Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Evolution of God

For our Bronze Age ancestors making sense of the world, the Creation myth, which puts human center stage in the cosmos, must have made a lot of sense.  It was the best they could do with the limited information they had about the world they occupied.  However, through the advancement of science and human experience, we have better information today.  Also, we know religion has been wrong about many many ideas in the past which tend to place ourselves front-and-center in the cosmos (think Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, & Hubble).  Therefore, religions need to evolve their beliefs and myths to more closely reflect reality.

Now wait just a gosh-darn minute! Did I just say that religions evolve just like animals and plants do?  Yes they do - at least in one sense of the word. Religions don’t evolve by the same physical mechanisms as species do, but they are just as interested in survival, and therefore just as interested in changing it's views from time to time.   

When you look at the history of religion, it is glaringly obvious that it evolves and speciates similar to any living species. Just observe how Pagan polytheism was replaced with monotheism during the Axial Age, or observe how Abrahamic monotheism has splintered into Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Or observe how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have splintered into many different variations of themselves. Religions change. Religions evolve. And religion survives - and thrives - today. 

The other alternative to change is to become dogmatic fundamentalists; dangerously out of touch with reality.  As the gap between reality and belief becomes too great, fundamentalist religions increase their risk of extinction. Observe how 59% of Americans say that religion is “very important” to them, but only 27% of Italians do. Why? Just look at the diversity of religion in America - how it speciates into new forms, new versions, trying to reflect the needs of it’s followers. Then contrast that with the hegemony of the Catholic church, lead by old white males, out of touch with the people they lead.  It’s no wonder that religion in Europe, where competition among different species of religion is stifled by State sponsorship, is dying out. 

And religions are just as prone to extinction as species are. Just ask all the other dead and discarded gods of extinct religions out there (not that you could). So, if they are interested in survival more than maintaining orthodoxy, religions will gradually evolve their dogma and doctrines to match reality; reality of the universe, and ourselves living in it, as revealed by science.  

So what religious ideas have still need to evolve? One religious belief that needs to change is the idea of a God who created us. Given the implications, a creator God is very problematic.  Here are some of the problems with this doctrine:

1. During the Big Bang, where was God? Was He inside the singularity? In the LDS conception of God, he has a corporeal body of matter like ours (presumably carbon based). But how can you jam a body of matter inside a singularity before atoms, and the physical laws that govern them,  even existed?

2. So if God wasn’t jammed inside this singularity, could God exist outside of it? No - since nothing existed outside the singularity that exploded in the Big Bang. There was Nothing. No space. No time. No matter.  Nothing!  No exalted human-like Gods either.

3. Why did God wasted so much time getting around to creating humans - his pinnacle of creation? Why wait nearly 10 billion years to get around to making planet Earth? Why wait over 14 billion years to get around to creating humans?  Seems like a big waste of time.

4. Why all the gratuitous death and destruction involved in the process? Why did he need to cause 99% of all species who have ever lived on the Earth to become extinct? Why did He need to go through 25 prototype hominid species before getting around to Homo sapiens? Why would God divide animals neatly into predators (optimally designed to catch and kill) and prey (optimally designed to escape being eaten alive)?  If the predator fails to catch it’s prey, then it, and it’s young, starve to death. If it catches it’s prey, then they prey is eaten alive and it’s young die.  A troubling fact to Charles Darwin was why would God design certain wasps that, in order to reproduce, attack and paralyze (but do not kill) their cockroach prey, and lay their eggs inside of them, which then hatch and eat the cockroach alive, until they finally burst out of their living hatchery, mercifully killing it?  Would God really design things this way?

5. And what about the destruction caused by a less-than-optimally designed planet Earth? For example, why did God design the earth so that fragile tectonic plates suddenly shift, causing catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis which kill hundred of thousands of people? Couldn't we do without these sorts of super-disasters?

Religion doesn’t have very good answer to these uncomfortable questions. 

I'll conclude with my own commentary on the religious dilemma with certain scientific facts. The reason why religion is so opposed to a natural explanation (sans God) of our origin is this: it bumps humans away from our special and central place in the universe. It also gives a Creator God nothing to do, since Big Bang cosmology and evolution occurs without any supernatural intervention required.

This was why religion was originally uncomfortable with Newton's explanation of gravity and planetary motion. It was assumed that planets moved according to God's power. Gravity, as elucidated by Newton, showed how planets moved all by themselves - without divine intervention. Religion also had fits following Galileo’s discovery that not everything orbited around the Earth. That idea challenged our notion that we were central in the cosmos. Religion eventually came to terms with Copernican astronomy and Newtonian physics.

However, most religions still choke on the idea and implications of Darwinian evolution.  Darwin seems to be a bitter pill that many religions can't swallow.  Even the mainline, progressive religions who claim to have no problem with human evolution, usually cling to some variant of Intelligent Design; or evolution that is directed by God. The problems with this unintelligent idea are discussed above.

Religion will evolve (eventually) finding a way to fully accept Darwinian evolution, because it can't continue to obfuscate the glaring truths we already know about ourselves. The alternative, for religions that don't evolve and adapt, is irrelevance and extinction.  Some religions will go extinct (as they always have in the past).  I entertain no delusion that all religions will go the way of the Neanderthal. However, those left standing will be the ones that continue to evolve.


  1. Josh, Well stated. By chance have you read the book by Robert Wright called "The Evolution of God", 2009. It's a great read on why and how religions change over time. Take a look if you get time, maybe we can chat about it in New York next month.

  2. Thanks. I haven't read that book yet - but Wright's other book "The Moral Animal" is one of my all-time-favorite's. I'll try to read "The Evolution of God" before our shin-dig in NYC. Should be fun. And thanks for the book recommendation.

  3. Actually, some variants of the Metaverse hypothesis allow for bubble universes that are outside our own with time. This is different than the classical "parallel universe" theory where each universe is a mirror of our own. If universes are colonies of previously existing universes inside a metaverse, just like in classical Mormonism, planets are colonies of previous planets, then time existed in other bubble universes outside of this one, and so did the race of God. Therefore, I think that you aren't correct by stating that nothing existed before the big bang. Certainly nothing in this universe did.

  4. Since I am not a theoretical astrophysicist, I will not speculate on the implications of the metaverse/multiverse hypothesis. Everybody who is not a astrophysicist should do the same.

    But I will just add that IF the multiverse hypothesis is true (and we don't know that it is), that it DOESN't follow that God's race existed in another multiverse. By the same reasoning, unicorns, fairies, and Flying Spaghetti Monsters existed in another multiverse too. I mean, with the multiverse, you could just make up any deity or magical creature you wanted, and say it existed in one of the many multiverses since there are so many of them.

    I'm not saying anything disparaging about the multiverse theory, just about stretching a theory (without any empirical support) to support our preconceived religious faith (also without empirical support).