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Bellah: Religious Evolution September 2009-January 2010
Religion and Evolution
The last chapter was about religion and ontogeny. It was not an effort to understand the development of religion in the life course of the individual, though that would be a valuable undertaking, but to look at human development as the acquisition of a series of capacities, all of which have contributed to the formation of religions. This chapter is about religion and phylogeny, religion in deep history. When did religion begin? If only among humans, were there earlier developments that made its emergence possible, even in other species, and that might help us understand it? If we assume, as I do, that religion as defined in the Preface and Chapter 1 is confined to the genus Homo and perhaps even to the species Homo sapiens, where do that genus and species stand in relation to the whole story of evolution as far back as we can go? And what do I mean by evolution as a process that includes everything from single-cell organisms to contemporary human society and culture? That is what this chapter is about.
If we observe the history of human culture we will find an abundance of myths of origin, some of which will be treated seriously in later chapters, but there is one story about origins that, at least among educated people, has a kind of priority today, and that is the story as told by science: in terms of the universe, scientific cosmology; in terms of life, evolution. These are extraordinary stories and we will have to recapitulate some of them, but, let us note, they are stories, narratives, even, in a sense, because they have been given that sense, myths. Thus as we begin to consider these stories we must also keep in mind what kind of stories they are and to what uses they have been and are being put.
There is a problem here, one that faces everyone who accepts the story of cosmic evolution as the metanarrative of educated people because it is the metanarrative of science with its overwhelming prestige in today’s world; it is certainly my problem. As Geertz put it when trying to define science as a cultural mode, science requires, at least as an ideal, “disinterested observation.” Even if it takes the form of narrative, as it does at times in most sciences, the narrative offered is backed up with evidence and argument. Each critical point in it must be demonstrated in the face of criticism and doubt and is revisable in the face of new evidence. The problem I alluded to above is that the very cultural form of narrative inevitably moves us beyond disinterested observation and established fact. Narrative is a pre-theoretical form, one, as we saw in the last chapter, that is closely related to a sense of identity, both of self and others. We are our story, and every group we belong to is its story.
David Christian is well aware of this aspect of narrative though he is uneasy about it. He says that his big history is a story, indeed a creation myth, and the people it is “for” must be “modern human beings, educated in the scientific traditions of the modern world.” But he notes parenthetically, “Curiously, this means that the narrative structure of the modern creation myth, like all creation myths, may appear pre-Copernican, despite its definitely post-Copernican content.”1 Exactly. As we will see in a moment, this modern creation myth inevitably gives rise, even in the modern scientifically oriented human beings most likely to believe it, among whom I include myself, to feelings and thoughts that are clearly pre-Copernican.
My whole book is awash in a sea of stories. I have, by calling my book Religion in Human Evolution, chosen to take as my primary metanarrative the modern creation myth that David Christian describes. As a social scientist I really have no other alternative if I am to be true to my calling, and, practically speaking, this is the only metanarrative that will allow me adequately to describe and compare all the other narratives and metanarratives that compose human history.
That does not mean it is the only story. In the course of writing this book, which is a history of histories, and a story of stories, I have become involved with many of the stories I recount to the point of at least partial conversion. In the extensive work that went into the four chapters dealing with the axial age—the chapters on ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India—each taking a year apiece, except two years for India where I knew the least to start with, I found myself morose as I completed each chapter, having come to live in a world I didn’t want to leave, but only to go on learning more about. Another way of putting it is that in each case I was learning more about myself and the world I live in; the stories were shaping my understanding. After all, that’s what stories do.
But to tell the truth, I couldn’t remain “disinterested,” that is, disengaged, even with the scientific metanarrative, where disengagement is an absolute methodological requirement. Here we have to face the fact that we can make category distinctions in principle that we can’t completely adhere to in practice. The spheres of life that Geertz, following Schutz, described, in fact overlap. When it comes to telling big stories about the order of existence, then, even if they are scientific stories, they will have religious implications. It is better to face this fact head on than try to deny it. In fact I have discovered that some of my natural science colleagues find themselves crossing boundaries even when they don’t intend to. Here is what Eric Chaisson, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Tufts University and author of Cosmic Evolution, has to say about the story he has told in his book:
Not least, we have also been guided by notions of beauty and symmetry in science, by the search for simplicity and elegance, by an attempt to explain the widest range of phenomena with the fewest possible principles. . . The resulting evolutionary epic, rises above the collection of its copious parts, potentially granting meaning and rationality to an otherwise unworldly endeavor. Intelligent life is an animated conduit through which the Universe [author’s cap.] comes to know itself. . .
Perhaps now is the time to widen the quest for understanding still further, to expand the intellectual effort beyond conventional science—to engage the larger, non-scientific communities of philosophers, theologians, and others who often resonate with the cosmic-evolutionary theme even if not in name, all in an ambitious attempt to construct a millennial worldview of who we are, whence we came, and how we fit into the cosmic scheme of things as wise, ethical, human beings.
