Friday, May 11, 2007

Of Gods and Birds

Hamlet says: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” But he’s wrong.

The battle between religion and science is a common theme on atheist blogs. I tend to take an extreme position — science and religion are polar opposites. A person, no matter how much science he knows, can’t really be scientific at heart while giving any credence to supernatural phenomena. Yes, he can call himself a scientist, perhaps even practice some science at a high level. But if there’s a god in the mix, that person has bought into an illogical, unscientific explanation of something.

I suppose I’d call myself a “science-ist,” not a scientist. I’m not employed in any of the scientific fields, and I must admit that my knowledge of many of those fields is meager, at best. I do admire scientists immensely, and enjoy reading science books and articles — if they’re written for an unspecialized audience. But there are certain subjects I have difficulty wrapping my head around. I don’t have a particle of sense about quantum physics. Oceanography strikes me as unusually dry. Chemistry and I don’t seem to mix. My intellectual abilities and the skills needed to understand the complexities of astronomy are light years apart. There are so many scientific trails that my brain can’t seem to blaze.

Once in a while, though, I actually get to be a scientist, if only in a small way. Tomorrow, for instance I’ll gleefully spend the hours from 3 a.m. until 7 p.m. identifying and tallying birds as a participant in this spring’s North American Migration Count. This event is held throughout the U.S. on a specified Saturday each May; myriads of birders (they’d be called “twitchers” in the U.K.) take a 24-hour “snapshot” of our nation’s bird life. While the spotting abilities of individual birders vary widely, and the weather conditions change in each location from year to year, trends do lend themselves to mathematical analysis. We “citizen scientists” submit our data, and, with proper statistical analysis, a picture of avian existence emerges.

I can’t find words to explain why I love birds. It has something to do with flight, with song, with physical beauty, and with my awed appreciation of their amazing adaptations. When I was growing up I could recognize only two bird species: pigeons and not-pigeons. I was pretty sure, though, that god created neither of them. Today, I’m reasonably competent at using visual and aural clues to pick out perhaps 100 species without difficulty, and I have a pretty good shot at using deduction and a good field guide to lead me to the correct identification of maybe 150 more. I’m not a scientist, but I play one during the migration. Not surprisingly, I still find no evidence that any god can claim credit for giving us humans the gift of birds. Thus, there is no special providence in the fall of a sparrow, nor any divine hand in the flight of an eagle.

14 comments:

es said...

If you lived with a bird you wouldn't like birds so much.

Or maybe I'm just a cold heartless atheist. With a husband whose free-range cockatiel craps all over the house.

Birds should be free. Outside.

The Exterminator said...

es:

Yes, no offense to your husband, but birds should be out there flapping in the wild. And not just to keep them from crapping on the lampshades. I can hear the strains of "Born Free" ringing in my head, as I write this.

vjack said...

I have also recently discovered bird watching and really enjoy it. The birds in my area are so interesting compared to those where I grew up. I can (and often do) spend hours in my backyard watching them at the feeders. Thing is, I don't find my enjoyment reduced at all by my lack of superstition.

The Exterminator said...

VJack:

You mean that the birds don't care whether or not you believe in god? I'm shocked, shocked!

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