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The Salvation of Religion: From Beliefs to Knowledge
Much has been written and countless discussions have ensued in recent years about the seemingly inevitable decline of Christianity and rise of secularism in America in the 21st century, which is along the lines of what happened in Europe in the mid 20th century. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here.)
Thinking and speaking of God in traditional ways (thereby using mostly biblical metaphors) has cost all forms of traditional faith in the western world both relevance and credibility. Indeed, I'd go so far as to suggest...
- The primary cause of the Church’s decline in size and influence in Europe, and now also in America, is this: valuing the Bible as the only scripture while failing to see that today's science, interpreted meaningfully and mythically, reveals God's nature, God’s ways, and God’s guidance in many ways far more accurately than anything the biblical writers could have accessed millennia ago.
Historically, developmentally, we get the answers we are ready to hear. Long before it was possible for any people to have scientifically informed answers to life’s biggest questions, religious traditions provided subjectively useful answers—that is, responses that not only helped make sense of the world but also provided consistent access to life’s most cherished and important felt-experiences, including three of the most empowering: trust, gratitude, and inspiration. Often these answers helped people in particular places develop cultures that worked for their time and place, as well as some answers that, through the test of time and cross-cultural experience, seem to be fairly universal. For example:
All human beings everywhere, no matter what their background or beliefs, thrive when they can look to the future with trust rather than anxiety or fear; when they can look to the past with gratitude rather than resentment or guilt; and when they can deal with challenges in the present from a place of inspiration and community support. In the past, such states were often readily accessible only via otherworldly beliefs. Yet today, thanks to what has been revealed to humanity through the global scientific endeavor, we can access these highly prized states through meaningful interpretation of objective scientific knowledge that can provide common ground for diverse cultures and people.
Who are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? Why is there suffering? Until recently, answers to big questions such as these could be obtained only by way of mythic stories passed down (and sometimes modified) from one generation to the next. By “mythic,” I mean stories that may be subjectively real and truthful for certain people, but not necessarily measurably so in our shared objective reality. Although many mythic stories and archetypes (like parenthood and heroism) are nearly universal subjective realities, many culture-specific myths are not. And mythic stories are not verifiable in the way that, say, modern scientists would attempt to find answers to questions that they pose about physical reality—nor in the way that scientists would scrutinize the truth-value claims of others.
Consider: Our forebears until quite recently could not possibly have known how everything was created. They could only believe. And they often understandably based their belief on their trust that greater wisdom and guidance had been available to their ancestors than was available in their own time. Notably, they maintained faith in the ancient stories by (1) assuming that God spoke more clearly in the past than in the present, and (2) living in conditions in which they rarely encountered alternative stories and explanations.
Today, however, it is almost impossible to grow into adulthood without becoming aware of at least a few alternative explanations—including those born of science. Indeed, there are hundreds of pre-scientific stories all over the world that purport to tell the whys and ways of this Universe. Some cultures speak of the Creator as like a woman who birthed the world into existence. Other traditions portray God as a King or a Lord who commanded the world into existence, or as an Artist who sculpted the world into being, or as One who dreamed the world.
My point is this: Prior to the discoveries of just the last few centuries about the genesis and nature of Creation, mythic beliefs were the only explanations possible—and not just for the meaning-of-life questions but also for the sorts of questions any child might pose: What is that big ball of fire up in the sky that heats and lights our world? How was this mountain, or that ocean, or everyone and everything created?
Until recently, as well, mythic beliefs were all that we had for finding comfort in times of sorrow and suffering. We relied on beliefs for helping us accept that loved ones and ultimately ourselves would eventually die. Beliefs also explained disappointments: why it was that we and others so often fail to live up to our standards and commitments.
Beliefs have been the norm for almost all of human history because cosmic questions cannot be answered by the powers of human perception alone. Ancient cultures gave so-called supernatural answers to such questions, but those answers were not truly supernatural—they were pre-natural. They were before we could have possibly had a natural understanding.
I don't believe it is particularly useful—and it's actually probably impossible—to try to prove or disprove the existence of supernatural realms or spiritual beings. I suggest that those who believe in them or feel they know them should continue to find meaning there. However, for those of us like myself who do not find supernatural explanations (interpreted literally) to be intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually satisfying, science gives us a view of reality that is overflowing with deeply meaningful answers—and that's what I want to stress here.
For a long time, so-called supernatural (pre-natural) spirituality gave us the best answers we had. Prior to advances in technology and scientific ways of testing truth claims, factual answers were, in fact, simply not available. It was not just difficult to understand infection before microscopes brought bacteria into focus; it was impossible. It wasn’t just difficult to understand the structure of the Universe before telescopes allowed us to see galaxies; it was impossible. Similarly, I now suggest that it is impossible to understand God’s nature and how God is communicating to humanity today if we look only to the Bible and ignore current, public revelation available through science.
