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:

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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.

A Dark Tide in Human Affairs
Reimagining the Conceptual Foundation of Atheism
Death & Dying, Unbeliever Style
Beta Culture: The Long Shadow of Forgotten Gods

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