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2011: An Evolutionary Retrospective

by Jon Cleland Host

Compared to our 13.7 billion year history, not much changes in a single year, right?  While that’s true, we can place the changes we’ve seen in the context of an evolutionary perspective - that grand saga of life, which has given us our world. 

On the grandest scale, the Universe continues to expand.  The most distant galaxies are rushing away from us at a blistering speed of over 100,000 miles every second, putting them 3 trillion miles farther from us than just a year ago.  And while we don’t know of any life outside of Earth yet, we have discovered many hundreds of extrasolar planets, most of them discovered in 2011 by the Kepler mission.  Much closer to home, our Sun has become more active, ramping up into the coming solar maximum, and sparking huge Northern Lights this past October 25th.

Our Earth is a planet that has brains, eyes, and the internet, and is a planet that has intentionally launched parts of itself into space.  In November, the most advanced probe to Mars ever made (the Curiosity rover) lifted off flawlessly, showing our continued advancement.  Also advancing, our global connections have greatly increased with at least tens of millions of new internet connections and new wireless hotspots in 2011 (if we have millions of both in just Great Britain, the worldwide total is easily in the tens of millions).  Whether or not this qualifies as a global brain yet is another topic for another day, but our progress is rapid, and who knows what the results will be in the future?  One possible result of our interconnections so far has been the 2011 Arab Spring.  Another has been the information explosion, with as much text written every few days now as humans had written in their entire history up to 2003, and more text written in 2011 than in any other year in our history.  Hopefully this information processing will help us handle the problems of the future, both expected and unexpected.

And we moved toward some of those problems in 2011 as well.  With 134 million new babies born in 2011, the world population continued to increase.  That many births means more mouths to feed, as well as a billion or more new mutations in our gene pool – most being neutral, some harmful, and some beneficial.  (Estimates of the mutation rate per generation in humans varies widely, so I used a very conservative number of around 10.  Some evidence suggests average mutation rates well over 100 mutations per birth.)  With natural selection reduced by our technology, the harmful ones are more likely to increase healthcare costs, and the beneficial ones may fail to spread to everyone.  It will be another challenge for future generations to figure out the best way to handle this constant mutational drumbeat.  That issue won’t really need to be faced for a while, especially compared to our unsustainable energy habits.  In 2011 we burned enough fossil fuel to add about 10 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere, carbon that has been buried underground for millions of years, and now will contribute to global climate change.  Similarly, the rapid extinctions we are causing continue, with both headline losses like the Western Black Rhino, and the loss of at least hundreds of species in 2011, many before they could even be named by science.  Religious based hatred continued in many incidents, including the slaughter of dozens of teens in Norway by a person who wished to “return Europe to its Christian roots”.  Worst of all, I suspect that the majority of humans on our planet are unaware of the threat all of these are posing to our future generations, among so many other threats as well.    

There are also reasons for hope.  The information explosion mentioned earlier may bring the powerful force of our collective creativity to bear on these problems, before they are insurmountable.  The Arab Spring may have helped millions of people move from tyranny towards democracy.  The occupy movement in the United States may be partly driven by concern for future generations, and in 2011, the level of human concern for future generations appears to already exceed that at any point in our history.  Our circles of care continue to expand in many areas, one of which was shown by the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.  Human action in 2011 also gave us a higher use of sustainable energy sources, like wind and solar, than has ever been seen.

Of course, this review of our evolution toward a just, peaceful and sustainable world surely misses a lot, even the most important points.  In addition to the events I simply forgot to mention, many of the most important events of 2011 are likely unreported in the news.  For instance, did millions of teens begin to see our place in this Great Story, and their role in crafting the future, in 2011?  Were there elementary kids who learned the basics of science in 2011 who will go on to use that understanding to find a cure for cancer, or a new solar cell technology decades from now?   We can’t know, but we can trust that this pulse of life, which has overcome even deadlier threats in the past, continues to surge now, in us, at the start of 2012.  May we each do what we can to live up to our potential, for ourselves and for future generations.

In hope - Happy New Year!

~ Jon Cleland Host
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The Death of the Fringe Suburb: Why we boomers are to blame and what the youngers can do about it

by Connie Barlow

A superb Op-Ed piece by Christopher Leinberger appeared in The New York Times on November 25, 2011:

The Death of the Fringe Suburb

That essay offers profound insights and trends for twenty- and thirty-somethings to keep in mind when buying a home in this new and volatile era. I view the signs of change as truly hope-filled. Nonetheless, as we peel away the layers of causality, we boomers are forced to see ourselves as the reason for much of the economic decline. Now it is our job to ensure that the lessons of this sixty-year history that we have lived through are not lost on the generations that follow.

Note: Please take a few minutes to read Leinberger's Op-Ed piece. Then return to this blog to consider two additional points I wish to make.

*  *  *

First, a little background: My husband, Michael Dowd, and I have lived entirely on the road for ten years, occupying for a few days to a few weeks the guest rooms (or sometimes, vacation homes) of Americans affiliated with the churches and nonprofit groups that delight in the message we deliver as “America’s evolutionary evangelists”. Accordingly, we have, in a sense, been sampling and eavesdropping on the lifestyle of Americans our age and older — that is, couples whose kids are grown and out of the house, and who are wealthy enough to live in a home that has a spare room (sometimes an entire wing) for guests. We have carved out an odd career and lifestyle that utterly depends on the generosity of others: we live almost entirely in homes that we ourselves could never afford.

Thanks to this amazing opportunity to sample middle-class American homes and standards of living, I now offer two insights that perhaps will help Gen X, Gen Y, and the Millennials avoid the mistakes that we boomers have made — mistakes we have made mostly as a group, not because we are especially foolish or self-centered as individuals.

Mistake number 1: MIS-JUDGING WHAT MAKES FOR QUALITY OF LIFE

Time and again, surveys have shown that people who choose a home for the wonderful nature-filled yard (but a long distance from anything), find themselves oppressed by a long commute or isolated because it takes too long to drive anywhere to extra-curricular events (for themselves or their lonely kids), especially in inclement weather.

