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A Religion of Life

January 31, 2024

The following discussion about belief systems may seem out of place coming from a recovering astrophysicist, and perhaps I am as surprised as you are. But my path has taken me to an unexpected place, so that I now think we would be wise to make a radical course change at the deepest level of what we believe.

Why should we consider a major change?

  • Because we don’t know everything, and never can.
  • Because what we do know tells us we’re on the wrong track, initiating a sixth mass extinction—not just from CO2, but from modernity itself.
  • Because we now (collectively) believe in the wrong things, like human supremacy and economics (gross).
  • These things are actively hurting the living creatures of the planet, including us.

Science has revealed so much about the origins and rules of the universe, and how life came to be so exquisitely diverse. Let’s tap into what this tells us. Let’s also acknowledge that mysteries will always remain. Rather than continue to be paralyzed in this urgent time by what we don’t yet know, let’s fill in the gaps with belief—or even faith—rooted in the science we already do know. Let’s move beyond the current stories we tell ourselves in modernity, and fashion new ones that move us in a better direction—to the enduring benefit of all life on Earth.

I’m not sure I know how to tell this story, so please bear with me and accept my apologies for a long-ish read. For those who saw last week’s post, this one contains familiar echoes, but represents a fresh approach intended for a more general audience.

Old Stories

I’ll start by pointing out that human cultures continue to tell some very old stories, and that stories with such staying power must be special in some way. They might resonate with some sense of inner truth, or provide a way to better explain the world we inhabit. But, notice that we sometimes use the word “stories” to mean lies—fabrications. Effective lies always contain a healthy dose of truth, or they would be instantly rejected as rubbish. In this sense, perhaps persistent stories also contain a healthy dose of truth—even if the overall message goes off the rails.

Whatever you think of the story from Genesis about Adam and Eve, and their fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, you’ll acknowledge that it has had incredible longevity—surviving for millennia. What is it about this sometimes-confusing story that works so well for people?

The Fall from Grace

As a recap of the story’s salient features, initially Adam and Eve roamed the Garden of Eden, eating its fruits and living a satisfied, carefree life. The only commandment they had to obey was not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree was for God alone.

When they succumbed to temptation to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they were forever banished from the Garden of Eden, with the following words (from Genesis):

Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground…

Man, that god sounds hangry!  In any case, it was to be a hard-scrabble life of agricultural toil (with a death-bonus thrown in), which was a real downer after “having it made” in the Garden.

Another facet to the story that comes into play is that of Cain and Abel—sons of Adam and Eve. Cain made his living by tilling the earth, while Abel was a pastoralist: a sheep herder. They each offered gifts to God: Cain sacrificed grass and seeds, while Abel sacrificed a sheep. God accepted Abel’s gift, while rejecting Cain’s. In a jealous rage, Cain killed his brother, Abel—then went on to become a builder of cities.

These story elements are confusing. As our culture is based on agriculture, and we praise knowledge, technology, and innovation, why would eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil be a bad thing? Why would this transformation from an age of childlike innocence to an age of farming and dominion over land and animals be cursed? Isn’t this the spark that set us on the path we were meant to follow—that we are indeed following?

It all makes much more sense if we allow that the original story was told by those outside the Adam-and-Eve clan. Imagine pastoralists in a territory bordering some upstart agriculturalists. What story would they tell? They might tell of a wayward group of humans who fell out of the natural way of living to conquer the land. They must have offended their god to have such a cruel fate of hard work forced upon them. Who are they, anyway, clearing land for fields and acting like they own the place—as if they were gods themselves? Maybe they actually think they’re gods! Maybe they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, even though everyone knows that the fruit only works for gods. Oh, but what if they don’t know that? What if they ate the fruit of the Tree, imagined themselves to have acquired godly wisdom, were punished by their actual god for the transgression, yet carried on as if possessing the ultimate wisdom? Yeah, that totally fits!

The Cain and Abel story also makes a lot more sense, in this light. The god of the people telling this story clearly favored pastoral life, and shunned the farmers—as evidenced by the acceptable form of sacrifice. For further evidence, what did the dastardly Cain become? He eradicated his pastoral brother-humans and became a builder of cities: of civilization. Aren’t we fans of civilization?  Why associate that noble development with the villain of the story? This seems like a story most likely told by disgruntled folks displaced by agriculture and cities, then accidentally adopted by the culture it originally criticized.

