IRAS: The Energy Transition: Religious & Cultural Perspectives


The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science presents

The Energy Transition Through a Different Lens

As the BP oil spill continues unabated, debate about alternative energy sources has re-ignited and spread to all arenas, from the political to the religious. This is all the more reason to note another public dialogue currently under way, with an accompanying public conference in July, which examines the latest ideas from an ethical point of view.

Exploring the energy transition from ethical, religious, and cultural perspectives will be the focus of: "The Energy Transition: Religious and Cultural Perspectives."  It will be held on Star Island, off the coast of Portsmouth, NH, July 24 - 31, 2010. Conference co-chair, Norm Laurendeau, is available to  communicate an overview of the debate from this unique lens in the coming weeks.

Engineers, scientists, ethicists, and theologians will discuss: 1) ethical and religious perspectives that can be used to guide future energy choices and 2) energy choices which, in turn, might challenge ethical and religious perspectives. The conference agenda, as outlined by the following list of presentations, begins with the science and technology of energy, shifts to ethical issues, and ends with religious and cultural perspectives on energy policy:

  • • An Energy Primer: From Thermodynamics to Theology
    • Transportation: Beyond Oil to Synfuels and Biofuels
    • The Future of Biofuels: Science, Economics, and Ethics
    • Sustainable Energy Choices for Rural India: Scientific and Philosophical Perspectives
    • Renewable Energy for Sustainable Communities: Credits and Offsets
    • Conservation: Zero Net-Energy Homes for Low-Income Families
    • The Urgency of Climate Change and the Role of Renewable Energy
    • Overcoming Energy Gluttony: A Philosophical Perspective
    • Ethical and Religious Values in Energy Policy
    • From Belief into Action: How Religious Groups Can Become Energy Leaders
    • Energy Policies and Religious Values: The Reciprocal Challenges

Distinguished speakers from the public and private sectors include:  John Abraham, Purdue University; Susan Leschine, University of Massachusetts;  R.V. Ravikrishna, Indian Institute of Science; George Hoguet, NativeEnergy, Inc.; Anne Perkins, Rural Development, Inc.; Chuck Kutscher, National Renewable Energy Laboratory; William B. Irvine, Wright State University; James Martin-Schramm, Luther College; Rev. Fletcher Harper, GreenFaith; and Rev. Drew Christiansen, Editor-in-Chief of America. Co-chairs are Norm Laurendeau, Bowdoin College (also Purdue University), and Larry Rasmussen, Union Theological Seminary.

This is the 56th conference of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS). IRAS is a non-denominational, independent society-one of the oldest organizations facilitating dialogue on cutting-edge issues in the field of religion and science. IRAS is also the joint publisher of the journal Zygon. See further details about the conference at

The Perfect Storm: Six Trends Converging on Collapse

Matthew Stein

A worthy counterpoint to my last post...

Published in The Huffington Post, May 19, 2010
Original link / Readers comments (scroll down)

Failure is not in falling down, but in refusing to get up.
--Chinese Proverb

There are dark clouds gathering on the horizon. They are the clouds of six hugely troubling global trends, climate change being just one of the six. Individually, each of these trends is a potential civilization buster. Collectively, they are converging to form the perfect storm--a storm of such magnitude that it will dwarf anything that mankind has ever seen. If we are unsuccessful in our attempts to calm this storm, without a doubt it will destroy life as we know it on Planet Earth!

There is a popular saying that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result." If we keep doing business in the same way as we have for the past century, each of these six trends will continue their steep rates of decline, collapsing the natural systems that form the foundation for our civilization and the lifeblood of the global economy. Perhaps the current Gulf oil spill is the wake up call that mankind needs to snap us out of our complacency, realize that we are soiling our nest and that continuation of "business as usual" will destroy the world as we know it? Time will tell whether we heed this warning, go back sleep once the oil spill is contained, or simply tire of the endless media coverage, numb ourselves, and set these critical issues to the side.

