Responsible Spiritual Foresight
If the arguments presented in Chapter 11 are correct, humanity isn’t smart enough to know yet, in any evidence-based way, whether there’s a God—or highly advanced intelligence—that either created or coexists with our universe. Until evo devo theory or something like it becomes validated by future science, it is simply too early for us to know what level of intelligence, purpose, and guidance the universe contains for our own lives. We can only make our own hypotheses and guesses, as we have done in Chapters 7 and 11, and our own personal spiritual choices.
Consider this question: How advanced does universal intelligence need to be to qualify as “God”, however you would define that concept? How complex, antifragile, or aware of us individually does our universe need to be before you find it meaningful to treat it as a sacred object? This must be a personal decision. There are many aspects of the universe’s set of initial conditions, laws, forms, functions, and processes that we are still far from fully comprehending.
To be more specific, a number of related beliefs with respect to spiritual matters are presently defensible, in our current state of scientific knowledge. These include:
Theism, belief in the existence of God.
Deism, the belief that God can be better understood from the study of nature.
Agnosticism, the belief that we do not yet know anything significant about the concept of God.
Atheism, a belief in the nonexistence of God.
Freethought, belief in logic, reason, and empiricism as a way to universal truth.
Humanism, the belief that human discourse, evidence and critical thinking is our best path to truth.
Possibilianism, the belief that a number of possibilities regarding God are open and not yet tested.
Given what science already tells us today about the universality of physical law and various complex systems across the universe today, a good case can be made that the most scientifically-defensible approach to spiritual questions today is universism (also called universalism). Universists believe that there are universal philosophical and spiritual truths that we are discovering progressively together, in an imperfect, probabilistic process, from our science and evidence-based study of the universe and our relation to it. We can also agree that religious belief is an urge universally found in all human cultures, and perhaps an urge universal to all intelligent life, everywhere. Finally, I believe we know enough to say that no one religious faith can claim to have the one true belief system. Each of us builds our own imperfect, personal set of spiritual truths, as we can best understand them today.
All of the individuals who have any of the above beliefs should also be universists, if they think their beliefs have any universality whatsoever, or if they believe there are any predictable features of universal development. So universism, as a start, appears to be the most fundamentally defensible and responsible approach we can take to spiritual truth. No less a mind than Albert Einstein personally held this view, the idea that science is our best guide to understanding the universe, and that the natural universe is equivalent to God.
Evo Devo Universe Scholar John Campbell explains this perspective in his lovely Einstein’s Enlightenment (2017), a view that I essentially share as well. The practice of science, and the development of various prescientific philosophies and systems theories, which we try to make scientific whenever we can, is our most essential and universal form of spirituality.
Some materialist and naturalist scholars have found spiritual inspiration or guidance in the unpredictable creativity of the universe, as complexity scholar Stuart Kauffman does in Reinventing the Sacred (2010). Other materialists find spiritual guidance in the universe’s constrained and predictable processes and destinations, as biochemist Michael Denton does in Nature’s Destiny (2002) and as paleontologist Simon Conway Morris does in Life’s Solution (2003). If we live in an evo devo universe, both of these processes must inform our spirituality. Neither can be a complete approach.
In seeking to understand universal evolution and development we must also remain as naturalistic and transparent about our beliefs as we can, and never confuse teleology, or constrained and predictable purpose and destiny, with religious scripture and supernatural beliefs, as scholars in the Intelligent Design community often do. Intelligent Design is a philosophical approach to universal determinism that is commonly used by believers in scriptural Christianity, to justify their highly improbable supernatural beliefs, often in a less than transparent fashion. Teleology, by contrast is a fully developmental term, and we can investigate all apparent teleological processes from a fully materialist and naturalist worldview.
We are all entitled to our beliefs, but we should make them as open as we can when we are doing science or systems theory. Because of Intelligent Design’s often hidden associations with Christianity, and the efforts of prominent funders of the ID community seeking “equal treatment” of ID and evolutionary theory in public schools, it has become both morally compromised and unscientific, even though a few scholars in that community try to do good work. Michael Denton, for example, whose insightful book I have cited above, while personally an agnostic, has tainted his scientific reputation by becoming a Fellow at The Discovery Institute, a leading center funding the Intelligent Design community.
All of the above variations of belief are also religious choices. Even if you choose to be an agnostic, atheist, freethinker, humanist, or possibilian, you don’t get away from belief with respect to the concept of God, or being an automatic member of a community, formal or informal, of others who share your belief. Our beliefs always remain personal faiths that we cannot prove. If we pray, or express gratitude to the universe for our existence, as I have a habit of doing, this is a personal spiritual decision that we cannot defend scientifically, other than to note that regularly expressing gratitude is an evidence-based strategy for reducing stress and improving health.
I have no idea if the universe or some subset of it qualifies as an intelligence I should call God. So I suppose I might be called a theist, deist, or agnostic, all at the same time. But I’m also a freethinker, humanist, and possibilian. Perhaps the only thing I believe I’m not is an atheist, but I recognize that atheism makes sense for some. But what I believe we are all becoming, in a predictable development as science advances, is universists. I believe (but cannot prove) that the universe, through both science and informed intuition around science, has many valuable things to teach us about how to live.
We all have communities of others who share our thoughts and beliefs. Neither science, philosophy, spirituality nor religion will go away as communities and institutions, and all will continue to reform. As long as reason and evidence are imperfect and finite tools for understanding reality, I’d claim that the existence and value of such communities is an obvious cultural development for all conscious and finite thinking beings contemplating the universe. Even the robots when they wake up, if they are such beings, will need spiritual beliefs to complement their imperfect science, and some will feel impelled to develop religious practices around their beliefs, as several futurists have proposed. We shall see, as they say.
