As a child, I had the typical conception that a child has of God. It was always somewhat vague but corresponded more or less to some male human-like entity that resided in Heaven, wherever that was, who protected me and loved me as long as I obeyed him. This God was peculiar to people of my religion which at the time was Southern Baptist, mainly because a Southern Baptist church was about a block away from my home. As I grew older I began to read various Eastern philosophies and began to think of God as the primary creative force in the universe and a central concept that lay at the core of all religions. Older still I entered a period of skepticism not much different from that of Richard Dawkins in the God Delusion (1). In this period, God became at best an unnecessary hypothesis that added nothing to our understanding of the world which we could best comprehend through science. Older still I became more confused. I couldn’t believe in the God of most religions and certainly didn’t want to toss aside science, yet I still felt there was something more to the world than science by itself could explain. Depending upon the discussion I might call this something God or simply ignorance, but the something was there. Sometime during this period of confusion (that continues even somewhat until today), I discovered Julian Huxley and evolutionary humanism.
Huxley was a remarkable man. He was the brother of Aldous Huxley and the grand-son of Thomas Huxley, one of the great supporters of Darwin and Darwinism. Julian Huxley himself made significant contributions to our modern understanding of evolution from the Darwinian perspective. n 1957 Huxley originated the term “transhumanism” to describe the view that man should better himself through science and technology. He also created the terms “ethnic group”, “morph”, and “ritualization”. Huxley also was a believer in eugenics though not the extreme forms practiced by the Nazis. He believed in the genetic inferiority of the lower classes and that the human race should be improved through genetic manipulation.
While disagreeing with Huxley’s views on eugenics, I want to discuss some of his writings that go directly to the core of conflict between religion and science. Huxley believed religion still had a role in play in human life and human destiny but it would need to be a different kind of religion – a religion not based on God but on science and evolution.
When discussion of evolution and religion arises, typically it is in the context of opposing explanations for how life and humans came to exist. Either God created us or evolution did In this argument, the proponents of the God explanation often have a view of God barely more sophisticated than that I had as a child. A more sophisticated religious view might have it that we are the products of evolution but that God designed the process of evolution and might occasionally intervene in it in some way. The evolutionists deny any role for God.
Julian Huxley, however, envisioned the possibility of religion without God, a religion based on science and evolution, not one opposed to them. “The central religious hypothesis will certainly be evolution,” he writes. “Evolution is a process of which we are products and in which we are active agents. There is no finality about the process, and no automatic or universal progress; but much improvement has occurred in the past and there could be much further improvement in the future (though there is also the possibility of future failure and regression). The central long-term concern of religion must be to promote further evolutionary improvement and to realize new possibility.” (2)
Religion is centrally concerned with explaining the world and our future in it while preserving a sense of divinity and awe about it. It should not necessarily be in conflict with science.
The earliest expression of religion can probably be found in animism. E. B. Tylor in one of the classic works of early anthropology Primitive Culture (3) defined animism as “a doctrine of souls and spiritual beings”. Souls were present not only in humans but in other living beings as well as places and physical objects. Tylor believed this belief arose from actual observation of life and death. When a living being dies, something clearly changes in the organism. The simplest and most straightforward explanation for the change, without the benefit of several centuries of science, is that whatever animated the organism departed from it. The explanation serves, in addition, the role of providing comfort to grieving loved ones that something of dead individual persists. Animism is the prevailing belief system in hunter gatherer groups and small tribal cultures but extensive remnants of it continue today in other religions.
Animism is directly linked to the human understanding of mortality. Its explanation for death allows for a continuance of life on another sphere. It says we do not die, we change form. Ancestor worship follows directly from animism with the dead inhabiting a spirit world coexistent with our world, sometimes watching over and protecting those of this world, and sometimes being reborn in other organisms. If your ancestors continue to live after they die, then the ancestors of your ancestors must also still be alive. Continue to trace the path back in time and your original ancestors, the founders of your culture, must also still be alive in the spirit world. What’s more the original ancestors, since they had to come from somewhere, must descendents of gods or spirits or product of the union of gods with humans. In totemism, we have the original ancestor of the clan descended from an animal or plant spirit.