Our Story

With that in mind, let’s tell our own story of creation. We will start with what we have learned from science. The universe began 13.8 billion years ago in a hot Big Bang. The sun and Earth formed out of gas and dust within the galaxy about 4.5 billion yeas ago. When Earth was cool enough, over uneventful stretches of time whose duration is utterly incomprehensible to us, chemistry and physics contrived to create arrangements capable of self-replicating, and the simplest life came into being on the planet.

What happened next is both simple and fascinating: selection. The better-suited a lifeform was to the environment, the more it thrived and became enmeshed in the community of life. We call this evolution, of course. The present offers a snapshot of evolution’s progress. It isn’t finished, and most of the species on the planet today are simply momentary waypoints along a twisted and intertwined set of tracks.

We all got here by following the rules of life. All along, every species had no choice but to obey the laws of physics—at all times. Physics plus complexity (molecules) makes chemistry. Chemistry plus complexity (cellular structures) gives biology, and biology plus complexity (life interactions) yields ecology. The other simple rule we all followed leads to evolution: success survives, failure disappears. The idea is so obvious, in hindsight, that it hardly needs articulating. Yet, if any species becomes too successful (like off-scale hunting capability), it depletes its environment too rapidly and fails. Every life operates in relation to other life, and evolution is fully in that context. Ecology pertains to the intricate and unknowable connections and dynamic balance among the species, all playing some part in the great ever-changing symphony that has been in a perpetual state of composition over eons.

Recasting the Story

Now we will tell the same story using different language. Imagine living 20,000 years ago, marveling at this astonishing world, and how all the plants and animals seem to have a role, in relationship. All seem to have figured out different ways to live in this world. All have their tricks and secrets. Through every winter, the turtles, wasps, newts, rabbits, chickadees, trees, and flowers survive and return. How do they manage? How might you make sense of it all?

A satisfying explanation is that you, like the other animals and plants, live in the hands of the gods. Without knowing how it happens, the world just seems to provide for you. How else would you have survived for all this time? You might experience hunger sometimes, but the gods see to it that something has always come along to save you in time. In modern understanding, we would say that every animal is contextualized to its environment, and of course the environment provides it with what it needs to survive and reproduce, or the species would not have had the option to stick around. Mere presence is a testament to long-term adequate provision. It is not complete random coincidence that something usually works out.

But back to the hands of the gods. Whoever or whatever they are, they sure are wise! They seem to know when the fox should catch the quail, and when the quail should escape. If the fox never caught the quail, it would disappear. If it always did, the quail would disappear and the fox along with it, without anything left to eat. Which outcome will happen today? Will the fox eat, or go hungry? If the latter, the quail survives to eat the grasshopper, which spares the grass.

In this tangled mess, what’s good for one creature might be called evil for another—sometimes, not all the time. How do the gods know when to mete out good or evil for any given critter on any given day?

Since we have known for ages that “you are what you eat,” wise gods must eat wise fruit. Aha! They know where to find the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil! Having the wisdom that comes from this fruit, they are able to prevent an excess of good or evil from upsetting the overall stability and balance in the community of life. That job requires immense wisdom—far beyond the pay-grade of simple humans.

We got where we are (became humans) by our ancestors’ putting trust in the gods, living in their hands. As long as we made our best efforts, they saw to it that we found nourishment, evaded danger, and learned how to live together well enough to make it to today. They equipped us with some nifty features: flexible diet, dexterity, adaptability to many climates, complex social behaviors, and large brains to amplify all these traits. If we remain entrusted to their hands, we are likely to make it to tomorrow as well. If evil does befall us, it’s all in keeping with their infinite wisdom that we have no standing to question. We are no different from other animals, who also live in the hands of the gods, and also can expect to experience both good and evil in fair measure. Fairness, by definition, will not always appear to operate in our favor.

Back to Science

Okay, so we are not likely in the present day and age to subscribe to literal tales of wise gods with big hands—nor is it to be assumed that ancient tellers of such stories took them literally (seriously, yes). But we can connect the concepts to a more familiar realm. The actual biophysical world appears to operate in an approximate, dynamic equilibrium—setting aside the anomalous modern era for the moment. Even as the climate swings through ice ages and interglacial periods, life has been able to adjust and adapt. We understand this in an evolutionary context. Plants and animals that lack the flexibility to adapt are removed from the scene. What’s left are those able to live in rough balance in relation to the other survivors.