For an example of an atheist position that is actually universism, see this 4min video by Seth Andrews, who calls himself “The Thinking Atheist”. Andrews would probably disagree, but I think atheism is not the best label for his philosophical and spiritual position. In this video (and I presume his other videos) he is clearly a universist. Andrews believes certain moral principles, like treating all humans with dignity and seeing their commonality, are likely to be universal truths, rights, or ethical goods. The slogan for his website is “Assume Nothing. Question Everything. And Start Thinking.” But in reality, as with all the other atheists I admire, Andrews does make several useful assumptions, after a careful process of thinking, about likely universal values. I am glad that he does! Simply saying everything is uncertain is not an adaptive spiritual stance. I hope more atheist and freethinker groups relabel themselves as universists first in coming years, as we need more people of all spiritual persuasions who make their forms of spiritual thinking and belief transparent, and fully open to criticism.
Fortunately, people are realizing in ever larger numbers that they participate in their religious communities primarily for their personal, social and ethical benefits, and secondarily for their beliefs. Their faiths help raise their children with a good moral code, build strong communities, and offer comforting and often empowering beliefs on hard questions like the meaning of life, and what may happen to us after we die. Yet increasingly, we recognize our best answers to many of our spiritual questions won’t be found in scripture, but in ever-evolving science, and in our own hearts and minds.
In a very fortunate social development, most churches are becoming more inclusive of members who do not live by some of their scriptural codes, and members who challenge the church’s interpretation of various scriptural beliefs. One example is the steadily increasing LGBT community inclusion in various religious communities. Individual rights and freedoms and evidence-based thinking increasingly trump scriptural edicts.
As Ron Ingelhart’s fifty-year survey of the global development of individual rights and freedoms and evidence-based thinking shows (picture right), many countries in Asia and Europe have cultures that are highly secular-rational and self-expression oriented. In US, secular-rationalism remains lower than Europe by a significant degree. Faith-based thinking still has the upper hand in our culture and its religious institutions. US culture lags far behind say, Japan or Sweden today in secular-rational values, as the map shows.
Spiritual futurists do not look at their or any scripture as the literal word of God. While they honor their own traditions, and thus seek guidance from their scriptures in modern contexts, they are also ecumenical, in the global definition the word, recognizing that there are many sources of spiritual wisdom besides scripture, and that the human-written scriptures of all religions hold spiritual and moral value. The best are also evidence-based, seeking to advance the realm of science and its guidance on spiritual and moral questions.
For those believers who need convincing of the dangers of scriptural literalism, many books can help in that regard. Richard Dawkins The God Delusion (2008) is a good place to start, but with an important caveat to these and other books by atheist authors. We need to acknowledge that just because religious scripture is imperfect and human-made doesn’t make religion bad, unspiritual, or not worth practicing. A mistake Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Chris Hutchings and other atheists too often make is to condemn religion and faith outright. This approach denigrates our spiritual search, leaving us with only science, and no belief.
Yet as we have said throughout this Guide, science still has far too little to say about many of the biggest questions of meaning and purpose that modern humanity faces. It is deaf and dumb in many areas where we must have personal faith. Are most people inherently good? If so, in what ways? What is our higher purpose in life? For these and many other questions we need personal spiritual foresight, whether we recognize it or not.
So as we look to the future, we all must continually ask which religious communities are worth joining, and which our beliefs we think worth keeping, and which no longer fit with our spiritual intuition, modern science, reason and evidence. We can keep what still speaks to our heart and leave the rest, in a process of continual reform. This approach, for example, is what Thomas Jefferson did when he made The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (aka the “Jefferson Bible”), a cut-and-pasted selection of the best parts of the Christian New Testament that he felt worth believing in, what he called “diamonds in the dung.”
That kind of courage and transparency epitomizes being a responsible spiritual futurist. Our scriptures are all human made, they are never perfect, but they can be made better with evidence, criticism, and transparency. We also need to encourage increasing public oversight of the actions of our religious corporations, just as we need to do in our nonreligious corporations. Recent exposes of Scientology (see Alex Gibney’s excellent Going Clear, 2015) are one good example of the value of ever better public oversight and transparency.
Thomas Edison once said, “I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious ideas of heaven and hell, of future (after)life for individuals, or of a personal God.” That was a courageous statement, in its time. But let us recall that Edison also said, “Religion is all bunk,” a statement that, unfortunately, is ignorant of the value of spiritual life. Even in Edison’s day there were several religious communities, like the Quakers, Unitarians, and Ethical Culture Society, most of whose members did not believe literally in any scripture. He could have joined them had he been more interested in spiritual questions and fellowship. He wasn’t, and that was his personal choice. Such choices should never be raised to dogma, and forced on others. Remember the forced atheism policies of communist China and the USSR, both of which collapsed after a few decades, as failed strategies. Today there are surely more spiritual communities that seek and debate higher purpose, in a manner open to evidence and continual improvement, than ever before.
Reformers exist in all religious communities, evidence-based thinkers who purposefully ignore literal interpretations of their holy books and who pick and choose what they believe, as Jefferson did. We need to encourage such spiritual foresight wherever it grows, until all practitioners come to see their sacred texts as some of the most valued philosophy in their heritage, but as flawed and incomplete, like all human things.
If you find them helpful, continue to participate in religious communities for their personal and social benefits, and try to reform them from within, by resistance to any practices that conflict with reason and evidence. Keep your religious beliefs confined to the realms where science today is poor, and don’t let those beliefs conflict with your evidence-based understanding of how the universe appears to work. That’s responsible spiritual foresight practice, as we would define it today.