Inheritance at the heart of a natural debate
There are many things we are told today that are inherited — from the color of our eyes to our very disposition. While it is easy as a society to blame our genes for our faults as well as our finer characteristics, the debate over nature versus nurture is taking on a whole new dynamic.
Some recent research concludes that our genes can actually make us happy, sad or even warriors! Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane say that our personalities and happiness are largely hereditary and that genetically determined personality traits affect our happiness. On the contrary, and just as monocausal, some forms of fundamentalist Christian belief blame Satanic possession for unhappiness or depression.
Is it supposed to be that simple, though? Would life be that much easier if either of these beliefs could explain disturbing trends such as teen suicide, depression and bipolar disorder? If scientists were right, we could fix genes in the womb to ensure happiness. If depression were the result of demonic forces, we could simply pray the problems away.
The reality, is of course, much more complicated than that. For those in religion and science, this topic of inheritance plays a broader role in how scientific findings are viewed. As humans, and more importantly as Christians, we want to say that we are more than our genes, but at the end of the day where is the dividing line? Do we believe in God because we are “wired” for religion, as some researchers say, or does it result from knowledge of a creator we are simply taught as children and brainwashed into believing?
Recent research exists in these areas where religion and science intersect, and by no means is there anything conclusive when it comes to determining what is truly natural and what is beyond nature — particularly when it comes to human consciousness. Related to the very core of this argument is the concept of religious naturalism — which itself is controversial in that it means different things to different people. While some simply view religious naturalism as a reverential attitude to nature, others define religious naturalism as almost a merging of the awe of the natural world with the awe that Christians have for God.
Frederik Mortensen in this month’s edition of Covalence
explores the ambiguity over the definition of religious naturalism (RN) that leads to confusion over whether the concept is secular in nature or in actuality is a central theme in religion and science. The concept of RN is a position that theologians, philosophers and scientists have engaged as an active debate dating back to even before the time of Darwin and the discovery of natural selection. William Paley in the 1700s talked of natural theology, an idea expressed in his elegant argument for design via his famous watchmaker analogy. Even Darwin’s contemporary Asa Gray debated teleology, or the idea that evolution’s ultimate purpose was to create human beings. This leads many to debate how much of evolution is nature and how much is God acting as creator.
So our genes may show a tendency for happiness or depression. Genetic make-up may be a source of disease or an opportunity for promising cures. To be caught up in defining naturalism and whether it is religious or atheistic in its leanings is probably the wrong discussion if you are looking for a debate on bioethics.
The topic of inheritance among religion-and-science scholars needs to center on what makes us human, what makes us a child of God and perhaps more importantly what does God want us to do with our newfound knowledge.
Everyone can appreciate the natural world, but is God outside of the natural world or active within the natural world today? Our beliefs about the natural world, and our place and God’s place in it are crucial to even understanding the eco-theology movement, which is still evolving, so to speak, within the church.
While the process of natural selection may not apply to picking the battles of the theologian, it does show the promise of change that is evident in God’s creation in all its beauty and potential from age to age. This perhaps is the best inheritance of all.
Susan Barreto is a journalist who has been following religion and science since 2003 with articles appearing in various newsletters and The Lutheran magazine. She is also a deputy editor of a monthly hedge fund magazine owned by Euromoney Institutional Investor. Susan is a long-time member of Luther Memorial Church in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and son.
Covalence, May 2011