The End of Religion As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

(With apologies to REM)

That's great, it starts with a cell wall
paramecium and bacterium, then a bird in flight
And Richard Dawkins is not afraid
Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn
World serves its own needs, don't miserve your own needs
...
 It's the end of religion as we know it
(It's time I had some time alone)
It's the, it's the end of religion as we know it
(It's time I had some time alone)
It's the, it's the end of religion as we know it
(It's time I had some time alone)
And I feel fine

The last big mystery that science has not been able to explain, that science has only been able to speculate about, the only peg religion really has to hang it’s hat on anymore, is the question of how life began. Everything else, from lightning and thunder, through the role of the sun in the day to day processes of the earth , all the way to how man evolved from a common ancestor with Cheetah, have all been pretty much narrowed down, if not completely explained by science. But how life began, well, all the deists have been waiting with bated breath for an answer. To which science has said – “be patient, we’re working on it”.

Now, perhaps, we may finally be able to say, we will have an answer. Scientists are racing to create artificial life, with the chemical building blocks we now know were used in the original process.

Experts expect an announcement within three to 10 years from someone in the now little-known field of “wet artificial life.”

You’ve all heard of abiogenesis? This is what scientists are attempting to re-create in the lab. There are three steps that need to be passed to be successful:

  1. A container for the cells to be created must be constructed.
  2. A genetic system, similar to the one we all know and love,must be formulated
  3. A metabolism that extracts raw materials from the environment and turns it into energy to power the created life must be made

One of the leaders in the field, Jack Szostak at Harvard Medical School, predicts that within the next six months, scientists will report evidence that the first step — creating a cell membrane — is “not a big problem.” Scientists are using fatty acids in that effort.

So it looks like it’s only a matter of time. Three to ten years doesn’t sound like all that long a time.

One can only wonder at religion’s response.

Do I hear death knells ringing?

28 thoughts on “The End of Religion As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

  1. No, I don’t hear and knells, bells or shells…
    The origin of life remains a mystery to some, but the origin of matter is a more basic question.
    Another unexplained phenomenon is the huge gap between humans and the next highest life form. I address “the missing link” on my blog at http://www.dwhitsett.wordpress.com
    I can’t speak for all religion, but this is my response.

  2. John:

    A hundred and fifty years of evolutionary science has made no impression on the fundies, and neither will the creation of artificial life. I can’t predict how the Michael Behe’s and David Berlinski’s of this world will challenge the implications, but they will — and they’ll be well-funded and well-organized. If you think that “mere” scientific achievement will help undermine the bible, you haven’t been paying attention.

    So I think you need to have that tinnitus checked.

  3. I hope they don’t make the same mistake that was made last time (see Charles Thaxton’s excellent “The Mystery of Life’s Origin” where he dissects the Miller experiments, particularly the chapter “The Myth of the Prebiotic Soup”)…does seem to be an interesting enterprise, however. More power to them.

  4. One quick thought, How does using intelligence to create life disprove the theory that intelligence created life? I.E. Christians such as myself believe a supreme being, using intelligence, created life. Now scientists, imitating nature, are attempting to do the same thing. To truly disprove theism life has to spontaneously form and replicate.

  5. Well I’m with you even if no one else is. However for some people you could refute every one of their arguments and they would still believe in their man in the sky.

  6. Very interesting however theres a difference between how life began and why life began. Plus your missing the point on the fact that since there are so many theries, not only on how life began but also how to create it , there could be a myried of ways to create life. plus theres one important fact that you might have not cosidered. those christians…..hell anyone of any faith who holds the belief of intelligent design could simply state that the’ve been proven right. I.e they could claim that if humans could create life in a scientific way, then why not god. scientists though have never discovered why life exists ie the meaning of life question, which i think is a much bigger question in todays society, and its a question that religion (especially the three big one’s ie christianity,the jewish faith and islam), seems to answer better at the moment than science does.

    Peace Out…………:-/

  7. scientist no matter what they do they would never be able to create a living being or anything of that sort!!! so lets just leave that to that … there i s a supreme power and different religions admit that so there is no use of trying to prove otherwise and its the lack of faith that makes you think that way

  8. “Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further development.” — Julius Sextus Frontinus (Highly regarded engineer in Rome, 1st century A.D.)

    It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot, irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.
    — The Ascent of Man

  9. It might prove advantageous to science blogs to create a questionnaire to weed out all the creationists from access to science blogs. They might still read them, but at least we can dispense with their sophomoric comments.

  10. Blazinggig- Meaning of life?! Here we sit on a rock, constantly falling toward the nearest star, and we think there is meaning in that externally. You make your own meaning, because how could you ever ‘find’ meaning otherwise. People seem to think that simply because we think unlike most other forms of life, we must have some special significance, but if that were so it would take more proofs that simply thinking. Those who hold to the supernatural, do so for a reason. That reason I find more often than not is they are too lazy, or fearful, to accept responsibility for their own existence.

