It Takes a Whole Lot of Faith to Be an Atheist

hacat-culture-cells-light-micrograph-dr-torsten-wittmann

Dear Will:

Apparently, however-many billions of years ago, some sort of singular event, currently unexplained by our understanding of astrophysics, caused the universe to begin expanding rapidly. The exact cause no one really knows. But that this Big Bang happened is not really in dispute. Emanating from this “singularity,” eventually clumps of matter took their places in the cosmos, including one orb that settled, fortuitously, in rotation around our sun, close enough to keep us warm but not so close (or so far away) to make the place uninhabitable. Not that there was anything there to inhabit it, mind you, but it was a start.

From there the random good fortune continued. Atoms became molecules, hydrogen and oxygen somehow began combining to form H2O, essential for the formation of life. How did it happen? Natural forces combined with a whole lot of luck, apparently.

By chance (millions and millions of years later, perhaps) single-cell organisms appeared(!), and completely on their own, they began combining or splitting, or splitting and combining—in any case, they began spontaneously forming more complex organisms. I’ll skip over the boring parts here, but through more natural forces and random bits of randomness eventually we went from protozoa to pollywogs to people, with millions of variations of plants and creatures also forming, cell by cell, along the way. Each iteration and permutation came about by accident, it seems, with the best mutations sticking around and the not-so-great ones never really getting a foothold. And now, billions of years later, you have, by pure chance really, the redwoods and the bougainvillea, the guppy and the humpback whale, cheetahs and gazelles and the blue-footed booby, not to mention the dodo and the diplodocus, the earthworm and the bark beetle, and whatever is the latest craziness they have going on over there on Galapagos Island. Oh, and the duckbilled platypus. Can’t forget the platypus.

That detour from pollywog to person could not have been very straightforward. Think of all of the random wrong turns and dead-ends we must have headed down before we could ever arrive at, say, Mike Trout or Misty Copeland. For instance, it would have been theoretically possible—perhaps even easier from a purely developmental standpoint—to randomly generate one eye rather than two. No question. But two is better, so fortunately for us it all worked out. Solely dependent on natural forces and infinite randomness, we also ended up with two feet loaded with all kinds of handy metatarsals. We’ve got eight yards of intestines (two kinds!), a pancreas and a spleen, and only one fairly useless gall bladder. And hemoglobin! Somehow the randomizer even came up with hemoglobin, usually in just the right proportion to everything else. Not bad considering that it all had to happen more or less by chance.

But that’s really only half the story. In order for all of that serendipity to work out for you (including the hemoglobin), you’re going to need to end up eventually with two versions of homo sapiens, with mostly the same parts but several totally different ones, also developed by random chance, but also with such marvelous complementarity that combined in just the right way you can churn out others just like them on an almost annual basis. That’s two different but complementary models, simultaneously produced following synchronized, billion-year development. Preposterous? Perhaps. But given enough time and random good fortune it could happen. Because apparently it did.

I must emphasize here that I’m no astrophysicist, geneticist or nuclear biologist, so some might (rightly) quibble with how I laid things out here. I’m quick to admit that I may have been overly reductive, perhaps misrepresenting or oversimplifying the basic theory in some of the particulars. But I believe this is the gist of what we are supposed to believe about how we got here today: Start with an untriggered event in the cosmos, wait around through billions of years and quadrillions of random microbiological mutations and eventually you’ll find yourself reading this letter from me.

Or you can believe in God.

Or, to be more precise, you can believe in God and just about all of that other stuff as well. In the singularity. In the combining of molecules and the natural selection of species. In the self-evident reality of evolutionary principles and the age of the ever-expanding universe. The choice is not between science or God, it’s between a belief in the power and inevitability of chaotic happenstance, on the one hand, or a belief in a Creator helping to steer toward a desired outcome, on the other. You may believe that everything you see (and your ability to see it) is the result of billions and billions of unplanned, spontaneous deviations, or you can believe that God had a hand in it. But be honest: Which of those requires a greater leap of faith?

To see what I mean, you may wish to try this simple experiment. Go down to your nearest maternity ward and find your way to the side of a mother with her newborn. Look at that exhausted, joyful woman, more beautiful in that moment than perhaps she has ever been in her life. Look at how she stares at her little one. Now look at the babe—its tiny knuckled fingers, the fleshy excess on the palm that gives the thumb its perfect movement, the wrinkled ears, the nib of a nose, the round, wondering, miraculous eyes. Look how it suckles, still nurtured and sustained by its life-giving mother. Now listen to the voice inside your own head.

Which phrase comes most readily to mind: “Wow, that was lucky,” or “Oh, my God”?

PW

[NOTE: Several people have objected to my original characterization of the evolution of genders, which, given my lack of credentials, should surprise no one. Subsequently, I have updated this post in an effort to reduce that apparent misrepresentation. To truly understand prevailing evolutionary theory, however, I urge you to turn to a more reputable and better informed source than I.]

 

Photo: Hacat Culture Cells, Light Micrograph by Dr Torsten Wittmann

My Remarkable, Irresistible Pen Pals

Dear Will:

Every Monday my inbox fills with letters from around the world. They come at me from all directions: from Arizona, Utah, Georgia and the Dakotas; from Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil; from Scotland, Germany, Italy—even Russia. No wonder I love Mondays.

