Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas DNA

Happy Christmas Everyone! Since it's Christmas and I've been reading a book on religious philosophy, here's a Christmas thought. We're told that Jesus was born to Mary even though she was a virgin. That is to say, she had never had sex, and so no sperm had ever entered her uteris to fertilise the egg. Yet the teaching of the church (both Protestant and Catholic) is that Jesus was fully human - hence that he grew from an embryo into a human baby like the rest of us.

Now we know that in normal circumstances an unfertilised egg is barren - it doesn't divide and grow, it just decomposes. We also know that even if it did begin to grow of its own accord, unfertilised, the outcome would be a girl, since it is the man who provides the Y chromosome. So, in the absence of male sperm, how did her egg get fertilised, and the required male DNA enter the ovum?

This problem leads sceptics, particularly those of a scientific persuasion, to dismiss this story as a "mere myth", a logical impossibility. We know of no way that a fully human person (or indeed any sort of person) can grow from an unfertilised egg. Within the bounds of science they are clearly right. How, then, is it that highly intelligent people, who know how babies get made, continue to believe this story? I think there are a number of possible answers - take your pick, some or all may be true.

  • You could just say "I don't understand it but I believe it happened because I believe in the Bible (or the teachings of the church) and God will make it all clear in heaven". I think this is fair enough - no doubt a god who created the whole universe could solve this little problem too - but I find it a little too glib.
  • You could say that God fertilised the ovum himself, so that Jesus carried God's DNA. This could be what is suggested by the angel's words in Luke, "the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you". This raises some very interesting questions - does God have DNA? I could speculate about this for pages but I won't.
  • You could apply the traditional Catholic reasoning about the communion to the virgin birth. The Catholic church teaches that at communion the bread and wine actually become (as opposed to merely representing) Jesus' body and blood. They do not change their appearance - they still look, feel, smell and taste like bread and wine - but their essence changes. Perhaps something like this happened with Jesus - he still looked, smelt and sounded like a human but in essence he was God. Essentially, it's a mystical technique for believing two mutually exclusive things which pretty much describes the dual nature (God/man) of Jesus - so it could just be right.
  • You could work backwards - Jesus showed himself to be God's Son in many ways, not least through his death and resurrection. How then could he just be born in an ordinary way? The story of the virgin birth is then a way to illustrate Jesus special relationship with God - the writers may not have intended us to take it literally (other great figures in history, like Alexander the Great, have also been given virgin births by their biographers for this reason) but they intended it as a way of saying right at the start of the story that this is someone out of the ordinary.
The point is that we are in a different realm of reasoning to the purely scientific. If only scientific knowledge can be admitted we could never know how to live, we could never come together as a community, we would never know to show compassion for one another, or reach out to the poor and lonely. These things all come from the realm and reasoning of religion, and for Christians from the teaching and example of Jesus and his followers. That's why we continue to celebrate Christmas, because without it our lives would just be an (ultimately fruitless) struggle for survival. Have a merry and compassionate Christmas, and don't take science more seriously than it deserves.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if you intended your options to be exhaustive Jon, but I've found another option. "A naive explanation based on ignorance of natural laws and acceptance of a frame of thinking where magic and supernatural are acceptable" My problem with the virgin birth isn't about its truth or not but how it actually helps - "You are a bastard because you don't have a father." Wasn't that what the story says is the reaction of people around Jesus's birth? Doesn't exactly make Jesus (the human) special. And how does being born help the Almighty, when he causes the birth of everything anyway? "Look at me. I made a girl pregnant. Bet you can't do that!"

What actually makes it special to have a mother and not a father? Just makes it kind of ambiguous.

Now if Jesus had been born from a frog, that might have been special because at least that would violate the species boundary and prove something supernatural had occurred.

As for the "non-overlapping magesteria", a la Gould, the two domains of reasoning, might I suggest alternative categories, both within the natural world. 1. Things we don't understand because we can't (such as how insects perceive ultra-voiolet) and therefore can't reason about and 2. those we can (like which tree a bulldozer is likely to hit next when clearing) which are subject to reason.

