The Trajectory of Human History: Ever-Expanding Cooperation and Compassion

Evolution's Arrow

Human consciousness emerged within a world of powerful and mysterious forces beyond our comprehension and control. As modes of communication evolved—from gestures and oral speech to writing and mathematics, to print, to science, to computers—so has our understanding of what is real and what is important. An inspiring consequence of seeing the full sweep of history is discovering that human circles of care and compassion have expanded over time.

Early on, owing to genetic guidance honed in a pre-linguistic world, and then supplemented by knowledge that could be accumulated, retained, and shared only to the extent that spoken language would allow, our abilities to cooperate with one another were limited and localized. Anyone outside the tribe was suspect, and probably an enemy. As technologies of communication evolved, our ancestors entered interdependent relationships in ever-widening circles from villages, chiefdoms, and early nations to today’s global markets and international organizations. Finally, the emergence of the World Wide Web has made possible collaborations no longer stifled by geographic distances and political boundaries. Throughout this evolution of human communities and networks, an inner transformation has also been taking place. At each stage our circles of care, compassion, and commitment have grown and our lists of enemies have diminished. Our next step will be to learn to organize and govern ourselves both globally and bioregionally, and thereby co-create a mutually-enhancing relationship with the larger body of life of which we are part.

Aligning Self-Interest with the Well-being of the Whole

“Three thousand million years ago, cooperation extended only between molecular processes that were separated by about a millionth of a meter, the scale of early cells. Now, cooperation extends between human organisms that are separated by up to twelve million meters, the scale of the planet. The same evolutionary forces that drove the expansion of cooperative organization in the past can be expected to continue to do so in the future.” —JOHN STEWART

The evolution of human consciousness is driven by how information is stored and transmitted. A mutually reinforcing relationship tracks human social complexity with increasingly sophisticated “technologies of the word.” The human brain, as best we can tell, has not changed structurally in any significant way since Homo sapiens first evolved. Yet people do not think the same today as they did a hundred generations ago. Why? Because our brains are now immersed in a swirling world of information flows and interactions that span the globe.

With each advance in data representation and communication, worldviews shift and societies reorganize. For societies at each new level of complexity and size to thrive, they must find ways to align the natural self-interest of individuals and groups of individuals with the wellbeing of the social whole, and to keep cheaters in check. The impact of the parts, for good or ill, must be mirrored back to the parts in congruent and consequential ways. If a part benefits the whole, the part must benefit in some way; if a part harms the whole, it must be disadvantaged in some way. These kinds of social structures, incentives, and disincentives drive the synergistic alignment of interest between part and whole. It is in this way (and only in this way) that complexity can continue along, what I like to call, “the trajectory of emergent creativity.” A helpful overview of how this natural process of escalating complexity is thought to have unfolded, both in the pre-human world and throughout human history, is John Stewart’s Evolution’s Arrow: The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity (also available as pdf on his website).

Summarized below is how this basic mechanism has driven complexity in the human realm.

Biblical Christianity Is Bankrupt

Hands and galaxy

PDF version here.

"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said—grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed"? Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." — Carl Sagan

Biblical Christianity is bankrupt. I use ‘bankrupt’ in the exact sense of the term. A business that goes bankrupt still has value and is capable of producing useful goods or services. It still has an inventory and trained professionals in its employ. Until the day insolvency is declared, it also usually has a façade—a bright and upbeat demeanor by which its clients and the community at large assume it to be relatively healthy. The only thing wrong is that a bankrupt business is no longer able to accomplish its purpose: to be successful. It is precisely in this sense that I suggest Bible-centered faith is bankrupt.

Yes, Christianity still has tens of thousands of churches reflecting an enormous range of theological diversity—and, yes, some are still thriving. Christianity has rituals and practices that many still find meaningful, along with organizations and ministries doing good and important work in the world. The Church is not bankrupt because it has run out of things to say or do. Rather, it is bankrupt because the otherworldly product it has sold for centuries now lacks wide appeal. Christianity now lags behind our most advanced secular methods and tools for providing salvation in this life. As well, by failing to update its “map of reality” to correspond with our best evidential understanding of 'how things are' and 'which things matter' today (as discerned through empirical science, historical research, and cross-cultural experience), Bible-centered faith can no longer provide the two essential services all religions must provide in order to survive.