  11. “Here we sit on a rock, constantly falling toward the nearest star, and we think there is meaning in that externally”

    Dude now your just assuming things.

    at the end of the day DaVinci no one knows what or if there actually is a meaning to life. However just because you’ve shut off your mind to even the most remote possibilities to a meaning, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.

    “That reason I find more often than not is they are too lazy, or fearful, to accept responsibility for their own existence.”

    Thats another assumtion dude. you cant concievably know that as you dont know everyone in the world.

    i never assumed that there is a meaning to life, all i said was that since the question “what is the meaning of life” exists and since its been brought up over and over through history, that just re-creating it wont put a dent in the question, and thus wont put a dent into religions which eather adopt that question or attempt to answer it.

    Re-read what i said and try and keep an open mind instead of assuming they are too lazy, or fearful, to accept responsibility for their own existence.

    Peace Out………..:-/

  12. Thanks for all your comments! I love them, regardless.

    @dwhitsett

    I left a detailed response on your blog, to your musing. Enjoy!

    @Exterminator and hoverfrog

    Probably right, but it doesn’t hurt to try (except with Geno – that hurts – maybe that’s where the tinnitus started).

    @heatlight

    I’m not familiar with the book, but I think I understand what you are saying based on the context. You’re referring to the Miller/Urey experiment. I was wondering whether this most recent info was working off that, or was in a completely different direction.

    @liamkinnon

    As I understand it, lab conditions try to reproduce what the earth was like at the time life arose. If it can be done in the lab without supernatural intervention, it could have been done in the real world, without supernatural intervention. It’s not a question of whether intelligence created life, but whether life could arise on it’s own.

    @blazinggig

    Why life exists is a meaningless question, or a question with a billion answers, depending on the life in question. I was looking for a birthday card for my wife today, and found one that said “We have discovered why you exist” {open card} “Your parents had sex”. Really, it’s that simple. We exist to reproduce, nothing more. Of course, while we exist, we can create our own meaning. Christians create the fiction that we exist so we can spend eternity in heaven. OK. Whatever floats your boat. Just don’t tell me that’s why I exist.

    And an open mind is a good thing, if yours is really open. Most creationists (not you) say they have an open mind, which instantly snaps shut when you suggest that their ancestors did not ride dinosaurs.

    @maliha11

    You’re entitled to your opinions, but won’t you be surprised if you’re wrong? Just because you think you’re right, science should stop trying? That’s what I mean by not imposing your belief on me.

    @DaVinci

    Naw. I like to hear from creationists. It makes me feel smarter than I really am. That may sound condescending but it’s not meant to be. But you have to admit that a lot of the creationist’s garbage that gets bandied about is really dumb.

  13. Just wanted to point out that the article you’ve linked to says nothing about recreating early conditions, only creating life using modern tools and techniques. My point has nothing to do with supernatural intervention but intelligent intervention. In the case of this article it is intelligent intervention that starts life, with evolutionary techniques being used to modify it.

  14. There are two kinds of sufferers in this world, those who suffer from a lack of life, and those who suffer from an overabundance of life. I’ve always found myself in the second category. When you come to think of it, almost all human behavior and activity…is not essentially any different from animal behavior. The most advanced technologies and craftsmanship…bring us, at best, up to the super-chimpanzee level.
    Actually, the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human. The realm of the real spirit,
    the true artist, the saint, the philosopher, is rarely achieved.
    Why so few? Why is world history and evolution not stories of progress, but rather this endless and futile addition of zeroes? No greater values have developed. Hell, the Greeks years ago were just as advanced as we are. So what are these barriers that keep people
    from reaching anywhere near their real potential?
    The answer to that can be found in another question, and that’s this: Which is the most universal human characteristic — fear or laziness?
    -Waking Life
    Don’t misunderstand me, Blazinggig. You can infer any meaning you wish to your own life, but to say that the questions are similar as to where did life begin, or what is life, and what is the meaning of life, are two very different questions. It’s the age old question between purposive and mechanistic outlooks. Are we here because we have a purpose, or are we here simply as a result of causality in matter? Who knows? It can never be answered empirically, because it can’t be tested.
    And I didn’t assume, I made an observation, which apparently is just as good as a theistic purposeful one.

  15. @Liamkinnon

    Yes, I understood that. And of course, if scientists are not able to show that the conditions under which they created life were present at the “creation”, then of course their findings may have limited value.

    However, all major monotheistic religions make the claim that only their gods can create life from non-life. If man is able to do it with our limited intelligence and resources (compared to god’s) then , of course, that claim goes out the window. Don’t you agree?

  16. “However, all major monotheistic religions make the claim that only their gods can create life from non-life. If man is able to do it with our limited intelligence and resources (compared to god’s) then , of course, that claim goes out the window. Don’t you agree?”
    -I do. I am also anxious to see the space program visit other planets and moons in a more personal way, because I personally want to hear all the excuses theism comes up with why there was or is life elsewhere. I know its a large assumption that life exists elsewhere, but it would sure be nice to see what comes of it blog-wise.