All of these letters are written by talented, charming, twenty-ish “kids” I have known for years. Several of them I have watched grow up since infancy. They are young men and women full of high aspirations and unlimited potential, people who will no doubt make their marks in a variety of professions and in a variety of ways. They will marry well and raise kids that you and I will consider irresistible. Their futures are brighter than most, in part because of the light they radiate.

My pen pals include many of my former students, some close family friends, nephews and nieces, and a few all-of-the-aboves. Each of them is living far from home, for the most part cut off from social media and popular culture, limited to only occasional, distant contact with family and friends. They subsist on hardly anything and don’t get paid a dime for their efforts. Willingly they have offered to go wherever and do what they can to help those around them. For as much as two years they have volunteered to put their personal lives on hold and dedicate their daily 24 to others.

It’s remarkable.

At times my far-flung friends face challenges and discouragement, no doubt with pangs of homesickness thrown in. Their letters describe weird viruses and a curious variety of problems with their toes. They learn to eat things you and I might not recognize as food. They describe bitter cold in some places and incomprehensible heat in others. As I read from week to week, I can see them wearing out their bodies and souls (and soles), lifting up the downtrodden and forgotten, embracing the lonely and unloved, bringing smiles to the sad and hope to the hopeless. In word and deed, they embody Jesus’s useful rule of thumb: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).

They all are missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Yes. The ones you see around town with their white shirts and bicycle helmets. The ones who a time or two may have arrived unannounced on your doorstep. What you may not know is that they are also the ones who’ll help the elderly couple move their antediluvian armoire, who’ll bake goodies for the shut-in, who’ll lay sod with the over-extended family in their neglected backyard. They’re the ones who make friends on subways and sing songs in public parks. ALWAYS with a smile, I might add, especially when no one else is smiling. They are the ones who also teach anyone who will listen about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Missionaries do all of that and more.

And when another week of selflessness has come to an end, when they have exhausted themselves riding bikes up and down the hills of Orange or slogging through the muddy backroads of Paraguay, they sit down in a public library or a far-off cyber-cafe and tap out sentences like this one: “I love the mission. There’s no place I’d rather be. There’s no better job than teaching the Gospel. I’m enjoying everything here.”

No matter where “here” is. They are indeed remarkable. And irresistible. No wonder people welcome them into their homes. If you haven’t recently, you should, if only to see how they fill a room with light.

PW

This Is Who They Are

Volunteers Park Here

Dear Will:

Let me tell you about the people I go to church with. This story is typical:

Several years ago I was vacationing with Dana on the California coast when I received a desperate email from a friend who lives in Silverado Canyon. Wildfires had been followed by rains which inevitably led to flooding and mudslides. Many homes had filled with muck, and people were desperate. She said: “I know the Mormons sometimes help out in situations like this. Do you think anyone from your church would be willing to help us?”

There I was, hundreds of miles away and in no position to lend a hand. What was I to do? Well, I made just one phone call . . . and dozens showed up to help. Most of those volunteers didn’t know me, and I’m pretty sure that none of them knew her. And yet they turned out in force—with gloves and shovels and the pure love of Christ.

This is who they are. This is what they do.

They are quick to welcome a stranger, eager to expand their circles, kind and loving and generous, willing to set aside their own needs to respond to someone else’s. They show up and stay late and do the dirty work. They take the late-night phone calls. When others are suffering, they mourn with them, comfort them, and take on as much of their burden as their willing shoulders can bare (Mosiah 18:8-9). They run and run and run and run to raise money for their friends and their life-affirming causes. They volunteer at the schools and coach the teams. They love and teach and nurture our children. They bake the brownies—so many brownies! They visit the sick and the elderly week after week after week. I have seen that their loaves and fishes are always available to share. They are among the very best people I know.

This is what happens when anyone tries to become like Jesus—when ordinary people choose to make the teachings of Christ the by-laws by which they govern their daily activities. These are the fruits that grow from the gospel tree.

I think of the time when Bryn was about to move to New Zealand. We spoke to the Broederlows, whom we hardly knew, who in turn called their friends the Brunts, whom we knew not at all, and in about the amount of time that it has taken me to type this sentence the Brunts decided to pick her up at the Wellington airport and put her up in their home. Within days of her arrival, Peter and Leoni Brunt were begging Bryn to stay with them indefinitely—rent-free.

Who does that?

Ordinary followers of the Master do this sort of thing every day. As Christians we are not asked to be extraordinary people. We are simply asked to live each day as if we truly believe and embrace the gospel we preach on Sundays. To be not just hearers of the word, but doers also (James 1:22). To be like Nephi, who when asked to do a hard thing said: “I will go” (1 Nephi 3:7). To be like Isaiah, who echoed the words of the Savior when he said: “Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:8). To make a difference in whatever small way we can.

Of course they have their issues. But in spite of those issues, they seek day after day to be the answer to someone else’s prayers. They continue to light the world in small and simple ways. Like Peter and John, they may not have much, but they give “such as they have” (Acts 3:6). As I see them share the love of Christ with others, they cause me to feel His love as well. They consistently let their light shine in such a way that my world—our world—is brighter because they are in it.

PW