The root ‘religare’ means to link together. Evolutionarily robust religions over the tens of thousands of years of human existence have been those that, as philosopher of religion Loyal Rue observes, nurture “personal wholeness” at the individual level and “social coherence” at the community level. To do so, they must operate with as accurate a map as possible of what’s real (how things are) and what’s important (which things matter).

Biblical Christianity that does not integrate our best evidential understanding of the universe and human nature is doomed precisely because it is wedded to unchanging scripture. It suffers from what I call “idolatry of the written word.” No longer does it link together what young people learn in church and what they learn in their science and history classes at school—and on the Discovery and History channels at home. As well, biblical Christianity’s strongest lifeline for claiming continued relevance is seriously frayed—although only those who track scientific advances in neurobiology, infant psychology, and the social instincts of apes and monkeys may be aware of this perilous condition.

What is that frayed lifeline? It is the intertwined strands of two crucial religious functions: first, the matter of where we acquire our moral compass, and second, how we come into right relationship with reality, or “get right with God,” when we have fallen from the path. As to the former, we moderns come to the Bible with a culturally evolved moral compass by which we carefully pick and choose which passages to preach and study and teach our children. We do not get our morality from the Bible.

The reason we do not consult the book of Exodus when dealing with a disrespectful teenage son, or the book of Leviticus for parenting advice when a daughter loses her virginity, or the book of Numbers for how to handle Sabbath breakers, or the books of Deuteronomy or Revelation when needing guidance regarding family members who choose a different faith, is because murder is no longer considered a moral option.

As popular science blogger PZ Myers claims, “There is no surer way to make an atheist than to get them to actually read scripture.” This is especially true of the Internet generations in America—those whose parents and church leaders can no longer shield them from other-than-biblical views and understandings of the world. 

The result: Young people are leaving church by the millions and Christianity in America is in steady decline. Absent some radical shift in how we raise our children in Christian environments, we can expect America in the 21st century to follow the faith-falling trajectory pioneered by Europe, Canada, and Australia in the 20th century. To cite just two examples: Evangelical icon Josh McDowell, who has worked for Campus Crusade for Christ since 1964, reports that 94% of high school graduates leave the faith within two years. The Southern Baptists estimate that 88% of their kids leave the church after high school. (See here, here, and here.)

My Exchange with Albert Mohler

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I are engaged in a public debate sparked by my recent sermons, podcasts, and blogposts expressing gratitude for the New Atheists. Here’s the progression:

July 17, 2010:  Press Release: Michael Dowd to Christian Church: New Atheists Are God's Prophets
July 19, 2010: ‘Evolutionary evangelist’ gives heresy a bad name
July 29, 2010:  My blogpost: Giving Heresy a Bad Name!
August 8, 2010:  My sermon text: Thank God for the New Atheists!  
Aug 10, 2010:  Mohler’s blogpost: Thank God for the New Atheists?

In reading Dr. Mohler’s latest, I was impressed by his integrity and demonstrably Christ-ian spirit. He generously quoted me throughout and fairly represented my position. What more could I ask from a debate partner? Hence my zeal for continuing the conversation with this reply on why I view biblical Christianity as bankrupt.

In what follows I will address the main point Dr. Mohler makes in his critique of my enthusiasm for the New Atheists:

Give Michael Dowd credit for reminding us where the rejection of biblical Christianity inevitably leads.

I will also respond to his assertions that I reject (a) the supernatural, (b) a personal God, (c) the authority of scripture, and (d) a biblical view of sin and salvation. In the process I will outline the contours of an “evolutionary Christianity” and “Christian naturalism,” and further clarify what I mean by “biblical Christianity is bankrupt.”