Even though I am a nature fanatic (and feel like the luckiest person alive when my husband and I are offered a month or more hospitality at someone’s vacation home in one of the unbelievably large number of astonishingly beautiful nooks in North America), I have also delighted in getting a chance to live a few days at a time in high quality urban and established suburban settings. Michael and I have often been hosted by folks who have been living in the same neighborhood for 30 or 40 years — the traditional suburbs of the 50s and 60s. Though the homes we have been invited into would have been regarded as the wealthier neighborhoods decades back, today those homes don’t have enough square-footage, bathrooms, and garage space to be attractive to the “wealthy” anymore. The reasons for my fondness of these older “inner suburbs” are four-fold:
  1. It is just a walk or short drive to the store and post office and other venues.
  2. There are actual sidewalks in the neighborhood; one doesn’t have to walk in the street (nor drive kids a long distance to play with other kids).
  3. The trees (whether or not they were large to begin with) are now extravagant and represent a far greater diversity of species, even slow-growing oaks, than one finds in new developments that are turning into ghost towns in farmlands-turned-exurbs.
  4. The homes tend to be smaller and hence fully used; untouched dining rooms and living rooms are rare, as are energy-extravagant cathedral ceilings.

My point is this: older neighborhoods are not only still thriving; for many reasons (as presented in Leinberger’s Op-Ed piece) these are the locales that youngers should think about moving into themselves.

Mistake number 2: INVESTING FOR RETIREMENT

My second point is not one that was covered in the recommended Op-Ed piece. Indeed, I haven’t encountered anybody else writing on the housing collapse or Wall Street madness from quite this angle. Here is my take:

Boomers invested in extra homes (especially, homes larger than most of us would want to retire into), as we expected to resell those homes for a large profit. Boomers also invested in the stock market because of a new phenomenon initiated by our parents’ generation: old folks no longer expected (nor wanted) to move in with their adult offspring.  When we boomers were kids, we ourselves (or at least some of our friends) had grandparents living with us in our home. That was normal in the 50s and 60s. The grandparents did not save a huge sum for retirement, and few got pensions. Back then, grandma got a bedroom to herself and was expected to help out with the kids and cooking some meals. Her social security check was fully adequate for covering her share of the mortgage (for that extra room) and she certainly earned her food costs by the help she gave in the kitchen and with the kids.

In my case, my father’s parents lived with us in, what would have been, the master bedroom. They had a private attached bath and their bed folded into a sofa during the day. They had a little cookstove and refrigerator and tiny “kitchen” table in their room too, and their TV set was on top of the clothes dresser.
   
That is not the future we boomers intend for ourselves. Also, we expect to live a lot longer after retirement than our grandparents did — and to spend those years taking excursions, golfing, shuttling between our regular home and our vacation home — indeed, intending to live rather extravagantly because many of us have been working just too darned hard. At least, that was our plan before our stocks, real estate, and 401k accounts tanked.

In contrast, our grandparents never even considered those activities. They were happy (at least as happy as anyone expected to be in those days) staying close to home, feeling useful for the next generations, perhaps tending a small vegetable garden.

Of course, changing demographics and the fact that few boomers can expect their adult children to be living anywhere near where they were raised (nor to remain in that locale for long) will make it nearly impossible for grandma or grandpa boomer to happily move in with our adult children. Long-time friends and community groups would have to be left behind — and maybe repeatedly as the kids keep following jobs, mates, and dreams around the country.

All this means that, unlike my grandparents’ generation, most of my peers have assumed that they have to save a quarter million dollars or more before they can safely retire. That is a quarter million dollars per couple that must be “invested” somewhere over the course of decades that it is stashed away. Once upon a time, one simply put money into a savings account. But boomers viewed savings accounts as a loss — no profit there, and with interest rates lagging behind the rate of inflation.  The only two places to invest, really, were the stock market and real estate — hence the crash of both of those institutions.

The result of this extraordinary drive to “invest” for retirement was this: huge sums of money were taken out of the real economy and stashed in the casino called Wall Street and in vacant lands and overbuilt housing called real estate.  That money was not available for spending on the next generations. Instead, we let the infrastructure that we share communally (roads, bridges, parks, sewers) decline. We pulled state and federal taxes out of the subsidies that we formerly invested in colleges. Instead, we forced the younger generations to pay enormous sums for higher education and thus to be saddled with debt. Consciously or not, we allowed the marvelous infrastructure that we inherited from the Eisenhower era to rust away. Not to worry: “Be, here, now!” Remember?

CONCLUSION: The point of this essay is to let the younger generations know that it is not just Wall Street that screwed them over, but a massive shift in how ordinary Americans came to use and invest their earnings. It is my generation and the one older that made it possible for Wall Street financiers to become garishly wealthy doing nothing of use (and in the case of derivatives, doing much harm). It is my generation that invested in land and new homes that we knew we would not want to retire into, and that would be flagrant energy guzzlers (both in home heating and in gasoline for commutes and errands). I think we had an inkling that our kids could not afford, nor would they want, to live in such wastefulness. But all we needed to do was to resell that McMansion in five or eight years to someone else of our generation who was looking not for a home but for an investment — an investment for retirement.

MY DREAM: My dream is not that Grandma Boomer and Grandpa Boomer turn the pages of history back and go move in with the kids and grandkids. Those days are over for the reason I mentioned earlier: the kids keep moving from city to city and state to state. Rather, I’d like to see two new forms of high-density, low square-footage housing that 20-somethings just starting out and retiring boomers would occupy. (Noise from stereos would not be a problem, as earbuds would be required and no loud parties by anyone choosing those special, low-rent digs.) We olders would choose to occupy such housing not only because our investments failed, but because paring down to simple living would bring a joy to life that we haven’t known since the 60s and the 70s.

Such lost-cost housing developments, of course, must be located near a greenway or park in walking distance, and a grocery a short walk or taxi or bus ride away. There must be sidewalks; there must be trees. Neither we olders nor the youngers just starting out would have to own a car. We wouldn’t mourn a lost opportunity to golf or to cruise. We would be happily engaged in our patch of community garden, volunteering in local schools, joining birdwatching groups in the parks, mentoring the twenty-somethings, and finding real community with peers just around the corner or across the street.