We already have the technology and the means to turn this dark tide, but we lack the commitment to make the hard choices and sweeping changes that are necessary for shifting the future of our world from its current course of collapse to a new course of sustainability.

The following six trends are converging to form the perfect storm for global destruction, each of which is a potential civilization buster in its own right, if left unchecked:

Doomsayers Beware, a Bright Future Beckons

John Tierney

Published in The New York Times, May 17, 2010
Original link (Readers' comments)

Long before “sustainable” became a buzzword, intellectuals wondered how long industrial society could survive. In “The Idea of Decline in Western History,” after surveying predictions from the mid-19th century until today, the historian Arthur Herman identifies two consistently dominant schools of thought.

The first school despairs because it foresees inevitable ruin. The second school is hopeful — but only because these intellectuals foresee ruin, too, and can hardly wait for the decadent modern world to be replaced by one more to their liking. Every now and then, someone comes along to note that society has failed to collapse and might go on prospering, but the notion is promptly dismissed in academia as happy talk from a simpleton. Predicting that the world will not end is also pretty good insurance against a prolonged stay on the best-seller list. Have you read Julian Simon’s “The State of Humanity”? Indur Goklany’s “The Improving State of the World”? Gregg Easterbrook’s “Sonic Boom”?

Good books all, and so is the newest addition to this slender canon, “The Rational Optimist,” by Matt Ridley. It does much more than debunk the doomsaying. Dr. Ridley provides a grand unified theory of history from the Stone Age to the better age awaiting us in 2100.

It’s an audacious task, but he has the intellectual breadth for it. A trained zoologist and former editor at The Economist, Dr. Ridley has established himself in previous books, like “The Origins of Virtue” and “Genome,” as the supreme synthesist of lessons from anthropology, psychology, molecular genetics, economics and game theory. This time he takes on all of human history, starting with our mysteriously successful debut. What made Homo sapiens so special? Dr. Ridley argues that it wasn’t our big brain, because Neanderthals had a big brain, too. Nor was it our willingness to help one another, because apes and other social animals also had an instinct for reciprocity.

“At some point,” Dr. Ridley writes, “after millions of years of indulging in reciprocal back-scratching of gradually increasing intensity, one species, and one alone, stumbled upon an entirely different trick. Adam gave Oz an object in exchange for a different object.”

New Atheists as Prophets: Bringing the Vatican to Justice


Paradoxically, the New Atheists are playing the traditional role of prophets—those on the leading edge who see what is real and sense what is emerging and who then speak their truth.  Prophets facilitate cultural evolution.

In speaking their truth, prophets typically do not mince words.  Disrespectful of established authorities and insitutions of their time, prophets say what few want to hear.  They make people uncomfortable.  Religious prophets of the past spoke boldly and unflinchingly on behalf of Reality personified, i.e., God.  Some of them even risked or lost their lives because of their deep moral commitment to serve God/Reality by speaking out.  Today, leaders of decidedly nonreligious perspectives are speaking boldly on behalf of their sense of ultimacy — an ultimacy discerned evidentially by the worldwide self-correcting enterprise of science.  Significantly, this sense of ultimacy is shared, at least to some degree, by religious liberals of all faiths.  But the New Atheists have stepped into the role of prophets today owing to the simple fact that we religious liberals have been too nice.  We have not been willing to risk our reputations, our congregations, our peaceful countenance.  In hindsight, we have been shown by the New Atheists to be cowards.

We liberals and progressives are so devoted to our interfaith dialogues and to respectful tolerance of others' beliefs that we have been hesitant to critique anyone's scripturally-based beliefs, worldviews, interpretations, or religious practices.  However, when the leaders of one's own faith tradition are systematically being outed for a category of sin (indeed, secularly understood as crime) that, to modern minds, is the lowest of the low, tolerance and peaceful language are dispensed with.  Consider the scathing language used by The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd of late.  Dowd (no relation to me) is a Roman Catholic, and one with an enormous pulpit!  In the past few months, she has written no less than five searing (read: prophetic) columns against practices within her own faith tradition: "A Nope for Pope", "Should There Be an Inquisition for the Pope?", "Devil of a Scandal", "The Church's Judas Moment", and "Worlds Without Women".

