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Religion in the Future

By Tom Slattery

I don't have any answers. This is not a lectern-thumping pitch for a religion for
the future. It only touches lightly on wisdom and lore that might go into religion in the
future. And it casually wonders whether religion can offer untroubled assimilation with
knowledge that the scientific method has given us.

Present religions might be around for a while, or forever. But history has seen
religions come and go. The religion of Jupiter and Saturn is gone. Woden and Thor are
gone. Amen-Re and Ptah are long gone. So we might wonder what the future might
bring?

New religion would be like the old and still offer counseling, compassion, selfless
service, community, and the other things it has through the ages. But it would also have
to credibly address new perception.

It would answer prayers for a sense of human worth amid the numbing hugeness
of the universe. The universe that we now know and will know into the future is a
universe so vast in time, space, and numbers that it can only make us humans feel
minuscule, trivial, and maybe even out of place in it.

Moreover, from what science has thus far given us, we humans of terribly brief
life spans may be sheer chemical accidents. There may well be some great "purpose" in
this coming together of chemicals called amino acids five billion years ago to create
DNA and life on our small planet orbiting an unremarkable star in the incomprehensible
hugeness of space, but it has thus far escaped our discovery.

I was, as the religions might say, blessed with early wondering when my brain
was still very young. My acquaintance with the hugeness of numbers behind modern
understandings of what we humans are and our consequent individual human
insignificance began when I was a small boy and living near the edge of the cliff of the
Rocky River Valley in northern Ohio.

Rocky River Valley is a canyon, a mini-Grand Canyon. It was slowly carved


through layers of Silurian and Devonian shale and sandstone by the Rocky River as it
flowed northward into the inland fresh-water sea of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes.

The layers and layers of sedimentary rock going down to the valley floor and river
fascinated me as far back as I can remember. I tried then and now and failed then and
now to grasp the millions of years of grain by grain deposition of sand and clay to make
the sandstone and shale rock.

Even the additional multi-millennia that it took for the Rocky River to then erode
a canyon through these layers of rock has always been beyond my mental reach. My
childhood awareness of self and sizes in the world began with numerous trips down and
up agonizingly long flights of stairs from my suburban street to the canyon floor. If they
had been in buildings the stairway hacked into the cliff would have been fifteen or twenty
stories of steps.

And all of it had been deposited grain by grain and then eroded away grain by
grain over time too vast for my mind to genuinely grasp.

Later I would learn in school that an ancestral life form emerged from the ancient
sea and began to breathe air at the time that one of those slowly accumulated Devonian
sedimentary layers was being deposited close to four hundred million years ago. We were
all "born" at that moment in time. We land-roving vertebrates emerged as a proto-
amphibian from the amniotic fluid of the Devonian water world and gulped a first breath
of air into proto-lungs. We became land animals that would evolve and some day reach
out beyond land into space.

The knowledge added to the fascination and frustration. In this modern era of the
twentieth and twenty-first centuries into which we evolved humans were born, we have
been inundated with numerical quantities beyond the capacities of our animal brains to
assimilate.

A consensus of our present level of knowledge, as published in Wikipedia and


other sites, has over six billion of us sentient beings living in the thin layer of biosphere
of this small planet orbiting an unremarkable small star.

The star, our sun, is only one of about a 100 billion (100,000,000,000) visible
stars in our Milky Way galaxy. At this point I begin to get boggled. But it gets worse.

Including our Milky Way galaxy, there are an estimated 80 billion galaxies in this
universe. And this universe containing those 80 billion galaxies seems to be about a
hundred billion light years in diameter. A light year is the distance that light can travel in
a vacuum in a year at the rate of about 186,000 miles per second.

Our hundred billion light year wide universe (and "universe" may be a misnomer
because there may be more "universes") is estimated to be about 13,7 billion years old,
since, that is, it expanded in the Big Bang out of something that we thoroughly do not
understand.