Imagine this: we would be able to pretty much live on our Social Security checks, just like our grandparents did. And no generation, ever again, would be tricked into “saving for retirement” in ways that impoverish and threaten the health and wellbeing of those who follow.
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A Cure for Collective Insanity?

A review of Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean's The Magic of Reality

by Michael Dowd

Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean have made my holiday shopping this year easy. Indeed, if I could pick but one book as required reading for every adolescent and adult in the world, it would be The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True.

Why am I so evangelistic about this book? Because it expands and deepens the powerful open letter that Richard wrote in the mid-1990s to his (at the time) ten-year-old daughter Juliet, “Good and Bad Reasons for Believing.” Now, just about anyone on the cusp of puberty and beyond can learn about their deep ancestry, why there are so many animals, what causes earthquakes, what powers the sun and the stars, why rainstorms sometimes produce rainbows, and even “why bad things happen.” Who can read this book and fail to see science as one of humanity’s shining achievements!

Early in chapter 1, which is titled “What Is Reality? What Is Magic?,” Dawkins lays out in a few simple paragraphs a key distinction: “Magic is a slippery word: It is commonly used in three different ways… I’ll call the first one ‘supernatural magic,’ the second one ‘stage magic,’ and the third one (which is my favorite meaning, and the one I intend in my title) ‘poetic magic’.”

Crucially, perhaps because youth are his intended audience, Dawkins maintains a tone throughout that is in no way derisive of anyone’s mythic story — including the mythic story that has been deployed for far too long in Western culture to prevent school children from learning that all creatures are their cousins and that it is a fact of chemistry that they are made of star stuff.

I do believe that, if read far and wide, this book could go a long way toward curing our species of its current collective insanity. Consider this recent statement by my fellow religious naturalist and noted philosopher of religion, Loyal Rue:

"The most profound insight in the history of humankind is that we should seek to live in accord with reality. Indeed, living in harmony with reality may be accepted as a formal definition of wisdom. If we live at odds with reality (foolishly), then we will be doomed. But if we live in proper relationship with reality (wisely), we shall be saved. Humans everywhere, and at all times, have had at least a tacit understanding of this fundamental principle. What we are less in agreement about is how we should think about reality and what we should do to bring ourselves into harmony with it.”

The Magic of Reality is a stunning example of our best collective intelligence about the nature of reality and how we’ve come to know (rather than merely believe) that science provides a more accurate map of “what’s real” and “what’s important” (or, how things are and which things matter) than ancient mythic maps could hope to achieve. I would argue that nothing is more necessary at this time in history than for people of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs to grasp the importance of distinguishing mythic and meaningful stories of reality from the measurable and meaningful truth of reality.

After all, isn’t the ability to distinguish one’s inner, subjective world from the outer, objective world pretty much the defining mark of sanity? When a person cannot consistently do this, we say that he or she has become a danger to self and others. When a large and media savvy segment of an entire culture insists on selectively using (and selectively ignoring) the discoveries of science, the danger is vastly compounded.

Clearly and compellingly helping readers draw a distinction between myth and reality (while valuing both) is what The Magic of Reality does so brilliantly—and beautifully! Richard Dawkins’ steady prose and helpful metaphors combine with Dave McKean’s stunning illustrations to make this volume a feast for head and heart.

As I’ve written and spoken about many times during the past two years (for example, see my “Thank God for the New Atheists” sermon that was simultaneously published in Skeptic magazine and Australasian Science), I consider Richard Dawkins and many of his New Atheist colleagues to be modern-day prophets. Traditionally, prophets were not so much foreseers or foretellers. They were men and women who spoke boldly and unflinchingly on behalf of reality. Their message (couched in religious terms, of course) was essentially this: “Here’s what’s real, folks—and here’s what’s emerging. We need to get right with reality, or perish.”

In the same way that the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin helped spark the Protestant Reformation five centuries ago, I see Richard Dawkins and David McKean’s book helping 21st century religious folk to break free of idolatry of the written word and thereby spark an Evidential Reformation.

It is on this point that I depart from Dawkins in a major way. I truly do wish for reform of all the world’s religious heritages—not annihilation. And I wish for reform not just because reform is a more practical and realistic approach for smoothing out the harsh edges of literalistic religious zealotry. Rather, I work for reform because religions, historically, have had an important cultural evolutionary role to play.

Following evolutionist David Sloan Wilson (author of Darwin’s Cathedral and Evolution for Everyone), I understand that religions evolved, in part, to make possible vastly larger scales of cooperation than kin selection and reciprocal altruism tend to produce on their own. Religions that could evoke individual sacrifice in the interest of shared goals were those that helped their societies defend territory, conquer the less fortunate, and adequately provision generations to come.

Thus, in a heretical way perhaps, I regard Richard Dawkins as not only a gift to our species but as the boot in the butt my own Christian tradition requires to stay relevant—and to have anything useful at all to pass on to the young people who increasingly listen, globally, more to each other than to their immediate elders.

It is now up to those very same young people to make The Magic of Reality go viral!

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Dawning realizations re Occupy Wall Street

by Tom Atlee

The following is cross-posted from my main blog site, here. (See comments posted there too.)

It is slowly dawning on me that I've seen events very similar to Occupy Wall Street.

The first time was on the Great Peace March in 1986 which started out from Los Angeles as a hierarchical mega-PR event with 1200 people and tons of equipment. It suddenly and traumatically went bankrupt in the Mojave Desert two weeks later. 800 marchers went home. 400 marchers didn't. It took them (us) two weeks sitting around an BMX track in Barstow to reorganize with no formal leaders (but tons of ambient leadership) and little support (but tons of vulnerability that soon attracted grassroots support). As we re-started our 3000-mile trek with 400 people, it turned into a 9 month miracle of self-organization (I mean, where DO you put 400 people each night 15 or so miles further down the road?!!), out of which came my first experiences of and ideas about collective intelligence, which led to my life work today. The lives of hundreds of other people were transformed by that March, whose emergent troubadours sang "echoes of our care will last forever..". The folks at Occupy Wall Street are doing a similar experiment in passion-driven self-organization.