Maureen Dowd is serving as a modern-day prophet.  Prophets are absolutely necessary to ensure that institutions stay relevant: that they evolve.  Without prophetic voices our institutions stagnate.  If they stagnate for too long, they degenerate, even toward the despicable.

Prophets outside the Church are also playing their role in pushing for change.  Most searingly are the attacks on religion made by the New Atheists.  Consider these words by Sam Harris in "Bringing the Vatican to Justice", which appeared today (May 12, 2010) on his Project Reason website:

Idolatry of the Written Word


Exactly eight years ago, Connie and I launched our itinerant travels as evolutionary evangelists.  Our commitment to proclaiming the wonders and practical benefits of a deep-time perspective has never wavered, even as the core elements of our message have continued to evolve.  Currently, I’m on a crusade to counter our culture’s rampant idolatry of the written word.  In practice, this means that, like the New Atheists, I am prone to point out the scriptural injunctions in my own tradition that modern sensibilities rightly recognize as morally repugnant.

For example, even the most conservative of Christians alive today do not respond to our disrespectful sons by inviting neighbors to join in stoning them to death.  Nor do we advocate capital punishment for the sin of working on the sabbath.  No western voice rises in support of ancient Middle Eastern customs of slicing off the hand of a thief or beheading blasphemers.  In spite of scriptural admonitions, we apply modern moral reasoning -- secular reasoning -- that has emerged through the centuries as cultural conditions themselves evolve.

Biblical literalists who pick and choose which passages to preach and which to studiously ignore are thus faced with a nagging inconsistency.  The way forward, I suggest, for all Christians -- liberals as well as moderates and conservatives -- is to join this crusade against idolatry of the written word as we embark together on the cross-cultural enterprise of interpreting our evolving world as best we know it today.

To begin, let us appreciate why this stubborn idolatry of the written word not only happened but was inevitable in our human journey.  Here I shall quote from p. 27 of my book, Thank God for Evolution:

What Happens When We Die?

Devil vs Jesus

Photo: Devil vs Jesus by ~ongchewpeng on deviantART 

I am regularly asked, usually by religious people (and more often since I was diagnosed with cancer), "Do you believe in an afterlife? What do you think happens to us when we die?" My typical response is to make one or more of the following points...

1.  As I discuss in "The Gifts of Death" section of Chapter 5 of TGFE, it is vitally important when thinking about death in the abstract, when contemplating the inevitability of our own demise, or when grieving the loss of a loved one, to have an accurate understanding of the positive role of death in the Universe. Widespread ignorance of the scientifically indisputable fact that death is natural and generative at all levels of reality, coupled with our culture's failure to interpret the science in ways that will help us to actually feel that death is no less sacred than life, result in not only distorted but outright disabling views. (Here you can sample testimonials from our travels that demonstrate the emotional gifts of a science-based perspective, meaningfully interpreted. It's also important to remember than Moses, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and Muhammad could not possibly have known what we know about death. This evidence-based understanding couldn't have been revealed in a way that we could have received it prior to telescopes, microscopes, and computers.)

2.  Looking at reality through deep-time eyes, my sense of "self" does not stop with my skin. Earth is my larger Self. The Universe is my even larger Self: my Great Self. So, yes, "I" (in this expanded sense) will continue to exist even after "I" (this particular body-mind) comes to a natural end. There is deep comfort in knowing that my larger Self will live on. More, I am powerfully motivated to be in action today precisely because I do not ignore or deny the inevitability of death. My small self has but a brief window of opportunity to contribute to the further evolution of the body of life. Truly, this is it; now or never. I am immensely grateful for both the comfort and the compulsion born of this sacred evolutionary perspective.

