Wednesday, July 24, 2013
SAME STIMULUS, DIFFERENT RESPONSE
Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both, interestingly enough, born on the same day (Febuary 10th, 1809), but more importantly, they are obviously two of the most influential people of their era, men whose huge shadows still hang over the world; indeed, they are so ingrained in the public's consciousness that the mere evoking of their names raises certain ideas and images in the mind. While both men still have their detractors (Darwin more than Lincoln), they are undeniably brilliant and important men. And for the purpose of this essay, they both had a complicated relationship with religious faith.
While he was raised in a Calvinist family, when he grew into a young man, Lincoln, was clearly skeptical about religion and pointedly kept his opinions to himself. Darwin, on the other hand, was raised as a Unitarian and seriously considered becoming a parson at one point. It was only his interest in science and his reading of William Paley's book NATURAL THEOLOGY (which, ironically enough, argued for a divine hand in the progress of nature) that lead him on his historical scientific journey.
But then for both men, tragedy struck later in life. For Lincoln, it was the death of his son Willie in 1862, probably from Typhoid, who was only 11. Lincoln was, by all reports, a doting father who was despondent over the death of his son. Several people reported that he openly admitted that his son's death changed his mind about religion. "The good lord has called him home", he is claimed to have said, "I know that he is much better off in heaven." From then on, he began to weave more religious references into his speeches, even implying that god had a hand in the civil war. Clearly, religion brought this man solace in his grief.
Darwin, on the other hand, had grown more and more cynical about religion as he studied the natural world. And then, in 1851, his daughter Annie died from scarlet fever at the age of 9. Like Lincoln, Darwin was a devoted father who was devastated by his child's death. But unlike Lincoln, his daughter's death did not cause him to rethink and embrace religion, and may have played a hand in pushing him even further away from it. The same spiritual belief that comforted Lincoln did nothing for Darwin.
So there you have it, two geniuses, living at the same time and growing up in Christian cultures, who became giants in their fields, and who both suffered the same tragedy and wound up being pushed in opposite directions. I would say that this illustrates that the human brain is adaptable, malleable and, of course unique in each of us, and therefore impossible to predict or understand in the fundamental matter of belief.
A clear argument for both men's reactions can be made: Lincoln found comfort in believing that his son lived on at the right hand of god, and that someday they would be reunited. Darwin couldn't believe that a caring, loving supreme being would be so cruel as to let die an innocent child who brought such joy and light into the world.
Mourning and grief are such difficult issues, especially when that mourning is being done by a parent for a young child, that any kind of debate becomes difficult. While I'm an atheist, if I were to meet a person who had lost a young child and used faith and religion as a coping method, I couldn't possibly challenge them on that issue; I would merely smile and nod and accept that their faith was helping them through a difficult time. Conversely, would even the most religious person be able to argue with someone in the same situation, who says that the death of their child caused them to lose their faith? Wouldn't they, like me with the religious person, probably accept that person's view point without challenge or counter argument?
Losing a child is such a terrible tragedy (perhaps the worst possible), and something that each person who suffers through it must deal with in his or her own way, making spiritual debates even more emotional than usual. Once again, it appears that many of the things we believe or don't believe in life are guided by our life experiences and individual brain chemistry, and therefore beyond any real choice on our part.