The other comparable events I've seen were run by Open Space and World Cafe - especially Open Space. Remember?: The two legs of Open Space are "passion" and "responsibility", which combine into that remarkable guidance formulated by Peggy Holman as "Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service." Are we seeing that in Occupy Wall Street, or what?! Then there's "It starts whenever it starts." "Whoever comes is the right people." "Whatever happens is the only thing that could have" and "When it is over, its over." In Open Space there are two exploratory plenary sharings each day. For most of the day, though, there's no preordained agenda - only people gathering in groups to do what they want to do together. Or being "butterflies" (going off on their own, often stumbling into random conversations) or "bumble-bees" (going from group to group, cross pollinating). No one is "in charge".

The whole thing holds together because those who are present share a passion. In Occupy Wall Street, the shared passion is a desire to reclaim human life and community from "Wall Street" - the greed-based, hierarchical corporate-financial system that has colonized and degraded our minds, lives, politics, economics, world, and future. That passion has a thousand manifestations, which are the polyphonous "issues" that swarm around Liberty Square like bees in a meadow.

So I realized: OF COURSE Occupy Wall Street doesn't have "demands." Demonstrations and protests have demands. But although O.W.S. LOOKS like a protest and a demonstration (and occasionally turns into one), it is actually something more, something else: It is a passionate community of inquiry acting itself out as an archetypal improvisational street theater performance embodying, in one hand, people's longings for the world as it could be and, in the other, their intense frustrations with the world as it is. These longings and frustrations reside in the whole society, not just in the occupiers.

The occupiers are behaving and reaching out in ways that release and activate those suppressed transformational energies all over the country and world. (Arny and Amy Mindell call such archetypal energies "timespirits" after "Zeitgeist", the spirit of the times.) To think of Occupation Wall Street as primarily a demonstration or protest misses the profound novelty and power of what they are doing. All of us - they and we - are figuring out what it is they are doing as they do it. They are kinda building the road as they travel.

That the whole thing wasn't consciously built according to any plan - that it EMERGED - is both its power and its limitation. We would do well to think about how to combine such powerful spontaneity with transformational processes (like Open Space and World Cafe) that use self-organization to help spread evocative energy from a dynamic center like Occupy Wall Street out into the society, transmuting that society's latent frustrations and longings into a force that can shift the energy of the whole System towards Life. I sense a new form of activism, of citizenship, of aliveness being born here. Each of us gets to ask what role we want to play in that flowing, creative Mystery. And the roles we inevitably play inevitably become part of the inevitable river as the ice inevitably melts...

Coheartedly,

~ Tom

A few recent insightful articles about Occupy Wall Street...
On the eve of my trip to Occupy Boston
#OccupyWallStreet is a Church of Dissent, Not a Protest
Andrew Ross Sorkin's assignment editor
What the Environmental Movement Can Learn From the Wall Street Zombies
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Steve Jobs: 1955-2011





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The Evidential Reformation: Humanity Comes of Age

by Michael Dowd

“We will never achieve a just and sustainably lifegiving future on the resources of the existing religious traditions, and we can’t get there without them.”
~ Thomas Berry

The 21st century will be seen historically as humanity’s rite of passage. We’re growing up as a species, going through the very same process we’ve all gone through as we mature. As children we’re guided by beliefs and we think the world was made for us. As adults, we’re guided by knowledge and we live our lives (at least in part) as a contribution to others and the world. Indeed, for healthy adults, self-giving is actually one of life’s greatest satisfactions. As well, most of us needed no special training or incentives to begin questioning the beliefs we were spoon-fed as children – just the usual dose of hormones and peer focus that signals adolescence.

These two transformations, from beliefs to knowledge and from self-focus to contribution, are precisely what we’re now collectively experiencing. I call this species-wide rite of passage the “Evidential Reformation,” and I believe it is destined to transform not only the science-and-religion debate and how religious traditions relate to one another, but, even more importantly, how humans relate to the larger body of life of which we are part and upon which we depend.

A Big History Perspective on Religion Through Time

Big history, also known as the epic of evolution, is our common creation narrative. It is the first origin story in the history of humanity that is globally produced, derived entirely from evidence, and will soon be taught to high school students around the world (see here, here, and the YouTube clip at the end of this post).

In our “childhood” as a species – as tribes, then villages, then chiefdoms and kingdoms, then city-states and early nations – our main source of guidance came from religious beliefs. Shared allegiance to a particular religion that bridged even ethnic and linguistic differences was a crucial factor in the rise of civilizations across the globe. Consider: our instinctual heritage as social mammals will suffice for fostering cooperation at the scale of a clan. (Biologists call these instinctive forms of cooperation kin selection and reciprocal altruism.) Mutually advantageous trade then facilitated greater circles of cooperation. But for 10,000 or more human beings to be induced to cooperate: for that, you need religion – a singular, shared, unquestioned religion, and probably one that doles out harsh consequences (including ostracism) for apostates.

A multitude of religions arose independently of course, because in any bioregion where fierce competition for territory or resources arose, there would have been a survival advantage to groups that could forge cross-clan alliances for mutual defense. As well, there are two functional issues that all cultures need to address: what’s real and what’s important. (In a six-minute YouTube video based on his book, Religion Is Not About God, philosopher of religion Loyal Rue refers to these two functions as “how things are” and “which things matter.”) These two functional issues will be answered differently based upon where and when you live and upon the happenstance of interpretive imagination of one’s ancestors. Each “wisdom tradition” thus reflects regional collective intelligence encoded mythically. That is, the regional collective intelligence is encoded in pre-scientific language that reflects a people’s daytime and nighttime experience. (See here for a discussion of “Day and Night Language,” which was a central concept in my book, Thank God for Evolution.)