  17. I don’t know if I agree. You see, the existence of ‘stuff’ in general I find much more interesting that the ‘origin’ of life issue. I also believe in Polkinghorne’s understanding of how a god would interact with the universe, which enables both natural laws and God to be simultaneously at work in any and all situations. I think that if this experiment ‘worked’ – which, of course, it would take many years to be sure of – I would probably be just as likely to say ‘Praise God – what a neat way to have created things’ as I would be drawn to any extended doubt, personally. I guess we’ll see.

  18. I would agree if your second premise was correct. I won’t speak for Islam or Judaism, but for Christianity (not to get into too much, unwanted, scriptural exegesis) we view the events in Genesis as God imbuing his creative power in Humanity, giving us Sentience and Intelligence. In theological terms being given dominion over creation means that, should we be able to create life, it is only a further imitation of our creator.

    Whether it is a moral or ethical thing to do is another question entirely. (Personally I’d be all for artificial stem cells as opposed to the current means of harvesting them.) These scientific findings do appear to have limited value in disproving God, but may have much value in serving humanity.

  19. I was pleased to watch a movie this weekend called Mindwalk, where a physicist explained the nature of sub-atomic particles. She explained that nothing really exists smaller than a atom, and what is there only seems to appear when we measure it. Particles can be likened to ‘potential for interaction’, not physical realness like we know. This is why I call theism sophomoric, because it has be sooooo left behind that it can only fool those who do not know anything about contemporary paricle physics. Knowledge has marched on, and left God in history, that is if we ever really did know her at all.

  20. Actually, I would argue that there are a few more “great unanswered questions of our time” other than just abiogenesis. Namely:

    What is consciousness? (This one that keeps me up at night. I HATE that the answer may never be found in my lifetime.)

    What is free will — if, indeed, it even exists? (Ditto.)

    And how did space-time and matter begin… or if it was always here, what does that mean?

    I’m just sayin’, is all.

    Just to be clear: I do think all these questions almost certainly have naturalistic answers. In fact, I think it’s more likely, by several orders of magnitude, that they have naturalistic answers than supernatural ones. If for no other reason:

    When you look at the history of the world, you see thousands upon thousands of phenomena for which a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural one.

    How many times have natural explanations been effectively replaced by supernatural ones? Exactly zero.

    It’s therefore about a zillion times more likely that any given phenomenon that’s currently unexplained will have a natural explanation than a supernatural one.

  21. What I can tell you, without doubt and without fear of argument from any camp, is that no living being in this universe will ever recreate the conditions in which life began in this universe, i.e. a universe in which life never existed.

    To my mind, that makes any subsequent biogenesis, while impressive and possibly Earth-shaking, a theologically inconsequential demonstration of what intelligent life can do.

    Inventing your own recipe for cookies does not prove anything about how we came to have cookies in the first place.

  22. It’s long been obvious that, until artificial life is created, creationists will say our inability to do that proves that God was behind it; and when we do create artificial life, creationists will say that this proves only intelligence can create life, and therefore God was behind it.

    Amusingly, we can see both responses in evidence in this comment thread.

  23. I read this original post shortly after SI put it up. I just noticed how much interest was generated with all the comments. Actually, the comments it spawned were, to me, more interesting than the post (sorry, SI, that’s clearly not usually the case!). That’s all you can hope for when you blog – get people thinking. Anyway, I guess the reason for my initial reaction is that I agree with those who have said that it will do little to change deep religious convictions. But these side-debates are fascinating. Good job, SI.
    And, unusual for me, I’ll stay out of this (other than this one comment) SI, DaVinci and Greta are doing just fine without my help.

  24. Greta said: “Just to be clear: I do think all these questions almost certainly have naturalistic answers. In fact, I think it’s more likely, by several orders of magnitude, that they have naturalistic answers than supernatural ones. If for no other reason:

    When you look at the history of the world, you see thousands upon thousands of phenomena for which a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural one.

    How many times have natural explanations been effectively replaced by supernatural ones? Exactly zero.

    It’s therefore about a zillion times more likely that any given phenomenon that’s currently unexplained will have a natural explanation than a supernatural one.”

    You can have confidence in naturalistic explanations. I have studied enough anthropology to understand just how and why we created God, which was to have something to grasp (which led to action, because action gives the illusion of control)when the world did things humans didnt understand. Say a drought, or a volcano eruption happens, what to do without science? It’s elementary my dear watson, gather up the virgins, (I know they please me) so they should please the god of the volcano and he will be our pal and stop the volcano. He might even recommend us to the god of rain as well. Gee this god worship makes me feel like I’m in control, now lets see…what else can I control with this superstition…?

  25. liamkinnon said:

    “Now scientists, imitating nature, are attempting to do the same thing. To truly disprove theism life has to spontaneously form and replicate.”

    It did already. Now we’re trying to find out how.

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