Andrew Cohen and evolutionary enlightenment

I’m teaching a course this semester on religion and science fiction, which I’m using as a lens for helping students recognize various ways that people in modern societies conceive of the relationship between religion and science. As we get started, I’m introducing students to Ian Barbour’s now-classic typology of different ways to conceptualize the science-religion relationship: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. As I write this, I’m in the middle of preparing an in-class exercise where I’ll give students selections from recent American texts representing Barbour’s four categories; students will then categorize the texts.

The Barbour text we’re using to introduce the categories points to Christian examples of integration (natural theology, process theology), but I wanted to give students something that would represent more of a New Age approach–discourse about evolution and spirituality, the interconnectedness of nature, energy flows, etc. As I was poking around online for an example, I found my way to the work of Andrew Z. Cohen, whom I had never heard of but who is apparently big enough that the Huffington Post was willing to give him a platform. As a cultural artifact, his work intrigues me because it is bent toward integrating evolutionary biology with the soteriology shared by Hinduism and Buddhism, i.e., enlightenment/liberation as an escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth (moksha). Basically, Cohen argues that science has disproved the notion of cyclical time, although he bows to traditional doctrines of moksha as a kind of culturally appropriate partial grasping of the truth; enlightenment should therefore be reconceived, not as liberation from the world but as participation in the transformation of the world, what Cohen calls Evolutionary Enlightenment. He overtly touts this new approach to enlightenment as superior to the old not only because the new is compatible with modern science but also because the new approach, unlike the old, is not escapist (an appeal which points to the premium placed on activism in American culture).

Andrew Z. Cohen, “The Evolution of Enlightenment” (Huffington Post)

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