Wisdom in Ancient and Contemporary Naturalism

Karl E. Peters

Paper for
“Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization”
Claremont, CA June 4-7, 2015

Section VII. Reimagining and Reinventing the Wisdom Traditions—B
Track 5. Thinking Independently in the Tradition of Classical Greece

We are approaching environmental and human catastrophe. We are in the midst of a transformation of our planet as a whole, of air, water and land, of ecosystems and species habitats. This will continue the increasing rate of species extinction even though some new species will be created. There will be a substantial reduction of the human population accompanied by much suffering.
Our task at this conference is a creative one—how can we help transform human beings to minimize suffering and move toward a new and more ecological civilization? In Section VII, Track 5 we are exploring how we might rethink some aspects of the classical traditions stemming from ancient Greece.
In this paper, I will couple together a Greek tradition that is often ignored—the materialistic, atomistic Epicurean understanding of reality and ethics—with some contemporary science and the naturalistic theology of Henry Nelson Wieman. In moving toward an ecological civilization we can be helped by a naturalistic world view that uses the findings of science and embodies a general process perspective to counter our current “consumerist world view” that is also naturalistic.

Ancient naturalism

In January 1417, most likely in the library of the Benedictine Abbey of Fulda, Germany (northeast of Frankfurt), Italian book hunter Poggio Bracciolini made the discovery of a lifetime. It was a manuscript of a book written almost 1500 years earlier—De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by Titus Lucretius Carus (Greenblatt 2011, 44-50). According to Harvard historian Stephen Greenblatt, this poetic, philosophical work was a key factor in enabling the Renaissance and reintroducing an empirically based, naturalistic view of the universe, which contributed to the rise to modern science.
In his own time, around 50 B.C.E., Lucretius voiced in poetic form the essential teachings of the earlier Greek philosophers Democritus and Epicurus. With Poggio’s fifteenth century discovery, a second, usually overlooked, wisdom tradition was revived as an alternative to the dominant Western religious tradition stemming from Plato and Aristotle.
Plato, Aristotle and many of their successors understood the created universe as an embodiment of universal ideal types—Platonic ideas or eternal objects. A significant aspect of causality understood in terms of these universal types are the formal and final causes of creation. Theologians saw these types as residing in the mind of a personal God who created the world.
In contrast, Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius saw the ultimate origin of the universe to be atoms in motion. Atoms occasionally swerved from their natural downward paths through empty space (the void) so that they collided with each other. As they collided, they produced conglomerate entities composed of atoms, that in turn collided with other atoms and conglomerates of atoms to build the world as we know it. Everything came into being over time by chance collisions of atoms that stuck together and then uncoupled only to become new conglomerates. Other than an infinite variety of the atoms, which themselves did not change, everything was in process and was relational. Lucretius told this story in a poem and thus a “scientific vision of the world—a vision of atoms randomly moving in an infinite universe—was in its origins imbued with a poet’s sense of wonder” (Greenblatt 2011, 8).
This view of the universe was complemented with an epistemology based on sense experience and with an ethics based on the experiences of pleasure and pain. Rather that supporting extravagant and wasteful attempts to gain ever more pleasure, which only leads to pain, the goal was to avoid pain and experience a calm, joyous sense of well being. At the beginning of Book II Lucretius gives us the heart of Epicurean ethics by contrasting a lifestyle of “getting to the top” with one of simplicity:
. . .nothing is sweeter than to dwell in peace
high in the well-walled temples of the wise,
whence looking down we may see other men wavering, wandering, seeking a way of life,
with wit against wit, line against noble line, contending, striving, straining night and day,
to rise to the top of the heap, High Lord of Things.
O wretched minds of men, O poor blind hearts! How great the perils, how dark the night of life
where our brief hour is spent! Oh, not to see
that nature demands no favor but that pain
be sundered from the flesh, that in the mind
be a sense of joy, unmixed with care and fear!
Now for our physical life, we see that little—
so little!—is needed to remove our pain.
For Nature does not ask that vast delights of a more tickling kind be spread before us,
even if through the house there are no statues
of golden boys with flaming lamps in hand
to furnish light for banquets all night long,
and there’s no silver to glitter nor gold to gleam,
no lyre to echo from coffered, gilded ceiling.
Why! Men can lie on soft turf side by side
under a tall tree’s branches near a stream,
and easily, pleasantly, care for creature needs—
especially when the sun shines, and the year in season sprinkles the fresh green grass with flowers. (Lucretius 2011, 29) .
Although this may seem naive, because pain from an accident or disease is hard to avoid, the idea of the joy of living simply can be part of the wisdom of an ecological civilization


Henry Nelson Wieman has argued that the only world we know is that which is relative to our human mind. This is another way of saying that our world views—which include our understandings of the way things are, how we acquire knowledge, what we value, and how we should behave—are humanly constructed. The worldview of the Greek atomists was a human construction, as was the world view of Plato and Aristotle. Modern science is a human construction. Also a construction is our contemporary cultural consumerist worldview that equates happiness with material well being, that regards our planet as a resource for our use and enjoyment, and that measures progress materialistically by gross domestic product (GDP).
In keeping with the goal of this conference, I suggest that we need to construct a naturalistic world view that embodies a process perspective and uses the findings of science to counter our current consumerist world view—which also is naturalistic.
In an overall process perspective, everything is constituted out of relationships and everything is always becoming. In terms of modern science everything is evolving in relationship with other evolving processes or events. A Universe Story is being constructed by many scientifically informed people: the entire universe is evolving so that new systems emerge our of older simpler systems. Human beings have emerged as complex, relational, ever becoming biological-cultural systems. (See Appendix.)


Humans are ambivalent creatures. We have evolved to be both individually self-protective and also to desire relationships with others. Like the reptiles, we have individually self protective and species continuing instincts,sometimes called the “four f’s”—“fight, flee, freeze, feed and f. . . “ (I’ve added a fifth—freeze). Like other mammals we have emotions that are also protective—fear, jealousy, and anger. Also, like some mammals, we have pro-social emotions that relate us to others in what some call the “social brain network”—empathy, love, and friendship (Shoemaker, 2012, Johnson et al. 2005).
However, not all humans are alike. There is individual variability in our brains—in the networks that are self protective and pro-social. Variations in certain genes can contribute to neurochemical brain development that makes some humans more aggressive and un-caring of others. The environment in which a child is raised also contributes to neural development. Studies have shown that children raised in a continuing, highly stressful environment with poor parental nurturing have difficulty interrelating positively with others. Some may grow up to look out only for themselves and manipulate others. They show little empathy. Yet they can be charismatically attractive and sometimes they can be chosen as leaders.
Because of genetic and brain variation, as well as upbringing, some can be called psychopaths—people “without conscience and incapable of empathy, guilt, or loyalty to anyone but themselves” (Babiak and Hare 2009, 19). Or “almost psychopaths” (Shouten and Sliver 2012). Estimates vary about of how many there are in the wider population, but my reading suggests that one to four people in a hundred people (1% to 4%) that we meet in our daily lives are psychopaths or almost psychopaths. So are 15% of those on Wall Street, and 25% of those in prison. The fact that so many leaders in society are primarily oriented only toward their own success, often manipulating and dominating others, is an obstacle to developing a mutually relational ecological society of people concerned for the good of the whole.
Their is another obstacle that each of us face—emotional attachment to what we already have that leads to obsessively trying to preserve what has already being created, starting with our own existence. At a basic psychological level Epicurus and Lucretius saw this as the fear of death. They argued that if humans were to accept that this life is all there is, they would no longer fear death and would indeed be happier. They could be content with what they already have, with few material goods, but with the joys of experiencing the beauty of the natural world and of friendship. Henry Nelson Wieman’s distinction between created and creative good helps us expand this and apply it today. Created goods are either intrinsically good in and of themselves (intrinsic good) or because they lead to the realization of other good (instrumentally good). Human beings are created goods in Wieman’ terms. Mutually supportive human communities are created goods. Ecosystems are created goods. Even planet Earth is a created good. Those who want to save a species are trying to save a created good. Those who are concerned about the future of humanity are concerned about a created good.
Yet, there is something more important that either intrinsic or instrumental good—the creativity that has produced these kinds of good. Creativity is embodied in interactions among humans, between humans and the rest of the natural world, and in the natural world itself. Creative interaction takes place among already created goods, but in a way that allows for the emergence of new good rather than maintaining created goods in their existing forms (Peters 1993, 205-07). Because the creative process is the continuing source of all human good, it is according to Wieman the ultimate good—the sacred or God.
Even though one can argue philosophically that creativity is more fundamental than what has been created, there still is the problem of emotional attachment to what has been created for two reasons. First, we know well that which has been created—spouse, children, home, car, town, business, the current economic system, and so on. Second, these have become part of our identity. The thought of radically changing who we are in order to become part of an ecological civilization, can generate a sense of loss that manifests itself in grief. This expands the Epicurean idea about the fear of our own physical death. What we also fear is the death of those things that shape who we are—acquiring more material possessions in a consumerist lifestyle, power as the leader of a business that exploits the planet to make a profit for stockholders, a religion that assures us that God will take care of everything, or an already created set of ideas as to what an ecological civilization might be. All these—lifestyle, power, religion, ideas about the future—are created goods. Because they help define who we are in ways that are familiar to and comfortable for us, we fear their loss. We grieve at the thought of their needing to be re-formed in a process of transformation that is leading to a future that cannot now be fully known.


One reason why created goods cannot demand our total commitment is that they change. As the Buddha taught, all things are transient. The only thing permanent is change itself. Following Wieman, we can construct a structure to this change. One aspect of the structure involves processes among existing parts of the world that give rise to the new; another involves processes that integrate the new with the old—with both old and new undergoing transformation. In one of his last books, Religious Inquiry, Wieman calls this two-aspect process “creative interchange.” One way Wieman characterizes creative interchange is a dual process of love and wisdom. Wisdom
is the search for coherence in the development of the individual, in social development and in knowledge. Love is the desire to bring into each of these forms of coherence the innovations relevant to each kind of development. Development means expanding the range and coherence of what can be known, controlled, and valued by the individual in community with others. In this sense wisdom and love are necessary to the development of the individual, necessary to the development of viable social relations, necessary to the development of knowledge, of culture, and of the continuity of history. . . .
The systematic order, insofar as it is attained, is always open-ended. This method of seeking coherence is wisdom; where love seeks to bring into the order thus achieved other ideas, values, persons, cultures, and social developments (Wieman 1968, 124).
Today a significant question is whether reaching out in love can bring into our current social order the values of non-humans, ecosystems, and the planet itself and whether we can then integrate these values into a new coherence (new wisdom) of a planetary ecological era. A new ecological age will be an age in which humans increasingly come to love all things, seeking ever new wisdom of dynamic coherences that mutually contribute to the good of all humans and the rest of the world—an ecological civilization. Humans need to become converted from commitments to created goods for themselves to an ultimate commitment to creativity that brings new patterns of living for the good of all.


