Arthur C Clarke called him “some kind of genius.” I recently got the chance to interview Bill Lauritzen, the author of The Invention Of God – which is a fascinating book that looks at how religion began – and how our ancestors interpreted the natural world as something supernatural.
What was the origin of your beliefs and how were you raised as a child? Did that affect how you feel about religion and science?
I was lucky because I never went to church as a child and my parents were agnostic, so that helped me to have an open-minded belief system. It made me very curious about religion – because I wasnt exposed to it. My father was a business man and my mother was a journalist, both fairly well educated. Niether one went to college however, my mother was self – educated, and that had a big influence on me. She was a very curious person.
What led you down this path as your got more curious? Any singular event?
One important event of great significance was in 1992. I went to a total eclipse in Hawaii, and I was more impressed by the volcanic structure of the island and seeing the lava turn into solid ground before my eyes – that had a big influence on me. It eventually led me to explore other volcanoes around the world and I realized how important they are in religion and mythology. In Hawaii, you can walk right up to the lava flow – there were no park rangers holding you back. Hawaiian volcanoes are called shield volcanoes, and later on I visited cone volcanoes – which are more explosive – in Southeast asia and Indonesia. One volcano in particular was Krakatoa, which exploded violently in 1883. The Child of Krakatao is now growing and will eventually explode. These are things the ancient people saw, and this affected their mythology and their worldview.
So your line of thinking is that we didn’t have the tools to explain natural phenomena?
We didnt have the elaborate, sophisticated science. Ancient people were proto-scientists. They didnt even have a word for religion. Their proto-science…It was a model of the world around them, and that developed later into alchemy…And finally into chemistry and physics.
Before electricity, volcanoes were one of the few sources of light in the world. You had lightning, the sun and moon, fire, and volcanoes. Primitive man tried to fit all this together into some whole cohesive theory, and basically came up with fire, air, earth, and water as a primitive science – which then led to the periodic table that we have today.
What are your theories about prophets – the people that claimed they spoke to God?
Well, it’s possible they thought the volcano was a God of the underworld, because they saw lava turning into land, and the land becoming fertile and growing things – they saw this happen, so they might have assumed it was a creator.
Have you thought that were might be an impending war between science and religion?
Nobody knows the future, but certainly there is conflict going on between the religious right and the rest of us, and I dont know that it will result in violence, but I do see social upheaval – primarily due to the great wealth inequalities, and as a result of the policies of the previous administrations. Again, nobody can predict it, but it will be interesting. People need to demistify these myths and defeat the fundamentalists.
Whats the best way to educate people in a way that doesn’t offend them, and still allows them to be spiritual, but to not be ostracized by their families and community?
My original intent with the book was not to offend people, but I don’t know how well it does that because I’m not reading it from a religious viewpoint. I don’t know that religion will ever be replaced with something else – I’m beginning to think that some form of religion is inevitable, and it is possible we could replace it with something more rational. That’s something im exploring right now. There are a lot of serious scientists trying to figure out why religion exists in the first place and why it evolved.
Do you see artificial intelligence becoming something like a God?
That is possible, of course people who know what AI is, I don’t think they are going to worship them. Perhaps common people would, and it is possible AI could declare itself a form of religious leader. Our concept of God keeps evolving, and you can always trump somebody elses concept of God by creating a bigger concept of God. Someone says Big Bang, then someone says “Well who created that?” We are here to do the best we can and develop models for the world around us…and to predict the best we can what will happen.
Have you done any research about ancient contact with extraterrestrials?
Of course, I’ve done research in that area, and the people who propose those ideas usually get all the publicity, but the books debunking their claims, they don’t get any publicity at all. People are always looking for an easy way out – that some mothership will come down and take us away. Its easier to believe in something like that than to study science and physics and make a breakthrough yourself. And then, who knows, actually build a starship. That would be the way to go – instead of waiting for somebody to rescue you from your situation.
Why is religion more popular than science?
Think about how many Christian bands and Christian radio stations there are. How come there are no atheist or science radio stations? Religion pays no taxes, which is ridiculous. It is also a lot easier to understand – its pretty simple. There’s one book to read instead of a thousand. It takes hard work to learn science. Church, you know, you just show up every Sunday, sing some songs, and go out to lunch afterwards
Do you think that scientists are too busy actually working on science to care about marketing? Or are there too many disparate branches of science to create a centralized message?
Science is more complex to understand, so I dont know that science will ever have that level of popularity. Every once in a while, they make a breakthrough and simplify things like Newton did, but it still takes a lot of work to understand it.
When you think about religion, it’s actually a very intelligent idea as a concept in history – have you ever thought that religious leaders are actually very intelligent and are good at the science of making people believe things?
I don’t consider them true scientists – because they dont have high ethical standards in reporting facts and results. They are more like really good businessmen. It’s never the uneducated people at the top.
What is your opinion on the future of education?
Good question. I see our country’s true salvation is education, not religion. We need to start using the internet more, and make it avaible to everyone in the inner cities. That may be my next book. It is a key thing that will keep our country strong and I dont think we are doing nearly enough in that realm.
William Lauritzen is a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He received a B.S. in psychology and graduated near the top 1% of his class. He was named “The Outstanding Graduate” in both psychology and philosophy. The Air Force sent him to an accelerated program to get a master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology at Purdue. At the age of 22, he received a master’s degree in Industrial Psychology from Purdue, specializing in Human Engineering Design. He was assigned to design and evaluate cockpits for jet aircraft, which he did for two years.
He wrote a paper on the Buckminsterfullerence molecule in 1994, and has created several innovative designs and insightful articles which combine cognitive science, mathematics, geometry, geodesic domes, archeology, anthropology, geology, oceanography,education, ancient Egypt, economics, and other subjects.
His designs include a new way of presenting and teaching the English alphabet (still under development), a new number system (a base-12 color-coded number system with new symbols), an educational word game (still under development), and Spacehenge.
Lauritzen teaches summers for the Center for Talented Youth of Johns Hopkins University. He lives in Los Angeles and New Mexico.