- If you want a deeper understanding of how God created the heavens and Earth, you can learn about the trails of dark matter that shaped galaxies and the forces of nuclear fusion that turn gases into stars and starfire into atoms. If you want to know how God created lakes and mountains, you need to understand glaciers and plate tectonics. And only by understanding extinctions and why the death of entire species is essential for the emergence of complex life could we have any hope of learning how God created us.
Moses, King David, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul could not possibly have known these secrets about how God created everything. A thousand Einsteins living a thousand years ago—or even just a few hundred years ago—could not have intuited, understood, and successfully communicated to their peers that which we now know to be true. The ancients could not have grasped the radical changes in life forms over enormous spans of time. The ancients could not have discerned in northern latitudes the signs of immense ice masses that have only recently retreated, nor could they have understood that glacial and volcanic destruction ultimately yield healthy soils. The ancients, too, could not have grasped that forces deep within the Earth regularly shuffle the continents and expand and shrink whole oceans. Rare starbursts could not have been understood by our forebears as the very way that God ongoingly creates chemical elements vital to life.
You see, we needed telescopes, microscopes, and the scientific method of testing truth claims before God could reveal the creative marvels of natural processes that manifest divine creative power. This insight refreshes not only our understanding of God, but the nature of divine revelation and guidance as well. Here’s how:
First, what does our scientific understanding of past extinctions teach us about the nature of this world, the ways of God, and that which we are to value?
The idea that there were once species alive on Earth that are no longer here was first proposed by George Cuvier in 1798. Cuvier, a Frenchman, had been studying mammoth and mastodon bones, teeth, and tusks in comparison to living elephants. He concluded that these natural artifacts were clearly the remains of elephant-like creatures, but these types of elephants were no longer to be found anywhere on Earth. These creatures were extinct.
Extinction was not, however, a concept that was easy to accept two hundred years ago. Leading intellectuals and naturalists of the day, including our own Thomas Jefferson, were repulsed by the idea that God, or Nature, would have produced anything so imperfect that it would eventually go extinct. President Jefferson, in fact, is said to have launched the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803 not just to find a water route from the Missouri River to the Pacific, but also to prove that mammoths and mastodons were still very much alive somewhere in the great American West.
It wasn’t until giant bones of dinosaurs were discovered in the 1820s through the 1860s that the concept of extinction moved from highly speculative theory to established fact. Today, of course, there’s not a paleontologist in the world who would dispute that a great deal more than dinosaurs and Ice Age elephants have gone extinct. Indeed, scientists estimate that 98% or more of the species that have ever existed on this planet are no longer here. The fossil evidence of extinctions is compelling. This is God’s truth—divine revelation—no less than ancient writings.
It wasn’t until the mid-19th century, however, thanks to the work of Charles Darwin, that humanity learned that the death of species is not only a fact but something to be grateful for. Extinction serves a purpose. Darwin convincingly explained that without the death of countless individuals and also of entire species, complex life could not have emerged. Without the death of prior species there would be no forms of life on planet Earth more complex than pond scum. Ours would not be a world of stunning beauty and diversity—and it certainly would not include us.
Here’s my point: You cannot possibly understand how God actually created life's increasing diversity and complexity over time without accepting biological evolution and thus appreciating the divinely creative role of death.
Change through time is not only natural but absolutely necessary. You can’t have complex life without it. Scientists have discovered, as well, that everything in the Universe is evolving, changing, transforming through time. Galaxies and solar systems evolve. Continents and oceans evolve. Bacteria, plants, and animals evolve. And human cultures and traditions evolve, too. Indeed, anything that attempts to stay the same will inevitably go extinct, become toxic, or cease to function as anything more significant than a curious vestige of the past. This too is divine truth. The public revelations of science demonstrate that the Creator is quite busy all around us all the time.
Here’s another example of what God has been revealing through scientific evidence: Only 120 years ago did we learn of the vast movements of glaciers—the stupendous sheets of ice, sometimes a mile thick, that advanced and retreated over time spans of tens of thousands of years. We now know that just in the past 2 million years, for example, 17 times glaciers in the northern hemisphere have moved south and then receded back. And glaciers, of course, do tremendous damage, destroying everything in their path. Yet they also leave lakes, rivers, and renewed soil in their wakeThe only lakes in the south are those created by human beings damming up rivers and streams. Australia’s soil is impoverished compared to our own for the simple reason that Australia lacked the cutting and grinding and refreshing power of glaciers.