Babiak, Paul; Hare, Robert D. 2009. Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work. SanFrancisco: HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Copley, Frank O. 1977. “Introduction” to Lucretius, The Nature of Things. New York: Norton. Kindle Edition, 2011.
Johnson, Mark H., Richard Griffin, Gergely Csibra, Hanife Halit, Teresa Farroni, Michele De Haan, Leslie A. Tucker, Simon Baron-Cohen, John Richards. 2005. “The Emergence of the Social Brain Network: Evidence from Typical and Atypical Development.” Development and Psychopathology 17/3 (July): 599-619. Accessed 5/25/2015.
Lucretius. 1977. The Nature of Things. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Frank O. Copley. New York: W.W. Norton. Kindle Edition, 2011.
Peters, Karl E. 1993. “Pragmatically Defining the God Concepts of Henry Nelson Wieman and Gordon Kaufman.” In New Essays in Religious Naturalism, Highlands Institute, Vol. II, ed.
Larry Axel and Creighton Peden. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, pp. 199-210.
Shoemaker, William J. 2012. “The Social Brain Network and Human Moral Behavior.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. 47/4 (December) 806-820. DOI: 10.1111/j. 1467-9744.2012.01295.x. Accessed 5/25/2015
Schouten, Ronald and James Silver. 2012. Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? Center City, MN: Hazelden
Wieman, Henry Nelson. 1966. Religious Inquiry. Beacon Press.

The Changing Cultural Context of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science: co-publisher of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science


The Changing Cultural Context of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science: co-publisher of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science

Karl E. Peters

Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science is forty-nine years old, and many of us are anticipating it’s fiftieth anniversary.  This essay is a personal, historical reflection on one of the publishers of Zygon, the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS), which this year is celebrating it’s sixtieth anniversary (www.iras.org).  The other publisher of the journal, the Center for Advanced Study in Religion and Science (CASIRAS), has a history that goes back forty-nine years to when the journal was founded (http://www.casiras.org/?page_id=3).  In many ways the history of CASIRAS, IRAS and Zygon are intertwined, although the journal reaches out to and include the writings of a much larger constituency.

What became IRAS, Zygon, and CASIRAS were envisioned and interrelated in the mind of the one person who can be called the “founder” of all three.  This is not to take away the necessary and important work of many others.  Nevertheless, Ralph Wendell Burhoe was the visionary, catalyst, and organizer of the membership society, the center for advanced study, and the publication.

That this is so is indicated by a set of letters in 1952 regarding the publishing of a science and religion journal.  The correspondence was between the forty-one year old Burhoe, who was then the Executive Officer of the American Academy of Arts and Science, and the philosopher of religion Henry Nelson Wieman (age sixty-eight), who had taught at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (1927-1949) and was now at the University of Huston in Texas.  The two men had met at the thirteenth “Conference on Science, Philosophy, and Religion” on September 2-5, 1952 at Columbia University in New York City.  In a letter written on September 7, Burhoe expressed that it was “a pleasure for me to meet such a kindred soul” and that he was taking up Wieman’s invitation to write.  Wieman responded on September 16 to Burhoe’s suggestion for a scholarly journal as follows:

I am heartily in accord with the project you propose of having a journal devoted to joining the resources of science and religion in the common endeavor to mark out the way that man must go to attain his best and avoid self destruction.

We shall have to make it plain with constant reiteration that our understanding is not merely to reconcile the beliefs of religion with the theories of science.  Every liberal publication that has ever brought religion and science into relation to one another has had this apologetic purpose so exclusively that everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that this must be the goal of such a journal.  We shall have to work out very carefully a number of formulae with which to state as clearly and forcibly as we can that we want to provide a medium in which science can cooperate with religion in finding the major directives for human living and in symbolizing and proclaiming them in such a way that men may be induced to follow them.

On November 29 Burhoe apologized for his delay in responding, which was due to “unexpected responsibilities, particularly at the Academy. . . .  He also said that it looked like he would not have much time to develop a journal until the end of the academic year.  Then he agreed with Wieman about the need to work out a clear statement of “just what we intend to build.”


As you point out, it would be easy to sink this venture by letting it get swamped by the usual misunderstandings and confusions, particularly the feeling that the only goal of such a journal is apologetic.  I envision along with you a medium for setting forth the major directives for human living in terms that are motivationally effective.  Such major directives should be the product of our contemporary epistemology and cosmology, and would agree with previous directives only because such agreement might naturally ensue, not because we premise any agreement.  I agree with you too that this kind of a sound and modern set of directives (and sanctions) for living is the fundamental master key to the social and individual problems that threaten man today (Burhoe and Wieman 1952).

What follows consists of reflections that are based on my own personal experience from 1957, when I entered college, to the present.  My reflections are also based on my understanding of IRAS that has resulted since my extensive personal involvement beginning in 1972, my deep relationship with IRAS founder Ralph Wendell Burhoe, my experience as Burhoe’s successor as Editor of Zygon from 1979-1990, and my readings of some documents from the earIy years of IRAS in the 1950s.  I will attempt to describe some of the changes and developments in science, in religion, and in relating religion and science.  I also will attempt to draw out the significance of these changes for IRAS as it attempts to move into the future with strategic foresight.





The Sciences

When IRAS was founded in 1954, science in the wider culture was dominated by 20th century developments in physics, by scientific technology developed during the Second World War, and by the beginnings of the cold war and the space program.  While the War had helped pull the economy out of depression, after the war with the return of soldiers to industry, women to the home, and the increased birth rate of the “baby boomer” generation, there was a need to develop the domestic market to receive the products of industry.  In 1955 economist and market consultant Victor Lebow wrote this much quoted statement:  “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption” (Lebow 1955).  Scientific technology helped produce new goods in industry.  What was good for General Motors was good for the Country.  Better living through chemistry was accepted as a value, and better living meant the increase of manufactured and consumption of material goods.

Other sciences also were an important part of the cultural landscape.  The NeoDarwinian synthesis, the discovery of the DNA code, developments in psychological learning theory and in human development were also present.  However, the culturally dominant sciences were physics and chemistry and their technologies that put people to work in a society and culture of materialistic growth.  New housing boomed; the two car family began to emerge; new cooking and laundry appliances were bought.  A growing middle class–almost exclusively white–experienced the “happy days.”


In the 1950’s religion in the United States consisted mostly of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.  Sociologist Will Herberg wrote his famous book Protestant, Catholic, Jew in 1955 (Herberg 1955).  About Herberg’s book, Martin Marty, a foremost religion and culture scholar, commented:  “The most honored discussion of American religion in mid-twentieth century times is Will Herberg’s Protestant-Catholic-Jew. . . . [It] spoke precisely to the mid-century condition and speaks in still applicable ways to the American condition and, at its best, the human condition” (Marty 1983).  In his book Herberg advances the thesis “that America is not so much a melting pot as three fairly separate melting pots” (Niebuhr, 1955).

In colleges, there were few departments of religion.  My own experience attending a liberal-arts Presbyterian college was of two professors in Bible–one in Old Testament and one in New.  Everyone was required to take a course in Bible, and the Old Testament professor taught a course in Christian church history.  The same school today offers a major in religious studies that “seeks to understand the full range of human religiosity as it appears in diverse cultures, in many times and places, from ancient Greece to modern Thailand, from Christianity to Buddhism and Islam, from women in religion to religion and politics.”

Protestant theology in the 1950’s was dominated by confessional, neo-orthodox theology headed by Karl Barth with his 14 volume Church Dogmatics (Barth 1932-1968; to more easily access Barth’s thought see Barth 1959).  Barth held that Christian theology was distinct from the rest of culture (including what Barth considered religion), and had as its primary audience the Christian Community.  In contrast to Barth, the work of Paul Tillich, for example The Courage to Be (1952), the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, I and Thou (German 1923, English 1937), and other existentialist theologians was more accepted by the academic community, partly because they related Christianity and Judaism to the wider culture.

On the whole, the academic world of the 1950s was epitomized by C. P. Snow’s Rede lecture of 1959 published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Snow’s thesis was that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups…literary intellectuals at one pole – at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of incomprehension.”  (Snow 1959).

“A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s? (Snow 1959, 15-16).

The founders of Zygon and of IRAS interpreted the two cultures more broadly, to include all the sciences and all of religion, both in the academy and in religious congregations.  Yet, like Snow they were concerned about the consequences of this separation for the future of humanity.  Without knowledge of the sciences regarding how the world works, religions can be misguided.  Without religious wisdom about guiding values, science offers little guidance for what should be explored and how and which discoveries should become a part of peoples lives.


IRAS in the Mid-twentieth Century

Snow’s thesis was reflected in the way in which the founders of IRAS also formulated the Institute’s central issues.  IRAS grew out of two movements.  One was the Committee on Science and Values of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, involving, among others, astronomer Harlow Shapley, neurophysiologist Hudson Hoagland, biochemist George Wald (a Nobel Laureate in 1967), and Ralph Wendell Burhoe.  This group was concerned with promoting world peace.  The second was a multi-faith organization, which in contrast to the dominant cultural view of religion mentioned above, saw the need to include all the world’s religions.  Yet its title “The Coming Great Church” reflected the Christian dominated culture of the day.  Led by Professor Robert S. Illingsworth, Unitarian ministers Lyman Rutledge and Dana Greeley, Methodist historian of Christianity at Boston University, Edwin Prince Booth, and others, the “Coming Great Church” was a series of annual, week-long conferences held on Star Island, beginning in 1950.

After attending one of these conferences, Ralph Burhoe was asked to lead the 1954 Coming Great Church conference.  Its theme was “The Coming Great Church in the Age of Science.”  This conference was such a “huge success” that it was decided to combine the CGC conference with the American Academy science and values committee, and in the fall of 1954, IRAS was born.  (For more on the history and thought of Ralph Burhoe, see Breed [1991-1991].)

From its beginning IRAS drew on an array of scientists, philosophers, theologians, and clergy.  This is reflected in the organization’s leadership.  At the beginning IRAS was run by an Executive Committee and Advisory Board.  The first EC/Advisory Board, elected on August 5, 1955, consisted of 3 ministers, 2 theologians, a philosopher, 2 philosophers of religion, a philosopher of science, a historian, 2 zoologists, a biologist, 2 psychologists, an anthropologist, 3 physicists, a mathematician, and Burhoe.  Burhoe was the only one who did not have a degree in higher education.  He attended Harvard University and Andover Newton Theological School, but never graduated because of a paucity of financial resources during the 1930’s depression.  Otherwise, the Board consisted entirely of academics and ministers, all male, and many were professors at major universities such as Harvard, MIT, Brown, and Yale.  A year later Dr. Sophia Fahs, Unitarian religious educator, was added to the Advisory Board.  Gradually more women were invited into membership including Jeannette Hopkins, book editor, and some of the wives of men who had already been admitted to membership, such as Deborah Greeley, Fran Burhoe, and Lois Brown.

