(I am nearing completion of Part I of The Varied God–the part that deals with the science and history of early humans and how their development was influenced by life in a world ruled by seasons. My next few blog posts, I don’t know how many yet, will deal with some of the things I’ve learned in that research.)
In any research on the development of our planet or on humanity’s development as a species, there are a number of controversies, not the least of which are the religious objections. Even saying ‘humanity’s development as a species’ evokes evolution and Darwinism. This is not how many religious people choose to see things. To their thinking, the world and all within it was created by a deity, whole in seven days. I’ve never believed this, but my research over the past few years has given me some new insights.
Believers in a literal interpretation of the Bible want creationism to share equal time and space in the public sphere–especially in public schools. Evolution, they caution, is only a theory. They say this all the time: they print it on bumper stickers and T-shirts. But it’s wrong. Evolution is not a theory. Evolution is an observable natural phenomenon, like the rising of the sun or the turning of leaves in autumn. Species change and diversify over time. Every working naturalist has observed this. Charles Darwin’s famous theory is about natural selection–the device by which evolution happens. It is about how evolution happens, not if it happens. Among working scientists there is still much argument about the devices and timetables by which evolution has occurred. But if you’re paying attention, you’ll note that they, too, are arguing about how it happens, not if it happens. As an analog to this, think of the theory of gravity. Newton theorized that there was gravity after seeing an apple fall. But doubters (if there were any) wouldn’t deny the natural phenomenon–that an apple falls. They would deny his explanation, gravity.
What also bothers me about the Biblical explanation of things is how lacking the book is in cosmology. God creates the world in a few verses of Genesis, then we’re off into the history of the Jewish people. The seasons especially get very short shrift. This may be because the areas of the Levant and Mesopotamia where these stories were first told were not significantly defined by seasons. If the seasons are mentioned at all, it’s mostly to reassert God’s dominion over them, not to explain anything about them. At least Classical mythology, Native American mythology and many other world mythologies give us interesting and compelling explanations of the seasons. I don’t believe them either, but at least they involve some good storytelling. For someone who feels an intimate connection to the planet in knowing how things happen, there is great comfort and a wealth of fascination in new advances in understanding. Using an insufficient and unbelievable old legend as the major font of all knowledge will never work.
And finally I come to wonder about the people who first advanced various old creation myths. There is an attitude among many non-believers that the entire religious enterprise has always been about deceiving common people in order to exercise power over them–and of course that has been the motivation of priestly classes in various societies for thousands of years. Religion has been a useful justification for colonists, conquerors and empire builders throughout history, so I understand the deep mistrust of myth felt by non-believers. But I also believe that the earliest people who thought about how the world came to be were likely not interested in empire building; they were interested in how the world came to be. They did not have the scientific method or centuries of natural observation at their command, so they used the best tools they had–imagination and storytelling ability. Most stone age cultures are defined largely by their toolkits. When the tools improve or change, when they go from simple hand axes to delicately flaked spear points, archeologists and anthropologists name a new culture, and recognize the steady advance of humanity. Thinking about where we came from has changed: our intellectual toolkit has improved markedly. We need to recognize this and move on. If you were to hand a Neanderthal hunter a spear that was clearly superior to the one he had been using, he would probably toss his old one aside and take up the new one. So it is with stories of creation. If you were to go back and explain to people who first theorized about the creation of the world that we now have a better understanding of these things, they would likely be the first ones to slap their foreheads and admit that all that God-sitting-on-a-cloud stuff was just guesswork. And being good storytellers, they might weave the Big Bang into a tale worth reciting to a fascinated audience around a campfire at night.