3.  From a religious naturalist point of view, it seems obvious to me that we "go" to the same place we came from before we were conceived—the same "place" that trillions of other animals and plants have gone throughout Earth's history when they died.  Some speak about it as "coming from God and returning to God". Others talk about it as "coming from mystery and returning to mystery". Still others as "coming from nothing and returning to nothing". All these I sense as legitimate and emotionally satisfying ways of thinking and talking about what happens at death. And as I sometimes humorously respond, when asked about the afterlife, "If where I go to isn't the same place that all other plants, animals, and species throughout Earth's history have gone, I'm gonna be pissed!" :-)

4.  Any supposed "faith" which doesn't include trusting that whatever happens on the other side of death is just fine is, in my view, really no faith at all. Fear of a terrifying, hellish after-death scenario, OR hope of a blissful, heavenly after-death scenario are just that: fear or hope; not faith, not trust.

5.  The idea of being "rewarded" (condemned?!) with experiencing even one year (much less millions or billions of years) of after-death existence free of struggle, challenge, or difficulty, would occur to me as hell, not heaven, were I to think of (or worse yet, witness from on high) the divinely decreed eternal torment and everlasting torture of others who had in some way missed the mark. Adding to the repugnance would be an after-death future in which those relegated to never-ending suffering included not only perpetrators of outright evil but also those condemned for nothing more than holding wrong beliefs—that is, beliefs different from mine. As I overheard one young man say, when asked about why he was no longer a theist, “The Bible's view of God is worse than Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin combined. I mean, methodically and brutally torturing billions of men, women, and children, not just for hours or months or years, but forever!? If that doesn’t qualify as evil, what possibly could?”

6.  Here is the way I discuss the subject of "the afterlife/what happens when we die" on pages 116-117 of my book, Thank God for Evolution, which (as anyone who has been on this website before already knows) has been endorsed by 6 Nobel laureates and other science luminaries, including noted skeptics, and by religious leaders across the spectrum:

My formal training for becoming a United Church of Christ minister culminated in an ordination paper that I wrote and then presented to a gathering of ministers and lay leaders. Titled “A Great Story Perspective on the UCC Statement of Faith” (available at, my talk stimulated a host of comments and queries. A widely respected minister posed a question I shall never forget. “Michael,” he began, “I’m impressed with your presentation and with the evolutionary theology that you’ve shared with us. However, there’s a little boy who lives in me, and that little boy wants to know: Where is Emory?”

Emory Wallace, a well-known and beloved retired minister, had for nearly three years guided me through my ministerial training. He died suddenly, at the age of 85, just a few weeks before my ordination hearing.

“Where is Emory?” My mind went blank. I knew I needed to say something—after all, this was my ordination hearing—so I just opened my mouth and started speaking, trusting the Spirit to give me the words. My response went something like this: 

Where is Emory? In order to answer that question I have to use both day language—the language of rational, everyday discourse—and night language—the language of dreams, myth, and poetry. Both languages are vital and necessary, just as both waking and dreaming states of consciousness are vital and necessary. Like all mammals, if we are deprived of a chance to dream, we die. Sleep is not enough; we must be permitted to dream.

We, of course, know that day experience and night experience are different. For example, if you were to ask me what I did for lunch today, and I told you that I turned myself into a crow and flew over to the neighborhood farm and goofed around with the cows for a little bit, then I flew to Dairy Queen and ordered a milkshake—and if I told you all that with a straight face—you might counsel me to visit a psychiatrist. However, if you had asked me to share a recent dream and I told the same story, you might be curious as to the meaning of that dream—but you wouldn’t think me delusional.