Humankind is entering an age of synthesis such as occurs only once in several generations, perhaps only once every few centuries. The years ahead will surely be exciting, productive, perhaps even deeply significant, largely because the scenario of cosmic evolution provides an opportunity to inquire systematically and synergistically into the nature of our existence—to mount a concerted effort to a modern universe history (Weltallgeschichte) that people of all cultures can readily understand and adopt. As we begin the new millennium, such a coherent story of our very being—a powerful and true myth—can act as an effective intellectual vehicle to invite all cultures to become participants, not just spectators, in the building of a whole new legacy.2
Chaisson, in saying it is time to move beyond “conventional science,” is himself recognizing that he is moving into another sphere, and we will note the clues to what sphere he is moving into. By using the word “epic” he suggests he is moving into the realm of poetry, which is surely part of the truth, but most of the signs point to the fact that he is moving into the realm of religion. When he speaks of a “millennial worldview,” he is clearly pointing to one of Geertz’s central elements in religion, an idea of a “general order of existence.” When he speaks of the Universe with a capital U he suggests an element of the sacred upon which Durkheim’s definition hinges, and at the end of the quoted passage when he calls on “all cultures to become participants, not just spectators, in the building of a whole new legacy,” he is drawing the further Durkheimian conclusion that “religion is a system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred which unites those who adhere to them in a moral community.” He is, in fact, calling for a new church to go with his new religion.
I have no problem with Chaisson’s endeavor—indeed I have a lot of sympathy with it—but I would be happier if he had taken responsibility for what he is doing rather than implying that all this is still science, even if “beyond conventional science.” And he falls into one of the pitfalls of all religions when he speaks of the story he tells as a “powerful and true myth,” with the implication that other myths are not true, for truth is one of the marks that gives his religion its distinction. This leads perilously close to the implication that all the other religions are false. Then what happens to the vast majority of humanity that doesn’t understand, much less believe in, his myth?
Chaisson would have avoided this error had he been clear about this: myth is not science. Myth can be true, but it is a different kind of truth from the truth of science and must be judged by different criteria, and the myth he tells, though it draws on science, is not science and so cannot claim scientific truth. I would argue that the myths told by the ancient Israelite prophets, by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, by Confucius and Mencius, and by the Buddha, just to stay within the purview of this book, are all true myths. They overlap with each other and with Chaisson’s myth, but, even in their conflicts, which are sometimes serious, they are all worthy of belief and I find it possible to believe in all of them in rather deep but not exclusive ways.
Mary Midgley, in her analysis of the unavoidable overlap of science and religion when it comes to the theory of evolution, the best such analysis of its kind that I have come across, notes that there are two ways in which evolutionary theory becomes religious: cosmic optimism and cosmic pessimism.3 She finds in a careful reading of Darwin himself that he could not avoid these resonances but, being more balanced than most of his supporters and most of his opponents, he held on to both responses, emphasizing one or the other depending on the context.4 Eric Chaisson has given us an example of cosmic optimism. Midgley turns to the Nobel Prize winning French biochemist Jacques Monod for an example of cosmic pessimism:
It is perfectly true that science attacks values. Not directly, since science is no judge of them, and must ignore them; but it subverts every one of the mythical or philosophical ontogenies upon which the animist tradition, from the
Australian aborigines to the dialectical materialists, has based morality, values, duties, rights, prohibitions.
If he accepts this message in its full significance, man must at last wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realize that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings or his crimes.5
Although a distinguished scientist and one of the founders of molecular biology, Monod in the above passage has entered the world of metaphysical speculation and, perhaps not surprisingly, finds there the thought of a leading French existentialist. As Midgley says of him, he has created “a drama in which Sartrian man appears as the lonely hero challenging an alien and meaningless universe.” To me it is especially poignant that Monod’s first thought about the alien universe was that it was “deaf to his music,” considering that he himself was a fine musician. With all due qualifications, I believe that we must also listen to Monod, a very intelligent man and a master of evolutionary biology. Even though, as is now widely believed, morality and religion are evolutionary emergents, evolution cannot tell us which one of them to follow. For those who can find meaning only in evolution, that must be a discouraging but indisputable truth.
Finally, though, to close these reflections on the inevitable area of overlap of evolution and religion, let me quote a charming passage from Oliver Sacks, the prolific neurologist, one in which Sacks moderates his remarks within limits not respected by Chaisson or Monod, but one which reveals what I would also consider an indisputable truth, namely our kinship with all life.
Life on our planet is several billion years old, and we literally embody this deep history in our structures, our behaviors, our instincts, our genes. We humans retain, for example, the remnants of gill arches, much modified, from our fishy ancestors—and even the neural systems which once controlled gill movement. As Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man: Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. . .
