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In 2002, a conservative Christian pastor named Michael Dowd and his science writer wife, Connie Barlow, quit their jobs, sold their possessions, and purchased a van they decorated with symbols of a Jesus fish kissing a Darwin fish. Since that time, these two have lived largely as itinerant preachers whose message is the wondrous revelation of science.
These evolutionary evangelists are part of a growing movement that looks to science for a new sacred story that has more staying power than traditional religions. Its proponents proclaim a grand narrative of what is called cosmogenesis – the unfolding of the universe, from the moment of the Big Bang to the present – as a modern sacred myth for all people.
The new cosmology – a word that here signals both the study of the universe and an overarching religious worldview – defines human beings as the part of the universe that has become conscious of itself. We are the only creatures to have evolved an awareness of our place in the universe. Humans’ dawning cosmological awareness, it is believed, will connect us emotionally to cosmic processes, allowing us to feel more at home in the universe. Sensing our place in cosmic patterns and processes will inspire sustainable practices on Earth.
A new story is urgently needed, the argument goes, because we suffer from a crippling condition of modernity known as amythia: we lack a serviceable myth to orient us to what is real and important. The stories provided by the traditional faiths are no longer plausible or relevant in light of modern science and our global environmental crisis. We need a consecrated science, a new Genesis, according to this line of thinking.
This new cosmology displays many of the earmarks of the Anthropocene, a new geologic age of humans. We are the dominant, planetary presence in whom the cosmos has entrusted the next precarious phase of Earth’s evolution. Our task as a species is to guide the planet into a new, hoped-for geological era – the Ecozoic – characterized by mutual enhancement of humans and the planet.
Will this cosmology spark a new wave of environmental consciousness?
It was the late 1970s when Thomas Berry proclaimed the need for a new cosmic story. Berry’s diagnosis was that the old religious narratives had lost much of their power and functionality. Our storylessness was exacerbated by scientists’ seeming reluctance, at that time, to present their knowledge in grand, mythic form. That would soon change, as a wave of science popularizers – Carl Sagan, Edward O Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett – stepped in to portray science as an epic quest whose rewards are vastly superior to the charms of religion.
Today, a cluster of Thomas Berry’s devotees remain. Some regard insights from sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as foundational to the creation of a new common myth, since evolutionary science both explains our need for religious myth and provides the raw materials from which to craft it.
In 1978, as Berry issued his call for a new story, E O Wilson identified something he called the evolutionary epic, “probably the best myth we will ever have.” Humanity’s “mythopoeic” needs would one day be fulfilled by the epic grandeur of scientific materialism. Science would claim its rightful place as a superior “alternative mythology.” With his subsequent publication of Consilience in 1998, he laid out his vision of scientific knowledge so complete and unified that it would tell us who we are and where we came from. A number of Berry’s followers seized upon Wilson’s prophetic words and set to work constructing a sacred narrative.
In a similar vein to Wilson, Dawkins has long argued for the superiority of scientifically clarified – that is, real – forms of wonder and awe vis-à-vis “fake” wonder at mysteries, puzzles or miracles.
Dawkins’ book, The Magic of Reality from 2011, is directed at child audiences. Science in hand, Dawkins takes on the true genesis of rainbows, as well as such vexing queries as “When did everything begin?” and “Why do bad things happen?” The book’s message is that science is not one way of experiencing wonder. It is the authentic way. The magic of reality is “wonderful because it’s real.”
Other advocates include religion scholars Mary Evelyn Tucker, John Grim and Loyal Rue; mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme; “big historians” David Christian and Cynthia Stokes Brown; astrophysicist and science educator Eric Chaisson; and biologist Ursula Goodenough.
A subset of Berry’s disciples turn not to the seductive – and reductive – paradigm of consilience, or linking together of different disciplines to form a grand unity of knowledge, but to advances in Big Bang cosmology as evidence of the implicit narrative structure of reality.
Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, senior lecturers at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, have teamed up with Berry’s protégé Brian Swimme to launch a multimedia phenomenon called Journey of the Universe. Their claim is that the past century of cosmological science has brought forth a coherent, comprehensive account of the universe and our place in it. We now understand ourselves as the “heart and mind” of a deeply anthropic universe in which our species' emergence was implicit from the very beginning.
Universe Story movements promote cosmology as a source of ethics. They imply we must model our lives after the deep, meaningful patterning of the universe itself which displays impulses of creativity, intimacy and relationality. Yet, as Woody Allen recognized in a memorable scene from Annie Hall, it remains unclear how we are to get any practical ethical guidance from the perspective of an expanding universe that seems to render our earthly concerns meaningless.
How might the inherent creativity of the cosmos – say, the nuclear reactions of stars – point us toward renewable energy sources and away from, say, nuclear reactors or geoengineering? Proponents offer woolly assurances that “wonder will guide us.” Yet, much of the narrative’s wonder seems directed at ourselves. We are the being in whom the universe “shivers in wonder at itself,” the one species complex enough to have pierced the cosmic veil.
The new cosmology has real-world impacts. It seeks to confer unity and a comprehensive context to every stage of the educational process, from childhood to professional training. The idea of E O Wilson’s Consilience similarly insists that unity of knowledge offers the best way to reform university education, to “renew the crumbling structure of the liberal arts.”
Disciplines oriented to the study of human culture will eventually cede much of their territory to science, Wilson predicts. The humanities earn their keep as disciplines that serve science by embellishing its authoritative narrative with poetry, art or dance. As Wilson explains, science provides “real” content and the humanities obligingly disseminate it in appealing forms:
“the humanities could in effect continue to do their thing, but they would have vastly richer material to work with – grander themes – because the real world of the universe, from black holes to the origin of consciousness, offers far more complex and grander themes [than the humanities or religion].”
Wilson’s followers call for a consilient college curriculum that introduces students to the Epic as the integrating theme of their entire university experience. A number of universities around the country, including Harvard University and Washington University in St Louis, offer courses on The Epic of Evolution or The Universe Story. These courses introduce students to a grand narrative whose meanings are by definition largely given in advance, whose options for student self-understanding are neatly contained and prescripted.
The new religion of reality may be coming to a classroom or pulpit near you. You will know it by its tagline: “One world calls for one story.”