would reach right round the world 25 times.
In the face of such wonders, do you fall back, like a child, on God? “It’s so wonderful, so complicated, only God could have done it.”
It’s tempting, isn’t it. But it’s not a real explanation. Not the kind of explanation that actually explains anything. And it’s nowhere near as poetic as the true explanation.
Because the beauty is that humanity has grown up. We now know the true explanation. It’s gloriously simple once you get it, and more wonderful than our forefathers could ever have imagined. It makes use of yet another tree. The family tree of life. It began with something smaller than a bacterium, and it branched and branched to give all the species that have ever lived, whether extinct like the dinosaurs, or still hanging on like our own. Evolution really explains all of life, and it needs no supernatural intervention of any kind.
The adult response is to rejoice in the amazing privilege we enjoy. We have been born, and we are going to die. But before we die we have time to understand why we were ever born in the first place. Time to understand the universe into which we have been born. And with that understanding, we finally grow up and realise that there is no help for us outside our own efforts.
Humanity can leave the crybaby phase, and finally come of age.
Now there’s a thought for more than just a day!