When we think of April, thoughts are often conjured up of flowers, rain, rebirth and possibly Easter Sunday, a day of giving praise, and for those who are believers, a time for reflecting on ways to get closer to the almighty. This month is also an appropriate time to explore religious subjects such as the origins of man in depth.
There is a creation theory and it is much closer to the Book of Genesis creation theory than many people realize. It is a theory that has been circulating in the scientific community for decades known as abiogenesis. Both the biblical theory of creation and abiogenesis, although from different schools of thought, deal with the origin of life and possibly show similarities of evolution on a molecular scale, if we over look the concept of time as defined by man.
Time and creation
Civil Rights veteran Rev. James Lawson Ph.D., who is teaching at Vanderbilt University, talked about the theological concept of time.
“For (those) who are not familiar with the Bible and its chapters such as the Book of Genesis, should note that it has several passages and you should not attempt to quantify or define time as man knows it, when referring to the writings of the Bible. “You have to overlook the concept of time as man comprehends time (24 hours in a day). The Book of Genesis and other chapters can run parallel to some biological concepts if you overlook time” says Rev. Lawson. He also added “God’s time is immeasurable in the eyes of man, and I have hope one day scientists and theologians can get along and find the similarities in science and religion and grow from there.”
Rev. Lawson did share his knowledge of abiogenesis the sciences and their similarities to scripture. He said scientists must be careful, when they attempt to play with genetic codes and control the laws of nature, because the results can be devastating.
“For example, this article is discussing the pre-biotic condition of earth. It was hot and had an atmosphere unable to sustain life; today our planet is suffering from global warming. It was not planned, but it’s here as a result of us being dependent on fossil fuels. It harms our environment. Astronomers take that same technology we have learned from burning fossil fuels (creating global warming), and theoretically apply it in a laboratory to simulate the increasing temperature of Mars, thinking that inducing global warming (heating up the surface of Mars) will create an atmosphere, so one day in the future we can inhabit that planet without considering the effects on a universal scale . . .”
There are two main scientific theories that attempt to explain the creation of life on earth, and each has different variations. There is also a well-known biblical recording known as the Book of Genesis that details creation. They all attempt to explain how a planet void of life became plentiful and thriving with microbes, trees, animals and humans.
The Book of Genesis is based on our faith in God, and scientific theories are based on the understanding that primitive organic molecules were present on the planet earth and how they got there.
In the first scientific concept known as Terrestrial Origins (abiogenesis), organic molecules were formed by the presence of methane gas, water, ammonia, and hydrogen and that were ignited by an electrical discharge.
In the second scientific concept, known as Extraterrestrial Origins, organic molecules were delivered to earth by frozen meteors or other space projectiles attracted by earth’s gravitational pull.
According to Brian Capone who earned his doctorate degree in biological sciences from the University of Chicago, the Terrestrial concept known as abiogenesis isn’t far from the Book of Genesis, if you keep an open mind. The concept of abiogenesis or spontaneous generation is usually a lecture that all undergraduate biology college students will experience during the first week of instruction. Brian Capone said he was aware of the sensitive discussions involving the origin of life even before it became a major controversy for the George W. Bush’ administration involving church and state.
He recalled an incident during a morning lecture that made him change his approach to teaching about creation.
“A young lady, after sitting through my entire lecture on abiogenesis, raised her hand and asked, ‘where does God fit in?’”
This was during the mid to late 1970’s and prompted Professor Capone to begin going the extra mile not offend anyone during his lectures covering this subject. Instead, he carefully showed the similarities between the Book of Genesis and the theory of abiogenesis. He explained the similarities in great detail, and showed how the theories were similar when, the concept of time was excluded.
Capone said he was once approached by a colleague, who questioned his classroom diplomacy during lectures on the subject. “He asked, why not just tell them the truth: ‘science is the way it is and religion is the way it should be.’”
