This interview first appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of Research News & Opportunities in Science and Theology.
What role did religion play in your life growing up?
In my early life, it played a profound part. In some ways, I had a traditional "old South" upbringing, meaning that I spent some time in a military school, and acquired an inoculum of the military ethic that is still with me today: honor, duty, loyalty. Also, I was raised as a Southern Baptist and experienced the evangelical teaching and indoctrination of the Southern Baptist religion, the most common Southern Baptist version of evangelical Christianity. I was born again. I made the choice when I was 14. I went literally under the water with a full-scale baptism. I had deep religious feelings of the most traditional kind. Of course the Judeo-Christian worldview just does not include nature. All three of the Abrahamic religions were born and nurtured in arid, disturbed environments. Their founders were nomadic people who were trying to build, particularly in the case of Judaism and early Islam, kingdoms and even empires out of a desert tribal existence. It has to be appreciated that with certain exceptions of imagery of the beauty of streams and fern groves and fruit orchards there is not an awful lot of ecology in the sacred texts of Abrahamic religions. Jehovah had nothing to say to Moses and the others about the care of the planet. He had plenty to say about tribal loyalty and conquest. You can draw out of parts of sacred Scripture the implication, if you wish, that humanity is the steward of nature. You can also draw out the other interpretation that has often been applied: that humanity is commissioned and commanded to control and make full use of the living world. So there is an ambiguity in doctrine that cannot be settled by sacred Scripture. The founding literature and beliefs of the Abrahamic religions lack the essential insight. The ambiguity does not exist in science. The scientific perception explains how the world works and that humanity is related to the natural world due to evolutionary history, the millions of years through which we have passed. It continually assesses, tests and corrects. In your book The Future of Life, you mention that if humans need a creation myth none is more solid and unifying than evolutionary history. Can you elaborate on that idea? At the age of 17 and 18, when I began to move away from my traditional Baptist and broader Christian beliefs, I began searching for a replacement for the satisfying mythic explanations for human existence, something that can be added to the bare bones knowledge that science produces concerning evolutionary origins of humanity and the human mind. Indeed I have been searching for this all my life.
I don't see any such need. In fact, I think it's a waste of time, in the sense that we could be doing so many more interesting and valuable things with our minds. What traditional religion gives you is a fixed set of statements about the world and the origin and the meaning of humanity. These statements are easily learned, and in the context of personal relations or in tribal ceremonies, they evoke a deep sense of satisfaction. Those responses of the brain have been programmed by millennia of evolution because of their survival value. There should be more to the human experience. So long as we are bound by loyalties to a particular religion's dogmatic beliefs, we are not free in many sectors of human thought and experience to explore afield and more deeply. I find it far more interesting and satisfying to explore beyond, within the constraints of what we find out ourselves about how the real world works, the fuller explanation of what humanity is, where it comes from and its meaning. This freedom is not open to believers in traditional religions. That search, which may never be fully satisfied or found with success, is one of the best intellectual and spiritual endeavors of which the human mind is capable. That is essentially, if you would like to call it that, my religion. What about ultimate origins? Is the natural world able to give us answers about that?