Prompts to Planetary Consciousness

Prompts to Planetary Consciousness

In the recently published book, Abdication: God Steps Down for Good (Friesen Press 2014), I argue for a planet-focused consciousness. I’ll explain something of what I have in mind in this blog entry. But if such consciousness is the answer, the question it answers should be clearly stated. How, I ask, can our species prevent itself from over-heating the terrestrial greenhouse and blowing itself up in war, terror, and nuclear holocaust in the not distant future? Planet consciousness, I suggest, would help. This would help us orient ourselves better, and become a little more intelligent.

Put another way, our world views—philosophies, religions, perspectives, frames of reference, and understandings of history—have brought us to an existential planetary crisis. They have failed us and we need to drastically reinvent ourselves. We can’t continue to think of ourselves in the same old ways. A different way of thinking is needed if we are to survive and improve.

In the book I offer a drastic schedule of major surgeries. These include getting God out of the war business; handing over meaning of life questions from religion to science; teaching kids a nature-friendly curriculum; and reinventing humanity, religion, personhood, life, and God. Ambitious? Yes! If you have the disposition for such a meditation, you’ll probably enjoy the book.

In this essay, I offer a single recommendation involving two readily available documents: the Geological Time Scale and the evolutionary tree of life. I recommend pasting representations of these scales on the refrigerator door, carrying them in your wallet, adjacent to the family pics, and consulting them daily along with your coffee and horoscope. The point is to bring these two scales to the forefront of consciousness, and make them the background reference documents of a global perspective. I’m definitely not asking you to master the content (I haven’t), although that would be admirable and educational, and I’m not offering them as magical icons or talismans. I have in mind something more like a note to oneself or a password hint, a simple daily reminder of what’s really important: Planet Earth and Life.

Here are links to representations of these time scales. Geologic Time Scale. Tree of Life. Google, Bing or Yahoo the titles and you will find numerous versions to choose among. You should be able to satisfy your personal preference and accommodate your wallet, refrigerator, and house decor.

What would these visual reminders do for us? The Geologic time Scale would hopefully give us a more truthful, accurate, and useful orientation toward time and human capabilities, correcting and overcoming the destructive views of time and our species that burden and disable us now. The tree of life would hopefully give us a more truthful, accurate, and positive understanding of life, as it has evolved, clarify our situation as a species, and inspire us to nurture life on the planet. Obviously, the two scales and their uses overlap, reinforce, and enhance each other.

Our habits of categorizing and thinking about time diminish time and constrict consciousness, By emphasizing work time over all other uses of time, we create false urgency and degrade personal confidence. By coming to believe that time is short and pressured, that one can be out of time, that it is a commodity or currency to save and spend, and that time is best tightly managed and obsessively micro-managed, we confess the depth and extent of our mental constriction. We’re chronically sick. Such malaise, exacerbated by religion, leads many to conclude that this life is humdrum, not really worth living, and that a second life is needed after this one ends. Religion invades the future, as well as the past and present, by inventing eternity and by replacing earth and this life with fictive places like purgatory, limbo, hell, heaven, and paradise to dwell on and in. Our lives, each in its own way, are conceived in days, single years, decades, centuries, lifetimes, and a few millennia, usually two or three, sometimes six. We diminish time and imprison consciousness.

In contrast, geologic time is scaled in billions and millions of years, 4500 to 4600 million years to be exact. Millennia are needed mainly to note when modern man (Homo sapiens) arrived on the scene one or two hundred millennia ago. Billions of years more can be reasonably expected; the future is entirely open. No supernatural territories, no forced emigration, no itinerary for the saved and damned, no eternity. No afterlife expected or needed. Life continues splendidly here on earth, no worse than we have found it in the past. There is more time than any of us could use, or even comprehend. I find this encouraging, liberating, and empowering. Things could be convivial here on earth for millions upon millions of years; there is time to gain effective control over ourselves and to use our potential as a species for the benefit of the planet and posterity.