Now retired from teaching and focusing on his career as an author of many articles, books and scientific abstracts, Capone expounded on his view of creation and science. The retired professor said if you look at the overall process of abiogenesis and the Miller-Urey experiment from the 1950’s, creating organic molecules under pre-biotic conditions, and compare it to the Book of Genesis, you will see similarities.
“God created man from the earth, and all organic molecules are found in soil (earth). However, abiogenesis requires an electrical charge to fixate nitrogen, a gas that was present in the pre-biotic atmosphere. (Fixating nitrogen means grabbing it from the air using lightening or bacteria and then it is combined with other basic elements to make a usable chemical.) What if, at this last stage, a bolt of lightening from the heavens could be seen as the breath of God bringing life to earth by striking the primordial soup (moist earth)? The only problem is the concept of time. The Bible says that in some form or fashion God is outside of time. When we look at the concept of time it, creates a major issue,” Capone continued.
The comparisons continue: “Genesis states man was created in God’s image. Abiogenesis states the first life form was a one-celled animal that over a very long time evolved into a human; however they both have the same building blocks–organic dust.”
Capone points to an answer that then-Senator Barack Obama gave during a press conference, while being interviewed by the “York Daily Record,” a newspaper out of York Pennsylvania. A reporter asked about his thoughts on evolution. “His response was, ‘when you look at the Bible and science, the issue is the concept of time. The conflict between faith and science has always been one to perplex me. I’ve never had a problem reconciling my faith and science. Although some of my friends have, they have never gone as far as some on the religious right by calling for schools to stop teaching the theory of evolution. The conflict comes from the creation story in Genesis in which God creates everything in six days then rests on the seventh. Why does the day have to mean a 24-hour period that we humans experience?’”
“In my theology,” Obama continued, “God’s time is so much different than our time. Furthermore, why try to impose a conservative religious belief onto an entire school district? Religious beliefs need to be taught at home and in the church, while science and other academic matters are taught in school. Then the student can make up his or her own mind. Simple enough right?”
Genesis and abiogenesis
Genesis 2:5. “Now no shrub of the field had yet grown on the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground. Springs would well up from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground. Genesis 2:7 The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (The Bible)
Professor Capone said the last sentence in Genesis 2:7, coincides with abiogenesis, and also added that chronologically you can compare certain sentences in the beginning of Genesis that show the similarities of how the earth was formed to passages in astronomy textbooks. When attempting to understand abiogenesis people typically picture simple chemicals turning into bacteria, but the process isn’t that simple.
The theory of abiogenesis involves simple sugars turning into polymers (large molecules composed of repeated structural units typically connected by a chemical bond) that are replicated and a hyper cycle (molecules that adopt a defined arranged order without guidance). This in turn, led to a protobiont (an aggregate of abiotically produced organic molecules surrounded by a membrane or a membrane like structure) and later bacteria. The Miller-Urey experiment is just the beginning of the scientific demonstration of the theory of how life began; there are large amounts of time involved.
The Miller-Urey experiment (or Urey-Miller experiment) allowed researchers to create an atmosphere similar to the early hydrogen-based one surrounding the young planet earth before life of any kind existed, and to create life forming organic molecules. According to Professor Capone, these organic molecules are found in dirt, dust or soil and more specifically the same dirt as told by the Bible. While the experiment encompassed two earlier researchers’ theories, Urey-Miller actually performed the test showing that pre-biotic conditions such as thermal heating, dense barometric pressure and the ultra violet rays that existed on a young unstable primitive earth could produce organized organic material encased in a cellular membrane. This pre-biotic environment on earth favored chemical reactions that synthesized organic compounds and led to the creation of a primitive life form (single-cell animal). Considered to be the classic experiment on the origin of life, it was conducted in 1952 and published in 1953 by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey at the University of Chicago.
