The solar eclipse crossing North America on August 21st provides a great opportunity to discuss the expanding role that science is playing in our understanding of the Earth and humanity’s place on it. It comes at a time when there is a political “war” on science, where climate deniers and fossil fuel corporations are willing to risk their children’s future in order to score political points against their rivals. And in some parts of the world, religious fundamentalists are trying to undermine Enlightenment ideals including rational understandings of the world. Magical thinking provides an avenue to avert our eyes from the injustices and inequalities we see all around us, as if to say, a greater power is in charge here, therefore what can a humble person like myself really do, plus if something were really unjust, God could quickly put an end to it by smiting someone or (in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah or the future “Rapture”) everyone.
But just in the years since many of us took our last physics or biology class, science has made tremendous progress, culminating, in some people, with a science-based worldview. Science now has potential explanations for the origin of the universe, our galaxy, solar system, planet Earth, and the development of life leading up to humankind (see the Resources listed at the bottom of this article). Of course, there are gaps in knowledge, and some aspects are termed “theories,” including the Big Bang and Evolution by Natural Selection. But the evidence for those scientific explanations is growing every day, and becoming ever harder to dispute. Faith-based approaches to Creation and humanity’s place in the universe, on the other hand, are not evidence-based, and are mostly imposed on individuals by parental authority and enforced by tribal consequence (excommunication or shunning).
The solar eclipse provides a chance to ask questions, and ponder some potential answers. For example, with the solar eclipse, science tells us what causes it, where it will be and when. We do not need to guess what the Gods must want, nor sacrifice animals or wheat to plead for mercy.
A major implication of scientific understanding is a diminished place for humanity as the center of all creation. This dose of humility can be hard to take, similar to being demoted from God’s chosen species at the center of everything, to kind of a speck of (star) dust. It’s a blow to our species’ ego…but maybe that’s a good thing. We’ve known for almost 500 years that the sun doesn’t revolve around us, and for about 150 years that we’re not necessarily created in God’s image. In fact, if you look around, it’s almost the opposite. Humans are now wiping out the species of life on Earth (or, if you prefer, God’s creation) by causing the Sixth Mass Extinction. We are doing it in some cases by accident, and in other cases explicitly for short term electricity and transportation, or to make money to buy things which end up in a giant garbage patch in the middle of the ocean.
But in the Anthropocene (a geological era we have created by changing the entire planet and wreaking havoc on the climate), we are called to acknowledge our special place in the world that we have now dominated. After being demoted to a speck of dust, now science elevates us again (or if you prefer, in another reading of Genesis), to give humanity “stewardship over Creation.” Humanity now has the obligation to create a sustainable world, where people, plants, and animals can co-exist. Please note, some parts of Genesis clearly no longer apply. We no longer need to “be fruitful and multiply”; we’ve already done that.
Neither can we deny climate change or the responsibility to take action to preserve the planet by saying: “It’s God’s will.” Sorry, but Exxon’s quarterly profits were not mentioned in the Bible. For anyone who has the ability, there is a moral component to taking action to reduce their carbon footprint by changing your lifestyle (it will be a lifelong journey), and then moving on to collective action by supporting a group advocating for larger policy changes at the state or national level.
For people raised with religion, developing a scientific worldview could mean causing a rift with their parents or community. Defying them (or their perceived authority) means social rejection, especially where the conservative “Strict Father” mindset is prevalent. Luckily, in most cases, you may not have to totally reject religion to become Earth-centered. People from many religious traditions belong to interfaith groups such as Interfaith Power & Light, fighting to save the planet, while maintaining a faith-based approach. Or another option is becoming a humanist. Either way, the solar eclipse reminds us of our place in the universe, the importance of scientific understanding, and the responsibility as the top of the food chain, to step up, do what’s right, and save the planet.
Steven Hawking: A Brief History of Time, and The Universe in a Nutshell
Carl Zimmer: Evolution: Triumph of an Idea
E.O. Wilson: The Meaning of Human Existence
Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell
M.D. Faber: The Psychological Roots of Religious Belief
If you got this far, congratulations! Take a break and read some Douglas Adams.