10/05/2010 11:23 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can Evolution Tell Us What God Wants?

Just what does God want?

Above all, He wants us to drill for oil in Alaska -- at least according to the Gospel by Sarah Palin.

Odd, that. Imagine yourself as the Almighty, creating a Universe, splashing it with galaxies, speckling it with stars, dotting it with planets, and then waiting billions of years for life to emerge on one planet, vegetation to rot, oil to form, and finally people to evolve, all so that they can drill down, pump out, and burn the stuff. I ask you: Where is the glory in that?

Yet, Barracuda Sarah's vision of God is not all that much more bizarre than traditional religion's. Think about it. If you had to sum up the message from major monotheistic religions about what God wants, you might come up with this:

Catholicism: Obey the hierarchy.
Islam: Submit to shari'a.
Evangelical Protestantism: Spread blind belief.
Judaism: Keep the commandments.

Notice any common threads here? (Granted, there are many other strands in the tapestry of religion, and granted, I've entirely overlooked the polytheistic and nontheistic religions, such as Hinduism and some forms of Buddhism, but in that short list above, we encompass more than half the world's population, and well over half its believers.)

According to these faiths, God created us, gave us free will, barked some commands and then walked away. And now He wants us to follow his orders to a T, as interpreted by the interpreters of the One True Faith. Now, that might be true. But ask yourself the old gumshoe's question: cui bono? Who benefits?

First and foremost, the religion itself -- and of course the people who run it. According to many of these folks, what God wants is for you to hand over your money -- to them. God has no use for money. But clerics sure do. Throughout history, through their voices, the Lord has demanded sacrifice for this and sacrifice for that -- and the priests have made out like especially lazy bandits. Don't take my word for it: You can find evidence in the Bible itself.

Now it was the practice of the priests with the people that whenever anyone offered a sacrifice and while the meat was being boiled, the servant of the priest would come with a three-pronged fork in his hand. He would plunge it into the pan or kettle or cauldron or pot, and the priest would take for himself whatever the fork brought up. This is how they treated all the Israelites who came to Shiloh. But even before the fat was burned, the servant of the priest would come and say to the man who was sacrificing, "Give the priest some meat to roast; he won't accept boiled meat from you, but only raw."

If the man said to him, "Let the fat be burned up first, and then take whatever you want," the servant would then answer, "No, hand it over now; if you don't, I'll take it by force." (1 Samuel 2:13-16)

Today, they don't have to send out "servants" to collect their booty. They just go on TV and wheedle.

Now, don't get me wrong. I know perfectly well that there are many Servants of God who lead humble lives of devoted service to others. l respect them -- well, some of them. But that does not alter the indisputable fact that those with the greatest power in religion have always ensured that they live well off the labor of others by invoking God's will. It pays to lead a religion, and I'm not talking about any afterlife.

Yet, as ugly as this exploitation can be, it is the least damaging of claims about God's will. Far worse are the invocations to go out and slaughter in God's name. You've probably heard debates about whether Islam is a religion of peace or violence. The answer, of course, is that like all major religions, it's both! Here's a sura from its dark side:

I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.

This is because they acted adversely to Allah and His Apostle; and whoever acts adversely to Allah and His Apostle -- then surely Allah is severe in requiting (evil).

This -- taste it, and (know) that for the unbelievers is the chastisement of fire.

O you who believe! when you meet those who disbelieve marching for war, then turn not your backs to them.


So you did not slay them, but it was Allah Who slew them ... (Quran, 8:12-17)

Could a Muslim read that as a justification -- indeed, a requirement -- for killing? Absolutely. Could other Muslims read other parts of the Quran as moderating or even overruling this passage? Sure.

Meantime, Jews and Christians have their own dark passages. Here's the Lord exhorting the Israelites to genocide:

[T]he LORD thy God ... hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them. (Deuteronomy 7:1-2)

Whew! And you wonder why there's trouble in the Middle East? If you step back and think about it, though, the very idea that God wants one people to rush out and slaughter another is preposterous. He's God! The creator of everyone and everything, right? If God wants everyone to believe in the One True Faith, He can simply appear before everyone and give the word. Or, He can wire our brains to believe from the git-go. All these dueling revelations, scriptures, and bloody religious wars are clear evidence against the authenticity of any of them.

If you believe in God as a moral, omnipotent being, you have to believe that He would step in and share the glad tidings with everyone at once, not leave most of humanity in the dark until some missionary or conqueror showed up. So why the injunctions to make war without mercy? Cui bono?

Religion itself.

Accepting that religion can and often does act like rabies, making men foam at the mouth and savagely attack their fellow human beings, does not mean you must accept atheism. It simply means you have to look beyond scripture, dogma, and fiery preaching in searching for the truth. Where else can you look? To nature!

For thousands of years, religion relied on science to gain an understanding of nature. The ancient Babylonians, for example, developed astronomy for the simultaneous benefit of their religion and their agriculture. But eventually, as science discovered evidence in conflict with religious dogma, the two institutions split in what must rank as the nastiest divorce case ever.

You might say it all began with Galileo. The Earth, he proclaimed, revolves around the Sun -- until the Church forced him on pain of torture to recant. While there were many other spats, beyond question the single greatest shock to religion came from Darwin's explanation for the myriad forms of life. For those whose faith is founded on dogma or creed, evolution has come to be the Osama bin Laden of science.

Yet, I believe that in evolution itself we can find what God wants.

I am a hopeful agnostic. I don't know whether there is a Creator any more than I know whether there's intelligent life near Alpha Centauri. But I do know this: evolving life embodies the one and only one value to be found in the world outside ourselves. Every single species, whether predator or prey, single-celled or complex, exhibits that value. Here's what it says: life is good.

So what does God want? Evidently, God wants us to keep life alive. Given all we face in the world today, that is a truly humbling commandment. Yet, there it is, sounding all around us. Even as we wreak havoc on the ecosystem, produce more babies than we can feed, and go to war against one another in the name of God, the call echoes forth: keep life alive.