See, no need for supernatural but you still get to have things you don't understand and can't reason about.

As for Christmas - bah, humbug and far too hot. But what if you could have a scientific way of caring about the lonely?

And what if accepting religious examples actually led you to bomb planes or conduct jihad, like a young man intended recently. Some religious reasoning isn't very Christmassy at all really.

Don't you see you can't actually have a "fruitless struggle for survival" because having fruit is what makes you survive? That's why we love our children. They are the point.


Jon said...

I think this is longer than the original post. I love getting comments especially from rude people! I just finished reading "Religion" by Lescek Kolakowski. He's a philosopher of religion and he talks at length about the tension between the scientistic frame of reference which says that religious reasoning is nonsense because it's not subject to proof or falsifiability, and religious philosophers who say accepting empirical proof as the standard for truth is itself a leap of faith. It's a kind of dialogue of the deaf.

Re the virgin birth, I don't remember the gospels mentioning any derision towards Jesus because of illegitimacy - he seems to have been regarded socially as Joseph's son. Aside from the Catholic idea that the virgin birth signals his purity (no sex) which seems nonsense to me, the other purpose of the story is to signal his special relationship with God, of course, and to mark him out from normal people.

Finally the old "religion creates terrorism" argument. In the 20th century the prime motivations for terrorist acts and other crimes against humanity were secular "scientific" ideologies, mainly fascism and communism. Indeed modern suicide terrorism was first used by the Tamil Tigers, a secular socialist organisation. All terrorists, whether religiously or scientifically motivated, should be locked in a very comfortable cell and have people be nice to them 24 hours a day until they go mad.

Anonymous said...

This is the rude person again.
The "science verses religion" dichotomy is a false one and mainly serves the religious to give legitimacy to "religious reasoning". Reasoning is what we do, like thinking - we begin with a premise, follow logical steps and come up with a conclusion.

As we develop from birth, our brains attempt to make sense of the mass of stimulus that bombards it. We do this by forming models of the world and testing them. The most basic is "This creature that is holding me, my mother, will not abandon me regardless of what I do." We modify and refine our models as we get older.

However, some stimulus is very confusing and some stimulus we miss altogether (like seeing ultraviolet). However, some obsessive people kindly devote their life to proving one model or another fits the observed world. If they get it wrong, somebody else points that out.

Religion deftly dismisses experience, modelling and painstaking scientific work by simply asserting that some things are out of reach of science (like what?) and the "explanation" is a god or spirit or magic or something. The problem with this explanation is that is trite and shallow and does not help to understand.

There is no leap of faith in science - only acceptance of experience and a model for explaining it. There is no leap of faith in looking at the sunset and no leap of faith in saying that the sun is setting because the earth is rotating. There is no leap of faith in accepting that our star is one of billions and probably has a "life" equivalent to others that we observe. There is only a leap of faith in saying that the stars were made by a divine being.

I don't argue the Bible, but there does seem to be some mention of Joseph's intention to divorce Mary because she was pregnant and not by him. I think the social stigma was fairly strong in the Jewish culture of the time. Not that we should subscribe to that.

I guess I wonder why God has to be human to be special - why not a be a hippo? And how different is his relationship to that between any other human and any given deity? Seems like these relationships are rather "dime a dozen" amongst human cultures. "Special" seems, rather, to be in the eye of the beholder.

As for "religion vs terrorism" - once again, this is another polarity that does hold up to scrutiny - one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. We could as easily blame cultural and economic conditions for terrorism as religion. And sometimes terrorism is, arguably, just.

What religion, fascism and Stalinist or Maoist communism have in common is that they all ask us to relinquish our responsibility to wrestle with right and wrong to a higher authority, whether that is a divine being, a charismatic leader or the state. By and large science has nought to play in this. In fact, applying more reason would actually prevent the excesses of all of them.