In 1837, in the first of many notebooks he was to keep on “the species problem," Darwin sketched a tree of life. Its brachiating shape, so archetypal and potent, reflected the balance of evolution and extinction. Darwin always stressed the continuity of life, how all living things are descended from a common ancestor, and how we are in this sense all related to each other. So humans are related not only to apes and other animals, but to plants too. (Plants and animals, we know now, share 70 percent of their DNA.) And yet, because of that great engine of natural selection—variation—every species is unique and each individual is unique, too. . .
I rejoice in the knowledge of my biological uniqueness and my biological antiquity and my biological kinship with all other forms of life. This knowledge roots me, allows me to feel at home in the natural world, to feel that I have my own sense of biological meaning, whatever my role in the cultural, human world.6
So for Sacks, biology doesn’t answer every question; he still has to live in the cultural, human world. But feeling at home in the natural world is no small thing, and considerably happier than living like a gypsy on the boundary of an alien world. As I now move to trying to tell the modern scientific metanarrative in highly condensed form, let me just reaffirm my conviction that there is undoubted truth in all the reactions, including the rather different ones from these three scientists, but also those from many other scientists and non-scientists, to this extraordinary, and disturbing, metanarrative. I also believe that, in spite of our differences, we do not need to fall into culture wars in which we denounce and anathematize those with whom we disagree. This is a big universe; there is room for all of us.
What Followed the Big Bang
I want to recount briefly what modern cosmology has to say about the origin and history of the universe. Because of the nature of my story I am more interested in biology than in physics, more in mammals than in other kinds of organisms, and more in humans than in other animals. Still, we, as modern humans trying to understand this human practice we call religion, need to situate ourselves in the broadest context we can, and it is with scientific cosmology that we must start. I am particularly concerned that we keep in mind the question of scale. We need not fall into Monod’s pessimism, but it is an unimaginably huge universe in which we live and it began unimaginably long ago.7 Where this universe is going we can’t know for sure, but the best estimates today are not reassuring: dissolution of everything that exists into its constituent entities strewn at random in a dark and bitterly cold universe that will just go on expanding forever. Of course, that will be billions of years in the future, so we don’t have to worry about it. And we can hope that science will discover other, happier, futures. Of one thing we can be sure: science offers us no final view of anything. We have Revised Versions of the Bible every generation or so, but the bible of cosmic evolution is revised every six months or even, probably, every day. Yet, we still have to say that this grand metanarrative by which we are supposed to live is not, at least at the moment, terribly cheerful, looked at as a whole.8
Something like thirteen and a half billion years ago (the exact date is still in question but there is general agreement as to the approximate date), something infinitely dense and infinitely hot began to expand dramatically. That is why we speak of big bang cosmology. Steven Weinberg describes the first one-hundredth second as “a state of infinite density and infinite temperature.”9 Under the conditions at the beginning, there were no atoms, only subatomic particles, and among them only elementary ones. Weinberg describes the situation at the end of the first one-hundredth second:
We can estimate that this state of affairs was reached at a temperature of about 100 million million million million million degrees (1032 o K).10
At this temperature all sorts of strange things would have been going on. . . The very idea of “particle’ would not yet have had any meaning. . . Speaking loosely, each particle would be about as big as the observable universe! 11
I cannot say that I understand what Weinberg is describing other than that it dwarfs any human scale of imagination. Still, from early in that first second science can give us a rather specific and detailed description of what was happening as this infinitely small something expanded at first more rapidly than the speed of light so that by the end of the first instant it was larger than a galaxy.
We might well ask, what was happening before the big bang? Science really can’t answer that question, but maybe it is not a meaningful question at all. Maybe there is no “before” to ask about. As this infinitely dense, infinitely hot something expanded it created the time and space into which it expanded. Another possible explanation would be that a previous universe, after expanding for many billions of years, condensed again until it became this very small, very dense, very hot thing that exploded to form our universe. But really, earlier than the first hundredth second, there are only conjectures. If traditional myths of origin raise more questions than they answer, we should not be surprised that a scientific myth of origin should do the same. Science is nothing if not the continuous asking of new questions.12
Before giving a schematic account of the early development of the universe, we might try to get a sense of what thirteen and a half billion years might mean. (I can’t even imagine what 1032 o K of heat would mean.) In so doing I will draw on David Christian’s ingenious idea of collapsing the history of the universe by a factor of one billion, so that each billion years is reduced to one year as a way of giving a human meaning to these vast expanses of time. Thus the big bang, beginning the universe, began 13.5 years ago; the sun and solar system 4.5 years ago; the first living organisms on earth, single cell organisms, between 4 and 3.5 years ago; multicellular organisms 7 months ago;
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