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Atheism and Zen

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By Ron Martin

Those who followed, on television, Jonathan Miller’s series about the history of atheism may have had difficulty countering some of the points he made, supported, as they were, by many eminent people throughout the ages. But there is one issue where atheism (as well as the science of psychology) comes up against a buffer — this is to do with consciousness. We know that consciousness exists, because we all have it, but if the sequence of events in the theory of Evolution are true then, at some stage, life and consciousness must have come to something that had previously been inanimate.

This is where the difficulty arises, because there is a fundamental difference between conscious behaviour and reactions by inanimate objects, such as the chemical reaction when one chemical reacts with another to produce a completely different substance. It is not just a matter of complexity either. As mentioned in my book on Zen Meditation, computers are now at the stage where they can beat the best chess players in the world, but they are no more conscious of what they do than is a chemical reaction. It is no good arguing, as Miller does, that Evolution did not start from the top (i.e. a supreme creative intelligence) but from a very low level and then increased by evolutionary means to the situation we have now, because this does not overcome the basic problem as to how consciousness actually began.

This is not to say, as the Creationists do, that the complexity of life came entirely from intelligent design, even though to some extent this is true. For instance, the giraffe does not have a long neck purely by chance; it was developed by evolutionary means over millions of years because the giraffe’s forebears strove to eat leaves high up in trees in order to survive, which clearly gave an advantage, by natural selection, to those with the longer necks to predominate and, eventually, to the extinction of the others. By developing longer necks , but not long enough, the latter could neither eat the leaves higher up nor could they then graze at ground level. It does not amount to ‘intelligent design’ but it does point to consciousness playing an important part in the evolutionary process.

Creative existence is not something given to the world by some benign Creator but by the harsh realities of Evolution, and this has given rise to the crocodile, the bird eating spider, the malarial mosquito, the super bug, cancer and all the other afflictions of the living world, as well as all its benefits.

In effect the arguments of both the theists and atheists cancel each other out. The reason why this is so is because they are both dealing with concepts, which involve the idea that we can think our way to Absolute Reality, and this inevitably comes up against the buffer referred to earlier. The Taoists and, later, the Zen sages, knew of this problem and, however imperfect the translations may be, we can become aware of the solution through reading their thoughts in the published books and then putting into practice Zen meditation.

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