Because all species are locked in the dance together, no one who makes it gets an excess of “good” or an excess of “evil.” Evolution has culled those cases, exercising a form of final judgment. The wisdom behind the judgment is right there in the rules of selection.

But that is not the main source of wisdom. The main source is time. Every species alive today benefits from a several-billion-year heritage of trial and error, patiently honing attributes—judged by the simple metric of success or failure. While humans are only 3 million years old, and Homo sapiens a few hundred-thousand, our design relies heavily on the entire history of life. The simplest tasks of constructing cell walls, building proteins, replicating cells, and metabolizing food stretch back billions of years. The secrets for making muscle, skin, and bones likewise are as old as the hills. Much older, actually. Brains are not unique to humans, either. The basic structure of our brain is inherited from a very long line of evolutionary success stories.

Deep Time

This might all seem relatively obvious, but what may not be so obvious is what billions of years actually means. Having lifetimes that seldom stretch beyond 100 years, we can have no direct, visceral concept of what even 1,000 years feels like (though some trees can). A million years is one thousand of these long-ass millennia, which far exceeds our intuition. Now, a billion years is one thousand of these seemingly interminable eternities. We are woefully incapable of grasping such “deep time,” and what splendid diversity of shenanigans that allows.

Pay attention to that. Just as the mind of god is imagined to be unknowable to mere mortals, we can’t come close to fathoming the time and patience of evolution in shaping organisms that are able to work within the community of life. Sure, we marvel at the crazy dances of bower birds, the sonar capabilities of bats, the magnetically-aided navigational abilities of migratory animals, the intricate social structures of bee colonies, and all the rest. Those things merely hint at the impressiveness of deep time and the sophisticated capabilities that can develop in that context. If this idea doesn’t exceed your imaginative capacity, then you’re probably not absorbing the point well enough. This is way bigger than anything our brains can process.

Role of Religion

Precisely because evolution’s patient accomplishments are magnificent and unfathomable, human cultures have filled the void with stories of gods or (later) a god. The phenomenon of life on this planet simply demanded an explanation as grand and mysterious as the result. These godly beliefs reflect a tacit admission of our inferiority in comprehending how it could all work: we are nothing, in comparison to the gods of creation. Correct.

Modern secularists might see the religion impulse as the wrong track. But actually, it is rather astute: the world works in ways that we are incapable of fully understanding. We are therefore justified in telling stories to explain what’s missing. It just turns out that evolution may be that missing piece, often vastly under-appreciated for its depth. We have known about evolution for some time, but set it up as the anti-god, not as the god—not as a concept worthy of reverence and even worship for its embodied wisdom.

To be sure, many wonders in our world are not due to Darwinian evolution: stars and planets; sunsets and rainbows; geology and the rain that shapes it; etc. This stuff is just gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear forces (i.e., physics), driven by energy flow and entropy. As stated before, physics underwrites chemistry, which underwrites biology, which gives rise to ecology—guided by multi-level selection, or evolution. While we certainly appreciate the inanimate elements of our world, it is life that takes the cake, in our imaginations—and for good reason: it’s truly stunning!

In viewing “god” as physics, evolution, and the dazzling complexity that emerges, we need not diminish god’s magnificence, as the result is every bit as mysterious and unfathomable to warrant similar awe and humility. The actual wonderful world, as we find it, is not diminished one iota if our stories about it shift.

Humans in Context

Now, most agree that humans are the most intelligent species on the planet. No other species has devised means of accessing land, sea, air, and space. Yet, for all this off-scale intelligence, we are nothing to evolution. We are utterly incapable of designing even the simplest viable lifeform—especially if disallowing plagiarism of evolution’s solutions. No cheating! As such, evolution has FAR more power than we do. For all intents and purposes, evolution is omnipotent. Moreover, we ourselves are a product of evolution, so perhaps anything we do is actually evolution’s accomplishment also! It’s like creating a patent within a large organization: the organization owns the patent.

All the same, the jury (of the gods) is still out on how fit our intelligence will turn out to be.  We already had a question mark by our species name prior to the agricultural revolution, due to megafauna extinctions. Since then, in a time fantastically short compared to evolutionary time scales, we’ve become quite the wrecking ball to the ancient community of life, effectively driving it over a cliff..