At its beginning IRAS was mostly a local society centered in the Boston area.  There were meetings, presentations, and discussions throughout the year.  The fact that the summer conference was held on Star Island brought in people from a wider area.  Nevertheless, the leadership of IRAS that directed its activities was headquartered in Boston.  It wasn’t until Burhoe was called to direct the new Center for Advanced Study in Theology and Natural Science (CASTS) at Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago and the journal Zygon was co-published by IRAS and Meadville/Lombard in 1966 that IRAS began to have a wider impact.  Throughout the following years, many joined IRAS from across the nation and around the world as a result of reading the journal.

Most important, IRAS developed in a context of science that drew on the neo-Darwinian synthesis of evolution and that extended evolutionary thinking to culture, values, and religion.  This essentially was Burhoe’s doing but in co-operation with other charter leaders.  An example of this is Burhoe’s proposal for the 1957 IRAS Star Island Conference on “Truth.”  This proposal is significant for two reasons.  The first is Burhoe’s definition of religion, the second is his understanding of the sources of knowledge to be considered.  The statement begins:

Because of the interest of the Members of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science in establishing the relevance of scientific knowledge for religion, it is suggested that the 1957 summer conference should undertake a broad review of the contemporary views of the nature of man’s knowledge, and should examine in this light the nature and validities of religious ”truth” and how religious ”truth”’ is related to other sources of knowledge including science.

“Religious truth” is here to be understood not simply in any parochial sense of the term, referring to the doctrines of a particular religious group, but broadly as whatever set of beliefs do in fact provide any human group with their ultimate concerns or goals or values.

Burhoe’s continues to state that the kinds of knowledge that could be considered are  1)  knowledge through the genotype, 2) knowledge by perception, 3) knowledge by intuition or imagination, 4) knowledge through the mores and myths of culture, 5) knowledge from deductive reasoning or logic, and 6) knowledge through science.  Under each of these forms of knowledge, Burhoe lists a wide array of questions.  He concludes with a general evolutionary perspective that suggests how these ways of knowing may be analogous.

To what extent are all six of these methods of acquiring knowledge analogous? How does the mechanism of trial-and-error search differ in each level? How does the mechanism of selection differ in each? To what extent is it fair to say that this picture of knowledge implies that man’s or any creature’s understanding reflects the realities of the cosmos of which he is a part insofar as his own particular life needs are concerned? In what way is knowledge to be distinguished from structure or motivational source of living systems at any of these levels? (Burhoe 1957)

From my experience with IRAS and other science and religion organizations, I believe that the use of this evolutionary perspective in formulating many conferences, is part of what makes IRAS unique.



Today, sixty years after the founding of IRAS, our scientific, religious, and science and religion contexts have expanded and changed considerably.  This has been driven by various changes in our culture and, for our purposes, by science-based technologies of discovery, transportation, and communication

Some Changes in Science

Fundamental physics has continued to grow in exploring the extremely small, lately leading to the experimental confirmation of the Higgs boson.  At the same time astrophysics and cosmology are able to explore more and more of the very large.

In the 1920’s an IRAS founder Harlow Shapley achieved a scientific breakthrough that located our solar system in the “suburbs” of our galaxy.  However, in contrast to Edwin Hubble, who discovered the “red shift,” Shapley believed that there was only one galaxy in the universe.  In subsequent years, cosmology and astrophysics proved that Shapley was wrong.  Today we talk about a universe of 100 billion galaxies, each with 100 billion stars, which has evolved for 13.7 billion years.  And some hypothesize that there may be a plurality of universes–the multi-verse theory.

This has created what Phil Hefner has identified as the “problem of scale.”  In January 2014, Marj Davis and I viewed with some friends the Emmy award-winning documentary DVD “Journey of the Universe,” created by IRAS friends and conference speakers Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and John Grim.  In our small, highly intelligent group of friends, a well educated woman Episcopal Priest, said, after seeing the video, “our whole theology has to change.”  She has shown this video to people in her church as setting a new context for theological reflection.

Since 1954 science has expanded in other ways.  A year before IRAS was formed, Francis Crick, James Watson, Rosalind Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins discovered the molecular structure of DNA.  This gave considerable impetus to the growth of the field of molecular biology culminating after 2000 in the mapping of the genetic code of a number of species, including humans, in using DNA typing in forensic law, and in helping determine the evolutionary history of homo sapiens.  As geneticist Lindon Eaves said earlier in a Zygon article, DNA became an “icon,” a new window through which to see a significant part of reality (Eaves 1989).  (Eaves further suggested that for different reasons Jesus was also an “icon.”)

Another highly significant way in which science has grown is neurobiology with the current goal of mapping the human brain using various scanning methods, and most recently developments in nanotechnology that can reveal what is happening at the cellular level (Silva 2006).  Early child and teen-age brain development and their relation to trauma and nurturing are more fully understood.  Brain development has also been linked to violent crime–psychopaths–and to a particular kind of leadership style that is highly intelligent but shows no empathy–”almost psychopaths.”  On the other end, the brain development of psychopaths has also been linked to particular variations of a few genes.  So genetics, neuro-development and function, and human behavior are becoming more understood (e.g. Beaver et al 2011).

Brain chemistry also is better understood, as evidenced by the pharmaceutical industry and its manufacture chemicals to control a variety of mood disorders.  For the first time chemistry, in this case the organic chemistry of animals, is opening up issues for science and religion understanding and practices.  The field of chemistry has consistently been absent from science-religion study almost until now.

Augmenting this basic research are studies that correlate brain neural circuits and chemical neural transmitters with a variety subjective practices such as breathing, centering prayer, kinds of meditation and states such as the oceanic experience and compassion for all beings, as well as emotions/feelings of fear, anger, calm, empathy.  All this opens up possibilities for new understandings of experience and practice that are relevant to religions (Davidson 2012).

If one looks at science in the context of the wider culture, one can see, on the one hand an increase in scientific literacy in a portion of the population.  On the other hand, there is a significant shift in attitude by many toward science.  When IRAS was founded, modern science could be considered “foundational”–a carefully opening window to the way things are.  The natural sciences and their methods of knowing were readily accepted by academics, as worthy of emulation by the social sciences (e.g., Behaviorism), and as significant by the humanities even though the latter continued to affirm the value of subjective experience as a form of knowing.

Today, however, as a result of postmodernism that sets science in a wider social/cultural context and challenges its “foundationalism,” and of a pluralism that brings to the fore some ancient medical sciences that are still practiced as “complementary medicine,” modern Enlightenment science is more relativized by many in the academy.

Among the wider public, an anti-intellectual strain, which has a long history in American religious thought (Hofstadter 1966), is resurfacing from its partial eclipse in mid-twentieth century.  Conservative religious movements challenge scientific understandings of evolution and use scientific technology and emotional language to fight for their beliefs in the marketplace of ideas.  On the left of the social-political spectrum, exemplified sometimes by movements in health, food, and diet, there is a challenge to science that can become just as ideological as the religious-political right.  An example of this is the controversy over genetically modified foods.  On the one hand a general (but not universal) consensus among agricultural and environmental sciences holds that foods can be carefully modified genetically with little risk to humans, other animals, and the environment.  On the other hand organic farmers and various dietary movements challenge this, especially when GMF science becomes allied with big agribusiness.  Sometimes those attacking GMF science make their own scientific claims based on questionable sources (Harmon 2014).

Today, there seems to be more suspicion of science in the academy and among the public than sixty years ago even as much new scientific technology such as internet technology is used by the public in the marketplace of life.  To me it seems as if theoretical science is becoming regarded by many as more an ideology, competing with other ideologies both traditional and contemporary, than as a reliable foundation for human knowledge

Religion Today

According to social scientist Robert Putnam since the 1950s there has been a steady decline in group membership in volunteer organizations (Putnam (2001). This means a decline in “social capital.”  “Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals— social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” (Putnam 2001, Kindle locations 152-155).  In other words people are less likely to be part of organizations that can be supportive to them, and in which they can support others.

Putnam has studied membership in groups since the early 1900s until today.  He found that membership peaked in the 1950s and 60s at almost 50%, largely as a continuation of national solidarity in the War effort among adults, which fed a host clubs, civic organizations, and religious congregations.  Since then membership has been declining.

Putnam explores a variety of reasons for this decline in groups.  One important reason is that new generations after the war did not feel the solidarity felt by their parents that had been forged in the war effort.  The second is television.  In a five year period in the late 1950s and early 60s, household ownership of TVs grew from 5% to 95%.  This drew people more and more into their homes, and inside the home it drew family members away from the dining table and conversation with one another to TV dinners and eating while watching the “Tube.”

Putnam writes: “The dominant theme is simple: For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century” (Putnam 2001,    )

Religion has been part of this same trend.  In his chapter on religion, Putnam shows an interesting comparison between the number of people who identify themselves as religious in polls such as the Gallup Poll and the number of those who are members of religious organizations and who attend worship.  The following table is my short compilation from Figures 12 and 13 of Bowling Alone.  The percentages are of the American population.


However, as religious and other organizations have fewer members who are directly involved and who benefit from who attend their own meetings, they have been able to communicate their messages to an ever-wider audience–now worldwide.  Scientific developments in communication–not only television but cable television with a multitude of networks and the internet with its development of social media–have made it more possible for single individuals or small groups to attempt to shape the thinking of a wider range of people than ever before.

Like many scientific developments, the internet and social media have had both positive and negative applications.  On the hand, Putnam suggests that the internet may be a part of a solution to the decline of group membership.  Existing group membership may be enhanced and new virtual groups formed to help foster increased community and a sense of belonging.  The nature of the internet and its accessibility to the population opens the possibility for more democratic interchange, although for other psycho-social reasons (the specifics of which I’m not clear) an internet group can be controlled simply by a few people who “post the most” just as some speak the most in groups of people meeting face to face.

Further the internet is now used to facilitate the effectiveness of groups for various causes.  Since IRAS was founded there have been significant gains in the rights of racial minorities, women, persons of various sexual orientations, and animals.  The biological and human sciences have played an important role in this by clarifying the diversity of our “human nature.”  The internet provides forums for more people to engage in political processes that incorporate the findings of such science into law and regulations for human well-being.  The internet can also help create major political and social reforms and revolutions:  Facebook was a significant factor in some of human rights successes of the “Arab Spring.”

