“Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Science and the Book of Genesis
We're going to tell a big story in these pages, and it helps to begin at the beginning.
I've posted in the Lazar Observatory Gallery an image of the Eagle Nebula, more famously known as the Pillars of Creation, with an appropriately Biblical caption underneath.
While I'm not religious, that one image makes it very difficult to remain an atheist. There is something going on here that stirs the soul - inexplicably, because our ape minds should not find such things beautiful. Yet here we are, awestruck. This is the Book of Genesis told in pictures.
What’s astounding is how closely the days of Genesis parallel our scientific understanding of what actually happened.
If we call one Biblical Day equivalent to a bit less than a billion years on average, the story goes like this:
First, there is darkness. Then clouds of cold gas and dust fall inwards from the formless void, compressing and igniting the Solar nuclear furnace: Let There Be Light. Day One. Check.
Then the solar winds sweep away the remaining gas and dust, and the Earth is formed, much like in the image at left. Day Two. Check.
Then the waters and the dry land cover the Earth. Immediately, the planet is host to life: as soon as the surface is no longer molten, we have fossil evidence for living organisms. Algae. Plankton. Bacteria. How did the ancients know? Day Three. Check.
Then, astoundingly, God takes a hiatus from Earth. For three billion years, not much happens. God is busy creating the stars and the Moon in the sky. Plankton, algae, and bacteria rule the planet. Boring. Day Four. Check.
And then, just when you least expect it, the Cambrian Explosion – the sudden emergence 500 million years ago of animal life. “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life” – all that swims, crawls, slithers, and creeps. We have no idea why it took 3 billion years of waiting and then less than 25 million years to make all the animal designs we know today. Truly a mind-boggling mystery. Day Five. Check, check, check.
Finally, intelligent life. Life that is capable of reflecting upon itself and God, and capable of having a conversation with God. Curiosity that creates telescopes and images that show the Universe as an ongoing creation, far outstripping our mental capacity to fully appreciate it. Day Six. Check.
Notice that there is no mysticism here – no feathered serpents, lotus flowers, talking salamanders, or Turtles All The Way Down. Just sober science told in the most stirring poetry ever.
Science and God
How do you reconcile modern scientific sensibilities with religious belief?
I see three ways to go about it.
First, you can simply believe. You can accept revealed truth as presented by the holy scripture of your choice, and participate in the rituals of the religion of your choice. The benefits of belief are many: a moral code to live by, a sense of purpose and certainty of one's place in the Universe, possibly an afterlife better than this one, and social acceptance, protection, and support from the tribe.
How many people truly believe, as opposed to just going through the motions in order to gain the benefits, is unclear. But we’re told that 84% of humanity identifies with a religious group.
Or you can reject belief in a deity and go the atheist route, as have about 10% of the world’s population (at least openly). The benefits are primarily honesty and authenticity – the whole God thing seems like such a charade at times, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, as a card-carrying member of the latter group, I can attest to the severe downside of atheism: Life Sucks and Then You Die. There is no purpose, either to yourself or the Universe. We’re not going anywhere. This is all she wrote. Dust to dust.
Many have taken a third way, striving for a balance between accepting scientific knowledge while professing some belief in God. This is becoming the prevalent mode in developed countries, especially Europe.
But I’m not satisfied with the way this view is presented. It seems fundamentally a cop-out: I get to have my cake and eat it, too. Science explains everything until the proverbial miracle occurs and we must invoke God. In this view, science and religion are not connected; they don’t talk to one another, and neither side understands the other. They exist compartmentalized in different parts of our brain, unreconciled.
Is there yet another way? A way out that bestows upon us the benefits of spiritual belief while maintaining our scientific honesty and authenticity? A way that reconciles a belief in God with our understanding of modern science, but more importantly allows the two sides to accept and understand each other – and on their own terms?
We’re about to set off on an enlightened journey in these pages to find out. I think the answer is a resounding “Yes”, but pitfalls abound. Muddled thinking, tribal instincts, and avoidance of discomfort befall most who enter here. It’s easy to get lost, and easier to just choose a side.
So now that we have begun at the beginning, let’s go on until we come to the end.
The Ground Rules
Before we proceed, it would help to set some ground rules.
Rule #1: Thou shalt not violate any scientific principle, or invent new science.
Many who follow a spiritual path succumb to mythology, hoaxes, and muddled pseudo-scientific wishful thinking. This is a grave danger, and we will be constantly on the lookout for it. No one is immune. One can only fight it.
But we have one thing in our favor: “The Universe is cool enough without having to make up crap about it,” famously said Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy.
Rule #2: Thou shalt clearly mark speculation as such.
We will do lots and lots of speculating in these pages, oh yes we will. That’s what makes it fun. But we will clearly label up-front when the speculation is unsupported by a strict interpretation of science (i.e., there’s no scientific evidence for it) – although such speculation is supported by reason and logic, and not contradicted by any observations, or in violation of Rule #1.
Rule #3: Thou shalt not get thine undergarments in a bunch.
Almost by definition, our chosen topic will offend both sides. The scientists among you will scoff at the theological speculations, and the fundamentalists will chafe at the sciency bits. (Wait ‘till you read what I say about Darwin and Religion in the next chapter.)
It's easy to demonize the other side's extremes. It's cheap to debunk or evangelize, as your preference might be, but this tends to add more heat than light to the discussion.
I ask that you resist. We are not enemies. The other side is not ignorant or evil. We are all in this together. There is common ground, if you allow.
<Continue to Part 2 >