We don’t seem to do any better understanding life than we do appreciating time. We tend to look at living things laterally, rather than historically or linearly, and from the vantage point of a single life, “my life,” the most important one ever lived. In relation to “me,” “we,” “our kind,” the “real people,” we classify other living things in categories like “wild,” “pets,” “zoo animals,” “meat,” “ours,” “theirs,” “pests,” “flying things,” “bugs,” “viruses,” and “garden plants.” “Worm” “insect,” and “animal” are used as epithets to insult people who irritate. Furthermore, millions refuse to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution even today when its truth is obvious and undeniable.

Equally stunning, we act as if we own the planet—it’s our real estate and property to do with as we please. We feel ourselves to be, in Tom Wolfe’s apt phrase “Masters of the Universe.” It’s our sandbox and garbage dump. Because our religious beliefs and concepts of time diminish us and steal our confidence, we compensate by dumping on the other animals, trashing the earth, and claiming dominion over the everything, all the while whining about too little time, personal wealth, power, fame, and respect, as if our poor lives required compensation.

In contrast, the tree of the evolution of life shows us to be participants in life, an improbable, unexplained, wondrous happenstance that occurred, for all we yet know, only on this planet. Life has been on the planet circa four billion years starting with single-celled bacteria and algae. Multi-celled organisms with nuclei date back 2.5 billion years to the beginning of the Cambrian period. If one’s wingspan were used as a ruler to measure time on earth, a thin, thin sliver of a finger nail would be all that is needed to represent the length of time our species has been on the planet. We just got here! Yet we think God looks like us! What chutzpah!

While we are newcomers, we have ancient ancestry going back billions and millions of years. Common ancestry is in fact a characteristic of life. We share genes with plants as well as animals. The cell with its nucleus of replication rules and ordered processes is widely shared, functionally universal. Life is familial in the deepest sense. Life subsumes us; we participate in it. Life is one. We are not its master. If we find ourselves at the apex of life forms in terms of complexity, capabilities, and brain size, it is because we’re made of the same architectural elements and star stuff as other life forms, and we’re very lucky, singularly fortunate.

What we call human history is a useful but distorted addendum to natural history. Religion is one of the main sources of distortion. The book of Genesis is an example. Genesis is surely wonderful human literature, epic allegory, and a profound set of endlessly meaningful stories, but it is not a factual account of physical events. The creation described on the two charts is what deserves and requires explanation, and science is providing the explanations in its own slow, steady, sweet-researched time.

So, what’s in your wallet? What’s on your fridge door? Images of geologic time, I hope, and the evolutionary tree of life. Good for you. Good for us. That’s our true planetary address and our true social standing as a life form. We are life becoming conscious of itself. Life has evolved into consciousness. We are the heart, eyes, brain, mind, and thoughts of the universe. We are the inheritors of time. We are the gardeners. We are the guides. We are the hope of posterity.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

April 29, 2015

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Damning the Poor

Damning the Poor

One of the depressing facts I learned in college, circa 1955, is that the rich hate the poor. At least they routinely patronize and beat up on the poor. The subject was the Elizabethan Poor Laws in England. The application was to the United States. The professor explained that under the terms of the devilish bargain the Puritans had made with God, which Max Weber explains in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, work is a vocation, a calling from God, and a portal to Heaven. Work circumvents and trumps the terror of John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination to either salvation or damnation at birth by indicating or “revealing” that the job holder is saved and on a career track to heaven. Thus the message chain: you “should” have a job, it would be “good for you, no matter the pay or work conditions.” If you don’t work, it is your “fault;” you are “lazy” and “immoral.” God is obviously displeased, and guess what, you might not be welcome in heaven. In this way poor people are transformed into failed moral agents. It’s not enough to be poor, you have to be damned and punished by the saved.

