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The Quest for a Common Language

It was probably inevitable that my comment last week about the pseudoconservative crusade against Darwinian evolution in today’s America would attract more attention, and generate more heat, than anything else in the post. Some of my readers abroad expressed their surprise that the subject was even worth mentioning any more, and it’s true that most religious people elsewhere on the planet, even those who revere the same Bible our American creationists insist on treating as a geology textbook, got over the misunderstandings that drive the creationist crusade a long time ago.

While it’s primarily an American issue, though, I’d like to ask the indulgence of my readers elsewhere in the world, and  also of American readers who habitually duck under the nearest couch whenever creationists and evolutionists start shouting past each other.  As a major hot-button issue in the tangled relationship between science and religion, the quarrel over evolution highlights the way that this relationship has gotten messed up, and thus will have to be sorted out as the civil religion of progress comes unraveled and its believers have to find some new basis for their lives.

Mind you, I also have a personal stake in it. It so happens that I’m a religious person who accepts the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution. That’s not despite my religion—quite the contrary, it’s part of my religion—and so I’m going to break one of my own rules and talk a little bit about Druidry here.

The traditions of modern Druidry, the faith I follow, actually embraced biological evolution even before Darwin provided a convincing explanation for it. Here’s part of a ritual dialogue from the writings of Edward Williams (1747-1826), one of the major figures of the early Druid Revival:

“Q. Where art thou now, and how camest thou to where thou art?”

“A. I am in the little world, whither I came, having traversed the circle of Abred, and now I am a man at its termination and extreme limits.”

“Q. What wert thou before thou didst become a man in the circle of Abred?”

“A. I was in Annwn the least possible that was capable of life, and the nearest possible to absolute death, and I came in every form, and through every form capable of a body and life, to the state of man along the circle of Abred.”

Like most 18th-century rituals, this one goes on for a good long while, but the passage just cited is enough to give the flavor and some of the core ideas. Abred is the realm of incarnate existence, and includes “every form capable of a body and life,” from what used to be called “infusoria” (single-celled organisms, nowadays) all the way up the scale of biological complexity and diversity, through every kind of plant and animal, including you and me. What the dialogue is saying is that we all, every one of us, embody all these experiences in ourselves. When Taliesin in his great song of triumph said “I have been all things previously,” this is what we believe he was talking about.

There are at least two ways in which all this can be taken. It might be referring to the long biological process that gave rise to each of us, and left our bodies and minds full of traces of our kinship with all other living things. It might also be referring to the transmigration of souls, which was a teaching of the ancient Druids and is fairly common in the modern tradition as well: the belief that there is a center of consciousness that survives the death of one body to be reborn in another, and that each such center of consciousness, by the time it first inhabits a human body, has been through all these other forms, slowly developing the complexity that will make it capable of reflective thought and wisdom. You’ll find plenty of Druids on either side of this divide; what you won’t find—at least I’ve yet to encounter one—are Druids who insist that the existence of a soul is somehow contradicted by the evolution of the body.

Yet you can’t bring up the idea of evolution in today’s America without being beseiged by claims that Darwinian evolution is inherently atheistic. Creationists insist on this notion just as loudly as atheists do, which is really rather odd, considering that it’s nonsense. By this I don’t simply mean that an eccentric minority faith such as Druidry manages to combine belief in evolution with belief in gods; I mean that the supposed incompatibility between evolution and the existence of one or more gods rests on the failure of religious people to take the first principles of their own faiths seriously.

Let’s cover some basics first. First of all, Darwin’s theory of natural selection may be a theory, but evolution is a fact. Living things change over time to adapt to changing environments; we’ve got a billion years of fossil evidence to show that, and the thing is happening right now—in the emergence of the Eastern coyote, the explosive radiation of cichlid fishes in East Africa, and many other examples. The theory attempts to explain why this observed reality happens. A great deal of creationist rhetoric garbles this distinction, and tries to insist that uncertainties in the explanation are proof that the thing being explained doesn’t exist, which is bad logic. The theory, furthermore, has proven itself solidly in practice—it does a solid job of explaining things for which competing theories have to resort to ad hoc handwaving—and it forms the beating heart of today’s life sciences, very much including ecology.

Second, the narratives of the Book of Genesis, if taken literally, fail to match known facts about the origins and history of the Earth and the living things on it. Creationists have argued that the narratives are true anyway, but their attempts to prove this convince only themselves.  It’s been shown beyond reasonable doubt, for example, that the Earth came into being long before 4004 BCE, that animals and plants didn’t evolve in the order given in the first chapter of Genesis, that no flood large enough to put an ark on Mount Ararat happened during the chronological window the Bible allows for the Noah story, and so on.  It was worth suggesting back in the day that the narratives of the Book of Genesis might be  literally true, but that hypothesis failed to fit the data, and insisting that the facts must be wrong if they contradict a cherished theory is not a useful habit.

