Pretending that evolution is the biggest threat science poses for religion is just tossing a red herring. A far greater challenge comes from the concept of Deep Time: seeing ourselves against the background of a 14-billion-year-old universe and a four-billion year history of life on our little planet. On that time scale, the faith we have in our religions, philosophies, and sciences must be taken with a huge block of salt.
It hasn’t happened yet. In some homey ways, both those who are for and against evolution keep the stage comfortably local, because whichever side you take, both creationism and evolution have culminated in US. Planet Earth is still the stage on which it all happened. It still lets us retain a local view in which we, our thoughts and lives remain in the spotlight. We’re looking for persuasive stories to give our lives a meaningful role. Our common sense world remains the ancient picture of a small universe centered around us, like a child’s basic self-centeredness. The sun “rises” and “sets” on its way around our planet, just as people believed millennia ago. On a simpler level, we act as though we live in a world with an “up” and “down” — ideal places for a heaven and hell.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell thought those photographs taken from the moon, of our blue-green planet floating in black space, would become the new symbol of a larger worldview, looking at a planet without any boundaries, nations or races. Those photos of earth offer a simple mind game to show us that we really live on a world without an up and down. Think of that photo of the earth floating in space, then imagine that everyone on earth were asked, at the same time, to point “up.” They may be pointing “out,” but there’s no “up.” All our directions like north, east, west, south, up and down are local directions for fairly small areas.
Religion-induced notions of getting to live again after we’ve died need to be reframed in a worldview without an up. Maybe they can be persuasively psychologized, as the heretical notion that the “kingdom of God” isn’t coming, isn’t something you can point to, but a potentially better world that’s in our – but not God’s – power to create, simply by treating all people as our brothers and sisters, children of God (or children of the universe). For what it’s worth, that’s what Jesus taught (Luke 17:20-21).
The scientific meme of Deep Time is spreading, and would be a revolution in thought if it caught on with a more general audience. The difference between “local time” and Deep Time is really unimaginable; we evolved as creatures living a very finite life in a small, local piece of the world. Our recorded history goes back only four to five thousand years. Archaeologists and paleontologists can make informed guesses back some thousands of years, while geologists and biologists can talk about planetary and biological changes on a scale of millions and billions of years. Science writer Michael Shermer suggests that only in the last 100,000 years have we really diverged from the other (now extinct) hominid species, and become “moral animals to a degree unprecedented in nature.”[i]
This would also mark the length of time we have been creating our gods and religions as vehicles of group identity and moral accountability. But we have no experiential way to imagine a span of 100,000 years. We look back to the wisdom of “ancient” people of 2,000-3,000 years ago as the oldest prophets and sages we know of: Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Socrates, the biblical prophets, up to and including Jesus. In our mental and emotional impression of a small and local world, these people are our Ancient Ones, and we grant them a special place because, even though they lived in ancient times, some of their insights still seem profound. For many, their best teachings are profound because they are so ancient and, for us, timeless. But that’s all in local time within a very small universe.
A short parable by Franz Kafka can serve as a segue to Deep Time:
“For we are like tree trunks in the snow. In appearance they lie sleekly and a little push should be enough to set them rolling. No, it can’t be done, for they are firmly wedded to the ground. But see, even that is only appearance.”
In time, they’ll rot, sink into the soil and take their turn as food for new life. Still, Kafka’s stage is just set here on our planet: tree trunks get recycled in just a century or so. To get a feel for what Deep Time does to our gods, religions, wisdom and science, try this thought experiment:
Stand with your arms and fingers outstretched so you look like a “T.” Let the distance between the tips of your middle fingernails (say it’s 72”) represent the roughly fourteen billion years since the Big Bang. On this scale, the entire 100,000 years we have been the distinct species of homo sapiens — the time since we began creating our gods and religions — can be erased completely with
one light swipe of a nail file across the tip of one fingernail. (The math: if 72” represents 14 billion years, then a mere 100,000 years is just .000504”.) We have been distinctly human with gods and religions for just five ten-thousandths of the universe’s existence.
This is the background
for ethologist Frans De Waal’s amusement at the thought that religions could have a very deep understanding of human nature and origins, because they’re just too new.
Darwin, as he often did, had already seen and felt this implication of his work. In a letter to William Graham, July 3rd, 1881, Darwin wrote of a dark fear:
”With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
To paraphrase Darwin’s doubt on the scale of Deep Time, how trustworthy could either our convictions or our gods and religions be, when they’ve only cropped up in the past .000007% of the universe’s life? Thinking on this scale makes the “creation vs. evolution” harangue mere child’s play. More importantly, it marks our entry into a period of creative chaos, as we work to construct a more adequate understanding of who we are and how we should live.
[i] Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, p. 31.