This pattern of thought is so predictable as to rear its ugly head in every election and economic downturn. When the housing bubble burst in 2008, and the economy went bonkers, because the banks were swapping sub-prime loans backed by credit swaps, the rich along with everyone else were able to keep the criticism focused on the gambling banks for a couple of years, not that such scrutiny led to any lasting reform. By the time of the Tea Party movement, and the Republican onslaught against deficits and government, the poor people had regained center stage again. Unemployment insurance, Food Stamps, and income transfers of all kinds, including Medicaid, Social Security, and Medicare had to be reduced or terminated. The “terrible burdens” of “Obamacare” had to be denied the poor by refusing to extend medicaid coverage. Horrors, no! The poor have offended us rich folk again. Let’s cut their benefits!

This background is meant to draw your attention to three editorial pieces that appeared in The Washington Post in the last couple of weeks, Jeannine Grant Lister’s “The poor are treated like criminals everywhere, even at the grocery store,” Roberto Ferdman’s “Missouri Republicans are trying to ban food stamp recipients from buying steak and seafood,” and Dana Milbank’s “The rush to humiliate the poor.” Let me leave you to read these stunning tales in peace, along with a bit of wisdom by the great French sociologist Émile Durkheim from his writings on social deviance and crime:

Imagine a society of saints, a perfect cloister of exemplary individuals. Crimes will there be unknown; but faults which appear tolerable to the layman will create there the same scandal that the ordinary offense does in ordinary consciousness. If, then, the society of saints has the power to judge and punish, it will define these lesser acts as criminal and will treat them as such. Rules of Sociological Method, 1895

That’s what’s happening in the United States now. The Republicans in Congress and in state capitals have had so much success punching the piñata of welfare over recent years that they have had to shift their focus from cigarettes and booze purchases to meat and seafood, and from deviance to criminality in order to sustain momentum. They’ve picked off the low hanging fruit of waste and fraud issues and are now adjusting their aim more directly at poor people. The damnation is well under way. The Kansas legislature is even pursuing the pithy issue of denying fun to the poor. They should be ashamed. We all should be ashamed.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

April 22, 2015

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good

Religion and the Credibility of Science

Religion and the Credibility of Science

Joel Achenbach downplayed the most obvious culprit in his otherwise superb account of “Why Science is so Hard to Believe” (Washington Post, National Geographic) in accounting for skeptical views toward vaccination, fluoridation, and genetically modified foods. He de-emphasized religion’s influence. Religion is arguably science’s oldest, most powerful, and persistent foe. The fates of Socrates, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo; the various Inquisitions in search of heretics; the rejection of Darwin’s theory of evolution; the claims of young-earth creationists; the shenanigans of climate change deniers; and, the ongoing efforts in Texas to write curriculum standards and choose science textbooks acceptable to Evangelical Christians, are only low hanging fruit from the cornucopia of historic assaults by religionists on science.

These dramatic examples detract from more important facts:

  • Religion is fundamentally opposed to science. Religion emphasizes faith regardless of evidence. Science emphasizes evidence regardless of faith.
  • Religion and science, despite their opposition, are twin pillars of modern society—local, national and global—and cornerstones of personal identity. People most everywhere believe in both, but cleverly segregate the two domains, religion for issues regarding the purpose and meaning of life, science for practical problem-solving and economic development. Science owns brains, economy, jobs, workweeks, medicine, defense, and electronic entertainment venues. Religion gets hearts and souls, anxiety, fear, rites, weekend services, and dread-filled nights. Science gets this life and its problems; religion gets afterlife and eternity. Science gets nature; religion gets supernatural beings and territories.
  • The respective philosophies and methods of religion and science compose and confound individual minds and social institutions. Some people, perhaps most, achieve a comfortable synthesis satisfactory for everyday use. Others find the meld fragile and occasionally troubling, for example when the claims of Genesis and Darwin are under discussion. Others, more than a few, find the conflict between faith and evidence disabling, even tortuous.
  • Religion and science, uneasy allies at best, are unequal partners in matters of government and politics. Religion gets the predominant right to influence the purpose and goals of public policy. The role of science tends to be restricted to the means of achievement. Citizens outside of the community of scientists have little patience with knowledge for its own sake. Taxpayers want to pay for applied science. Pure science remains contentious and difficult to fund. Ancient religions, while trapped in the quicksand of time, and floundering in  discreditable claims, nevertheless reign over science.

