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A Question For You About Evolution, God And Death

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Religious families stand by a cross.
Marina Bolow/iStockphoto

How do our expectations, fears and anxiety about death affect our attitudes about the existence of a deity? Is the hope of immortality the principle reason people believe in God? Is the rejection of an afterlife the principle reason for rejecting the idea of a deity?

These questions came to me as I read a wonderful new history of debates about the origin of life called A Brief History of Creation by Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II.

At one point, the authors provide a remarkable quote from Fredrick A.P. Barnard, a mathematician and president of Columbia University in late 19th century. At end of a paper about germ theory, Barnard penned a heartfelt admission about evolution and his faith:

"We are told, indeed, that the acceptance of these [evolutionary] views need not shake our faith in the existence of an Almighty Creator. It is beautifully explained to us how they ought to give us a more elevated and more worthy conception of the modes by which He works His will in the visible creation. We learn that our complex organisms are nonetheless the work of his hands because they have been evolved by an infinite series of changes from microscopic forces of light and heat and attraction acting on brute mineral matter.... It is indeed a grand conception which regards the Deity as conducting the work of his creation by means of those all pervading influences which we call the forces of nature; but it leaves us profoundly at a loss to explain the wisdom or the benevolence which brings every day into life such myriads of sentient and intelligent beings, only that they may perish on the morrow of their birth. But this is not all. If these doctrines are true, all talk of creation or methods of creation become absurdity; for just that certainly as they are true, God himself is impossible... if in my own study of nature, I find the belief forced upon me that my own conscious spirit is but a mere vapor, which appeared for a little time and then vanisheth away forever, that is a truth for ... which I shall never thank science which has taught it me. Much as I love truth in the abstract, my hope of immortality still more; and if the final outcome of all the boasted discoveries of modern science is to disclose to men that they are more evanescent than the shadow of the swallow's wing up on the lake give... me then, I pray, no more science. Let me live on, in my simple ignorance, as my fathers lived before me, and when I shall at length be summoned to my final repose, let me still be able to fold the drapery of my couch about me, and lie down to pleasant, even if they be deceitful, dreams."

I was stunned by this passage — for here we see a man confront what reason tells him must be true (evolution) only to reject it for what his heart most fears. But why the fear? I have written before about our attitudes about death and the afterlife. With this quote, I'd like to do bring a question directly to the 13.7 community (well, two linked questions, really).

First, to our religious readers: Would your belief in God be any different if there was no promise of immortal life? If God created a world where death was just the end of consciousness, would that change anything for you?

And to our atheist and agnostic readers, I ask an inverted form of the same question: Would it be possible to believe in a God who had set the universe running through processes such as evolution — including the reality that death was just the end of consciousness?

With great respect, I am interested to hear your answers.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.