Although we should never minimize the differences between cultures and the historical contexts of religious beliefs, logically we can derive religious belief from its beginnings in animism. We can also see a rough correspondence between the size and type of society and the form of its religious system. In small hunting gathering societies we find predominately animism. In slightly larger tribal societies, we find ancestor worship more predominate. In larger agricultural societies, we begin to have a sharper division of labor with the evolution of priest class. At this point, we begin to find in the belief systems true gods and goddesses, often associated with motions of the stars, the planets, the seasons, and astrology. With the development of larger agricultural societies, we begin to see the construction of large monumental structures. The structures often served the function of linking ritual to the heavens and reenforced the authority of ruler and his ruling class. The single gods of monotheism began mostly as tribal gods of agricultural and herding societies in the Middle East. Yahweh originally was one God among many with consorts and associated goddesses. Later as the one who delivered the Israelis from Egypt, Yahweh plays the role of other founder gods becoming the exclusive God of the Israeli people.
In actual practice even today, we still find animistic beliefs and multiple gods and goddesses, often hidden in various guises, in most religions, Christianity soon adopted a notion of trinity dividing the one God into three parts and created a pantheon of saints and angels. Christianity where it met other cultures often morphed into a hybrid with the cultures where saints became venerated and celebrated on the same days as the native non-Christian gods and goddess. All traditional religions observe death rituals and believe in some form of continuance of the human spirit.
Throughout this, the science of the time and the religious sentiment of the time were congruent. I use the term “science” here in a very loose sense to mean the prevailing knowledge of how things worked and how things came to be at the time. The Neolithic hunter gatherer understood the world was inhabited and moved by spirits. The ancient Egyptians and Mayans thought the stars ruled human destiny.
From animism to gods and goddesses to God, the world of the spirit was directly connected to the natural world and explained the mysterious parts of the natural world. It explained why things are alive and what happens when they die. It explained why the winds blow and the seasons come. It provided order and purpose for this life. Early science continued this trend even as it began to loosen the connection between this world and God.
Much of early modern science devoted itself to understanding the laws of this world that were believed to originated from God. Science was done to God’s glory. Newton believed that God created the laws of the universe and set it in motion. However, the role for God as an active participant in this world gradually became less and less as science achieved greater and greater success in explaining the natural world. Soon God became relegated to the role of the Original Mover, the Designer, the One who set everything in motion, the Creator of the clockwork-like workings of the natural world. It is a small step from this to dropping the idea of God completely.
The congruence between the world of the spirit and science is broken in modern times. Although there are some scientists who profess a religious faith, they mostly do so not because of science but in spite of it. A few “mavericks” (notice the quotes) try to argue with the science and find some special niche for God in science where it seems there is no room to squeeze Him in. A few, mostly physicists, find in the profound mathematical order of the universe something like a “God” but there is no way of connecting that “God” to any historical religious traditions. Beyond that, science and scientists are mostly atheistic. Any connection to religion is broken.
The question must be asked whether there is really any need for the connection to be restored? Do we need religion at all whether it be a religion with or without God?
Huxley’s answers “yes” to this. “Religion in some form is a universal function of man in society, the organ for dealing with the problems of destiny, the destiny of individual men and women, of societies and nations, and of the human species as a whole.”(4) The problem is that the explanations and understandings of the old religions are no longer viable. They have lost their explanatory value. We still need religion to preserve our connection to divinity. Divinity, as Huxley defines it, is “not truly supernatural but transnatural – it grows out of ordinary nature but transcends it”. (5) Huxley’s proposal is for a new religion that strips out God but still enables us to connect to the world on a spiritual level.
