“We’ll never achieve a just and sustainably lifegiving future on the resources of the existing religious traditions, and we can’t get there without them.” ~ Thomas Berry
The 21st century will be seen historically as humanity’s rite of passage. We’re growing up as a species, going through the very same process we’ve all gone through as we mature. As children we’re guided by beliefs and we think the world was made for us. As adults, we’re guided by knowledge and we live our lives (at least in part) as a contribution to others and the world. Indeed, for healthy adults, self-giving is actually one of life’s greatest satisfactions. As well, most of us needed no special training or incentives to begin questioning the beliefs we were spoon-fed as children – just the usual dose of hormones and peer focus that signals adolescence.
These two transformations, from beliefs to knowledge and from self-focus to contribution, are precisely what we’re now collectively experiencing. I call this species-wide rite of passage the “Evidential Reformation,” and I believe it is destined to transform not only the science-and-religion debate and how religious traditions relate to one another, but, even more importantly, how humans relate to the larger body of life of which we are part and upon which we depend.
A Big History Perspective on Religion Through Time
Big history, also known as the epic of evolution, is our common creation narrative. It is the first origin story in the history of humanity that is globally produced, derived entirely from evidence, and will soon be taught to high school students around the world (see here, here, and the YouTube clip at the end of this post).
In our “childhood” as a species – as tribes, then villages, then chiefdoms and kingdoms, then city-states and early nations – our main source of guidance came from religious beliefs. Shared allegiance to a particular religion that bridged even ethnic and linguistic differences was a crucial factor in the rise of civilizations across the globe. Consider: our instinctual heritage as social mammals will suffice for fostering cooperation at the scale of a clan. (Biologists call these instinctive forms of cooperation kin selection and reciprocal altruism.) Mutually advantageous trade then facilitated greater circles of cooperation. But for 10,000 or more human beings to be induced to cooperate: for that, you need religion – a singular, shared, unquestioned religion, and probably one that doles out harsh consequences (including ostracism) for apostates.
A multitude of religions arose independently of course, because in any bioregion where fierce competition for territory or resources arose, there would have been a survival advantage to groups that could forge cross-clan alliances for mutual defense. As well, there are two functional issues that all cultures need to address: what’s real and what’s important. (In a six-minute YouTube video based on his book, Religion Is Not About God, philosopher of religion Loyal Rue refers to these two functions as “how things are” and “which things matter.”) These two functional issues will be answered differently based upon where and when you live and upon the happenstance of interpretive imagination of one’s ancestors. Each “wisdom tradition” thus reflects regional collective intelligence encoded mythically. That is, the regional collective intelligence is encoded in pre-scientific language that reflects a people’s daytime and nighttime experience. (See here for a discussion of “Day and Night Language,” which was a central concept in my book, Thank God for Evolution.)
In our “adolescence” as a species (which was a threshold crossed as the modern era swept the globe), we began to question the beliefs, interpretations, and meanings we had inherited. The birth of this new form of collective intelligence, global collective intelligence, occurred when access to powerful new technologies (beginning with the telescope) ramped up our ability to discern how things are. We then faced the frightening truth that ancient understandings were not, in fact, the best maps of what is real. This challenging process is still facing much of the world, as traditional religious beliefs are increasingly found to be obsolete and simply no longer credible when interpreted literally.
Some individuals were thrilled at the prospect of participating in this threshold event: of valuing measurable observation, rationality, and collectively encouraged skepticism and testing as the preferred means for discerning what’s real and what’s important. In the 19th century these “natural philosophers” became known as “scientists.”
The two institutions responsible for ensuring that the self-interest of individuals and groups are aligned – namely, governance and religion – were impacted differently by the rise of modern science. Democratic forms of governance were the first to embrace evidence as authoritative. Religions are only now beginning to catch up and to not only experience the terror but also taste the thrill of what the Evidential Reformation offers.
Like any rite of passage, once one voluntarily steps through the threshold there is no integrous and healthy way of going back. So of course there are shrill voices of protest and deep institutional inertia.
But ultimately, this shift will happen. One by one, segment by segment, the great religions of the world will pass through the threshold – else they will wither and the new generations will leave them entirely behind.
“Idolatry of the Written Word” as Today’s Greatest Impediment
What the Evidential Reformation offers for religion is centrally this: Science reveals “God’s word” for humanity today – that is, what’s real and what’s important, or how things are and which things matter – far more accurately than the Bible or Qur’an could ever hope to. And Moses, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the Prophet Mohammad would surely be among the first to applaud this trend were they alive today.