However, as we all know, technology is largely value neutral (although it does contribute to the feeling that “if we can do it, we should do it.”)  Even though the internet can support the expansion of rights as indicated above, it also can be used to prevent such expansion.  It can be used to increase the power of those who wish to hold on to old ideas, attitudes, and behaviors or to foster personal and group agendas.  Sometimes, regardless of the cause, the internet provides a way to offer to others, often with emotional language, the “truth” only as one sees it.  With new widespread methods of communication (such as websites, Facebook, and Twitter) bloggers can say almost anything they want as long as it can attract and encourage like-minded people.  There is little one can do to check whether the facts are correct except to listen to the other side.

Many conflicting values or sets of values can be promoted by new science-based technologies.  One value that seems to be in decline is that of “truth.”  Or is it that the question “what makes something true” has become more significant.  One of the strengths of the “modern” sciences is that they have found a general method of resolving differences between ideas.  Differing hypotheses about how the world in its many aspects works can be decided through intersubjective empirical testability with experiments and controlled observations.  So from a methodological naturalism that assumes the world can be understood in terms of mathematical relations of forms of energy-matter, science has given us new knowledge of the world and based on that the new technologies that we use.  However, when science is understood in its totality as a world view (ideology) analogous to other philosophical and religious world views, there is no way of scientifically testing either science or religions.  One reason for this is that world views include comprehensive statements of the nature of reality and also statements of values to be affirmed for living.  Values for living may be tested pragmatically by living out one’s convictions, but this takes time for an individual and lots of time for societies.  Further, when one thinks of truth not as what works intersubjectively (empirically) but as what works in relationships including the relationships among those with differing world views to further such values as peace, justice, and love, one is more open to the pluralism of ways of living and thinking emerging in our understandings today.

Today, in our understanding, the wider culture has also become more global and more pluralistic.  Transportation and communication technologies have increased our awareness of the vast variety of human cultures and religions and the plurality even within a single religion.  Further, because of immigration, white middle-class people in northern Europe and north America countries are directly encountering people of other religions traditions in their communities and even in their homes.  And in response to the rise of global terrorism that all to often affects people locally, multi-faith organizations are emerging to increase mutual understanding and to act together on issue of social and environmental justice.  These too are beginning to use the internet.  In Connecticut and greater Hartford, where I live, we have two active interfaith organizations:  the Connecticut Council for Interreligious Understanding (CCIU) http://www.ccfiu.org and The Interreligious Eco-Justice Network http://irejn.org.  In some ways such regional organizations have actualized Edwin Booth’s vision of the “Coming Great Church.”

In the academic world, religion also has become much more pluralistic.  Today, the American Academy of Religion, a professional society of academics in colleges, universities, and theological schools, and some clergy has around 10,000 members.  The academic work of members represents aspects of the major world religions, indigenous religions, a variety of ongoing theological working groups in liberation, feminist, womanist theology, Barthian, Tillichian, Adventist, Wesleyan, and liberal theology, as well as groups in queer studies, religion and ecology, and science, religion and technology, cognitive science and religion, and religion and health.  In spite of its name the academy is not only composed of Americans; scholars from all over the world are members and attend the annual meeting.

Today, religiosity in both the public and academic spheres is becoming more global-local and pluralistic than could have been conceived in 1954.  One should note emphatically that this has become possible because of advances in scientifically grounded transportation and communication technologies.

Science and Religion Today

In contrast to only a couple of groups working seriously on issues of science and religion sixty years ago (one of them IRAS), today we have several significant organizations worldwide.  Some, like IRAS are membership societies:  Institute for the Theological Encounter with Science and Technology (ITEST) founded in 1966; European Society for the Study of Science and Theology (ESSSAT)–an offshoot of IRAS, founded by IRAS leaders Arthur Peacocke and Karl Schmitz-Moorman; Science and Religion Forum in England; International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) in which being a member is by invitation only; and Society of Ordained Scientists.

Others organizations are Centers housed at theological schools and universities:  Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), affiliated with the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley; Zygon Center for Religion and Science (ZCRS), founded by CASIRAS, a partner of IRAS, and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago; Ian Ramsey Center at Oxford University; and Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) at Boston University School of Theology.  An interesting but still limited resource of organizations is at http://www.religiousworlds.com/science.html.

The number of science and religion publications has also increased from the journal of IRAS and CASIRAS, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, established in 1966.  More recent journals are Theology and Science (CTNS), ESSSAT News, Religion, Brain, and Behavior (IBCSR), European Journal of Science and Theology (Romania), and Journal for Interdisciplinary Research on Religion and Science (an Eastern Orthodox Christian sponsored journal).  Within the last month, a new online, open access journal has appeared, Science, Religion, and Culture.

Three important features together distinguish IRAS from these organizations.  The first is that most of these organizations are composed of academics or clergy (who are professionals in the practice of religion).  IRAS however, as evidenced below, is composed of people from all walks of life.  Other organizations may put on programs for the general public, but IRAS is an organization in which members of the general public can become leaders in IRAS.  The second is that, except for a couple of years in the late 1980s, IRAS has been and continues to be an all volunteer organization.  Other societies above are volunteer, but the centers are led by paid staff.  In my opinion our volunteer nature represents the best of the volunteer movement that has been part of American society since an all volunteer army defeated the British in our battle for independence.  That all are volunteers gives to all the responsibility for the continual fostering of community.  Third, most of the above organizations are located within the context of a particular religious tradition–usually Christianity.  Even though they engage in excellent scholarship and most are open to other religious viewpoints, and even though some welcome people of other faiths and no faith into their work, their primary focus is to enhance the traditions in which they are located.  On the other hand, IRAS is organizationally independent of any other religious group, although Unitarian Universalists have exerted considerable influence.  IRAS in my opinion is not bound by the strictures of any particular faith or even by no-faith.  It always has been and still is open to do the work of relating religion and science as its members see fit.

So, while other organizations may exhibit one or two of these features, IRAS is the only community of people engaged in seeking to constructively relate religion and science that is 1) open to people from all walks of life, 2) all volunteer, and 3) independent of any established religion.

IRAS Today

How does IRAS fit into this more vast scientific and religious context?  Since 1954, IRAS too has changed.  After 1966, when IRAS invited anyone interested in the aims of IRAS to apply, the kinds of people that eventually became leaders included not just academics and clergy but professionals of various kinds–medical doctors, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, social workers, artists, musicians, research scientists in a variety of fields, lawyers, editors, bankers, and development officers for non-profits.  People from fields such as these began to serve on committees, on the Council, and as officers.  Two lawyers and a retired research physicist have led summer conferences.  They have brought areas of expertise to IRAS that has enabled the organization to function well.

Since the early 1980s more women have joined the council and three have served as IRAS President, two as Vice President for Conferences, two as Vice President for Development, four as Vice President of Religion, one as Vice President of Interdisciplinary Affairs, and a number as chairs of committees.  Since 1990 women have co-chaired most summer conferences.

From the very beginning IRAS was inclusive of all of the world’s religions.  Yet, even though IRAS leadership in the early years included Unitarians, Christians, and Jews, I find in the records that only one person from a religious tradition originating in Asia was involved–Swami Akhilananda of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston.  Over the years a small number of people from other religions have been active in IRAS.  The most notable was Leslie Kawamura, a Pure Land Buddhist from the University of Calgary, who served as Chaplain and on the Council.  Currently active in IRAS are a Moslem, Tariq Mustafa, three from the Hindu tradition, Anindita Balslev, Sehdev Kumar, and V.V. Raman, immediate IRAS past president.  All of these are academics.  Even though few in numbers, they have had a significant impact in enlarging the horizon of IRAS toward more inclusiveness.

Significantly, the religious traditions represented by these people, as well as that of Judaism, offer the possibility of different foci in the science-religion enterprise.  While most of the discussion has been about ideas, which fits the concerns of many Christians, the focal points for discussion of Jews is practice, of Moslems practice as well as the concept of Allah, of Buddhists on meditative practice and experience, and of those in the wide variety of Hindu traditions and movements on a pluralistic openness to a wide variety of beliefs about what is ultimate combined with an slowly changing dharma–how to live.  Years ago, I personally became aware of this at an impromptu lecture by IRAS member Norbert Samuelson when, in response to a question, he demonstrated effectively how Jews, focusing on practice, understood the opening chapters of Genesis very differently from Christians who focused on doctrine, and in Christianity-and-Science on debates about evolution and a creator God.  After Samuelson’s lecture I thought, wow, that leads to an entirely different discussion of the relations between religion and science.

Because IRAS is not affiliated with any particular religious tradition, it is free to boldly develop non-traditional religious orientations.  In the 1990s Ursula Goodenough initiated a contemporary form of religious naturalism–a set of religious attitudes and values growing out of her encounter with the world through science.  Although RN can be relevant for a variety of religious viewpoints, it also can speak to the non-religious, secular, agnostics and atheists.  One of the things that makes IRAS unique is its forward-looking work by many on religious naturalism.

Another way in which IRAS can be distinguished from many other organizations is that it does not engage in apologetics (in a defense) of a particular traditional religion.  Rather IRAS members who are in traditional religious communities seek to finds ways to integrate the wisdom for life from their traditions with modern scientific understandings.

Finally, some in IRAS are exploring the ramifications of globalization and pluralism to see if traditional world views do not have to compete with one another and with science, but can engage one another in conversation to their mutual benefit.  All these efforts put IRAS on the side of exploring the adventure of ideas for the good of humanity, other creatures, and our planetary home.

Where does IRAS fit?

The founders of IRAS, probably having read the 1953 English translation of Karl Jaspers book The Origin and Goal of History, believed that we were entering a new “axial age,” comparable to the period from about 800 BCE to 200 BCE.  This was the time period that sowed the seeds for the development of the current major world religions and of philosophies stemming from ancient Greece, the Middle East, India, and China (Jaspers 1953).  Note that this was a 600 year period.

Key drivers for the future of our “new axial age” are the rise of modern science with its methods for deciding between alternative theories about how various parts of the world work, the rise of democratic societies and social justice for all, the growing awareness of history including the big history of the universe, and the increased understanding that diversity is important both for biological and cultural flourishing.

At the same time we still have many (perhaps most) people and institutions in the world that are resistance to change.  Changing one’s way of thinking and living is scary.  How can IRAS respond to this?

One way is to make change less scary, by modeling how an organization can respect a variety of points of view, ancient and contemporary, even as it carries out its own work in the name of the future.  It needs to be recognized that for many years, even centuries, there will be many who will be wedded to their traditions.