Huxley never managed to explain what form exactly this new religion would take. Religion as we know it consists of more than a set of beliefs and moral teachings. It involves assemblies of believers, rituals, and mutual assistance. It is difficult to imagine a Sunday service with a scientist explaining DNA or reading from Darwin to the congregation, although a marriage or funeral might be more imaginable. With most contemporary science, the chasm between scientific knowledge and the divine is unbridgeable. The mathematical equations of the Big Bang provide no spiritual solace.
There is one place in science, perhaps one of the most problematic areas, that could connect science with the divine. Huxley even alludes to it:. “When we look at biological evolution as a whole, we find that the most notable improvement is the improved organization of mind; in other terms, a higher organization of the capacity for awareness.” (6). Consciousness itself is the bridge. Consciousness is at the nexus of our ability to experience the divine and our ability to understand the world. Huxley goes beyond the sterile, unproductive debate whether mind is reducible to matter. “Human beings are organizations of – do not let us use the philosophically tendentious word ‘matter’, but rather the neutral and philosophically non-committal term translated from the German Weltstoff – the universal ‘world stuff’. But our organization has two aspects a material aspect when looked at objectively from the outside, and a mental aspect when experienced subjectively from the inside. We are simultaneously and indissolubly both matter and mind.”
Consciousness and the role of the observer play a critical role in contemporary quantum physics. In the Copenhagen interpretation, the measurement of the observer determines the nature of the reality measured. In the anthropic universe (7), the universe could not have come into existence without conscious observers. Several physicists (8) have attempted to tackle the problem of explaining consciousness from a quantum theory perspective while others try to explain the universe as a quantum computer (9). The boundary between mind and matter is breaking down and, while some may argue that mind is an illusion created by matter, it might just as well be argued that matter is an illusion created by mind. The universe is not a collection of lifeless particles that happened to assemble to produce life and consciousness, but instead it is actually dependent upon life and consciousness. Robert Lanza writes in Biocentrism that “there is no external existence outside of biological existence.” (10)
With mind back into science, the new religion of Huxley looks like a very old religion – animism. The divine can be restored to the universe now it can be seen as invaded by consciousness. Even animistic explanations for life and death can take on new truth. Life is a conscious process that has form in a universe that is ever generating new forms. In terms of the new scientific animism, “the computational capacity of the universe means that logically and thermodynamically deep things necessarily evolve spontaneously.” (11)
A core focus of this new religion necessarily becomes the expansion, enhancement, and modification of consciousness. Its technology is the technology of the shaman and modern-day neuroscience. New rituals built from old rituals. New beliefs from old beliefs. Religion back in touch with science while retaining divinity.
Could an actual religion of this sort come about?
In the past century, several religions have arisen in Brazil centered around the ritual and communal use of ayahuasca. Although these religions are based on Christianity with virtually no scientific elements, they certainly demonstrate that organized religions can be built around the ritual modification of consciousness. Various New Age groups have adopted an eclectic approach to experimentation with consciousness using both chemical and non-chemical means. For the most part, these groups have not been able to organize into religions for legal reasons or have not desired to do so. Typically these groups also have a rather diverse set of ideologies that are often at odds with science.
If Huxley is right that we need the divine even as we need science, eventually something must break through the impasse between science and religion. Whether it be called a religion, science, or something else may be irrelevant to the fact that it will happen.
1-Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. First Mariner Books, 2006.
2-Huxley, Julian. Evolutionary Humanism. Prometheus Books, 1992.
3-Tylor, E. B. Primitive Culture, 1871.
4- uxley, Op Cit
5-Huxley, Op Cit
6- Huxley, Op Cit
7- Barrow, Tipler, and Wheeler. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford University Press, 1986.
8-See the Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose.
9-Lloyd, Seth. Programming the Universe. Alfred Knopf. 2006.
10-Lanza, Robert. Biocentrism, Benbella Books, 2009.
11-Lloyd, Op Cit p. 200.