HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ORIGIN OF SPECIES
Today, November 24, 2009, is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s masterwork, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. In future postings I’ll have a lot to say about this remarkable book and its extraordinary author: the coming of the Darwinian worldview, after all, is the subject of my novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Galápagos Regained. But for now I simply want to salute The Origin of Species, whose implications for what David Hume called “human understanding” we have barely begun to grasp.
Darwin invited our bewildered race to jump into a theological whirlpool. Those of us who’ve made the leap axiomatically find ourselves in a state of disorientation. And yet, like Edgar Allan Poe’s mariner in “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” some of us imagine that we’re starting to interpret correctly the mechanics of the vortex, and our lives feel infinitely the richer for it. It is not given to my generation to comprehend fully what Daniel Dennett and others have called “Darwin’s dangerous idea,” just as it was not given to the generation that came before me — and just as it will not be given to the generation that comes after me. But one fine day, I like to believe, Homo sapiens sapiens will at long last come to terms with its materialist origins, perhaps even shedding some of religion’s more unsavory aspects in the process.
THANK YOU, ORRIN HATCH
Owing to a singularly outrageous bit of demagoguery by Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, I have finally gotten over my blogger’s block. Thank you, Mr. Hatch. You have awakened a sleeping freethinker and filled him with a terrible resolve.
In its coverage of the epic health-care debate, the Washington Post yesterday revealed that the leaders of the Christian Science Church are lobbying to have sick people reimbursed by insurers for the services of professional prayer providers. As an example of how this system would work, the Post adduced one Prue Lewis, “a thin, frail-looking woman from Columbia Heights.” One cannot argue with Ms. Lewis’s prices, which range from a paltry $20 to a mere $40 per intercession, but almost everything else about the proposal is odious in the extreme.
Senator Hatch, whom some of you may remember from his ruthless trashing of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation fiasco, claims that the Christian Science amendment would “ensure that health-care reform law does not discriminate against any religion.” Well, no. What the provision would ensure, Mr. Hatch, is that a legislator may henceforth float the most flagrantly unconstitutional bills imaginable and, given the automatic deference to religion that characterizes our culture, instantly receive the approbation of his or her fellow theocrats.
It would be difficult to frame a more frontal assault on the First Amendment than this chilling suggestion by “the Church of Christ, Scientist,” an epithet whose Tibetan Buddhist equivalent in the Mary Baker Eddy Parallel Universe would be something like “the Fellowship of the Dalai Lama, War Monger.” The Bill of Rights famously begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...” As Justice Hugo Black frequently had to remind his colleagues on the bench, “No law means no law.”
THE HITCHENS EMETIC
Now permit me to carry the debate to the theocrats’ camp. A modicum of Googling quickly discloses that the most rigorous investigation undertaken to date of prayer’s alleged efficacy, the study that Dr. Herbert Benson conducted on behalf of the Templeton Foundation, suggests that there is no correlation between Heaven and health — with one notable exception. While a majority of Benson’s heart-surgery patients did not know whether the Almighty was being importuned on their behalf, one group of prayer recipients was in fact privy to this information, forthwith suffering a disproportionate number of complications. In retrospect, this outcome seems inevitable. The intended beneficiaries of the solicitations doubtless felt tremendous pressure to put some points on God’s side of the scoreboard, and the concomitant cardiac stress interfered with their recoveries.
In light of the Templeton Foundation study, I’m thinking of telling my favorite Republican senators that, as they attempt to do away with medical malpractice suits, they should make a point of noting that, under certain circumstances, prayer may constitute a form of patient abuse. Somehow I don’t believe that, in crafting their irrelevant amendments aimed at tort reform, these legislators will adopt my language, but you never know. The Party of Reagan will sometimes surprise you, God bless 'em. Look at my own Democratic senator, Arlen Specter, who managed to rival Orrin Hatch in his ill-informed viciousness toward Anita Hill. Once a Republican, Specter now sits opportunistically on the other side of the aisle.
According to Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, the toxicity of supernaturalist beliefs does not stop with prayer. The entire enterprise of faith is bad for you. While I dissent from many of Hitchens’s political and philosophical views — another day’s discussion — allow me to come clean and admit that I feel more than a little solidarity with the book’s subtitle, How Religion Poisons Everything.
My qualified sympathy for Hitchens’s thesis is rooted in my experience as an author of theologically playful novels. Leaf through my fan-mail file, and you’ll find many letters from former believers thanking me for indirectly helping them recover from the pathologies inherent in certain varieties of Christianity. For these apostates, Only Begotten Daughter, Towing Jehovah, Blameless in Abaddon, and the rest have evidently functioned as a kind of pill — just as Hitchens’s book has doubtless proved therapeutic for many of his numerous readers.
Given my intuition that Hitchens is on to something, I’m thinking of approaching my favorite Democratic senators and insisting that they add a manifestly necessary amendment to the health-care reform package. To wit, anyone who purchases a copy of God Is Not Great with the aim of enjoying its salutary effects should be reimbursed in full. Using the current Amazon.com prices as a guideline, this means you would get back $15.74 for acquiring the hardcover, $10.19 for the paperback, and $9.99 for the Kindle version. I can’t help noting that each of these editions is cheaper than a prayer from Prue Lewis.