Still, cultural evolution can occur rather rapidly in a world that is becoming more and more interconnected.  So, in my considered opinion IRAS should keep to what it does well.  This is, first, to use the best contemporary science as a primary source of our thinking, second, to explore ways that scientific understandings can help traditional religions reform and re-express their central ideas and practices about how to live, and, third, to continue to develop religious naturalism in a variety of ways.  My thinking is that the additional perspective of religious naturalism distinguishes IRAS from all other work in science and religion and may well be IRAS’s most important gift to established religions, to the secular world, and to an emerging world culture.

Finally, we must not worry about whether we will be successful.  The world is much too complex and dynamic for us to forecast the consequences of our endeavors.  Rather, we should consider the work of IRAS, and the journal Zygon, as worthwhile in itself.  We should trust that what we do now will ripple outward over the decades and centuries, joining with the work of others to help shape a new ecologically sound, socially just, planetary civilization.



Barth, Karl.  1932-1968. Church Dogmatics.   T&T Clark.

__________. 1959.  Dogmatics in Outline.  Harper Perennial.

Beaver, Kevin M.  J.C. Barnes, Joshua S. May, and Joseph A. Schwartz.  2011. “Psychopathic Personality Traits, Genetic Risk, and Gene-Environment Correlations.” Justice and Behavior.  38/9 (September): 896-912

Breed, David R.  1990-1991.  “Ralph Burhoe: His Life and His Thought.”  Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.  25/3 (September 1990): 323-51, 25/4 (December 1990): 469-491, 26/1 (March 1991): 149-75, 26/2 (June 1991): 277-308, 26/3 (September 1991): 397-428.

Buber, Martin. 1923. Ich und Du. Leipzig: Insel-Verlag.  English translation. 1937.  I and Thou.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Burhoe, Ralph W. 1957.  “On the Nature of Truth: Proposal for the 1957 Conference  on Religion in an Age of Science.”  The Burhoe Archives, Box 15.  Chicago: Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  IRAS-Burhoe Digital Archives.  Compiled by Marjorie H. Davis, Karl E. Peters, and Andrew VanDerMolen.  Granby, CT:  Kpeters396@cox.net.

Burhoe, Ralph Wendell and Henry Nelson Wieman. 1952.  “Letters of September 7, 16, and November 29.”  The Henry Nelson Wieman archives, Special Collections/ Morris Library, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL.

Davidson, Richard and Sharon Begley.  2012.  The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live–and How You Can Change Them.  New York: Plume.

Eaves, Lindon. 1989.  “Spirit, Method, and Content in Science and Religion: the Theological Perspective of a Geneticist,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, 24/2 (June): 185-216.

Goodenough, Ursula. 2000 Sacred Depths of Nature, New York: Oxford University Press.

Amy Harmon, Amy.  2014.  “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops,


New York Times (January 4).


Herberg, Will. 1955.  Protestant, Catholic, Jew:  an Essay in American Religious Sociology.  Garden City, NY:  Doubleday.

Hofstadter, Richard.  1966.  Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.  New York:  Vintage.

Jaspers, Karl.  1953.  The Origin and Goal of History.  London: Routledge and K. Paul.

Lebow, Victor.  1955. “Price Competition in 1955.”  Journal of Retailing. Spring.

Marty, Martin. 1983.  “Forward.”  Protestant, Catholic, Jew.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Niebuhr, Reinhold.  1955.  “America’s Three Melting Pots; Protestant – Catholic – Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology by Will Herberg.”  New York Times: Book Review Section (Sept. 15): BR6.

Putnam, Robert D.  2001.  Bowling Alone.  New York: Simon and Schuster.

Silva, Gabriel A.  2006.  “Neuroscience Nanotechnology:  Progress, Opportunities, Challenges.” Nature Reviews/Neuroscience.  7 (January).

Snow, C. P. 1961.  The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.  The Rede Lecture 1959.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Kenyon Slides

Our Human Predicament

Last month, at the invitation of the V.V. Raman, the president of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (www.iras.org), I wrote the following piece on humanity’s predicament.  There are many other good pieces on the IRAS website.  See http://www.iras.org/predicament.html.

Our Human Predicament

Karl E. Peters

Our human predicament is threefold.  We are facing not just one crisis but a “storm of crises.” An underlying cause of these crises is that we have been too successful.  Furthermore, we are not morally equipped to deal with this twenty-first century storm.

The storm we are in includes exponential population growth and, where population is stable, an increase in material standards of living that depletes the planet’s resources; a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor; starvation and malnutrition in many societies while there is an obesity epidemic in others; economic and political instability, mass violence, genocide, war, and terrorism; an increasing rate of species extinction that may affect the foundations of food chains; and global climate change.

These are not things that are just happening to us.  They are the result of a human success story.  After millennia of living in small societies consisting primarily of kin-groups that struggled against the constraints of natural selection, in the last five centuries humanity has “broken loose.”  With the scientific discoveries of micro-organisms, sanitation, and modern medicine, we have reduced infant mortality and increased the human life span, thereby eliminating a major selection pressure on over-population.  With discoveries of how to use fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and other natural resources, we have built complex industrial societies, the processes of which pollute land, waters, and sky with waste, including greenhouse gases.  With new technologies of communication (from radios and telephones invented a little more than one hundred years ago to our contemporary internet and satellite global communication systems) there is a growing awareness of the inequalities of wealth.  With the continuous inventions of new technologies and increasing knowledge of events worldwide, we are experiencing increasing rates of change that heighten stress as we try to live in the midst of the growing storm that will not go away but will only get worse.

Confounding this predicament is that we are not morally equipped through our biological evolutionary heritage to deal with a storm this size.  While we may be able to recognize the storm of crises and our role in bringing it about, we lack the capacity to be motivated to deal with it.  Millennia ago we came into being in small-scale societies whose basic task was to survive until the next generation could reproduce itself.  The motivational systems of our brains have evolved for individual self-interest, kin-group cooperation, and reciprocal interactions–all for the immediate future of those with whom we live in direct contact.  We do not have the emotional brain systems that will motivate us to act on behalf of a global human community, of multi-species ecosystems, and of the infrastructure of the entire planet. One hope for a more positive future will involve culturally evolved political, economic, and religious and other value systems that can guide and motivate human living for the good of the planet for the long-term future.  Unfortunately, our current array of most of these cultural systems are oriented to the good of a few and not the good of all.  Even religions at their best, focus on the enlightenment or salvation of individuals, or on small scale efforts for social justice and “green” communities.  At their worst, the value systems of religions, politics, education, and economics contribute to in-group/out-group competition, even to the point of war and the degradation of our planet.

Our human predicament is the storm of global crises that we are facing, created by our own scientific-technological success–a storm that we may be incapable of navigating becausewe have evolved to live in simpler, smaller scale systems of interaction among humans and between humans and the rest of the world.  Our critical challenge is to acknowledge our evolutionary heritage and to find ways to develop the motivation to act globally for the long-term well being of all.

The Concept of God and the Method of Science

My Ph.D. dissertation, completed in 1971, showed how one could develop a scientific theology.  Following Henry Nelson Wieman, I offered an operational definition of “God” as “creative process.”  I then showed how one could develop and test experimentally ideas about the conditions and structure of the creative process, that is ideas about God.  I know this sounds strange, but it did earn me my Ph.D.

Below is the abstract at the beginning of the dissertation.  You can click here to bring up the entire manuscript.

Dancing in Church

Dancing in Church

Why does a 73 year old man start dancing in the aisle of a New England Protestant church during Lent? By himself. Inviting others to join him. My reply is that I was “moved by the Spirit.”

The way I understand what happened is in the light of my scientifically informed, religious outlook that everything exists in dynamic relationships. Nothing is an isolated substance. Everything in the interrelated, evolving universe, from subatomic particles to world civilizations, is a dynamic system. So is the Spirit that moved me to dance.

One of the root meanings of “spirit” is wind–in Hebrew ru’ach, in Greek pneuma, in Latin spiritus. In ancient thought these words meant wind, breath, and soul, and were conceived as substances. How do we understand wind today in light of what we know from science? Wind is not a substance but a flow of air molecules that results from the interaction of differences in atmospheric pressure. A few minutes ago, just before I started writing this, the wind (spirit) whipped up in our yard. The people outside said, “What’s happening?” Suddenly it turned cold, and air started flowing from the Northwest instead of the Southeast. A “cold front” had just passed through, the wind generated by the differences in atmospheric density between a low and high pressure system, between warmer air moving clockwise and cooler air counter clockwise. This interaction produced a sudden blast of “spirit.”

How does this relate to my dancing in church. As I experienced internally how this event began to be, I can see that it was the result of several other events happening together. The background event was that it was the fourth Sunday in the Christian season of Lent, St. Patrick’s day, and also “spud Sunday” at South Congregational Church in Granby, CT. On spud Sunday hundreds of potatoes are baked and available with all kinds of toppings at the social hour after service–a unique Sunday dinner of plenty in contrast to the Irish Potato famine that brought many immigrants to America, including the ancestors of our senior minister Denny Moon.

The Irish theme became a part of the service with the music–a fiddler and pianist playing Irish reels and jigs.

The sermon Denny preached was the “Extravagant Gospel.” It was based on the passage from the Gospel of John about the gathering of Jesus and his followers in the home of the sisters and brother Mary, Martha, and Zachariah on the outskirts of Jerusalem, shortly before Jesus entered the city in the “Palm Sunday Procession.” Denny focused on the interaction between Mary and Jesus, in which Mary broke several cultural boundaries by washing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and drying them with her hair. The perfume was worth about a year’s wages (Judas said it would have been better to sell it and give the money to the poor). The wastefulness broke rational economic boundaries. And by drying Jesus’s feet with her hair, Mary broke the cultural boundary of that time between a man and a woman.

As Denny told this story he interrelated it with another story–that of Vedran playing his cello in the midst of the ruins of Sarajevo that resulted from the brutal civil war. 30 year-old Vedran Smaliovic had played with the Sarajevo String Quartet and the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra. He was devoted to the beauty of music. As his city lay in ruins, Vedran went out into the streets, ruined buildings, and cemeteries to bring beauty to the devastation. People asked, “Are you crazy.” He replied, “Who’s crazy, me or those who destroyed our city. Denny said that, like Mary, Vedran had broken the boundaries.

Mary’s anointing of Jesus’s feet with perfume was an extravagant act–beautiful but not practical–that appears to have been done in anticipation of Jesus’s death and burial. Vedran’s music was extravagant good news that beauty could not be destroyed by war. Both actions–both interactions with their environments–broke the established boundaries. Both were examples of an extravagant gospel.

When the sermon ended, the offering was taken. The fiddler and pianist played an upbeat Irish jig. And everyone just sat in their pews, looking straight ahead, doing nothing. I thought to myself, this isn’t right. We just heard a stirring, exciting message. Now we’re listening to exciting music. And we just sit here, typical Protestant, Puritanical, New Englanders from the “land of steady habits.”

