The belief that scientific worldviews provide sufficient information and motivation to galvanize widespread action on environmental issues is gaining adherents both within and beyond the academy. The turn to science for materials from which to construct a new cosmology is evident in a variety of emerging movements that go by such names as the Epic of Evolution, The Great Story, the Journey of the Universe, The New Story, and Big History. As environmental problems intensify, proponents of these new cosmologies claim that what is called for is an evidence-based global story and a common ethic. Implicit or explicit in these movements is a conviction that existing religious traditions are too parochial (lacking global appeal) and too far removed from scientific realities and contemporary environmental concerns. Proponents of the new cosmology believe that the physical and biological sciences reveal the distinctly storied nature of our cosmos—a story that belongs to all—and that this cosmic story will inspire wonder and deep concern for the planetary biota, because its core narrative is both universal and true. On this view, scientific narratives can satisfy our deep-seated need for meaning, ritual, and ethical guidance, while firmly grounding us in evolutionary and cosmic realities. The new cosmology thus invests science with mythic, revelatory power; far from disenchanting our world, science is celebrated as a primary vehicle for restoring wonder, meaning, and value.
Can—and should—a scientific account of the universe function as a global myth? If so, what is the likely impact of contemporary scientific cosmologies on established religious traditions and environment-related beliefs and practices?
Many thanks to contributor Lisa Sideris for her assistance in framing this discussion—ed.
Our respondents are:
Whitney Bauman, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Florida International University
just as much of the “science” and knowledge from 200 years ago seems odd and outdated, so will the science and knowledge of today seem 200 years from now. We will always have to retell our stories and re-connect with a meaningful world;
David Christian, Professor of History and Director of Big History Institute, Macquarie University
his origin story is lurking within the vast stores of knowledge generated in the last two centuries. It is immensely rich because it encapsulates knowledge from the entire world;
Willis Jenkins, Associate Professor of Religion, Ethics, and Environment, University of Virginia
Evolutionary cosmology underdetermines ecological ethics. It seems equally plausible from a narrative of human emergence from the cosmos that we should engineer our climate and that we must not;
Lucas Johnston, Associate Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies, Wake Forest University
an increasing disaffection from these traditional institutionalized religions. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that this flight from traditional religions picks up speed,
Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Professor and Chair of Religion, Wesleyan University
we need not one but multiple accounts of that multiplicity, and ought to pursue those political and economic decisions that support their flourishing and proliferation. Difficult and endless work, to be sure, but saner, sounder,
Lisa Sideris, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University Bloomington.
Scientific understandings often produce awe and wonder at the mysteries and beauties of the earth and universe, and a concomitant understanding of its fragility and uniqueness of life on earth. This increases, in my view, the value of the earth’s living systems in comparison to religions that promise divine rescue from the world or its sufferings, or otherwise view it as penultimate, a way-station, or illusory in some way. Moreover, an evolutionary understanding reveals that we human beings share a common ancestor with all other life forms and so we are, quite literally, kin with all life, not just our closest human relatives. Such understandings erode supremacist ideologies, whether racist or anthropocentric.