In our “adolescence” as a species (which was a threshold crossed as the modern era swept the globe), we began to question the beliefs, interpretations, and meanings we had inherited. The birth of this new form of collective intelligence, global collective intelligence, occurred when access to powerful new technologies (beginning with the telescope) ramped up our ability to discern how things are. We then faced the frightening truth that ancient understandings were not, in fact, the best maps of what is real. This challenging process is still facing much of the world, as traditional religious beliefs are increasingly found to be obsolete and simply no longer credible when interpreted literally.

Some individuals thrilled to the prospect of participating in this threshold event: of valuing measurable observation, rationality, and collectively encouraged skepticism and testing as the preferred means for discerning what’s real and what’s important. In the 19th century these “natural philosophers” became known as “scientists.”

The two institutions responsible for ensuring that the self-interest of individuals and groups are aligned – namely, governance and religion – were impacted differently by the rise of modern science. Democratic forms of governance were the first to embrace evidence as authoritative. Religions are only now beginning to catch up and to not only experience the terror but also taste the thrill of what the Evidential Reformation offers.

Like any rite of passage, once one voluntarily steps through the threshold there is no integrous and healthy way of going back. So of course there are shrill voices of protest and deep institutional inertia.

But ultimately, this shift will happen. One by one, segment by segment, the great religions of the world will pass through the threshold – else they will wither and the new generations will leave them entirely behind.

“Idolatry of the Written Word” as Today’s Greatest Impediment

What the Evidential Reformation offers for religion is centrally this: Science reveals “God’s word” for humanity today – that is, what’s real and what’s important, or how things are and which things matter – far more accurately than the Bible or Qur’an could ever hope to. And Moses, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the Prophet Mohammad would surely be among the first to applaud this trend were they alive today.

Yet, until faith leaders become a whole lot bolder in proclaiming to their flocks the goodness and necessity of this shift, religious people will remain blind and deaf to what God (Reality personified) is revealing today through scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence. And that means that God/Reality will continue using the New Atheists to mock unchanging religious beliefs and those who espouse such beliefs.

The main hindrance to religious people wholeheartedly embracing evidence as divine communication – divine guidance (i.e., how Reality reveals itself) – has been what I have long been characterizing as idolatry of the written word (also here). Idolatry of the written word occurred anywhere in the world where ancient oral stories (which surely evolved for millennia as conditions and needs changed) became frozen into unchanging scripture – scripture that was then deemed as the foundational (even the sole) locus for discerning priorities, values, right thinking, and right behavior.

This shift from oral storytelling to unchanging scripture as the way wisdom, morality, and a sense of the sacred (supreme value) is generationally passed forward set the stage (albeit centuries later) for a profound and now exponentially expanding mismatch. This mismatch is between globally shared and empirically tested updates of (once-again) evolving wisdom versus what religious people still preference as “God’s Word”.

Idolatry of the written word has thus led to what could be considered “demonic beliefs.” I do not hesitate to use such harsh language because any and all beliefs that cause good people to do bad things and to vote in evil ways (ways that are shortsighted, self-centered, and harmful to future generations) are demonic. And who among us does not see where such beliefs have led to a kind of collective insanity? The only cure, as far as I can tell, is for religious leaders to accept – indeed, to celebrate – that scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence are the actual venues through which Reality/God is speaking and guiding humanity today. Fortunately, this shift is happening rapidly…and seems likely to be fleshed out in just another generation or two.

I do not decry or disvalue this aspect of religious history. Indeed, I accept that idolatry of the written word could not have been avoided. Without the shift to literacy, humanity would never have been able to access the fruits of modernity: the rule of law, exponentially growing knowledge, cumulative technological and medical advances, and a widening sense of one’s “in-group” and compassionate treatment thereof.

Nonetheless, the negative social consequences of this form of idolatry have been quite severe – and threaten to become even more terrifying and destructive as deadly weapons come in ever smaller packages. It is thus time to prophetically speak out against continued favoring of ancient scriptural ‘authority’ over our best collective understandings of facts and values today. Said another way, the Church, currently shipwrecked (also here) on the immovable rock of “biblical authority”, can still be saved, but only by embracing “the authority of evidence”. Reality would have it no other way.

Our Way Forward: Aligning Self-Interest with Species-Wide & Global Interests

One of the most significant and hopeful insights to emerge from the early days of the Evidential Reformation is a re-envisioning of what “self-interest” really is. Self-interest actually exists at all biological and cultural levels – not just at the obvious, individual level. Indeed, the key to ever-increasing social complexity in the human realm over the past 10,000 years has been the aligning of self-interest at multiple levels. It could even be argued that nothing is more important for ensuring a just and thriving future than aligning the natural self-interest of individuals, corporations, and nation-states with the wellbeing of the body of life as a whole. The outcome of this shift would be to make competition co-operative, self-interest nontoxic, and society wise.

One could thus conclude that humanity’s “Great Work” in the 21st century is to co-create global and bioregional governance such that individuals and groups that benefit the common good benefit themselves, while individuals and groups that disregard or harm the common good are taxed, penalized, or face moral strictures.

By organizing and managing ourselves so that the impact of parts on the whole, for good or ill, are reflected back to the parts, we shall create a system through which individuals, corporations, and nations are incentivized to do what is just and ecological – while simultaneously being incentivized to not do what is unjust or un-ecological. This aligning of self-interest at multiple scales would ensure that what is perceived as the cheaper, easier, more convenient thing to do is also the right thing to do, rather than the harmful thing, as it is now. This re-incentivizing of societal goods and services to comport with human nature (as it really is, not as we wish it would be) would also help all elements of society to access and make decisions based on humanity’s collective intelligence (also here and here).

The promise of the Evidential Reformation, as I see it, is this: As the world’s great religious traditions come to honor and celebrate evidence as divine guidance, and big history as our common creation story, they will begin to wield their moral authority in ways that assist, rather than resist, the passage of our species out of the desert of destructive and unsustainable adolescence and into the promised land of contributing and fulfilled maturity.

