Rewinding Religion, Recreating Science

Any serious writer could tell you: Not everything you write ends up on a page somewhere. Some of the stuff just isn’t good enough. Some of it is good enough, but not germane to the piece you’re currently writing. And some of it is good enough but … just doesn’t fit anywhere.

This is a piece of a piece that never made it into my book. It’s sort of a double reject — the chapter in which it appeared was edited out of the book, but even before that decision was made, this bit was edited out of that chapter. Still, it struck me as worth saving. So, here:


What would happen if you re-ran human history? Say you rewound the tape of history back about 20,000 years, made a few changes just for the hell of it, and then started it running forward again?

Tell you what I think: The names and dates of pivotal historical events would be completely different. The major players of history would be different. Wars would be fought between some of the same groups but not others, and at different times than the ones of our history.

Literary fiction? Different. No Great Expectations, no Tom Sawyer. No Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Comparable works, certainly, but not those specific ones. Stephen King, if he existed, if he was a writer, would not be the author of The Shining, or Carrie, or It.

And religion would be different. There would be no Zeus or Mount Olympus. No Egyptian Book of the Dead. That Hindu cow-goddess would not exist. Neither would the Navajo Hero Twins.

Oh, there would probably be plenty of religions, and they would all have their books and mythologies, and a lot of it would seem similar. Considering the number of times virgin births and resurrections have happened in our own religions and mythologies, those memes are probably constants with humans, and would crop up over and over in the religions of the rewound world. But the religions themselves would be different. No Book of Mormon. No Scientology.

No Jehovah’s Witnesses … because no Jehovah. But also: No Bible, no Jesus. No Mohammed, no Koran, no Allah.

Why? Because all of these things are products of human culture. Their origins depend on countless chance incidents, unlikely beginnings and (un)lucky breaks. They grew out of pivotal moments, accidental encounters, random social forces, strangers on the road bumping into each other and sharing tales, the accidental ingestion of this or that hallucinogenic contaminant — all of which, with the tiniest of changes in their beginnings, would bring radically different results in their endings.

However …

There are some things that are not culture-dependent. Things that have nothing to do with the vagaries of human storytelling or mythology, but that depend rather on discoveries about the real world. Constants such as … oh, the properties of iron, or the usefulness of glass. The distance between the Earth and the Sun. The chemical makeup of water. The length of the year, the phases of the moon, and the progression of the seasons.

In any rewound and restarted history, geology would be the same. Given enough time, the people of every alternate history would discover or invent the science of geology. Not some other geology, or a similar geology, but the same geology we have. They might be a bit behind us or a bit ahead of us, they might have different cultural approaches to how they conveyed the information, but they would discover the same continental processes, the same vulcanism and sedimentation, the same uplifting and folding, the same elemental constituents of the rocks, the same method for the carving of the Grand Canyon.

Biology would be the same. Physics would be the same. Not just similar, the same. Pop a scientist from our track over into another one and — assuming he entered at an equivalent technological moment and had time to get up to speed on the vocabulary — he’d be able to talk to the scientists of that other track.

Run the experiment a dozen times, or a thousand.

Religion, just as it’s turned out different in all the various cultures of the world we live in, in 10,000 or more different present-day religions and uncountable numbers of past ones, would be different in every rewind.

But science, because it depends on real things, the real workings of the real world, would be the same.

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  • Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

    Pop a scientist from our track over into another one and — assuming he entered at an equivalent technological moment and had time to get up to speed on the vocabulary — he’d be able to talk to the scientists of that other track.

    I guess the scientists would all still be men, though.

  • EricJuve

    That is great, and so true!

  • John Gilbrough

    This wonderfully succinct argument should be in the first chapter of the next edition of “Humanism as the Next Step”. Maybe starting with the words: “Think about it…”.

  • Cory Brunson

    Huh. That is a great takedown of the popular myth of science as just-another-religion, and all the better because it doesn’t bother going to the trouble of allocating some dignity to the truth value of religion in the first place. Arguments against this myth are (memory tells me) often wrapped up in larger arguments about religions being human stories, but once we’ve established that the stories do have human origins there’s no point pretending that they’re not culturally dependent . . . so just dive in with rewinding the tape, and truth is what’s leftover after all the cultural baggage has been shed.

    If this is what got doubly rejected then i look forward to reading the stuff that got kept.

  • meanmike

    Sorry, a bit off topic, but when I first saw the title of this post I thought it said “Recreation Science”. Now that is something I could get behind.

  • http://naaaaaaa..... Ed Oleen

    Ummmmmmmm….. I don’t think things would be as different as you suspect…

    Try reading Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel and you’ll see what I mean…

    • Hank Fox

      Ed, when I think of one simple part of this, the unlikelihood of all the chance meetings in each of our family histories — you know, where an Alabama-born girl goes to Georgia with her father to buy some horses, and meets the boy who will become your grandfather at the auction, and then their son, the boy in the Navy who is stationed in San Diego for two months, and goes to a skating rink ONCE and meets your mother there, and on and on like that back through our histories — I think things would almost have to be very different in any rewound history.

      The tiniest change at any point would create huge ripples in who met, who got born, who had the descendant who went on to found a steel empire, who went on to establish a string of free public libraries, which helped educate and inspire the kid who invented the transistor, etc. etc. History is broad forces moving through society, but below that is the foundation of unique individuals who drive and guide those forces.

  • Surgoshan

    Science is a normative process. Were we to suffer a global catastrophe that wiped out our culture, our history, our science, something similar to the series of devastating plagues that wiped out the Native Americans, then we’d end up with radically different cultures, but the exact same science. Different vocabs, of course; there’d be Zipzorp’s Shnagle instead of Boyle’s Law, but it would still describe the relationship between the volume of and pressure exerted by a sample of gas at constant temperature.

    Science is normative because it’s a truth-seeking process. More importantly, it’s a truth-finding process. It has means and methods in place to eliminate bias and error and, not to get too X-Filesian on you, the truth is out there to find.

    We, like other animals, are learning creatures. After a hundred thousand years, through trial and error, we accumulated a small amount of knowledge and a whole lot of crap. After just four hundred years of dedicated, systematic, scientific research, we have accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge and shed metric fucktons of crap.

    Ask yourself this: With four hundred years effort and the scientific method, we have honed in on the truth. Why, with thousands of years of effort and exposure to the scientific method, has religion not done the same?

  • Gromek

    Circular much?

    • Tyler


  • Dunc

    The only problem I have with this is that I don’t think you appreciate just how much the invention of science itself was a contingent quirk of history. Sure, once you invent science it will converge, but that invention in the first place is just another one of those products of human culture.

  • Surgoshan

    Scientific convergent on the modern scale coincided with Bacon’s publishing/codification of the scientific method, but that was coincidental to the true cause of the scientific explosion: printing. The printing press and the cheap dissemination of information is what led to the scientific revolution. Also the enlightenment, the renaissance, and the reformation.

    The last one stands in direct contrast to the first, as religious unity relied upon a top-down control on information, strangling discussion and dissent. Whereas discussion allowed scientists to bring together their disparate information and hypotheses, to sift through the kruft and settle on truth, the opposite happened for religion. Discussion allowed the hypotheses and fantasies to multiply and divide and mutate.

    Science, being ultimately anchored to reality, always has a check on the mutation of ideas.

    Religion, being ultimately a fantasy, absolutely does not.


    I would love to read this series.

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