It is this last fact that bears most tellingly on the question of credibility raised by Achenbach. Because science is thought of as a means to an end—rather than as inherently valuable—it is the consumer’s right to disbelieve any scientific claim discommodious to his way of life and personal beliefs, no matter how well supported the claim may be by evidence.

The greater marvel would be if citizens believed in science on its own terms, which is to say, appreciated and felt bound by the demands of validated evidence, and loved the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. But one doesn’t have to know science or understand the scientific method to benefit from it. One can even be an enemy of science if one prefers. Most people take the benefits gladly and fault the source. Denigrating science and scientists (eggheads, brains, intellectuals, Frankensteins, geeks, etc.) has always been a mild yet popular parlor game.

That, in essence, is my amendment to Achenbach’s arguments: incredulity toward science is more firmly institutionalized than he admits!

Let’s turn to a more chilling related question: whether the radiation emitting from the weak bond between religion and science is important? Is the situation more than a little toxic? Could the injurious combination turn fatal?

Well, Yes, it is injurious, it has turned fatal, and the danger seems to be increasing daily. Consider the case of an airplane hijacked and under the control of Islamic terrorists. Yes, the events of 9-11-2001 offer a stunning example of the religion-science partnership. The control agents, the terrorists, claim a religious purpose, make a plan and set the goal; the plane, the means of destruction, is a subservient product of science. Here we have a prototype example of what the hegemony of religion over science means in the modern context.

The existence of the nuclear bomb stockpiled in nine nations, with Iran in the wings, is an even more potentially deadly example. The fearful nations, headed by leadership committed to a religious faith, claim the right to use the terrible products of extraordinary science for the survival of its variant of humanity. The commitment to religion and ideas like heaven, hell, and salvation make the otherwise unthinkable use of such weapons thinkable.

Because of this possibility, the Doomsday clock was invented in 1947 by atomic scientists. The Doomsday Clock is meant to dramatically indicate the realistic probability of nuclear calamity, and the “minutes to midnight” has been announced on every cover of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists since its origination. It was originally set at 11:53, seven minutes to midnight. This was shortly after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of World War II, the development of the Hydrogen Bomb, and the beginning of the cold war with the Soviet Union.

On January 22nd of this year, 2015, the clock was reset to 11:57, three minutes to midnight, to reflect not only recent improvements in nuclear weaponry, the unsolved problem of nuclear waste, and Russia’s entry into the Ukraine, but also because of the dismal news on climate change, that 2014 was the hottest year in memory and that average global temperature has been increasing.

It is deeply ironic that science is responsible for so much that people value in modern life without winning the hearts and minds of the majority of benefitted citizens. It is even more terribly ironic that the most dangerous knowledge and capabilities of science are often in the control of religionists who might use them for terror and war. We don’t even seem to have the good sense to believe scientists on global warming. The results seem predictable: stormy, calamitous times ahead.

Do I know any good answers to address our collective global dilemmas? Not really, but I have a few ideas. First, let’s give science a turn as advisor, guide, and primary authority on truth claims and the meaning of life. Second, let’s agree to allow God to get out of the war business. Third, let’s ask religious communities to celebrate nature, the planet, and the mystery of life on earth as revealed by science, foregoing the historical focus on death and the dramatics of afterlife. That would be more than a start. That would be a healthy revolution. Let’s give science a chance to guide us into the future. Science has earned it.

Will Callender, Jr. ©

April 10, 2015

Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good