This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.
Many religions have creation stories. The Judeo-Christian creation stories are found in the first chapters of Genesis, which is the first book of the Bible. There is no need to repeat the Genesis stories here. It can be agreed that there are some metaphorical or analogical correspondences between the Genesis stories and our best science. But those analogies assume highly abstract non-literal interpretations of Genesis.
Some Christians do want to reconcile Genesis with our best science. Among Protestants, of the leading exponents of Evolutionary Christianity is Michael Dowd. His book, Thank God for Evolution (2009), argues that the real meaning of Genesis is entirely compatible with our best physics and biology. Among Catholics, writers like Thomas Berry argue that the scientific creation story is also the Catholic creation story. However, these Christians will always be scientifically limited by their commitment to the Bible.
However, Christian fundamentalists (and many evangelicals) assert that the Bible must be read as literally as possible and that its literal meaning is true. They assert that the creation stories in Genesis are literally true. Of course, any literal or even near literal reading of the Genesis stories directly contradicts our best scientific understanding of the origins and history of the universe. Conservative Christians therefore oppose science. In its place, they offer pseudo-science, such as intelligent design. As the result of this opposition, many scientifically minded people reject Christianity. Many people have been driven to atheism by the irrational insistence of conservative Christians on the literal or near-literal truth of the Genesis creation stories. Fortunately, Wiccans are not Christians.
Wiccans do not subscribe to the Christian creation stories in Genesis. Since they reject the authority of the Bible, they need not try to interpret it either literally or figuratively. The Bible is irrelevant for Wiccans. Nevertheless, Wiccans have their own creation stories. It will be useful to compare them with the scientific account of the universe.
Since Wiccan metaphysics is so deeply interested in energy, and since the Big Bang can be thought of as an explosion of pure energy, Wiccans can happily endorse the idea that our universe began billions of years ago with the Big Bang. Silver Elder summarizes and endorses the Big Bang and the standard evolutionary story of the universe (2011: 37-38). To be sure, Silver Elder is no scientist, and her writing is sloppy. She affirms that “our universe began as a seething mass of energy . . . Within a fraction of a second, this pure energy exploded into matter and eventually grew large enough to encompass All That Is” (2011: 37). She writes that “We are part of the Universe in origin and evolution . . . We are part of this ever expanding energy field” (2011: 38).
The Farrars endorse the notion of a cosmic evolution which includes but exceeds biological evolution by natural selection. They have a metaphysics involving various Neoplatonic levels of existence (material, spiritual, etc.). Evolution is occuring on all these levels. For them, all reality, on all levels, is evolving. Thus: “Evolution . . . does not merely mean Darwinism (though Darwin certainly defined one of the ways, on one of the levels, in which cosmic evolution expresses itself). It is the continuing process by which the ultimate creative force of the universe manifests itself ‘downwards’ through the levels, with increasing complexity, and is itself enriched by the experience of that complexity” (1981: 136). Thus the Farrars affirm the evolution of complexity in the material universe, including the Darwinian theory of the evolution of biological complexity on earth. MacMorgan is a Wiccan with biological training who insists that, since Wicca is a nature religion, all incompatabilities with science must be excluded from Wicca. She strongly endorses Darwinian evolution and strongly opposes intelligent design (2003: 164-185).
On the basis of these texts, it seems fair to say that Wiccans affirm the scientific story of the origin and history of our universe. They agree with evolution (even if they enlarge it in ways that scientific naturalists cannot endorse). Nevertheless, Wiccans do have an ultimate deity as well as their god and goddess – and these must play some roles in any properly Wiccan story of the origin and history of universe. Wiccans will interpret the scientific story religiously. Cunningham provides an interesting Wiccan interpretation of the scientific story. He is explicit that he is using the scientific story to make a myth and that his mythic presentation is merely poetry (2004: 119). His creation myth goes like this:
Before time was, there was The One; The One was all, and all was The One.
And the vast expanse known as the universe was The One, all wise, all-pervading, all-powerful, eternally changing.
And space moved. The One molded energy into twin forms, equal but opposite, fashioning the Goddess and God from The One and of The One.
The Goddess and God stretched and gave thanks to The One, but darkness surrounded them. They were alone, solitary save for The One.
So they formed energy into gasses and gasses into suns and planets and moons; they sprinkled the universe with whirling globes and so all was given shape by the hands of the Goddess and God.