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Guidelines for Making Wiser Decisions on Public Issues

by Tom Atlee

I have worked for several months to develop the ideas in this article and to articulate them in an accessible way. They are fundamental understandings underlying the co-intelligence vision of a wiser democracy.

If the ideas intrigue you, you can find a longer version with more detailed guidelines and references here. I wrote the abstract below to make it easier for you to see the whole pattern at once. I hope you find both versions interesting and useful.


GUIDELINES FOR MAKING WISER DECISIONS ON PUBLIC ISSUES

As a civilization we have tremendous collective power, but we don't always use it wisely. We can make good decisions, but we face messy, entangled, rapidly growing problems with complex, debatable causes. Efforts to solve one problem often generate new ones. We need more than problem-solving smarts here. We need wisdom.

A good definition for wisdom here is

the capacity to take into account
what needs to be taken into account
to produce long term, inclusive benefits.

To the extent we fail to take something important into account, it will come back to haunt us. But often we only realize we overlooked something long after our decision has been implemented. Certain practices - because they lead us to include more of what's important - can help us meet this challenge. Here are eight complementary ways to do this. The more of them we do, and the better we do them, the wiser our collective decisions will be.

1. Creatively engage diverse perspectives and intelligences. High quality conversations among diverse people with full-spectrum knowledge, using their full human capacities - including reason, intuition, and aesthetic sensibilities - can generate wisdom.

2. Consult global wisdom traditions and broadly shared ethics. Ethical principles common to most major religions and philosophies provide time-tested wisdom, augmented by what we have learned more recently through global science and global dialogue.

3. Seek guidance from natural patterns. Wisdom is embedded in nature, in organisms, in natural forms and processes, and in evolution, providing a vast reservoir of insight and know-how tapped not only by scientists and engineers but by tribal and agricultural cultures.

4. Apply systems thinking. Wisdom comes from understanding underlying causes and taking into account how things are interrelated, how wholes and parts influence each other through power relations, resonance, feedback dynamics, flows, motivating purposes, and life-shaping narratives, habits and structures.

5. Think about the Big Picture and the Long Term. Wisdom grows as we step out of limiting perspectives to understand (and creatively use!) histories and energies from the past, current contexts and trends, future ramifications and needs, larger and smaller scales, and other mind-expanding perspectives.

6. Seek agreements that are truly inclusive. The more people contribute to, engage with, and believe in an agreement, the more likely it will wisely address what needs to be addressed and be well implemented.

7. Release the potential of hidden assets and positive possibilities. It is wise to notice and creatively engage existing energies and resources and to tap the power of people's aspirations which often show up at the rough edges, on the margins of our thinking, our group, our society.

8. Encourage healthy self-organization and learning. Any situation or system has problem-solving and self-organizing capacities which can be released and supported with well-designed forms of invitation, participation, and collaboration - powerful questions, crowd-sourcing activities, incentives, democracy, conversation, games...

9. Co-create accessible, relevant, accurate, full-spectrum knowledge. Fundamental to every one of these principles is the ability of decision-makers to know what's important.

Society's capacity to make wise decisions will be enhanced to the extent these wisdom-generating practices are supported and institutionalized AND to the extent the systemic obstacles to them are removed or bypassed.
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"A Dying Breath on a Bloody Battlefield": A Civil War Ancestor Meditation

by Jon Cleland Host

Hundreds dead on July 21st, with hundreds of thousands to follow. That day, just recently past, was the 150th anniversary of the first major battle of the War Between the States (or the American Civil War). Being a Northerner, somehow I missed the emphasis on the enormity of this conflict when growing up, and so I was shocked to learn that well over a half million brave men died in that war. No other war, (not even World War II at 400,000 American casualties, and certainly not Vietnam with less than 60,000) comes close.


Some of us have a personal connection to those soldiers by knowing of an Ancestor who fought in the American Civil War, perhaps great-great-great-grandpa Jim. Reflecting on that person can change the American Civil War from a note in a history book into a stunning chapter in the family history that got you here today – a part of who you are. That person lived a very hard life, without which you wouldn’t exist. Imagine if you were someone with such an Ancestor, and didn’t know it – that you lived day to day ignoring that brave part of yourself. Don’t you want to know if you are descended from a Civil War soldier?

But without finding a Civil War soldier in our family tree, it’s pretty unlikely you are the great-great-great-grandchild of Johnny Reb or Billy Yank, right? Can we make a reasonable estimate of the odds?

Let’s try. First, consider how many Civil War era Ancestors you have. You’ve got two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, etc. Let’s put approximate dates on those (or use your actual, correct dates if you have them). That gives two parents - born around 1950, and using 25 years for a generation, we end up with 32 Ancestors born ~1850, and 64 born ~ 1825. Also, remember that in a group that large, you’ll have plenty of cases where both father and son fall into the eligible age (18 to 45 years old), and plenty of cases where a boy at 16 lied about his age so as to fight. So for most of us, you have between ~40 and ~80 Ancestors who were between the ages of 18 and 45 in the year 1860, giving 20 to 40 male Ancestors – potential Civil War soldiers. I’ll call them Male Civil War Ancestors, or MCWAs.

But were any of them soldiers? How can we estimate that? Luckily, we have data!

Of men aged 20-40 in 1860, around 50% in the Union and an unbelievable 80+% in the Confederacy1 went off to fight. Some basic probability calculations2 using these data show that if you are a Caucasian3 person without nearly all of your family having immigrated4 here since 1865, it ispractically certain2 that you are descended from one or likely more, Civil War veterans. This is true for both people with purely Yankee ancestry, and even more certain for those with some Ancestors from the Confederate States.

As the math gave this answer and reality sunk in, I was amazed. For nearly all of us, we are the children of many Billy Yanks, many Johnny Rebs! Then, I thought of what it was like for our Ancestors to live in the American Civil War, whether slave or free. Hold that in your mind for a moment. Try running a google image search on, say, “civil war battle”, or if you’re brave, “civil war POW”. Plus, the soldiers (about 20% of who died) of course weren’t the only ones who suffered. For most of us, our great-great-great grandma Mary had to be told as a young child that daddy would never come home, or as a lovestruck 22 year old, that her beloved new husband George was gone forever, and that she’d have to raise baby Anne (you great-great-great-great grandma) alone. Yet they grew up, swallowed their pain, and raised your great-great-grandparents. Within a couple generations, that pain was forgotten. Those and many other powerful stories are as real as our lives today, even though the details have been lost in the mists of time. You exist today because, through love and struggle, they survived, and in most cases, gave their kids the best life they could.