I could hardly stand it. A part of me wanted to move, to do something joyous. Another part–the cautious, rational man raised in the midwest–was afraid of what was happening in his body, and of what people might think. A dynamic tension–like that between a high and low pressure weather system–began to develop in my body-mind. I wanted to dance to the music, but I was held in place by my steadfast, rational form of religion.

Feeling the pressure build as the lower part of my body began to move while I was still seated, I decided to let my body take over. I allowed it to rise from my seat, move out to one of the side aisles of the church, turn to face my fellow congregants, and I let myself go–dancing to the music. Back and forth, side to side in time to the music. I gestured to others to join me. Most just looked at me, startled. The three ministers up front looked at me–what was going on? Then they, Denny, Tamara, and Sandra, all rose up and started to dance. Denny came to the center aisle and danced up and down the aisle with his daughter. Up front behind the communion table, the choir began to move in place. Some people in the pews got up and started clapping to the music, a woman joined me in our side aisle dancing with her little girl. All the events of the day, the sermon, the music interacted together as the Spirit of the extravagant gospel began to take hold–until the whole place “rocked.” When it ended, and I sat down, my wife Marj leaned over and said, “So this is what the ‘emerging church’ looks like.”

After the offering, we sang our closing hymn, said our communal benediction, and sat for the postlude. Again, the fiddler and the pianist played an Irish jig, and the entire congregation rose up and swayed and clapped to the music. Inspired by the congregation, the musicians played on–and on–and on–joyously. The congregation responded in kind, continuing to clap until–finally–the music ended. And the congregation erupted into a cheer. That day the Spirit–the dynamic interaction of Lent, St. Patrick’s Day, spud Sunday, Mary washing Jesus’s feet, Vedran the cellist of Sarajevo, and Irish music–came into the body of a 73 year-old man, causing him to do something he had never done before, causing him to rise up and dance the extravagant gospel. He and those at South Congregational Church, Granby CT felt “a blast of Holy Wind” uniting all in joy and love.

Science, Spirituality, and Service in an Evolutionary World

Science, Spirituality, and Service in an Evolutionary World
Karl E. Peters
January 20, 2013
University Unitarian Universalist Society of Central Florida
Twentieth Anniversary

We are here together this weekend celebrating our twentieth anniversary, celebrating our story, of become the University Unitarian Universalist society on January 19, 1993.

Today I want to leave you with two things 1) an image and 2) a story of how we came to be.

First, the image: A few years ago, a UU minister in Hartford suggested that the most stable foundation to support something has three legs–for example a three legged stool. Then she suggested that three legs for UU’s are science, spirituality, and service. The leg of science tells us intellectually that we all are interconnected. The leg of spirituality guides us in cultivating this idea as a feeling connectedness. The leg of service grows from our knowing and feeling connected to enhance our desire to serve others, and to participate in social action for peace, love, and justice on a sustainable planet.

Our story has five parts. (We might say that it’s like a five act play about a three-legged stood.) It begins with science. I’d like to tell this story in the first person plural. It is our story.

Our story begins when we were nothing, or almost nothing. There was no matter, no space, no time–we were a point of singularity, a “seed” of some mysterious creative energy that was not yet born.

Then, in a first stage of our existence, we evolved from ENERGY TO MATTER. Suddenly we rapidly started growing–inflation, a “Big Bang.”
At first we were so energetic that no matter could be formed. But as we expanded and cooled down, we became atoms of hydrogen, helium, a little lithium.

We did not expand evenly in all directions. If we had, we would have remained Hy, He, and a little Li. However, as we expanded, we became these atoms in varying densities–some more closely packed together than others.
This made it possible for another part of ourself–gravity to begin pulling our atoms together in clumps of matter. In each of many clumps, billions of atoms of Hy we pulled together by gravity until the friction resulted in so much heat that they ignited–nuclear fusion–and we were born as stars and stars and matter outside stars formed galaxies.

This continued until we grew to 100 billion galaxies, each with 100 billion stars.

The second stage of our evolutionary story is from MATTER TO LIFE.

It begins about 7 billion years after our big bang. By then there were many “Little Bangs” as massive stars exploded–supernovae–and at tremendous temperatures fused atoms together to create all the other the elements.

We became many new star systems, one of which was a system of sun and planets in a galaxy later called the Milky Way. We became a Solar System with a planet called Earth.

On earth life emerged and evolved: One billion species of organisms over 4.5 billion years–99% going extinct–until today we are about 10 million species of all kinds of organisms. All interconnected. Interdependent.
As life we discovered a way to continuously transform energy to sustain ourselves: food chains. We became a dance: a life-death two step as each kind of life tries to feed itself on other life forms, and defend itself against being eaten–long enough to reproduce.
Some of our species “discovered” that we had a better chance in groups–wolf packs, chimpanzees and bonobos–in their respective environments, competing with other packs or bands of the same kind.
Social animals were born: individuals in a group co-operating with one-another against those in other groups. We became in-groups and out-groups. This is an important part of our story, to which we’ll return later.

In the third part of our story LIFE GIVES RISE TO MIND.

About 12,999,990,000 years after the big bang, on planet earth, we (the universe) began to think. We became creatures with big brains, able to develop symbols and talk about what we experienced–we emerged as human beings.
As a symbolic species, we were able to engage in economics, politics, moral codes, literature, history, art and science. And through trial and error, and eventually with scientific understandings, we invented and developed technologies.
We also evolved into all kinds of communities. 12,999,999,980 years after we began with a bang, in a year called 1993, our energy, atoms, molecules, and human bodies became the University Unitarian Universalist Society of Central Florida.
After eight weeks of afternoon meetings in the Library of Trinity Prep, on this Sunday, the founding members voted to become UUUS. The following Sunday, next Sunday, we had our first official service.
We have evolved over 13 billion years until today. Each of us here today, each human being in the world, each plant, animal, the ground, the seas, the atmospheric gases–we all are one–parts of one grand universe of energy-matter evolving into its multitudinous forms. OUR SCIENCES TELL US WE ALL ARE CONNECTED.

HOWEVER WE HAVE A PROBLEM: Part 4 of our Story: January 20, 2013.
As humans we evolved through our connections with others in our own groups. And our particular groups were in competition with other human groups. For example, we evolved the love hormone-neurotransmitter, oxytocin. Oxytocin facilitates maternal bonding and friendships. But oxytocin also contributes to defensive aggression when we are threatened. This and other brain developments helped shape in-group out-group competition.
Because we found it difficult to connect with other humans who were different from our family, tribe, city state or nation, we often found ourselves in arms races, violence and war. Those of us who were in groups that were better organized, imaginative, and inventive of new technologies–often came to exploit other groups. We could be relatively peaceful in our own groups, and this very co-operative peace could make us more effective in dominating others. With the help of our symbolic power, we continue to engage in the life-death two-step of our predator-pray ancestors–only with more wide-spread and devastating effects.

One of us, the distinguished scientist Franz deWall, puts our problem this way in the concluding chapter of his book The Inner Ape. He writes that
“human nature . . . is inherently multidimensional and the same applies to chimpanzee and bonobo nature. . . . Being both more systematically brutal than chimps and more empathic than bonobos, we are by far the most bipolar ape. Our societies are never completely peaceful, never completely competitive, never ruled by sheer selfishness, and never perfectly moral. Pure states are not nature’s way. What’s true for human society is also true for human nature. One can find both kindness and cruelty, nobility and vulgarity–sometimes in the same person. We’re full of contradictions. . . .” (de Waal 2005, 233).

Part 5. How will our story progress? At this time in our story of evolution, what is our future on Earth? In this place, the community we are celebrating today, can we and others evolve spiritually to overcome in-group out-group ways of thinking and feeling? Can we not only realize we are connected through science but feel connected? Feeling connected is what I mean by spirituality.

So far we have been telling our story with the findings of modern science. I think this is one of the key elements for Unitarian Universalists and other religions to bring to the fore in their congregational thinking. In addition to Science, however, we need Spirituality and Service to make a strong foundation of our community as a three legged stool.
Spirituality: feeling connectedness, feeling empathy–putting ourselves in others’ shoes.

Feeling empathically connected is biologically based: regions of our brain such as mirror neurons are unique to humans and help us imitate others and build connections between us. Another area of the brain helps us recognize faces and facial expressions. This also helps to develop empathy.

Brain areas such as these work most effectively when we are directly connected with each other, but pictures and videos can also activate these empathic regions.
So can our own inner imaginations. Like basketball players, who in practice imagine shots to the basket in their minds eyes over and over before they shoot, we can engage in meditative imaging practices to develop those parts of our brains that contribute to empathy and effective action on behalf of others.
Our task is to expand our empathy to feel connected to one another and to all things. Expanding our circle of care.
This can be cultivated with meditation. Tibetan Buddhists offer us a practice of “compassion meditation.” Let’s briefly try to see how it goes.
Sit relaxed, downcast eyes, focus on breathing–in and out, in and out, in and out. . . .
Let a person come to mind whom you really care about (mother-father, brother-sisters, child-grandchild, husband-wife-partner, dear friend.)
Let your mind be filled with the feeling of love and compassion for that person (wishing for freedom from any suffering they are undergoing and for their and well-being).
Now, let that feeling of love and compassion expand to all beings without thinking specifically about anyone. Continue.
Come back to your breathing, open eyes.

One of our neuroscientists, Richard Davidson, has shown that such a practice has an impact on our brain development in a way that increases empathy.
With such practices, perhaps even in our Sunday services, we can expand the circle of connectedness in our University UU Society, so we feel responsible for others. We can add the third leg to the stool: Service to others.

We can expand who we include in the in-group, so that, in the future if we and others follow this path, there will no longer be out-groups. We will all feel connected.

We will feel that all are a part of the amazing story of the universe that has brought us to this place of remarkable human and animal diversity.
Through such practices we feel more deeply responsible for helping all those
who are suffering from enslavement in American sex-trafficking, child neglect and abuse, racial and religious discrimination, economic and social injustice.

We also can in meditation bring to mind and with our behavior follow as models and heros those to have engaged in non-violent political action to change society to reduce and eliminate such practices that are part of our biological and cultural stories.
Martin Luther King leading the African American Civil Rights Movement.
Ghandi who led non-violent protest against the rule of England.
Jesus who engaged in non-violent resistance agains the domination system of the Roman Empire.

Let’s return to our image of the three legged stool.
Science helps us set the 20 year history of University UU Society in a magnificent story that shows we all are connected.
Practices of meditation help us enhance love and compassion toward others so that
We are led to social service and social action that breaks down in-group out-group distinctions and frees people for various forms of oppression.