So in order to respond to your question, “Where is Emory?” I have to answer in two ways. First, in the day language of common discourse, I will say, Emory’s physical body is being consumed by bacteria. Eventually, only his skeleton and teeth will remain. His genes, contributions, and memory will live on through his family and through the countless people that he touched in person and through his writings—and that includes all of us.

But, you see, if I stop there—if that’s all I say—then I’ve told only half the story. In order to address the nonmaterial, meaningful dimensions of reality I must continue and say something like: “Emory is at the right hand of God the Father, worshipping and giving glory with all the saints.” Or I could say, “Emory is being held and nurtured by God the Mother.” Or I could use a Tibetan symbol system and say, “Emory has entered the bardo realm.” Any or all of these would also be truthful—true within the accepted logic and understanding of mythic night language.

My response was well received in that meeting of nineteen years ago, and it has shaped my theology ever since. Recently, I blended the core of that distinction into my Great Story talks and workshops. I am sure that my understanding of day and night language—language of reason and language of reverence—will continue to evolve and thus inform my preaching, my teaching, and my personal relationship with the fullness of Reality

[Posted April 22, 2010]

Dark Green Religion - Bron Taylor

Dark Green Religion

The following, written by Bron Taylor, was originally published in the St. Petersburg Times on December 6, 2009, with the title "Toward a natural religion".

One hundred-fifty years ago, on Nov. 24, 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, shattering traditional explanations for the diversity of life on Earth. Scientific understanding will never be the same. Neither will religion.

Religious conservatives often reject evolution, religious liberals incorporate it, and secularists embrace it. But there is a little-recognized, rapidly growing fourth reaction to the Darwinian revolution. It is emerging from those engaged in what we might call nature spirituality, or nature religion.

Devotees of this religion are consecrating evolution, understanding it as a newfound and compelling sacred story. They find meaning and ethical guidance in the evolutionary-ecological worldview — without appealing to divine beings.

This religious naturalism is inspired by...

Evolutionary Christianity


Evolutionary Christianity values big history—the 14-billion-year epic of physical, biological, and cultural evolution—as divine revelation and as our common creation story.  As I've been teaching and preaching it, here are four core tenets of Evolutionary Christianity:

1.  It is impossible not to trivialize and demean God and gospel without a science-based, deep-time appreciation of human nature, our shared ancestry, the trajectory of big history, and the creative role played by death at all levels of the universe.

2.  The history of everything and everyone can be interpreted in hopeful, soul-nourishing ways, and in ways that inspire people to cooperate across ethnic, religious, and political differences in service of a just and thriving future for all. 

3.  An understanding of human instincts and our empathic nature, as given by evolutionary brain science and evolutionary psychology, can help each of us live with greater integrity and zest for life.  It can also deepen and enrich (naturalize/REALize) traditional views of The Fall and Original Sin.

4.  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—as God's word and guidance for us today—Christianity will experience a revival unlike anything the world has ever seen.

To be clear: I am neither a theist, nor an atheist; I'm an emergentist, a religious naturalist.  The concepts of theism and atheism came into use before we had an evidential understanding of how the world, in fact, came into being, and before we learned that Creation itself is creative.  Given what we now know about our origins, the theist-atheist dichotomy no longer makes sense.  Both presuppose a trivial, unnatural God and a Cosmos that is not itself divinely creative.  Reality is my God and integrity is my religion.  By this, I mean that what is real is my ultimate commitment and being in right relationship with Reality/God, and assisting humanity in this process, is my calling and deepest inspiration.

For those not already familiar with us and our itinerant ministry...

FourYearsGo: Getting It and Diving In

Earth living planet

The following is a guest post written by Tom Atlee of The Co-Intelligence Institute. It can also be found on his Posterous website here. Tom is the author of The Tao of Demorcracy and the recently published, Reflections on Evolutionary Activism: Essays, Poems, and Prayers From an Emerging Field of Sacred Social Change.