We too easily forget that we stand on a mountain of love and struggle from thousands of loving Ancestors, who often gave their whole lives of hardship just to make it by. Because we don’t know the details, we forget that those lives existed. For me, an awareness of those lives fills me with gratitude every day for all I am and all I have. It lifts me up when faced with hardship, reminding me that I come from a long line of success stories, filled with noble Ancestors who faced down hardships at least as severe as whatever I’m facing today in this recession, who persevered again and again. As the Civil War plays out in 150thAnniversaries over the next four years, each one will be a new reminder to me of the struggles of some of my Ancestors. Along with thoughts of my trillions of other Ancestors, these will continue to be a source of strength and gratitude. Will you remember them on July 21st? Bull Run - July 21, Wilson Creek - August 10, Fort Donelson - February 16 the next year, Shiloh - April 6, 2nd Bull Run – August 29, Antietam – September 17th…… and more…

~ Jon Cleland Host

Footnotes:

1. To estimate the likelihood of a MCWA actually being a soldier, simply divide the size of the Union and Confederate armies (~ 2 and 1 million respectively) by the number of males ages 18 – 45. Estimates of the number of males ages 18 – 45 in 1861 are around 3.8 million for the Union (3.5 million white + 3 million African American), for about 2/3.8 or a ~50% Union enlistment rate, and around 1 million males ages 18 – 45 in 1861 for the Confederacy, giving a Confederate enlistment rate conservatively well over 80%. -Data from: U.S. Civil War: 150th Anniversary Reference Guide, compiled by Bill Lucey, using ``The Civil War Day by Day: An Almanac: 1861-1865’’ By E. B. Long (Doubleday & Company Inc., 1971); ``Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War’’ (Harper & Row, Publishers); ``Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era’’ By James McPherson., http://www.billlucey.com/2011/01/us-civil-war-150th-anniversary-reference-guide.html, Accessed 2011.06.28

2. Let’s use those data to estimate the probability that you have Ancestors who fought in the U. S. Civil War. Did your Ancestors live in the Union states in 1861? Since 50% of soldier age males from the Union fought, that means that for each of your Yankee MCWAs, there is only a 50% chance that he wasn’t a soldier. The odds that NONE of all of your Yankee MCWAs fought in the Civil War is therefore simply 0.5 raised to the power of the number of your MCWAs. Now, look at how fast that drops to near zero: 0.5^6 = 0.016, so even if, due to immigration or such3, you estimate that you have only 6 MCWAs, you still have a 98.4% chance (that’s [1-0.016] X 100%) of being descended from one or more Civil War veterans. With 17 or more MCWAs, as nearly all of us have, your odds, even using only Yankee MCWAs, of being descended from one or more Civil War veterans are 99.999+%.

Are any of your ancestral families from the South? In the South, slavery allowed more households to survive with the white men leaving to fight, so over 80% of soldier-aged white men fought1. Using the same math as above, the numbers are truly astounding – with just 2 Rebel MCWAs, you have more than a 96% chance (or [1-0.2^2] X 100), and with just 8 Rebel MCWAs (most Southerners have many more than that), you get a 99.9997% chance of being descended from one or more Civil War veterans.

2. “But hold on!” you say – “I’ve got some recent immigrants in my family tree! Don’t we have to remove them from the MCWA calculation?” Yep. Do so. Let’s say that someone as recent as your great-grandmother came over from Estonia in 1920. Your great-grandmother is 1/8th of your lineage at her generation, so that removes 1/8 of your 40 to 80 Civil War era Ancestors, leaving ~17 to 35 MCWAs. You can do the same for any part of your family tree made of post-1865 immigrants. More importantly, the lives of those immigrants were hardly walks in the park. They had the courage to leave the only home they knew, to get on that boat, and face an uncertain future as a mistrusted minority in America. Why would they do that? A potato famine? War? Starvation? Ethnic “cleansing”? Some of my Ancestors too are more recent immigrants, and their success in that brave move also fills me with appreciation and fits the last paragraph of the blog post above.

3. What about African Americans? In the North in 1860, free African Americans composed a full 10% of the population, and rushed to join the fight at rates similar to Caucasians, so if you are African American with at least some Northern heritage, the Yankee odds above apply equally to you. However, the Confederacy was deathly opposed to allowing slaves to fight, and never did (though out of desperation it was considered in 1865). So if all of your ancestry is from purely Southern U. S. African Americans, then you likely don’t have any Civil War veteran Ancestors. Nevertheless, being that people move and intermarry, it will not be long before nearly everyone in the United States has Civil War veteran ancestors, including African-Americans living in the South. More importantly, the life of a slave was often a harder life than even that of a soldier, so the main point of this blog post, as described in the last paragraph, is even more powerful for descendants of Civil War slaves than for Civil War veterans.
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Plume paperback with new preface!

» Endorsements from 6 Nobel laureates
» Praise from other science luminaries
» Responses from diverse religious leaders
» Purchase softcover online for $10.88

What follows is the new preface...


As we recently observed the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of his landmark book, On the Origin of Species, evolution has become firmly established as the central organizing principle of the biological sciences. Natural explanations for the growth of complexity through time ground all the other sciences, as well, from cosmology and chemistry to neuroscience and psychology. That everything within this universe has emerged through natural processes operating over vast spans of time is now well beyond dispute among scientists and the educated public. Yet even today, families and public school systems remain divided and the evolutionary worldview is still shunned by millions, perhaps billions, of religious believers around the world. Why?