Overall, if you don’t know about glaciers, you can’t possibly understand how God created lakes and vast landscapes of rich soils. The Hebrew prophets and the biblical writers were clueless about such divine truths. They could not have been otherwise.
What about continents, oceans, and mountains? How were these created? Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift in the 1920s. Only in the mid-1960s, however, was there compelling evidence that Earth’s crust moves dynamically—albeit at a pace that only precise technologies are capable of measuring: roughly the same rate your fingernails grow. Wegener's fanciful hypothesis became accepted fact only when scientists used sonar to discover that a mountain range of underwater volcanoes snakes right down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean from north to south, and that the pattern of lava flows on both sides of this rift in Earth’s crust mark out the historical sequence of magnetic reversals between North and South Poles. Today, of course, there’s not a geologist in the world who would deny the reality of plate tectonics. Again, if you want to understand how God actually created continents, seas, and mountains, you’d better brush up on your plate tectonics.
Finally, only in the last half-century did we learn how God created atoms—the periodic table of elements—inside red giant and supernova stars. All stars are hydrogen gas fusing into helium gas. The energy that’s released is what powers the star. That’s what our Sun is doing right now: using its immense gravity to squeeze hydrogen into helium. At the end of our Sun’s life, some 5 billion years hence, the helium will fuse into carbon. Inside stars slightly larger than our sun, oxygen and nitrogen will also be created at the end of the star’s life, in what is called its Red Giant phase.
Inside stars more than 8 times the size of our Sun, the other atoms in the periodic table of elements will be created at the end of the star’s life. That act of creation happens by way of a catastrophic supernova explosion. We don’t merely believe this; we’ve known it since 1957. There’s not an astrophysicist alive today who would deny this explanation for the existence of complex atoms. More, scientists can see and remotely measure this process at work in our galaxy ongoingly. Again, the only way to know how God actually created the calcium in your bones and the oxygen you breathe is through the scientific endeavor. The awesome complexity and brilliance of this creative process exceeds any forms of simple supernatural magic the ancients imagined God using "in the beginning". That's what God is inviting us to realize through the great gift of science.
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To recap: I have briefly outlined five natural processes that have played hugely creative roles in fashioning the elements, structures, and beings of our world. I have also pointed out that knowledge of these five processes—extinctions, evolution, glaciers, plate tectonics, and supernovas—was utterly unavailable to the biblical writers.
These five discoveries (speaking scientifically), or revelations (speaking religiously), inspire some of the core narrative of Big History, the Epic of Evolution—our common creation story. Having a shared sacred story is crucially important today for several practical reasons.
- • First, cultural isolation is no longer possible, and cooperative interactions with peoples regarded as "other" have always been difficult to establish and maintain. Short of one faith tradition colonizing the world or the elimination of all religions, lack of an evidential basis for mutual understanding will continue to thwart peaceful solutions when challenges arise.
- • Second, so long as children and youth have access to television and the Internet, they will encounter science-based explanations for their questions. Given an inborn fascination with the living world, they will be drawn to stories that teach amazing facts about real creatures. And as any kid will tell you, dinosaurs and black holes are just way cooler than bible stories.
- • Third, the best moral guidance for today emerges within a global conversation and collective discernment—and is not to be limited by that which served a particular people in a particular time. Even the most traditionally religious among us pick and choose the scriptural passages for their own and other's instruction. Surely the best moral guidance is that which arises when ancient wisdom is re-evaluated in light of both current conditions and recent revelations issued through the sciences of evolutionary psychology, brain science, and primatology.
The Epic of Evolution offers a common and inspiring foundation that can help us come together as a planetary species. This creation story is big enough to contain each of the creation stories that arose regionally. It was, in fact, constructed collectively by scientists hailing from the full range of ethnicities and faith perspectives—and we can be sure that new revelations will continue to emerge and be soundly tested. This Great Story thus can help humanity cooperate across ethnic and religious differences in service of a just and thriving future for all.
When church leaders study the Epic of Evolution as they now do the Bible, and when they teach and preach the discoveries of science as divine revelation—God's word for us today—Christianity will experience a revival unlike anything the world has ever seen.
• Biblical Christianity Is Bankrupt: my public debate with Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, which was picked up by the NY Times iNewp, where I discuss the radical difference between literalist faith and evolutionary faith. Connie thinks it's the best thing I've written since TGFE. A more readable PDF version can be found here.
• Evolutionize Your Life: Heaven Is Coming Home to Reality - the main program I'm now delivering to secular and religious audiences across North America.
• Chapters 4-7 and 16-18 in my book, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World, which has been endoresed by 6 Nobel laureates and other science luminaries, including noted skeptics, and by religious leaders across the spectrum.
• America's Religious Decline and Secular Boom - James A. Haught