Intelligence is one of many tools in evolution’s box. Other attributes that confer advantage are things like speed, strength, sharpness of teeth/claws, camouflage, stealth, smallness, acuity in sight/sound/smell, dietary flexibility, dexterity, socialization—to name a few. Humans have a number of advantageous attributes, but intelligence is our most prized. The thing is, any of these attributes can be taken too far, becoming a liability. Evolution does not care about making mistakes. It’s actually little more than a huge mistake-machine. Some “mistakes” happen to work out, and new niches are filled as a result. Most go nowhere.

Thus, humans might well be more intelligent than the community of life can tolerate, though I certainly hope that does not prove to be the case. Lately, we have created our own context and rules, acting outside of evolutionary pressures that keep other species in balance. Perhaps most importantly, we have jumped the rails, off the slow track of evolution and onto a hypersonic rocket ship. While many applaud this impressive stunt, the rest of the community of life is unable to adapt to its ridiculous pace—tied as they are to the slower train of genetic evolution. We are living out of the hands of the gods that got us here, which is very risky. It is no coincidence that the sixth mass extinction appears to have begun, due to human activity.

In essence, we have thumbed our noses at the gods of evolution, promoting ourselves into the role of gods (more on this below). Many still worship a (usually single) god, but these religions tend to single out humans as the pinnacle of creation—granting to humans in the case of Genesis

… dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

This is a problem.  It gives me the creepeths.

Humans as Self-Styled Gods

So complete is our hubris that we tend to quickly dismiss the roles of physics and evolution that have defined who we are, imagining ourselves to be the masters—even of ourselves. In this view we no longer belong to the world: it belongs to us, and we were meant to rule it. We imagine that we have free will (note: separate from agency), granting a sort of override over mundane processes like physics and chemistry. This probably stopped a lot of readers in their tracks. Free will is indeed a sacred cow, which itself is fascinatingly revealing. Admittedly, the free will illusion—a powerful instinct—may very well be a deliberate adaptive strategy on the part of evolution, necessary for social species to operate with a sense of personal responsibility within a collective. I don’t want to be hubristic enough myself to challenge the wisdom in the illusion. But I can at least try to peer under the curtain, as I have done more thoroughly in a previous post and will return to again next week.

The point is, whether aware of it or not, we tend these days to think of ourselves as having godly powers. By this logic, we need not live in the hands of the gods (subject to evolution and its notions of parceling out good and evil). We are in control now. We make the rules. We are the new gods. We do what we want. Question: what happens in the old stories when a mortal challenges the power of the gods? Are they ever victorious? Watch out, there.

We simply do not (alone) possess the wisdom of billions of years to warrant the assumption of godly roles. When we attempt to mete out good and evil, we display a strong tendency to bestow the good on ourselves, leaving the evil to the non-human suckers who can go take a running leap, for all we care (a leap into the sixth mass extinction, it turns out). We can’t handle the responsibility, and nor were we designed to do so by evolution. We make poor gods, and would be wise to stop pretending.

Shortcut Beliefs

Believers in god(s) understandably see god(s) everywhere, as a foundational explanation for the multitude of unfathomable phenomena that the world presents to us. The same goes for free will: every action or decision seems to be sparked by something beyond mundane physics and chemistry. The combination of physics, evolution, and time, time, time, time, time, time, time, time, time (and much more time) is also capable of accounting for the amazingness of the world. Not all of these explanations are correct. Because the complexity emerging from the last one is likely beyond our cognitive capacity to fully grasp, we gravitate to the more facile, attractive, self-flattering, short-cut beliefs of god(s) and/or free will. Yet, evolution can account for the diverse array of life and its many incredible capabilities—and also for preparing brains to process complex decisions in a complex world that provide agency (ability to do stuff) aimed at facilitating successful outcomes.

This tendency to dismiss the “emergent complexity” explanation is, perhaps, another expression of hubris. If we can’t fit a whole idea into our head, we might reflexively reject it. The universe, however, is under no obligation to work in ways that our particular organism is equipped to fully comprehend. On the other hand, faith is a common element of religious belief, and one could imagine adopting faith that physics and evolution are capable of accounting for all that we see—even if exactly how it does so in all its detail remains forever mysterious to us.

Evolution as Religion

If physics and evolution are indeed able to account for biodiversity and all our experiences, then rather than kill the idea of god(s), they could potentially become our idea of god(s). They could evolve into a belief system that satisfies our affinity for religion. Here, I sketch out some initial thoughts on the tenets and likely results of such a belief system.