The experiment used water, methane gas, carbon monoxide, ammonia and hydrogen gas to represent the earth’s primitive atmosphere. The chemicals were all sealed inside two glass flasks connected together by tubes to ensure purity. One flask was half-filled with water, and the other contained a pair of electrodes (to simulate a lightning) methane gas, ammonia and hydrogen gas (pre-biotic atmosphere). The water was heated to represent the warmer ocean’s affect on primitive earth. Gas (water vapor) traveled to the second flask, and sparks were fired between the electrodes to simulate lightening passing through the atmosphere. This combined all the ingredients, then the experiment was allowed to cool and condensate. The ingredients trickled back into the first flask. A continuous cycle of reheating and cooling was allowed and the final residue was collected and exposed to radioactivity to simulate ultra-violet rays piercing earth’s atmosphere that, at that point, was void of an ozone layer. At each stage of each cycle, more complex molecules formed. This final organic material eventually organized a natural chemical process that takes place when these ingredients are allowed to share the same liquid soup type substance. Eventually a membrane like structure is formed creating a primitive one-celled organism.
This experiment gave rise to the concept of abiogenesis. It is evident that there are two schools of thought, when we look at creation; and when compared usually controversy and disagreement generates. And while scientists and scholars have been discussing abiogenesis as a theory since the 19th century, it was not until the Miller-Urey experiment in 1952 that the connection between the two approaches can be clearly seen.
Secular humanism and African American social thought
By Sikivu Hutchinson
Last year on the Tyra Banks Show and CNN, radio personality and self-proclaimed dating guru, Steve Harvey, claimed atheists had no moral values and that anyone who didn’t believe in God was an “idiot.”
While the Internet was abuzz with condemnation of Harvey, his tirade went unchallenged by mainstream African American media.
That may be because his view reflects conventional wisdom about African American communities and faith; namely, that Blacks are so unquestioningly religious that having any other viewpoint is grounds for “revocation” of one’s race credentials. With churches on every corner, religious idioms seamlessly woven into everyday Black speech, faith-based license plates ubiquitous in Black neighborhoods and Black celebs thanking Jesus at every awards event, how could it be otherwise?
According to a 2008 Pew Research Forum study, African Americans are indeed the most “consistently” religious ethnic group in the U.S.
However, Black secular humanist scholars like Norm Allen, executive director of African Americans for Humanism, and Anthony Pinn, professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Rice University, point to another tradition–that African Americans have been humanists almost since their arrival on American shores.
Both have critiqued the exclusion of secular humanist influence from appraisals of African American social thought and civil rights resistance.
Secular humanism–a belief system that may encompass atheist, agnostic, freethinking and skeptical world views–holds that humankind ultimately rises or falls on its own. Instead of claiming moral obedience to deities and supernatural forces, secular humanism views morality in terms of principles of justice, fairness and equality.
It also holds that reason and the scientific method are the most viable ways to understand the world. The afterlife is merely a fiction concocted by human beings to assuage their fear of death and the unknown; and the dogmas and “moving goal posts” of many organized religions (i.e., a god or gods as responsible for both suffering and freedom from suffering), often inhibit the quest for knowledge and respect for human potential.
Pinn’s book “By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism,” chronicles this intellectual tradition.
Speaking at an 1870 Anti-Slavery Society convention, the abolitionist and human rights activist Frederick Douglass said, “I bow to no priests either of faith or of unfaith. I claim as against all sorts of people, simply perfect freedom of thought.”
Douglass’ comments were in response to Black preachers’ insistence that he “thank” God for emancipation. His failure to be appropriately devout elicited a firestorm. After his speech, a group of prominent Black preachers passed a resolution censuring him, holding, “That we will not acknowledge any man as a leader of our people, who will not thank God for the deliverance and enfranchisement of our race, and will not vote to retain the Bible. . . in our public schools.”
Douglass’ journey from a committed Christian to a questioning agnostic was compelled by decades of critical observation and lived experience. As a pioneer of the African American freethought and secular humanist traditions, he actively challenged the moral hypocrisy of White Christianity in both the United States and Europe. For Douglass, White slaveholders’ moral piety was obscene given the savagery of beatings, rapes and family separations that fueled the slave regime. Angered by what he viewed as Blacks’ passive acceptance of the idea of Christian deliverance from earthly suffering he noted, “I dwell here in no hackneyed cant about thanking God for this deliverance.” Instead, he believed that “man is to work out his own salvation.” And it was only through the individual’s will and self-determination that uplift was possible.