With science, spirituality, and service, the future of our Universe Story on Earth could become a cooperative world-wide civilization, living peacefully, cherishing differences, and, in the name of justice, helping all to equally flourish as much as possible to sustain humanity and the rest of life on planet earth.

The Mission of our community, the University UU Society, is to join with other religious and secular communities and movements to work toward such a future.

Human Salvation in the Epic of Creation

These power-point slides are from my lecture on November 26, 2012 in the “Epic of Creation Course,” Zygon Center for Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  It is based on my December 2012 article “Human Salvation in an Evolutionary Word: an Exploration in Christian Naturalism,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.  An earlier version of this lecture is posted under “Writings” on this website.

HumSalv EpicCreation Final Web 2012-11-26

HumSal EpicCreation References




These writings whose years are in red bold-face type are available as pdf files at Wiley-Blackwell Zygon. Downloads are free for members of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS), individual subscribers to the journal, or through affiliation with libraries that subscribe to the journal. For others, downloads can be purchased according to instructions when you click on a pdf file.

Also, you can request a single copy for your own personal use only by writing me at kpeters396@cox.net.

A few articles are in bold-face red. These can be downloaded–for your personal use only–directly from this website by clicking on the article.



2012. With Marjorie Hall Davis. “Are Religious Experiences Natural? Biological Capacities for Religion.” In Is Religion Natural? Edited by Dirk Evers, Michael Fuller, Antje Jackelén, Taede Smedes. London: T&T Clark International.

Abstract: In this essay we explore the biological bases of two kinds of religious experience—one of being in a calm, centered state of consciousness, and one of connectedness. Using a metaphorical model of the human psyche from psychotherapist Richard C. Schwartz, we describe an inner ecology which includes a core “Self,” understood as an experiential state of consciousness, as well as other states. We give examples that suggest ways that these various states are related to evolved, interacting systems of the brain. Finally, we cite work of Andrew Newberg on the brain functioning of Tibetan monks in meditation and Franciscan nuns engaged in Centering Prayer, which resemble the state that Schwartz calls the “Self.” These studies support the hypothesis that religious experiences are natural in that they are biologically grounded. Although we have biological capacities for these experiences, the capacities are developed in human interaction and are influenced by culture, including religious beliefs and practices.

2012. “Human Salvation in an Evolutionary World: An Exploration in Christian Naturalism.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. December.

An earlier version is available for download at Human Salvation in an Evolutionary World View: An Exploration in Christian Naturalism. July 2012.

Abstract. In the context of an evolutionary world view, this essay proposes that humans need “salvation,” understood as restoring and maintaining well-being or functioning well. Humans are embedded in, embodiments of, and emergent creative-creatures of the universe. We have evolved also as ambivalent creatures–capable of doing good, harm, and standing by while harm is being done. There are multiple factors, such as genetic, neurological, and child developmental factors, that lead to malfunctioning and harmful consequences. There are also multiple religious and secular approaches that help restore well-being. I will develop a view of Jesus as a “religious genius,” an exemplar who, grounded in a direct experience of God, taught an alternative wisdom of undiscriminating love and engaged non-violent political activism against the primary domination system of his day, the Roman empire. Christians and others can follow Jesus by engaging in a set of meditative practices that facilitate well-well being out of which compassion for others and a passion for justice flows. Universal love rooted in Jesus is compatible with an evolutionary perspective that all humans on our planet are part of a natural family.

2012. With Barbara Whittaker-Johns. “Human Behavior: Doing Good, Doing Bad, Doing Nothing.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. December.

Abstract. The 2011 summer conference of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) considered the topic “Doing Good, Doing Bad, Doing Nothing: Scientific and Religious Perspectives on Human Behavior.” Plenary speakers addressed the evolutionary, biological and neurological roots of good and bad behavior (Melvin Konner), the unconscious brain activity involved in prejudice (Mahzarin Banaji), the cultural production of evil and how hope begins with the cries of suffering (Cheryl Kirk-Duggan), the causes and the neurological and social consequences of developmental trauma (Laurie Pearlman), the social conditions for genocide and mass violence, and for bystanders being passive while violence occurs, and ways to respond to help healing and the prevention of more violence (Ervin Staub), practices for the transformation of conflict fostered by domination systems and for peace building (Robert and Alice Evans), and how the various Eastern religions each diagnose a central obstacle to human fullness of life and offer a prescription as an antidote (Barbara Jean Jamestone). The three papers that have emerged from the conference by William J. Shoemaker, Ervin Staub, and Karl E. Peters carry forward the evolutionary, neurological, social, and religious analyses of human beings doing good, bad, and nothing, and suggest ways of becoming more actively involved in diminishing evil behavior and enhancing good behavior.

2012. “Towards a Naturalistic Christianity: Developing the Thinking of Gordon Kaufman.” Presented at the American Academy of Religion, Chicago IL, November 2012. Unpublished.

Abstract. This paper relates Gordon Kaufman’s naturalistic theology to his Mennonite social justice Christianity. First, I summarize his naturalistic understanding of God as mysterious serendipitous creativity that underlies the universe and is manifested in Darwinian biological evolution and human creativity. Then I develop a Kaufmanian naturalistic Christology, beginning with Kaufman’s idea that God as non-personal, non-moral creativity becomes the personal God of love in Jesus. I then suggest that Jesus was a “religious genius,” using a Darwinian understanding of the origins of genius following Dean Keith Simonton and New Testament scholar Marcus Borg’s comparative religion analysis of Jesus in the dimensions of spirt, wisdom, and politics. In the context of the domination system of the Roman Empire, Jesus’s “genius” contribution is a universalizing of the Jewish idea of loving God and neighbor to include all people, so that one engages in non-violent resistance against the domination system. Following Walter Wink, Borg argues that Jesus is a non-violent revolutionary on behalf of the marginalized people of his day. This is a form of the Christian “moral exemplar theory” of atonement. Using the thought of Henry Nelson Wieman about the resurrection, I suggest that Jesus continues as the “Christ-event” that creates compassionate followers who engage in non-violent action for justice against contemporary “domination systems.

To download a private copy click on “Towards a Naturalistic Christianity: Developing the Thinking of Gordon Kaufman.”



Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.

Portions of this book have been published as “Dancing with the Sacred: Excerpts.” Zygon:Journal of Religion and Science. September 2005. See below for abstract.

2008. Spiritual Transformations: Science, Religion, and Human Becoming. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.




1974. “The Image of God as a Model for Humanization.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, June.

1976. “Presuppositions of Scientific Theology.” New Perspectives in Religious Thought, Summer.

1976. “The Development of the Earth and the Quality of Life.” Religious Humanism, Summer.

1977. “Realities and Ideals in the World System.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, June.

1977. “Energy and Self-Actualization.” Current Issues in Environmental Education.



1980. “Evolutionary Naturalism: Survival as a Value.” Journal of Religion and Science, June.

1982. “Religion and an Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge.Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, December.

Abstract. This paper outlines an evolutionary theory of knowledge involving not only conceptual but also behavioral and experiential knowledge. It suggests human knowledge is continuous at the behavioral and experiential level with that of nonhuman animals. By contrasting an evolutionary understanding of ultimate reality (God) with the more traditional, personalistic understanding, the paper shows how an evolutionary epistemology applies to religion in terms of‘ both general and special revelation. Finally, the paper explores how one might respond to the problem of religious knowledge in a pluralistic age and how a non-personal, evolutionary understanding of God might be religiously adequate.

1983. Modern Science and Religious Pluralism–What in the World Is God Doing?” National Forum, March.

1987. “The Contours of an Emerging Territory: Impressions of Twenty Years of Zygon,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, Twentieth Anniversary Issue, January.

Abstract. While the general territory mapped by the founders of the Center for Advanced Study in Religion and Science and Zygon remains the same, how one delineates the contours of this territory depends partly on personal histories and on whether one is a theologian, a scientist, a scholar of religious studies, or a philosopher. However, the pluralism in the CASIRAS-Zygon community can be placed in a more comprehensive, evolutionary framework, in which the different approaches exert cultural selection pressures on each other. The most important selection pressure is having to make scholarly work usable by non-scholars seeking meaning for their lives in a scientific age.

1987. “Towards a Physics, Metaphysics, and Theology of Creation: A Trinitarian View.” In Religion, Science, and Public Policy Today, ed. Frank Birtel. New York: Crossroad. pp. 96-112.

1988. “What is Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science? Purpose, History, and Financial Goals.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, December.

Abstract. This editorial statement describes the purpose of Zygon and the need for such a journal. It then sketches the history of the journal and of its financial affairs. Next it proposes some development projects to expand the impact of the journal around the world, to develop Zygon leadership, and to establish more firmly Zygon’s financial base. The statement opens and closes with the news of Zygon’s receiving a Gift Subscription Challenge Grant.

1989. “Humanity in Nature: Conserving Yet Creating,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, December. A longer version is also published in The World Community in Post-Industrial Society. Seoul: Korean Christian Academy, 1989.

Abstract. Developing a scientifically grounded philosophy of cosmic evolution, and using the moral norm of completeness as dynamic harmony, this paper argues that humans are a part of nature in both its conserving and emergent aspects. Humans are both material and cultural, instinctual-emotional and rational, creatures and creators, and carriers of stability and change. To ignore any of the multifaceted aspects of humanity in relation to the rest of nature is to commit one of a number of fallacies that are grounded in a dualistic-conquest mentality. Examples of some new developments in philosophy and theology, metaphorical images, and ritual show how to overcome dualism in favor of a dynamic harmony of humanity within nature.



1992. “A Social-Ecological Understanding of the Human Self,” Religious Humanism, Winter.

1992. “Empirical Theology and Science.” In Handbook of Empirical Theology, ed. Randolph Crump Miller. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.   1992. Also published with minor revisions in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, September.

Abstract. Empirical theology stands in contrast to science insofar as it seeks to understand the nature and source of human fulfillment and insofar as science seeks to understand the world and human beings regardless of the implications of that knowledge for human welfare. However, empirical theology is like science insofar as it affirms a dynamic, relational naturalism; accepts limitations of the human knower, thereby making all knowledge including religious knowledge tentative; seeks causal explanations as well as religious meaning; and argues that a key criterion for justifying ideas is their ability to explain experience already had and to predict new experiences in Lakatosian-type progressive research programs.

1992. “Interrelating Nature, Humanity, and the Work of God: Some Issues for Future Reflection,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, December.

Abstract. This essay suggests some future items for an agenda about human viability, defined as survivability with meaning and purpose, by exploring interrelations between nature, humanity, and the work of God. It argues for intrinsic and creative value in nature, so there is a value kinship, as well as a factual kinship, between humans, nature, and God-working. It considers humans as “webs of culture, life, and cosmos” and suggests some implications of this notion of human nature for viability. And it asks what human fulfillment can be in light of the awesome creative-destroying-recreative activity that seems to be the ground of an evolving universe.