Dear friends,

FourYearsGo (4YG) is a planetary effort to draw together people and organizations working to shift civilization in positive directions, with the intention to make clear progress by 2014.  Their view is that the next four years will determine the quality of life on earth for the next thousand years.  I believe there is tremendous truth and power in that perspective.

I've seen many wildly ambitious visions like this.  They tend to remain fringe.  It seems clear to me now that 4YG is not  destined to be fringe.  With its combination of light organizational touch, laser-focused intention and professional support, I expect it will expand quite rapidly.  Only months into its existence, over 500 organizations have joined, including both mainstream and leading edge.  I sense this is something very real.  Heaven knows, we need it.

I have decided to put time into helping the 4YG campaign become a force for innovation, coherence, influence, and co-evolution among the many individuals and groups who are getting involved in it.  I see tremendous potential here and I invite you to both join it and support its evolution into potency.  I know many reading this could play a significant role in that.

On the surface, 4YG can seem like just a loose collection of people and organizations who have pledged to upgrade their separate efforts in the next four years in the hope that together they can add up to the needed global shift.  This, in itself, is commendable.  But it would not be revolutionary.

There is, however, more to it than that and, with a little effort, I believe this initiative could attain unprecedented potency.  Here are a few areas of evolutionary leverage I see:

The Empathic Civilization & The Age of Empathy

The Empathic Civilization

Jeremy Rifkin's The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis and Frans de Waal's The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society are truly books for these times.  If you read only two books this year, make it these!  (If you read three, add Tom Atlee's Reflections on Evolutionary Activism: Essays, Poems and Prayers From an Emerging Field of Sacred Social Change.)

I carefully read every page of Jeremy Rifkin's doorstopper (616 pages, not counting footnotes).  I marked it up extensively.  I re-read some sections.  Next, I listened to the audiobook version of Frans de Waal's take on the deep evolutionary roots of human (and mammalian) empathy.  Nearing its end (his discussion of "The Dark Side"), I was moved to tears more powerfully than by any other book I can remember.

Out of the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of books I've read in my 51 years of life on this planet, I consider Jemery Rifkin's The Empathic Civilization to be one of the 5 most significant, important, inspiring, and realistically hopeful I've yet encountered.  And The Age of Empathy is also in my "Top 20" list.  (HERE is a great 10-minute YouTube introduction to Rifkin's book!)

The history of cosmic, biological, and human evolution understood meaningfully is my field of expertise.  Rifkin's book does it all (including his quoting of de Waals' earlier writings).  Rifkin integrates humanity's best collective intelligence regarding human nature and human history and does so in a way that is an absolute delight to read.  (I could hardly put it down.)  Midway through the book I thought to myself, incredulously, "How can one person know all this?!"  That's when I went back and re-read the acknowledgments.  Rifkin had a director of research working on this project for 4 years, with two dozen interns.  No wonder it's so complete!

If you give both of these books a good reading, you will gain a lifeline for maintaining a sense of deeply grounded hope—no matter how disillusioning the news of the day and no matter how challenging your own life experience with our species' evolved nature.


Excellent RSA YouTube intro to The Empathic Civilization
Is Kindness an Evolutionary Advantage?
The Young Pioneers of the Empathic Civilization
Video interview with Jeremy Rifkin via Huffington Post
Only Empathy Can Save Us: Why Jeremy Rifkin's The Empathic Civilization is February's HuffPost Book Club Pick
'Empathic Civilization' Excerpt: Homo-Empathicus, The Big Story That Historians Missed
Jeremy Rifkin's New Book: The Coolest Online Reading Experience
Our Brains Were Built For Feeling Each Other's Pain
'Empathic Civilization': Where the Jobs Are
'Empathic Civilization': Building a New World One Child at a Time
'Empathic Civilization': Amazing Empathic Babies
'Empathic Civilization': How Little Minds Are Wired For Compassion
'Empathic Civilization': Why Empathy is Essential For Doctors and in Conflict Resolution

[Posted March 7, 2010]