My wife recently took me to see the new biographical documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? While I don’t know how much Mister Rogers impacted me as a child, I do have faint memories of watching his beloved show. I never realized until I was an adult just how important and formative Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood really was.
In the documentary, they highlighted several clips from the show in order to demonstrate how Mister Rogers addressed public events and issues facing children. One of the clips that stood out to me the most – which I suppose is probably familiar to those who know the show well, unlike me – is of a duet between Daniel Tiger and Lady Aberlin. The conversation begins with Daniel Tiger wondering if he is a mistake, because he doesn’t know any other tigers like him. One of his verses goes like this:
Often I wonder if I’m a mistake?
I’m not supposed to be scared am I?
Sometimes I cry and sometimes I shake
Wondering isn’t it true that the strong never break
I’m not like anyone else I know
I’m not like anyone else
I know many people – children and adults – struggle with a sense of shame much like Daniel Tiger. I know, because I counsel them. I know, because I share in this same struggle. We question our worth, our value, our sense of self, whether or not we measure up to our own expectations (let alone anyone else’s). We too start to say to ourselves, “I wonder if I’m a mistake?”
I am far from the first person to get into a boxing match over the subjects of religion and evolution. While there are several reasons for this, I can summarize my objections to this conversation by highlighting how it is really like comparing apples and oranges. Any meaningful religious system is a comprehensive (philosophical, epistemological, emotional, existential, etc.) way of viewing the world. Evolution is simply a theory of origins; on its own, it provides no instruction for how or why we should view the world. The deeper conversation to be had is one of theism and naturalism. This is where we can actually engage in meaningful dialogue and get to the heart of how and why individuals may view the world differently.
This is especially important to remember when we start to get into a conversation about ethics. The naturalist movement has produced several different theories to account for ethical and moral standards for our society without transcendence in the picture, and it’s not my task to go through all of them in this post. In recent years, there have been two views of ethics in particular that I have seen gaining traction. The first is one which says the proper moral and ethical choice in any situation is that which alleviates the most suffering. Of course, one of the obstacles of this view is trying to account for what suffering is and why it is wrong.
The other view is one which tries to reinterpret the process of evolution itself to account for morality and ethics as a key piece of how we became the dominant species on the planet. In his recent talk at Google, Dr. Tim Keller gives a very brief presentation that gets into this subject of ethics from a theistic or secularist point of view. One of the last questions from the audience comes from an employee who I think really captures this new take on evolution well (around the 45min mark):
It seemed to me like a lot of your argument against secularism, or humanism, was predicated on this idea that human evolution…is sort of Hobbesian and ruthless. And I’m wondering how you would respond to an alternative hypothesis which is that humans – like some other species – actually evolved having a lot of benefit of social cooperation and in-group goal setting?
To be honest, this view sounds really nice on paper. Unfortunately it is an intellectually dishonest view which doesn’t square with the dominant views of how evolution – and human society – have really worked. This is one of the reasons why I have loved Yuval Noah Harari’s work in Sapiens. He is honest about human history from a naturalist perspective in such a way that he says the only way to account for ethics and meaning is through the power of your own imagination. In other words, everything that you think is meaningful and special in this life is completely made up. Continue Reading
Nietzsche once famously said that someone who knows their ‘why’ in life can endure any ‘how.’
For thousands of years, mankind’s answer to ‘why’ was a given. There were immanent and physical meanings for our lives: the survival of my family, the flourishing of my tribe, etc. But there were also transcendent ones: we understood in one way or another that life was structured in some way by a powerful Spiritual Being(s) who gave purpose and meaning to life under the Sun.
In most cases, the immanent meanings of life were directly tied to transcendent meaning. For many pagan religions, the prosperity of one’s family or tribe was intimately bound with one’s service to the tribal gods. In the case of Judeo-Christian monotheism, our morals, values, ethics and flow out of an understanding of the imago Dei: the image of God. Mankind’s purpose in this view is understood to come from a direct reflection of who God is. Who He is, we ought to be.
For most of human history, it was this combination of transcendent and immanent meanings which provided the ‘why’ for all of human life. Yet within the last few hundred years, our understanding of meaning, value and purpose has changed drastically. With the changes that followed in the Scientific Revolution, mankind began to acquire unprecedented power. It wasn’t before too long that a new idea popped into our heads. What if we aren’t made in the image of God, but we actually have the power to remake nature in our image instead? The imago Dei was replaced by imago Homo, and nothing has ever been the same since. Continue Reading