Sunday, January 10, 2010

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

It's a miracle - by Nick van der Leek

Some weeks ago whilst cycling I witnessed a horrific bicycle crash, and probably one of the most disturbing scenes I've seen in my life - period. It was a freak accident on a random Tuesday morning. The guy - someone I know from the Free State - stood on his bike, pedal slipped out and he hit the tar face first at 50km/h. The result was a bloody pulpy mess. He remained absolutely motionless for about 3 minutes after which his breathing was very laborious.

When the ambulance took him away I privately didn't give him much chance of living. But he did survive, despite a broken nose, broken jaw, splintering to various parts of the skull [including his eye socket] and some bruising to his brain. He was in an induced coma for several days. Doctors, I later heard, did not want to inform his wife that he had probably suffered permanent brain damage.

Two or three days ago I received a phone call. From him - the rider who had crashed. He spoke with a very slight slur - possibly due to pain in the mouth, possibly due to injuries around the brain. When he called and I saw who it was calling, I half expected it to be his wife. It was amazing to be speaking to him, and him describing the accident, and talking about cycling again, when we had all but written off his chances. One rider who had seen his injuries up close and personal had told us afterwards: "He's fucked."

Of course, he isn't fucked. After a few weeks on a ventilator, after time for injuries to stabilise, his body had slowly begun to heal. As I say, the body lying on the highway, with a mass of blood below his face, struggling to breathe [a sort of snorting noise] - it was hard to believe he'd have remained alive for much longer. But give a person a chance and amazing things can happen.

What I think this anecdote suggests is the remarkable capacity for recovery, for rejuvenation, for resurrection. Life is fragile, but every living creature today is around, and alive, because it has learned how to fight to survive, and won that fight. The journey this rider took, from the brink of death, not being able to breathe on his own, to being able to call me - that is some turnaround. It is, in my opinion, a metaphor for evolution.

Christians will stridently argue with this, and the rider too - saying it was through prayer and thanks to God that he has healed. I don't doubt that prayer helps. Or that a Christian community can help establish and nurture personal well being. I know Ryk Neething's sister Elsje certainly can't conceive that her survival - despite tumors on her brain - wasn't due to some supernatural intervention [aka from God]. Her healing may be supernatural, but it's doubtful God took a personal interest in her. In any event, despite her good fortune, Elsje smokes. This is hardly the sort of activity you associate with a cancer survivor, or a tumor survivor, or with a believer. My point is that these beliefs are often convenient - because if God has saved you, then you're released on your own recognisance and are effectively free to do whatever you want to do again - behaviours that might cause these effects to start off with.

I don't decry believing in something, and I believe that a spiritual quality is very important. I worry though about the extreme. Even in AVATAR the religiousness of the Na'Vi has them describe the Skypeople as demons. Sometimes the label is a restrictive concept that evokes more fear than it should. Perhaps it is useful because it is effective and doesn't require explanation. When we forgo our need for explanation - I fear - we invoke plenty of troubles for ourselves. For we live in a subtle universe, where things may be more complex than the labels we give them.

We human beings think that we know something if we know its name - if we give it a name. Really? Even our definition of God is an arrogant one - because it really cannot be defined, and it certainly cannot be defined in a way that everyone can agree upon. And yet since there is a label, that appears sufficient - to Christians - that there is a God. Definitions of God run the spectrum, don't they - from the most vague, to the most specific - whatever works. Definition be damned.

I've been reading Richard Dawkins book on evolution, which is really to help pantheists like myself, and agnostics, to counter the strident but ridiculous arguments - if they can be called arguments - that Christians make. One argument is that, they say, the world is 6000 - 10000 years old. This is simply as incorrect as saying the world is flat. Yes, it may appear flat to the naked eye, but not enough research has been done. A wider context must be sought, a broader view.

I have discovered that Christians are obstinately ignorant when it comes to these debates. They will not respond to certain points, they simply ignore them. They will repeat denials or questions with the same gusto as someone repeating quotes from the bible - in other words, they're responding to their own programming, there isn't any real thinking involved.

Evolution is a fact, and the science - the fossil records - are fascinating, and quite vast. Some areas of interest are the migration of ocean creatures to land, and back to the sea, and in some cases, back again. The tortoise is an example of such a creature. Sea-based, then land-based, then sea/water-based again and finally both land and sea creatures.

Dawkins expresses it very coherently - he has obviously taken time to think about it - that one species cannot evolve into another species, but two species can share a common ancestor. He says, for example that:

Trout and tuna are closer cousins to humans than they are to sharks...and lungfish and coelacanths are closer cousins to humans than they are to trout and tuna...vertebrates whose ancestors never ventured on to land all look like 'fish', they all swim like fish [unlike dolphins, which swim with an up-and-down bending of the spine instead of side to side like the fish.]

When you consider a human being in fish form you do think more of a dolphin, and dolphin like movements [such as kicking]. Creationists get stuck because they expect to see intermediaries everywhere, as in a whole library of intermediaries between dolphins and man. Er...they expect all these intermediaries to be alive, with us, right now. Because apparently with creationists seeing is believing. Fossils are discounted for that very reason. All the intermediaries, and more than many care to reference - are right there, in the fossil record. The dog to horse intermediaries, the intermediaries of man, and fish to tortoise.

When you fall off your bicycle and nearly die, you can credit your recovery to God. It shows a sense of gratitude and humility which is, I think, necessary and important. And a sense of the spiritual, the underlying nature of thing. However, since God doesn't exist, we need to credit something else. Something in our genes, something we have inherited - the potent survival mechanisms. In a sense calling all of that God may make some sort of sense. If you like labels. Everyone can read and understand labels, but most labels come with bar codes or fine print. So does the God label. It comes with Jesus or Islam and then a lot of subtext which is arguably not helpful, not scientific and certainly not very intelligent.

Some intelligent people believe the world is less than 10 000 years old. They do because they try to fit reality into what they want to believe.

Prof. Gershon Galil of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa recently deciphered an inscription dating from the 10th century BCE, and showed that it was a Hebrew inscription, making it the earliest known Hebrew writing.

This breakthrough indicates that at least some of the scriptures were composed hundreds of years before the dates previously believed, and that the Kingdom of Israel already existed at that time. The 10th century BCE was the period of King David's reign.

In the world today that schizophrenia is very evident. We try to fit the real world, reality, into what we want to believe. The number of ultra-heinous crimes, from rape to murder to the worst serial killings, have been perpetrated, licensed really, in the name of some sort of religious doctrine. This applies to Christianity and Islam.

Trying to fit reality into your modus operandi, that is, your own belief system - and let's face it, religion is really a license to take those beliefs to a literal extreme - that game is up. In 2010 we'll see some of these beliefs wash like ships onto beaches, to be wrecked along rocky shorelines as reality closes in. And reality is closing in. The time has come to change, to adapt, to progress to something higher and harder than what we've been used to. Time to wake up.

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