Over the tens of thousands of years of human existence, human cultures have developed much knowledge about creating and maintaining good relationships and building communities. In the development of human society over the last 100,000 years, humans moved from simple hunter-gatherer tribes to societies of increasing complexity and size. The large and complex societies of the last few thousand years do not function well without moral principles such as charity, empathy, honesty, and respect for life and personal property.
The great religions of all the major cultures have accumulated insights into human living and interactions over the generations and developed the moral rules that are essential to modern society and as more people more fully live these moral principles, people’s lives have significantly improved. The moral teachings of the great religions have tremendous value in teaching us how to live together, and how to attain enlightenment, contentment, and happiness. Religion even provides much value and meaning to even non-adherents – secular notions of morality originally started from religious ideas about morality.
But in spite of the great value we can derive from religion, the great teachings of the world religions are also intertwined with ancient pre-modern cosmologies (cosmology is the study of the universe and humanity’s place in it) of decreasing relevance to us in light of modern scientific discoveries. The world’s major religions were founded in pre-modern times by people with radically different cosmologies than our modern conceptions. Many of the doctrines, practices, and teachings of modern religions are thus based on pre-modern cosmologies founded on superstitious beliefs and practices; they are based on false premises and assumptions about the world which we now know to be wrong.
For example, at the time of the founding of the great religions of the world, many of those religions’ adherents believed that the world was flat or that it was at the center of the universe. Biblical cosmology presupposes that the Earth is a flat disc floating in water.1 For biblical writers, heaven was a literal place just above the sky and hell was a literal place just below the ground. In Acts in the New Testament when Jesus ascends to heaven, Jesus is going to a literal place just above the sky. When John writes in Revelation about Jesus returning to Earth, he is talking about Jesus descending from a literal place located just above the sky. When the Bible talks about hell, it is referring to a literal place just below the ground that is the abode of departed spirits.2 The Bible presupposes a geocentric model of the universe, in which the Earth sits at the center and everything else, including the Sun, revolves around the Earth.3 Many of these types of passages are now interpreted metaphorically, but their writers’ literally believed them.
Our ancestors based their cosmologies on rudimentary observations of the world around them and then combined their observations with doctrines from religious teachers and culturally-inherited superstitious notions about unseen actors and forces. Modern scientific cosmology is based on fields such as astronomy and physics. The breakthroughs in modern cosmology frequently require advanced math; sophisticated tools, such as telescopes and particle accelerators; and a knowledge of past discoveries (because one lifetime is not enough for one person alone to figure out all the wonders of the universe).
Much of what our ancestors believed about cosmology is plainly contradicted by what we have discovered about the universe. When the teachings of the great religions are based on the premises of a false cosmology, then the teachings themselves should be suspect – there is no reason to believe a conclusion based on a false premise.
In Part 2, I’ll talk about the problems with taking a literal approach to religious teachings