Yet, until faith leaders become a whole lot bolder in proclaiming to their flocks the goodness and necessity of this shift, religious people will remain blind and deaf to what God (Reality personified) is revealing today through scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence. And that means that God/Reality will continue using the New Atheists to mock unchanging religious beliefs and those who espouse such beliefs.
The main hindrance to religious people wholeheartedly embracing evidence as divine communication – divine guidance (i.e., how Reality reveals itself) – has been what I have long been characterizing as idolatry of the written word (also here). Idolatry of the written word occurred anywhere in the world where ancient oral stories (which surely evolved for millennia as conditions and needs changed) became frozen into unchanging scripture – scripture that was then deemed as the foundational (even the sole) locus for discerning priorities, values, right thinking, and right behavior.
This shift from oral storytelling to unchanging scripture as the way wisdom, morality, and a sense of the sacred (supreme value) is generationally passed forward set the stage (albeit centuries later) for a profound and now exponentially expanding mismatch. This mismatch is between globally shared and empirically tested updates of (once-again) evolving wisdom versus what religious people still preference as “God’s Word”.
Idolatry of the written word has thus led to what could be considered “demonic beliefs.” I do not hesitate to use such harsh language because any and all beliefs that cause good people to do bad things and to vote in evil ways (ways that are shortsighted, self-centered, and harmful to future generations) are demonic. And who among us does not see where such beliefs have led to a kind of collective insanity? The only cure, as far as I can tell, is for religious leaders to accept – indeed, to celebrate – that scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence are the actual venues through which Reality/God is speaking and guiding humanity today. Fortunately, this shift is happening rapidly…and seems likely to be fleshed out in just another generation or two.
I do not decry or disvalue this aspect of religious history. Indeed, I accept that idolatry of the written word could not have been avoided. Without the shift to literacy, humanity would never have been able to access the fruits of modernity: the rule of law, exponentially growing knowledge, cumulative technological and medical advances, and a widening sense of one’s “in-group” and compassionate treatment thereof.
Nonetheless, the negative social consequences of this form of idolatry have been quite severe – and threaten to become even more terrifying and destructive as deadly weapons come in ever smaller packages. It is thus time to prophetically speak out against continued favoring of ancient scriptural ‘authority’ over our best collective understandings of facts and values today. Said another way, the Church, currently shipwrecked (also here) on the immovable rock of “biblical authority”, can still be saved, but only by embracing “the authority of evidence”. Reality would have it no other way.
The Shift: Aligning Self-Interest with Species-Wide and Global Interests
One of the most significant and hopeful insights to emerge from the early days of the Evidential Reformation is a re-envisioning of what “self-interest” really is. Self-interest actually exists at all biological and cultural levels – not just at the obvious, individual level. Indeed, the key to ever-increasing social complexity in the human realm over the past 10,000 years has been the aligning of self-interest at multiple levels. It could even be argued that nothing is more important for ensuring a just and thriving future than aligning the natural self-interest of individuals, corporations, and nation-states with the wellbeing of the body of life as a whole. The outcome of this shift would be to make competition co-operative, self-interest nontoxic, and society wise.
One could thus conclude that humanity’s “Great Work” in the 21st century is to co-create global and bioregional governance such that individuals and groups that benefit the common good benefit themselves, while individuals and groups that disregard or harm the common good are taxed, penalized, or face moral strictures.
By organizing and managing ourselves so that the impact of parts on the whole, for good or ill, are reflected back to the parts, we shall create a system through which individuals, corporations, and nations are incentivized to do what is just and ecological – while simultaneously being incentivized to not do what is unjust or un-ecological. This aligning of self-interest at multiple scales would ensure that what is perceived as the cheaper, easier, more convenient thing to do is also the right thing to do, rather than the harmful thing, as it is now. This re-incentivizing of societal goods and services to comport with human nature (as it really is, not as we wish it would be) would also help all elements of society to access and make decisions based on humanity’s collective intelligence (also here and here).
The promise of the Evidential Reformation, as I see it, is this: As the world’s great religious traditions come to honor and celebrate evidence as divine guidance, and big history as our common creation story, they will begin to wield their moral authority in ways that assist, rather than resist, the passage of our species out of the desert of destructive and unsustainable adolescence and into the promised land of contributing and fulfilled maturity.