Douglass’ experience is a powerful example. Then, as now, the overwhelming association of religiosity with authentic Blackness makes it difficult for Black secular humanists, who are atheist or agnostic, to be vocal about their beliefs. In the introduction to “The Black Humanist Experience,” Allen notes, “Humanists often feel…that they are a misunderstood and despised minority. Many are afraid to come out of the closet due to fear of being ostracized…by intolerant religionists.”
As the American religious right has become more vociferous, Black atheists, in particular, are challenged by a sociopolitical climate that has grown more hyper-religious, more evangelical and more deeply superstitious.
According to a 2005 Pew Survey, a majority of African Americans believe in creationism. Many also believe that secular liberals have “gone too far” to keep religion out of schools and government. Consequently, Black secular humanists often challenge the blind faith of believers, arguing that unquestioned acceptance of religious dogma has jeopardized African American academic progress, particularly in math and science.
Contrarian social critic and novelist Zora Neale Hurston expressed similar sentiments. In her 1942 essay “Religion,” she traces the origin of her skepticism, noting that “as early as I can remember, I was questing and seeking.” For Hurston, the “group think” of organized religion conflicted with her fundamental sense of intellectual independence. The daughter of a preacher, “When I was asked if I loved God, I always said yes because I knew that was the thing I was supposed to say.”
Even though her family was so invested in the church, doubt nagged at Hurston about all the inexplicable details of life that were just chalked up to “God’s will.” When she began to study world religions, she saw that they shared the common theme of divine deliverance from earthly suffering. She then concluded that faith merely allowed the masses to deal with their “fear of life and its consequences.”
The craving for some omnipotent source of all life’s mysteries gave meaning to the unknowable, even though an all-powerful God was ultimately a human creation. Like popular entertainment, religion dulled one’s critical faculties, uniting believers in a bond of ritual and bigotry against non-believers.
In his 1940 piece “Salvation,” Langston Hughes took square aim at the performative nature of churchgoing and the act of getting saved. Hughes details an encounter during a special children’s church service he attended at age 13, in which he was practically browbeaten into accepting the “light of Jesus.” Whereas his friend Westley submits to the pastor’s entreaties to come to Jesus, Hughes remains unmoved. Conflicted by his inability to actually feel the spirit or see Jesus, he agonizes over the congregation’s overzealous encouragement: “I began to be ashamed of myself, holding everything up so long. I began to wonder what God thought about Westley, who certainly hadn’t seen Jesus either . . . God had not struck Westley dead for . . . lying in the temple. So I decided that maybe to save further trouble, I’d better lie too.”
Hughes’ decision to go with the flow to please others was the beginning of a life-long struggle with the compulsory nature of Black religiosity. Feeling betrayed he concludes, “I didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore.”
The absence of evidence for organized religion’s truth claims led thinkers like Douglass, W.E.B DuBois and A. Philip Randolph (who identified as an atheist) to form a secular humanist view of social justice.
However, according to Pinn, DuBois’ intellectual allegiance was to rationalism and skepticism. Following a trip to the Soviet Union, he wrote an essay about his sense of appreciation for Russian civil society. Proclaiming himself a freethinker, he expressed approval of the prohibition on teaching religion in Russia’s public schools. The “fairy tales” of organized religion were destructive because they conditioned children to strive for a fictitious afterlife, rather than make the best of the world at hand. For DuBois, this was a “moral disaster.”
He had personally experienced religious intolerance after having been criticized as a teacher at a Black Methodist school for not leading his class in prayer. Like Hurston and Douglass, DuBois’ skepticism deepened with his intellectual maturation.