Light arose and the sky was illuminated by a billion suns. And the Goddess and God, satisfied by their works, rejoiced and loved, and were one.
From their union sprang the seeds of all life, and of the human race, so that we might achieve incarnation upon the earth.
The Goddess chose the moon as her symbol, and the God the sun as his symbol, to remind the inhabitants of the earth of their fashioners.
All are born, live, die, and are reborn beneath the sun and moon; all things come to pass there under, and all occurs with the blessings of The One, as has been the way of existence before time was. (Cunningham, 2004: 123).
The Cunningham myth looks somewhat like a Neoplatonic creation story in which the emanation follows an arrow of time. Cunningham uses the Neoplatonic term “The One” for the ultimate deity. However, since Cunningham describes The One as “wise”, it is not The One of Plotinus and it is not natural creative power. Indeed, Cunningham’s story looks less Neoplatonic and more Stoic – it looks like the pantheism presented in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum (On the Nature of the Gods). And yet, on his presentation, The One looks far too much like the Christian God. Given their deep rejection of Christianity, it is doubtful that many Wiccans would accept it. As expected, he also portrays both the god and goddess as designers. His story is far too close to theistic evolution (even if it is not intelligent design). Although the myth presented by Cunningham is far closer to natural science than the myths in Genesis, it is obviously not acceptable to atheists. It involves scientifically erroneous and theologically idolatrous projections of human and personal features into a process which is entirely inhuman and impersonal.
Of course, it is entirely reasonable for Cunningham to return to his earlier explicit assertion that he is merely making up some poetry. He does not present his story as scientific truth and he is clear that “This is not, I repeat, not sacred writ, nor does it consist of revealed writing” (2004: 119). His only intention is to “spark your imagination” (2004: 119). His story is part of his Book of Shadows, which is a Wiccan religious diary. Every Wiccan is encouraged to have his or her own individualized Book of Shadows; there is no standard document. And Cunningham urges you to “alter anything for any reason” (2004: 119). Criticisms of his creation story should serve as the basis for improved versions. Obviously, this is entirely different from the Christian approach to Genesis. Christians will not encourage you to re-write the Bible – the Bible fixed forever.
It has been argued that neurotypical human brains have strong tendencies to see all activities in terms of agency. Human sociality depends on the ability to understand other human animals as having minds like your own. For some brains, this tendency to see all activities as manifestation of agency is so intense that it is erroneously over-generalized: some brains project minds into things that have no inner mentality. Some brains may be neurologically hardwired in such ways that they cannot avoid animistic projections. They may be hardwired to see spirits in nature (Guthrie, 1993). If that is right, religious projections will not be stopped by the mere declaration that they are false. Merely pointing out that an optical illusion is an illusion does not prevent the brain from experiencing the illusion as if it were reality. The same holds for more deeply cognitive illusions. If stories involving animistic projections cannot be avoided, then presumably some semi-scientific myth like the one given by Cunningham is superior to the myths found in Genesis.
Any atheist who is inspired either by scientific naturalism or the desire to avoid idolatry will (and should) insist that we must fight against mythical personifications. We are obligated to overcome the errors of our brains. For these atheists, mythical projections, like graven images, are forbidden. If Cunningham is right that Wicca encourages its adherents to have their own Books of Shadows, then an atheistic Book of Shadows would not contain any false or idolatrous projections. An atheistic Wicca is therefore possible. An atheistic Wiccan might use Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (1980) as his or her creation story. Or an atheistic Wiccan might use the wonderful books by Eric Chaisson, namely, Cosmic Evolution (2001) and Epic of Evolution (2006). Some atheistic Wiccans might even use Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near (2005).
Buckland, R. (1986) Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft (Llewellyn’s Practical Magick). Second Edition Revised and Expanded. St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.
Chaisson, E. (2001) Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Chaisson, E. (2006) Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos. New York: Columbia University Press.
Cunningham, S. (2004) Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul, MI: Llewellyn Publications.
Dowd, M. (2009) Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. New York: Penguin.
Farrar, J. & Farrar, S. (1981) A Witches’ Bible. Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing.
Guthrie, S. (1993) Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kurzweil, R. (2005) The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Viking.
MacMorgan, K. (2003) Wicca 334: Further Advanced Topics in Wiccan Belief. New York: iUniverse Inc.
Sagan, C. (1980) Cosmos. New York: Random House.
Silver Elder (2011) Wiccan Celebrations. Winchester, UK: Moon Books.