Third, the value of the Bible—or of any other scripture—does not depend on whether it makes a good geology textbook, any more than the value of a geology textbook depends on whether it addresses the salvation of the soul. I don’t know of any religion in which faith and practice center on notions of how the Earth came into existence and got its current stock of living things. Certainly the historic creeds of Christianity don’t even consider the issue worth mentioning. The belief that God created the world does not require believing any particular claim about how that happened; nor does it say in the Bible that the Bible has to be taken literally, or that it deals with questions of geology or paleontology at all.

What’s happened here, as I’ve suggested in previous posts, is that a great many devout Christians in America have been suckered into playing a mug’s game. They’ve put an immense amount of energy into something that does their religion no good, and plays straight into the hands of their opponents.

It’s a mug’s game, to begin with, because the central strategy that creationists have been using since well before Darwin’s time guarantees that they will always lose. It’s what historians of science call the “God of the gaps” strategy—the attempt to find breaks in the evolutionary process that scientists haven’t yet filled with an explanation, and then to insist that only God can fill them. Back in Darwin’s own time, the usual argument was that there weren’t any transitional forms between one species and another; in response to the resulting talk about “missing links,” paleontologists spent the next century and a half digging up transitional forms, so that nowadays there are plenty of evolutionary lineages—horses, whales, and human beings among them—where every species is an obvious transition between the one before it and the one after. As those gaps got filled in, critics of evolution retreated to another set, and another, and another; these days, they’ve retreated all the way to fine details of protein structure, and when that gap gets filled in, it’ll be on to the next defeat. The process is reliable enough that I’ve come to suspect that biologists keep an eye on the latest creationist claims when deciding what corner of evolutionary theory gets intensively researched next.

Still, there’s a much deeper sense in which it’s a mug’s game, and explaining that deeper sense is going to require attention to some of the basic presuppositions of religious thought. To keep things in suitably general terms, we’ll talk here about what philosophers call classical theism, defined as the belief that the universe was created out of nothing by a unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being. (There’s more to classical theism than that—you can find the details in any good survey of philosophy of religion—but these are the details that matter for our present purposes.) I’ve argued elsewhere that classical theism isn’t the best explanation of human religious experience, but we’ll let that go for now; it corresponds closely to the beliefs of most American creationists, and it so happens that arguments that apply to classical theism here can be applied equally well to nearly all other theist beliefs.

Of the terms in the definition just given, the one that gets misused most often these days is “eternal.” That word doesn’t mean “lasting for a very long time,” as when we say that a bad movie lasts for an eternity; it doesn’t even mean “lasting for all of time.” What it means instead is “existing outside of time.” (Connoisseurs of exact diction will want to know that something that lasts for a very long time is diuturnal, and something that lasts for all of time is sempiternal.) Eternal beings, if such there be, would experience any two moments in time the way you and I experience two points on a tabletop—distinct but simultaneously present. It’s only beings who exist in time who have to encounter those two moments sequentially, or as we like to say, “one at a time.”

That’s why, for example, the endless arguments about whether divine providence contradicts human free will are barking up the wrong stump. Eternal beings wouldn’t have to foresee the future—they would simply see it, because to them, it’s not in the future.  An omniscient eternal being can know exactly what you’ll do in 2025, not because you lack free will, but because there you are, doing it right out in plain sight, as well as being born, dying, and doing everything else in between. An eternal being could also see what you’re doing in 2025 and respond to it in 2013, or at any other point in time from the Big Bang to whatever final destiny might be waiting for the universe billions of years from now. All this used to be a commonplace of philosophy through the end of the Middle Ages, and it’s no compliment to modern thought that a concept every undergraduate knew inside and out in 1200 has been forgotten even by people who think they believe in eternal beings.

Now of course believers in classical theism and its equivalents don’t just believe in eternal beings in general.  They believe in one, unique, perfect, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient being who created the universe and everything in it out of nothing. Set aside for the moment whether you are or aren’t one of those believers, and think through the consequences of the belief.  If it’s true, then everything in the universe without exception is there either because that being deliberately put it there, or because he created beings with free will in the full knowledge that they would put it there. Everything that wasn’t done by one of those created beings, in turn, is a direct manifestation of the divine will.  Gravity and genetics,  photosynthesis and continental drift, the origin of life from complex carbon compounds and the long evolutionary journey since then: grant the presuppositions of classical theism, and these are, and can only be, how beings in time perceive the workings of the eternally creative will of God.

Thus it’s a waste of time to go scrambling around the machinery of the cosmos, looking for scratches left by a divine monkeywrench on the gears and shafts. That’s what the “God of the gaps” strategy does in practice; without ever quite noticing it, it accepts the purely mechanistic vision of the universe that’s promoted by atheists, and then tries to prove that God tinkers with the machinery from time to time. Accept the principles of classical theism and you’ve given up any imaginable excuse for doing that, since a perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent deity leaves no scratches and doesn’t need to tinker. It’s not even a matter of winding up the gears of the cosmos and letting them run from there, in the fashion of the “clockmaker God” of the 18th century Deists; to an eternal divine being, all of time is present simultaneously, every atom is doing exactly and only what it was put there to do, and what looks like machinery to the atheist can only be, to the believer in classical theism or its equivalents, the action of the divine will in eternity acting upon the world in time.