One reason is surely that big changes in thought and perspective take time to be assimilated. A deeper reason is that humans do not live by truth alone. We require the sustenance of meaning—of beauty, goodness, relationship, and purpose. We require comfort in times of sorrow and suffering. We also require perspectives that encourage us to cooperate in ever-wider circles in order to solve ever-larger problems—problems that today encircle the globe.

So long as the scientific worldview is presented in ways that ignore these basic human values—values that religions excel in providing—there is little hope that the devoutly religious will appreciate science for anything more than its technological fruits. The good news is that the coming decades will see each of our religious, ethnic, and cultural stories embraced within a larger sacred context. The scientific history of cosmos, Earth, life, and humanity is our shared sacred story—our common creation myth. It is an epic tale that reaches back billions of years and crowns each and every one of us as heir to a magnificent and proud lineage. This Great Story is open to improvement, as the revelations of science yield new insights, offer new ways of seeing, and alert us to misperceptions. It is open to change, too, whenever more helpful and inspiring interpretations of the facts become available. All this is possible, moreover, without scientists needing to fear that religious interpretations will skew or shade the truth. Nor must religious peoples join the ranks of atheists.

In public lectures that distill the contents of this book, time and again I have seen faces light up when I explain the distinction between private revelation and public revelation and when I advocate the importance of both day language and night language. Both pairs help us value the contributions of objective science without dismissing the subjective realms—artistic, emotive, and spiritual—that served our ancestors for thousands of years and still vitally serve us today. During seven years of itinerant evolutionary evangelism, I have watched young and old alike delight in the astonishing fact that we are made of stardust—that the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood, and other atoms of our bodies were forged inside ancestor stars that lived and died before our Sun was born. I have seen, too, this naturalized and cosmic understanding of death comfort those whose grief would not otherwise be consoled.

Scaling down to the inner realm, I have witnessed tearful testimonials from those freed from years of guilt, shame, or resentment after learning our brain’s creation story—that is, how the brain, with its embedded instincts, reflects an evolutionary trajectory from reptilian ancestors to early mammals, primates, and hominids. Others are grateful for the practical tools for improving lives and relationships that an evolutionary understanding of human nature affords. Still others have found that the supernatural claims that linger in the creeds and liturgies need not drive them from cherished traditions of their faith.

Sanity, health, and joy each emerge and are sustained only in right relationship with reality. Thank God for Evolution is thus a call to integrity, to wholeness, to sustainability—individually and collectively. In the year since its publication, events have validated and expanded the understanding of deep integrity outlined herein. From sex scandals in politics to crimes of greed on Wall Street, the underbelly of modernity and postmodernity is now vividly apparent. Thanks to discoveries in evolutionary psychology and evolutionary brain science, however, we can begin to improve institutions so that vital social structures can thrive despite human foibles. Equally, we can look to a future in which religious worldviews are free of the fundamentalism that fuels extremism.

How was the world made? Why do earthquakes, tornados, and other bad things happen? Why must we die? And why do different peoples answer these questions in different ways? The big questions that children have always asked and will continue to ask cannot be answered by the powers of human perception alone. Ancient cultures gave so-called supernatural answers to these questions, but those answers were not truly supernatural—they were prenatural. Prior to advances in technology and scientific ways of testing truth claims, factual answers were simply unavailable. It was not just difficult to understand infection before microscopes brought bacteria into focus; it was impossible. Without an evolutionary worldview, it is similarly impossible to understand ourselves, our world, and what is required for humanity to survive. For religious leaders today to rely on prenatural answers puts them at odds not only with science but with one another—dangerously so. Their resistance, however, does make sense. Until scientific discoveries are fleshed into the life-giving forms of beauty and goodness (as well as truth and utility), scriptural literalism will command power and influence.

A meaningful view of evolution is good news for individuals and families, and also for communities, nations, and our world.


It is good news at these larger levels because a sacred, deep-time understanding of history and our evolutionary heritage is the very foundation needed for facing global challenges of our own making. It will encourage us to act, moreover, with compassion and inspired dedication. I offer this book and its stories of awakening toward this noble and necessary end.

» Hear Michael Dowd read the new preface to the paperback here.

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Free sample pages (Table of Contents, Preface, Promises, Prologue, Introduction, and Chapter 1)

» Purchase softcover online for $10.88


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Above the Clouds

by Loren Acton, NASA Astronaut

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked after my “astronaut” talks is some version of the following, “How was your view of God and religion changed by your flight?” My boring response is that my reaction was basically neutral. I returned with pretty much the same views, beliefs, and hang-ups as I had at launch. My particular hang-up was a continuing and profound disconnect between, on the one hand, what I’d been taught about God at home, in church, and at Bible school and, on the other, my convictions about values like fairness, justice, and love — as well as my life-long learning and experience in the scientific way of thinking.

Looking at Planet Earth and out into the Universe from space is truly an awesome experience. It is fantastic to be there as a knowledgeable observer, to appreciate the origin of this world and its place in the universe. Looking down on the clouds at night, lightning storms provide a never-to-be-forgotten show while in the day the storm clouds trace the great weather systems that make life as we live it possible. As a child I was led to believe that Heaven was somewhere, somehow up there above the clouds. The actual above-the-clouds experience is a whole lot better than myths of harps and streets of gold!

It is neat to understand that the same laws of nature that keep the moon in orbit about the earth and the earth about the sun are maintaining our space shuttle in its orbit of the earth. Thanks to our remarkable brains and a gradual intensification of learning, humankind has breathtaking knowledge of how things fit together, understandings unavailable to our richest and smartest forebears. The scientific method and the technology that it has engendered provide new, testable, and verifiable answers to questions of, for example, evolution and cosmology — questions of profound interest and importance, which in our ancestors’ day were strictly the province of priests and shamans.

I’m grateful that, thanks to Thank GOD for EVOLUTION and the concept that God is the universe, I am at last able to reconcile in a sensible way my life experience with God as expressed in the “night language” of friends and loved ones of many faiths around the world. It is really a wonderful thing to be able to use the word “God” without an internal grimace. If you, also, experience a disconnect between your spiritual life and your experiential life, I encourage you to try thinking about God and the universe in this positive and helpful way.

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