Humans Are Indeed Special

As a Christian, I have always believed strongly that my faith in God has much to teach me about the earth and my rightful place on it.  Unfortunately, the Christian faith, like other religions, historically has been misguided in its views on the environment.  However, such views are changing and more Christians are starting to understand that respect for the natural world is part-and-parcel to being Christian.  Sure, Christians have a higher calling in life than simply attending to the physical, but if God saw fit to create the earth and every living thing in it, it must be good.  And to respect those things is to honor God.  And we are to respect the created beings and things each on their own level and in their own right.

Notwithstanding these changing views, I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend by some to lash out at “Religion” – that’s code word here in the U.S. for Christianity – with greater derision and hostility, blaming Christians for all that ails society and the environment.  This view is captured in a post over at the Huffington Post by Jeff Schweitzer.  Schweitzer argues,

Religions across the world provide us with an astonishing array of customs, rituals, rites, ornaments, icons, vestments, symbols, sacred texts, relics, and even architecture, each belief system explaining in a unique way life’s origin and faith in an afterlife. Yet all religions, with all this diversity, all share one important central theme across all deities (with rare but important exceptions for a few eastern beliefs): humans are special. With few deviations, religions declare that humans are separate from other animals, higher and better than other critters, unique in their relationship with the creator.

In the Judeo-Christian realm, early biblical passages give humans the unique special status of being made in god’s image, unlike any other creature on earth, and clearly conveys upon humans dominance over all other living things. Humans are told to “subdue” the earth and “rule over” the air, land and sea.  These religious teachings not only condone but actively encourage humans to view the earth and its resources as separate from them, put here for their pleasure.

The religious idea of human uniqueness pervades deeply, but biology teaches a different lesson. Human beings are no more special than a butterfly, a gazelle or a paramecium. Our species is nothing but a normal consequence of natural selection, and certainly not the pinnacle of evolution. We are nothing special. God is just not that into us. First we must understand we are not even as human as we thought. The vast majority of our cells are not human at all, but instead, are comprised of microorganisms located in our eyes, mouth, nose, ears, skin and gut, representing about 1000 different species and as many as 8000 subspecies. Bacterial life dominates not only the earth’s biosphere, but the ecosystem of our own bodies. Microorganisms outnumber our human cells by ten to one. Your intestine alone is home to one hundred trillion microbes. Most of the genetic information found in our bodies is non-human. The organisms that we host are not invaders or parasites, but an integral part of our internal ecosystem, helping us digest food, produce vitamins and fight against disease. They are us and we are them, and it is mostly them.

Schweitzer’s post is lengthy and it’s worth reading in its entirety, in part, because it offers some valid observations on human irrationality, but, more importantly, because it reflects what I believe is the deep divide between many of those who hold religious and non-religious views on stewardship.

Religion’s grip on humanity’s skewed perception of itself has real consequences. Biblical bias about our place in earth’s history is one reason why the religious right resists the idea of anthropogenic climate change; we could not alter something god put here for our benefit. But that is just one example of something much more dangerous that has infected our society: facts have lost their status and meaning.

But ignorance of fact and failure to appreciate life’s larger meanings are not the exclusive domain of religion or the political Right, which Schweitzer seems to be suggesting.  Schweitzer’s apparent conclusion that faith in a transcendent God equates to a rejection of objective fact is a non sequitur.   That’s a broad brush that simply doesn’t paint.  In his book, The Face of God, Roger Scruton speaks at length about humanity’s relationship with a transcendent God.  In speaking to the perceived conflict between religion and science, and the explanation of a transcendental God, he writes,

If the usual claim of faith are true, God is transcendental.  He is not part of nature and not a possible object of scientific enquiry.  No scientific explanation of religious belief could possibly refer to him.  It follows that, if there is an explanation, it will be “naturalistic”:  it will explain religious belief in terms of forces and functions that make no reference to God.

Scruton goes on his book to speak of the human “specialness” that flows from our relationship with God, and which offers meaningful perspective on who we are as humans and our relationship to the natural world:

The spoiling of the earth and the vandalizing of our human habitats arouse in us an echo of the desolation that the psalmist records:  the desolation that ensues, when the spiritual resource on which we depend is driving from its sanctuary, and the sanctuary destroyed   And it seems to me that we will not understand what is really at stake in the environmental consciousness that has captured the imagination of so many people today, if we do not recognize a religious memory at the heart of it.  God’s message concerning the temple was not simply the foundation of a specific cult, devoted to the god of a tribe.  It was a message to all of us, telling us that God will dwell among us only if we too dwell, and that dwelling does not mean consuming the earth or wasting it, but conserving it, so as to make a lasting sanctuary for both God and man.

It is difficult for me to get past Schweitzer’s bias against Christianity, his conflating of issues, and his simplistic stereotyping of those with religious faith.   The juxtaposition of Schweitzer’s and Scruton’s arguments is striking.   One argues God from a destructive perspective, the other, a constructive one.   And I’m at a loss to understand why or how Schweitzer thinks he can know the mind of God and, more specifically,  what God is or isn’t “into.”  This seems a bit odd and a gratutious swipe that’s completely unnecessary for him to make his overarching point.  Notwithstanding what some may think God is or isn’t into, when I look around me, I lay witness to His “natural footprint” on this earth and the beauty into which He has placed us.

It’s difficult for me to fathom why smart and seemingly thoughtful humans, like Schweitzer, feel the need to reduce humans, and the indomitable human spirit, to nothing more than a paramecium.  I don’t get it.  Certainly, the biological composition of a paramecium, a cockroach, a butterfly, a rat, and a donkey is not much different from that of a human.  And if Schweitzer and I were to share a scotch over a lively after-dinner discussion, I feel certain he and I would agree that humans and animals are ultimately bound by the same limiting, naturalistic forces, i.e., water, food, air, and shelter.  But, if that’s all we are as humans, than there certainly is little hope for us to act any differently than those lesser creatures.  And that’s the fundamental error in Schweitzer’s thinking.  It is because we are human and made in the image of God, and, yes, our “specialness”, that bestow upon us a moral obligation to care for those lesser things around us.