Tenet: The universe is not here for us, or because of us, or designed to lead to us.  We are simply here because we can be.  It would not be possible for us to find ourselves in a universe in which the rules did not permit our existence.

Result: Deep gratitude for the privilege of being here, alive.  We are passing phenomena, and have the opportunity to enjoy our brief time.

Tenet: We are all nothing more than atoms in marvelously complex arrangements, capable of extraordinary interactions with other dynamic assemblages of matter—experiencing emotion, awareness, and a sense of agency along the way.

Result: Awe and marvel that this actually works—without any imperative to understand every detail (as we likely can’t), but no harm probing to learn more. It’s breathtaking, magnificent, glorious.

Tenet: Compared to our own capabilities, evolution is effectively all-powerful (omnipotent), yet knows nothing (nihilscient does not exactly roll off the tongue).

Result: We respect the products of evolution, appreciating that we could not possibly do as well in achieving balanced ecosystems (see exhibit A: modernity). We need not attribute the sustained outcome to a sentient, omniscient being: it’s a self-balancing dynamic.

Tenet: We rest on billions of years of heritage: what we do in our brief century on the planet is wholly in this context. We play a negligible role in making ourselves who we are.

Result: Less hubris, and more appreciation for the power of deep time. We appreciate that we are wired as social creatures, universally experiencing thought patterns that are “true-to-type.”

Tenet: The Law of Life within which evolution works is time-tested and is not likely to be improved by human meddling. We place our trust in evolution to produce sustainable communities of life.

Result: We stop acting like we know what’s best, approaching our role on the planet with humility. We recognize that we are only one species among millions in the community of life, and that we are all in this together. We only succeed in the long term if most others do as well. We care about all life.

Tenet: Our own lives are of finite duration. We are physical beings operating on physical flows and have no non-corporeal aspect, other than the lasting imprint we make on the world and in others.

Result: This belief system is about life in the here and now, not in life after death. It’s about all life: all creatures—and plants—great and small (all “people”), of which humans are only a tiny part. We savor our time on the planet, feel lucky to have the opportunity, and prioritize the legacy of the biophysical world: committed to leaving it no worse than we found it.

Tenet: What we have on Earth is rare, and inexpressibly valuable. The deep time that was required to enable current conditions represents an investment of unthinkable magnitude.

Result: Dismissal of economics as the means to ascertain value. Life, biodiversity, and ecological health become the currency of this religion. Everything else is secondary, tertiary, etc.

Tenet: Humans are not the pinnacle of creation. We are but one temporary twig-end on a vast tree of life. Every other species can outdo us in one way or another, performing tasks that we often cannot even comprehend.

Result: More humility (can’t have enough). We would come to value our fellow travelers on this planet, seeing them as part of a larger family, each with amazing and admirable capabilities that might have something to teach us. Selfish human rights give way to ideas far more bio-inclusive: but these are not rights that we grant—what would give us that right?

Tenet: The truth of how it all works may eternally be beyond our full comprehension. That’s okay: why would there be a guarantee of this? Given what we already know, we are justified in having faith that the magnificent emergent complexity we witness is just what happens when our universe is allowed to unfold under a simple but “lucky” set of rules.

Result: Relax. We are not obligated to understand everything. But we might understand enough to start making better decisions about how we live on this planet, and willingly put our fate back in the hands of the gods.

Tenet:  We belong to the planet: it does not belong to us.

Result: We offer gratitude for the gift of life, and do not take from this world more than we need—also leaving enough for the rest of the community of life to thrive.  We refrain from doing what we can, just because we can.

The Church of Life

So, that’s it: ten tenets of what essentially is a sort of religion grounded in what we already know, humbly admitting that we won’t know it all, accepting the wisdom of the gods of evolution, and tucking back into the community of life for the enduring benefit of all life.  Maybe I’ll see you in church—the Church of Life.


Note that I did not work all this out myself, but picked up key pieces from Daniel Quinn’s writings, also benefiting greatly from fledgling exposure to Indigenous and animist ways of knowing and being. Last week’s post was on the same theme, providing additional tracers to the origins of these ideas.

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter range precision. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Motivated by the unprecedented challenges we face, he has applied his instrumentation skills to exploring alternative energy and associated measurement schemes. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks. Note from Tom: To learn more about my personal perspective and whether you should dismiss some of my views as alarmist, read my Chicken Little page.