We have numbers here for which we have no natural human feel. We can't count
that high in a lifetime. We can't visually see or tactilely feel quantities of this magnitude.

To deal with these unfathomable numbers we have devised computational


machines that function at petaflop levels. These are machines, in other words, that can
process mathematical calculations at unimaginable rates of more than a quadrillion
calculations per second, and counting.
But the marvelous capacities of these calculating machines introduce yet more
incomprehensible numbers to our evolved biological brains. Imagine being without one
of these gizmos and being able to say, "Cut me some slack. Give me another second
while I do these quadrillion calculations in my head."

Thus our scientific reasoning and accumulated knowledge may have freed us
from the terrors of superstitions, but they have done so with the downside of awareness of
our minuteness in the vastness of time and distance and among the incomprehensible
numbers needed to measure these.

What are we? I am sure that I am not alone in being bothered by the knowledge of
merely being an evolved animal on a small planet orbiting an unremarkable star drifting
along with hundred billion other stars in a galaxy among 80 billion other galaxies. What
can be our infinitesimally insignificant individual and collective human purposes and
destinies in this unfathomable immensity?

For now we seem forced into unsettling insignificance against this backdrop. And
it may be some time before this individual and collective human insignificance is no
longer felt.

To bring God, or a god, or gods into this really doesn't help much because it
merely sidesteps the bewilderment and raises the old troublesome questions in new
clothing. Why would an eternal omniscient omnipotent master of this huge universe want
to meddle in doings of pitiful short-lived beings on a small planet orbiting an
unremarkable star among some 70 sextillion visible stars? Except for those who might
deceive themselves with glib, quick, and thoughtless answers, we're back to where we
started.

Religion that would be believable to cognizant and thoughtful people and to non-
dishonest religious leaders may somehow work through this and reveal human
meaningfulness. And stories, possibly stories now being conceived and told, stories
touching on cosmology like many science fiction stories do, would surely be incorporated
into this new religion.

Religions are constructed around stories. The Bible, for instance, is a collection of
stories. Some believe that these are sacred stories inspired by God. Others are less
convinced of this. But stories they are. And they came into existence, inspired or not,
through human minds.

And stories have yet to be written to deal with the vastness of time and space and
our significance in this new scientific understanding.

Perhaps stories have a long way to go to catch up with science of


incomprehensible time, distance, and quantity as well as cosmology derived from it. And
it may be many generations before religion acquires and assimilates these new stories.
But if that is how it will happen, that is how it has happened in the past.
Near the time that a labor leader named Moses began the first recorded labor
action and had his workers walk off the job and flee out into the desert with their
families, there was a novel written on clay tablets. A writer-editor-scribe named Sin-liqe-
unninni possibly updated it around 1300 BC. It does not seem to have been a religious
story. I would say it was a novel in the sense of modern literature, a story written for
entertainment.

This novel, Gilgamesh, is comfortably set in the flat-earth cosmology of its time.
And the cosmology of its time was also more comfortable. Distances in it were literally
walking distances. Times, in general, were reasonable times that people could grasp and
in general no more than human lifetimes.

One can see suggestions of story adaptations from new physical and social
perceptions. In earlier versions of material that was later used in the novel, humans were
created because the gods grew weary of digging the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and
made humans out of clay to do the work. One might guess that massive public works
projects to build a network of irrigation canals might have been in progress. But after the
canal network had been in use for millennia and may have been taken for granted and
regarded as part of the landscape, this story fell out of favor. The story material adapted
to readers and audiences.

The story of the great flood in a chapter in Gilgamesh shows how a story evolved
from more ancient stories and how Western religion utilized ancient Mesopotamian story
material, but picked and chose for its own religious teaching purposes. And if we might
try to see what religion of the future might do with present story material, we might begin
by looking at what religion of the past and present did with inherited story material.