Such a universe, please note, doesn’t differ from the universe of modern science in any objectively testable way, and this is as it should be. The universe of matter and energy is what it is, and modern science is the best toolkit our species has yet discovered for figuring out how it works. The purpose of theology isn’t to bicker with science over questions that science is much better prepared to address, but to relate the material universe studied by science to questions of ultimate concern—of value, meaning and purpose—which science can’t and shouldn’t address and are instead the proper sphere of religion. To return to a point I tried to raise in one of last month’s posts, not everything that matters to human beings can be settled by an objective assessment of fact; there are times, many of them, that you have to decide on some other basis which of several different narratives you choose to trust.

Step beyond questions of fact, that is, and you’re in the territory of faith—a label that properly includes the atheist’s belief in a purely material cosmos just as much as it does the classical theist’s belief in a created cosmos made by an infinite and eternal god, the traditional polytheist’s belief in a living cosmos shaped by many divine powers, and so on, since none of these basic presuppositions about the cosmos can be proven or disproven.  How do people decide between these competing visions, then?  As noted in the post just mentioned, when that choice is made honestly, it’s made on the basis of values. Values are always individual, and always relative to a particular person in a particular context.  They are not a function of the intellect, but of the heart and will—or to use a old and highly unfashionable word, of character. Different sets of presuppositions about the cosmos speak to different senses of what values matter; which is to say that they speak to different people, in different situations.

This, of course, is what a great many religions have been saying all along. In most of the religions of the west, and many of those from other parts of the world, faith is a central theme, and faith is not a matter of passing some kind of multiple choice test; it’s not a matter of the intellect at all; rather, it’s the commitment of the whole self to a way of seeing the cosmos that can be neither proved nor disproved rationally, but has to be accepted or rejected on its own terms. To accept any such vision of the nature of existence is to define one’s identity and relationship to the whole cosmos; to refuse to accept any such vision is also to define these things, in a different way; and in a certain sense, you don’t make that choice—you are that choice.  Rephrase what I’ve just said in the language of salvation and grace, and you’ve got one of the core concepts of Christianity; phrase it in other terms, and you’ve got an important element of many other religions, Druidry among them.

It’s important not to ignore the sweeping differences among these different visions of the nature of existence—these different faiths, to use a far from meaningless idiom. Still, there’s a common theme shared by many of them, which is the insight that human beings are born and come to awareness in a cosmos with its own distinctive order, an order that we didn’t make or choose, and one that imposes firm limits on what we can and should do with our lives.  Different faiths understand that experience of universal order in radically different ways—call it dharma or the Tao, the will of God or the laws of Great Nature, or what have you—but the choice is the same in every case:  you can apprehend the order of the cosmos in love and awe, and accept your place in it, even when that conflicts with the cravings of your ego, or you can put your ego and its cravings at the center of your world and insist that the order of the cosmos doesn’t matter if it gets in the way of what you think you want.  It’s a very old choice: which will you have, the love of power or the power of love?

What makes this particularly important just now is that we’re all facing that choice today with unusual intensity, in relation to part of the order of the cosmos that not all religions have studied as carefully as they might. Yes, that’s the order of the biosphere, the fabric of natural laws and cycles that keep all of us alive. It’s a teaching of Druidry that this manifestation of the order of things is of the highest importance to humanity, and not just because human beings have messed with that order in remarkably brainless ways over the last three hundred years or so. Your individual actions toward the biosphere are an expression of the divide just sketched out. Do you recognize that the living Earth has its own order, that this order imposes certain hard constraints on what human beings can or should try to do, and do you embrace that order and accept those constraints in your own life for the greater good of the living Earth and all that lives upon her? Or do you shrug it off, or go through the motions of fashionable eco-piety, and hop into your SUV lifestyle and slam the pedal to the metal?

Science can’t answer that question, because science isn’t about values. (When people start claiming otherwise, what’s normally happened is that they’ve smuggled in a set of values from some religion or other—most commonly the civil religion of progress.)  Science can tell us how fast we’re depleting the world’s finite oil supplies, and how quickly the signs of unwelcome ecological change are showing up around us; it can predict how soon this or that or the other resource is going to run short, and how rapidly the global climate will start to cost us in blood; it can even tell us what actions might help make the future less miserable than it will otherwise be, and which ones will add to the misery—but it can’t motivate people to choose the better of these, to decide to change their lives for the benefit of the living Earth rather than saying with a shrug, “I’m sure they’ll think of something” or “I’ll be dead before it happens” or “We’re all going to be extinct soon, so it doesn’t matter,” and walking away.

That’s why I’ve been talking at such length about the end of the civil religion of progress here, and why I’ll be going into more detail about the religious landscape of the deindustrial world as we proceed.  Religion is the dimension of human culture that deals most directly with values, and values are the ultimate source of all human motivation. It’s for this reason that I feel it’s crucial to find a common language that will bridge the gap between religions and the environmental sciences, to get science and religion both to settle down on their own sides of the border that should properly separate them—and to show that there’s a path beyond the misguided struggle between them. We’ll talk more about that path next week.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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