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Dr. Connie Bertka, Ph.D. (Co-Chair)
Science and Society Resources
Thoughts on Human Origins
Unitarian Universalism is a religion with no creed. We UUs span a broad spectrum, which includes atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, Humanist, Christian and more. We share a historical lineage with Protestant Christianity but now celebrate the reality that our individual beliefs draw from many religious traditions. We choose to define our communities instead by our shared values. A favorite of mine is our commitment to a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” For me this commitment encourages a worldview that embraces both religious and secular opportunities for greater understanding, yet acknowledges the challenge of living, always, with incomplete understanding.
As a scientist, and a theist, I find in Unitarian Universalism a tradition that at its best encourages an ongoing conversation between science and theology. Like most, if not all, Unitarian Universalists I not only accept an evolutionary origin of all living things, but also celebrate the awareness it can awaken in us that we are part of “an interdependent web of existence.” We are not alone, even when we think otherwise. As a theist in the UU tradition I am free to draw insights from the reality of evolution for my/our always incomplete understanding of God. I find in that exploration both challenges and reasons to rejoice, ponder the possibilities inherent in a creation that by past events, but by its very nature is ongoing with yet to be revealed potential.
Reflections on The Age of Humans (the Anthropocene)
In my experience of the field of science and religion, at both the popular and the academic level, there is one subject that is widely recognized as likely to benefit from the insights of both disciplines, namely the environment. Accepting the idea of an Anthropocene epoch is recognizing the fact that humanity, through the very process of becoming human, has contributed on a global scale to the alteration of Earth’s environment. This alteration comes with a cost for all life. Becoming human has meant developing and utilizing increasingly sophisticated technology with greater possibilities for larger environmental impacts. Becoming human has also meant developing the capacity for symbolic thought and the ability to contemplate our past and future not only from a scientific understanding of our world, but also from the context of a variety of cultural and religious perspectives. When it comes to acting on the understanding we have gained through science, including whether or not we accept the conclusions of the scientific community, we often rely on our cultural and religious perspectives to guide and inspire us. No wonder many acknowledge the importance of both science and religion in addressing challenges to Earth’s environment.
The evolutionary process that led to Homo sapiens over deep time unites all life on Earth and also reminds us that modern humans are the sole surviving human species. These realities can encourage a wider and deeper understanding of the word “family” then the way we commonly understand this word. What human group is really “other”, less worthy of the concern we afford those closer to us in time or space? What do we owe non-human life? These questions can resonate with the insights of religious traditions. The Unitarian Universalist tradition affirms “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” The Anthropocene reminds us that a holistic respect for the interdependent web requires not only acceptance of the fact, but continually wrestling with choosing actions that reflect concern for a wider family whose members are distant geographically and may follow us in time. This is a daunting task. Today’s immediate to do list can be overwhelming enough without the burden of looking ever further forward and outward. But could what is daunting today become more commonplace tomorrow?
In the history of human ideas the Anthropocene is a relatively new idea. The environmental impacts of living in the Anthropocene will continue to be felt by our descendants and us. We will have choices to make about possible actions to lessen those impacts or respond to them. When we fail to choose our actions with a broader definition of family in mind we will undoubtedly experience loss, but for some time at least we may have a chance to try again with the next decision. Science alone is not going to assure we choose correctly, we need cultural and religious inspiration as well. Becoming human is still a work in progress.