It is a disorderly process of borrowing and retelling. The borrowing and rewriting


does not seem to be stealing or plagiarism. It seems to have been done with the best of
intentions to make old stories understandable to new generations of readers and
audiences.

As a minor story writer I am aware of good intentions in taking earlier story


material and adapting it to fit a present time. I did exactly this with the earliest modern
apocalyptic novel, Mary Shelley's The Last Man (which I re-titled The Last Human, see
http://www.scribd.com/doc/957681/THE-LAST-HUMAN). So I have a feel for how and why the
ancients did this.

The writers of the Bible may have lifted and transformed material in a chapter
from the secular novel Gilgamesh. They used the apocalyptic story of the great flood, as
we see in Noah and the Ark, for purposes of religious teaching is. But the Noah story in
Genesis seems to have been only one part of a long twisted borrowing, updating, and
changing process.
To begin at the beginning of this process we may have to go back to the beginning
of the last ice age.

British astronomer and Fellow of the Royal Society Sir Fred Hoyle proposed that
the great flood story is so pervasive through all human cultures that the original story
may go back to the great ice flood of initiating the last ice age. The ice age may have
come on with sudden ferocity about 35,000 years ago. At that moment in time modern
technological and language-using humans had extensively populated the Eurasian-
African landmass. Their stories could have been passed down from that time.

But the present biblical flood story seems to have been loosely taken from
Mesopotamian flood stories long after the continental ice sheets had melted. This series
of apocalyptic flood stories begins with the 17th-century BC Sumerian story of a Noah-
figure named Zeusudra.

A real historical Zeusudra is listed as a king of the Sumerian city-state Shuruppak


about 5000 years ago. There is a record in sediments of an awful flood there about 5000
years ago. An older story going back to the ice age could have been modified on top of
many previous modifications to fit the massive river flood or possibly tsunami event.

The modifications continued over subsequent millennia. A new Akkadian people


came to dominate the older Sumerian civilization. In the Akkadian-language flood epic a
thousand years after that original bad river flood, Zeusudra is given the Akkadian name
Atrahasis.

And in the last revision after that, in a chapter of the secular novel Gilgamesh,
Atrahasis becomes the Babylonian-named Utnapishtim, along with his wife, one of the
only two human survivors of the great flood. All of these three entertainment story
characters build arks and survive the great apocalyptic flood. The present world is
derived from their actions and their survivals.

These versions of the apocalyptic flood story appear to have been adapted to fit
the changing awareness. The Hebrew-named Noah version is the last of these. All in all,
these are appealing stories. A human discovers (from the gods or from God) that an
apocalyptic flood is about to occur. He builds an ark to save himself, his family, and the
animals of the world. The flood happens. The human, his family, and the animals are
saved.

Audience knows that it is figurative and fictional and accepts it that way. Readers
and listeners suspend their disbelief about large numbers and varieties of animals living
peacefully together on a big boat.

In our space-travel time we have had Zeusudra-Atrahasis-Utnapishtim-Noah


stories of spaceships that are like arks. These spaceship arks either bring extraterrestrial
life forms to our desirably little planet, or we have to use an ark-like spaceship to flee an
apocalypse, sometimes an apocalypse of our own human making, that is about to strike
our planet.

None of these attempts at modern ark stories rises to the level of making any kind
of human or religious sense of vast measures of space and time of the universe. What
they show is the story-creating human mind is engaging with technological progress and
new awareness derived from it.

Chapters and fragments of present and future stories, songs, poems, and audio-
visual presentations will probably be re-composed and utilized in future religions to
restore our sense of human importance against the backdrop of incomprehensible
hugeness of space.

Meanwhile we might note that we were born into this time and handed these
discoveries and understandings. We were born into struggling with this unsettling present
accumulation of knowledge. We were born onto the top of layers of geological
sediments.

We seem to have been deposited here in this time that is our time to do with it
what we can and wonder why.

Tom Slattery
November 2009