1994. “Pragmatically Defining the God Concepts of Henry Nelson Wieman and Gordon Kaufman.” In New Essays in Religious Naturalism, Highlands Institute, Vol. II, ed. Larry Axel and Creighton Peden. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

1997. “Story Tellers and Scenario Spinners: Reflections on Religion and Science in Light of an Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, December.

Asserting that both scientists and religious thinkers are involved in telling stories about the past and spinning scenarios about the future, I first compare and contrast the purposes of scientific and religious storytelling. Then, in light of some recent work on brain and language evolution, I offer a possible story about how humans might have become storytellers. Finally, I discuss how religious stories might be evaluated pragmatically and even scientifically by developing Lakatosian-type research programs.

1998. “The Open-Ended Legacy of Ralph Wendell Burhoe.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, June.

Through cultivating my thinking, along with that of many others, Ralph Burhoe taught me to understand myself in relational terms. He helped me to appreciate religious traditions on scientific grounds and to see how religion adapts to changing conditions even as it continues to provide meaning and guidance to the wider culture. He restored my belief in an ever-present sovereign God when God is understood in terms of function and system.

1998. “What Kind of God?–A Case Study.” Journal for Case Teaching, Fall.

1999. “The Evolution of Morality: Reflections at the IRAS 1997 Star Island Conference,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, September.

In my summary lecture at the IRAS 1997 Star Island Conference on the Evolution of Morality, I reflected on the thinking of other speakers in light of my own personal experience. My remarks were organized around five questions: (1) Do worldviews matter, and how do we decide if some matter more than others? (2) What does it mean to be moral? (3) What is the relation between biology and culture? (4) How does a scientific, sociobiological description of how we have become moral fit with our own personal quest for meaning and moral guidance toward richer and fuller lives? (5) How do we test evolutionary views of the biological conditions of morality scientifically?



2001. “Neurotheology and Evolutionary Theology: Reflections on the Mystical Mind,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, September.

Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew B. Newberg in their book The Mystical Mind suggest that their neurotheology is both a metatheology and a megatheology. In this commentary I question whether neurotheology is comprehensive enough and suggest that it needs to and possibly can take into account the moral and social dimensions of religion. I then propose an alternative metatheology and megatheology: evolutionary theology grounded in the science of biocultural evolution and focusing on ultimate reality as creatively immanent in natural and human history. Neurotheology and evolutionary theology may complement one another. Evolutionary theology accounts for both the neurology of the brain and culturally evolved ideas and practices of particular religions and their theologies. Hence it seems more comprehensive than neurotheology. However, because ultimate reality in evolutionary theology is immanent in the world of space and time, of baseline experience, it cannot account for the mystic experience of absolute unitary being. In accounting for this transcendent experience and its reality, neurotheology is more comprehensive. However, neither theology can account for how transcendent ultimate reality, experienced by the mystic as absolute unitary being, gives rise to the changing world experienced as baseline reality.

2003. “Ambivalence and Pluralism in the Bio-cultural Evolution of Morality.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, June.

Abstract. Much good work has been done on the evolution of human morality by focusing on how “selfish genes” can give rise to altruistic human beings. A richer research program is needed, however, to take into account the ambivalence of naturally evolved biopsychological motivators and the historical pluralism of human morality in religious systems. Such a program is described here. A first step is to distinguish the ultimate cause of natural selection from proximate causes that are the results of natural selection. Next, some proximate causes are suggested as possible conditions of biological and emotional valuing as well as of customary social morality and individual rational ethical thought. Finally, different moral perspectives of Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity are briefly presented in order to illustrate how one might inquire about the selection of a variety of biopsychological and cultural proximate causes that enable the evolution of a plurality of religious moral systems.

2005. “Dancing with the Sacred: Excerpts.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. September.

Abstract. In excerpts from my Dancing with the Sacred (2002), I use ideas from modern science, our world’s religions, and my own experience to highlight three themes of the book. First, working within the framework of a scientific worldview, I develop a concept of the sacred (or God) as the creative activity of nature, human history, and individual life. Second, I offer a relational understanding of human nature that I call our social-ecological selves and suggest some general considerations about what it means to live meaningfully and morally in an evolutionary world. Third, I explore how we might be at home in a universe that is constantly changing and in which suffering and death are interwoven with life and new creation.

2005. “Confessions of a Practicing Naturalistic Theist: A Response to Hardwick, Pederson, and Peterson.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, September.

Abstract. In my response to the comments of Charley Hardwick, Ann Pederson, and Greg Peterson, I continue the narrative, confessional mode of my writing in Dancing with the Sacred. First, I sketch some methodological decisions underlying my naturalistic, evolutionary, practical theology. I then respond to the encouraging suggestions of my commentators by further developing my ideas about naturalism, mystery, creativity as God, the place of ecological responsibility in my thinking, sin, and eschatology. I offer suggestions as to how I might widen the practical applications of my theology beyond environmental and medical ethics to other areas of moral responsibility in relation to the creative process. I do all this with much appreciation for the care and careful critical reflection that my commentators have devoted to my thinking.

2005. “Reflections of a Naturalistic-Evolutionary-Practical Theologian in Conversation with Gallagher and Pangerl.” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy, September.

2006. “Spiritual Transformation and Healing in Light of an Evolutionary Theology.” In Spiritual Transformation and Healing: Anthropological, Religious, Medical and Biological Perspectives, Joan Koss-Chioino & Philip Hefner, eds. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

2007. “Empirical Theology and a “Naturalistic Christian Faith.” In All That Is: A Naturalistic Faith for the Twenty-First Century by Arthur Peacocke, ed. Philip Clayton. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

2007. “Toward an Evolutionary Christian Theology.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. March

Abstract. In order to develop a single narrative of God’s continuing creation that includes salvation, this essay in theological construction focuses on the idea of transformation. Using the metaphor of conceptual maps in science and religion, it weaves together ideas about evolution, God working in the world, and how humans can be brought to wholeness in community in relation to God.

2007. “Saving Experience in an Age of Science,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, December.

2008.Some Correlations Between Methods of Knowing and Theological Concepts in Arthur Peacocke’s Personalistic Panentheism and Nonpersonal Naturalistic Theism,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, March.

Abstract. Differences in methods of knowing correlate with differences in concepts about what is known. This is an underlying issue in science and religion. It is seen, first, in Arthur Peacocke’s reasoning about God as transcendent and personal, is based on an assumption of correlative thinking that like causes like. This contrasts with a notion of causation in empirical science, which explains the emergence of new phenomena as originating from temporally prior phenomena quite unlike that which emerges. The scientific understanding of causation is compatible with a naturalistic theism that holds a nonpersonal model of God as the creative process. However, focusing on the immanence of God, there is a second correlation between methods of knowing and concepts of God. Classical empiricism, used by science, correlates with God understood nonpersonally as the creative process. Radical empiricism, in which feelings and not only sense perceptions have cognitive import, opens up the possibility that one can experience Peacocke’s personal, panentheistic God as pattern-forming influence. I illustrate this second method-concept correlation with a personal experience.

2008. “Understanding and Responding to Human Evil: a Multicausal Approach,” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, September.

Abstract. One task of religion is delivering human beings from evil within and between themselves. Defining good as well-being or functioning well, evil as impaired functioning, and doing evil as impairing the functioning of others, this essay explores how religions in consort with other social institutions might understand and respond to evil in light of contemporary scientific knowledge. To understand evil I use a multicausal approach that includes both biological and sociocultural environmental causes. I illustrate the use of this approach by analyzing how we might understand and respond to human rage and violence.

2010. “Why Zygon? The Journal’s Original Visions and the Future of Religion-and-Science.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. June.

Abstract. This essay briefly examines the original visions of Zygon, how they helped explain the publication of a new journal, and what they imply for where we might be going today.

About My Life

I’ve been blessed with the women in my life.  My biological mother Lethel Wolter Peters raised and cared for me for thirteen years, even during her multi-year terminal illness.  Alice Krautsch Peters became my mother when I was sixteen and was a life-inspiration to me for almost fifty years.  My first wife Carol Dzemske Peters was an independent minded, hard working IBM systems engineer and an equal companion in many of our memorable life-adventures together.  Rev. Marjorie (Marj) Hall Davis has gifted me with three adult children and their families and has been intellectually, morally, and religiously my soul mate since our marriage in 1999.  I am so fortunate.

I enjoy my step children Paul, Anne and her husband Bob, and Mark and his wife Valerie and our grandchildren from age 25 down to 6:  Jana, Matthew, Sarah, David, Gregory, Amelia, and Nora.  Not having had any children of my own, with Marj and her family, and thanks to Amelia and Nora, whom I’ve known from birth, I have learned and enjoyed much as a witness to the remarkable development of young human beings.  At age 68, I learned to change my first diaper—one of many new life adventures for Grandpa Karl.

The most important person in my growing up was my father Norman Julius Peters.  As a mechanical engineer he taught me how to solve problems practically.  More important, he modeled for me what it was like to be a humane human being.  When my first mother died, he became both father and mother to me—a cherished memory.

Now in my “senior years with senior moments,” I find that I’m professor emeritus of Philosophy and Religion at Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida. For more than forty years I taught a variety of courses in religion and philosophy, including environmental ethics, and evolution, creation and human creativity.  I lectured and published articles on issues in science and religion, with a special interest in understanding how religion and science can be related to everyday living.  Many of my reflections are in Dancing with the Sacred:  Evolution, Ecology, and God (Trinity Press International, 2002), and in Spiritual Transformations:  Science, Religion, and Human Becoming (Fortress Press, 2008).
I was the Editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science (1979-89) and Coeditor (1989-2009).  Now I’m co-chair of the Journal’s Joint Publication Board.

Since 1972 I have been participating in the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) attending its summer conferences on Star Island and now at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York.  I am a Past President, a past Vice President for Conferences, and was co-chair of the IRAS 2011 conference on “Doing Good, Doing Bad, Doing Nothing.”  Visit the IRAS website to find out more about what we are doing.  I also am the current president of the Center for Advanced Study in Religion and Science, which is IRAS’s partner in publishing Zygon.

In 1993 I was the founder and first president of the University Unitarian Universalist Society of Central Florida.  I now am a member of the Unitarian Society of Hartford and have served on  the Board of Directors.  I regularly attend with Marj her church, South Church (UCC) in Granby, and participate in some of its activities.

Now 73 years old, I find that my mind is still young even if my body does not keep up with it.  In memory I enjoy the richness of my life and all the people that are a part of it—a part of me—with gratitude.