Consequently, he said, “From my 30th year on, I have increasingly regarded the church as an institution which defended…slavery, color caste, exploitation of labor and war.”
This critique has particular resonance for Kwadwo Obeng, author of “We Are All Africans: Exposing the Negative Influence of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic Religions on Africans.” A native of Ghana and an L.A. County resident, Obeng is a former Jehovah’s Witness, who broke from the group after rigorous independent study of the Bible. In his book, he acknowledges the constructive role Christianity played in African American communities during the slave era, when it provided a cultural and philosophical context for Black human rights resistance. Yet he cautions that contemporary Christianity is just a diversion for Black folk. Poor African Americans have been given few avenues for systemic redress of racism by either self-serving Black preachers or “Christian-identified” Black politicians. As “the church has become part of our DNA, Black politicians feel they need to wrap Jesus all around them to be successful.
Many Black secular humanists argue that the business of organized religion has been particularly detrimental to poor Blacks, who tithe millions to churches, while their communities are falling apart. They point to the rise of “prosperity gospel” oriented preachers like T.D. Jakes, Fred Price and Creflo Dollar as an example of the Black church’s betrayal of the social justice legacy of Martin Luther King.
As a result, many Black secular humanists oppose the political deference shown to faith-based initiatives. Established under the George W. Bush administration, faith-based initiatives provide churches and other spiritual organizations the license to discriminate against those that don’t adhere to their principles. Church/state separation advocates have long criticized the generous federal funding that faith-based organizations receive. Gabriel Lockett, vice-president of the Secular Students’ Alliance at the University of Maryland decried the “lax accounting practices within churches,” wondering, “why (there isn’t) the same scrutiny of faith-based organizations as there is of other 501(c)(3)s?”
As part of a younger generation of Black secular humanists, Lockett also identifies as an atheist and believes that Black visibility in the secular movement must increase. Like many humanists he was raised in a Christian household and was initially hesitant about coming out due to fear of “emotional backlash” from his family. Now that he has become active in secular humanist causes, Lockett believes that African Americans would benefit immensely from a more “enlightened” view of social morality. “If we eliminate the ‘God Debate’ from the conversation, we can focus on the common bonds of humanity,” believes Lockett.
Indeed, the “us versus them” policing of morality in the Black church is especially problematic for Black secular humanists. They argue that sanctimonious debates over same-sex marriage, gay rights, women’s equality and abortion rights effectively marginalize whole segments of the African American community that don’t fit into mainstream notions of “proper” Blackness.
Obeng believes that the moral authority of organized religion is most suspect, when a solidarity of bigotry is forged; for “why else would the Mormon Church, the Catholic Church, Southern Baptists, Islam, (Rick Warren’s) Saddleback Church…come together to deny those with a different sexual orientation the civil right of marriage?” Similarly, Black secular humanists say, the patriarchal tenets and biases of religions like Islam, Judaism and Christianity do not allow women to be fully self-actualized beyond their roles as caregivers.
A recipient of the American Humanist Association’s 1997 Humanist of the Year award, author Alice Walker spoke of how women’s self-actualization was a casualty in her strict religious Southern upbringing. Recounting how her mother was the backbone of her community’s church–but had been taught to believe Jesus, and, by extension, God, was a blond White man–Walker assailed the Earth-denying aspects of Christianity. “The truth was,” she noted, “we already lived in paradise…This is what my mother, and perhaps other women knew, and this was one reason they were not permitted to speak. They might have demanded that the men of the church notice Earth, which always leads to revolution.”
Ever since Africans were brought to the Americas, notions of Blackness, and what is “human,” have been caught in the crosshairs of European scientific inquiry and religious dogma. Walker’s yearning for a redefinition of the relationship between self and community, as a form of liberation, is one of the distinguishing features of Black secular humanist thought. The legacy of Douglass and others demonstrate that secular humanist tradition has been vital to Black liberation struggle. Yet African American communities still have miles to go before this part of their heritage gets its proper due.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and the author of the forthcoming “Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.”