Why do we still think about God the way people did in biblical times when slavery was considered normal, women were subhuman chattel, and everyone believed the world was flat?
That old image of God is drastically out of sync with present reality — but it doesn’t have to be. Science and God can support each other if we are willing to rethink God in light of knowledge no one ever had before.
Unconscious evolution of God-ideas is inevitable, but conscious evolution of God-ideas always seems to be harshly discouraged. This has to change.
We’ve discovered that everything astronomers can see with the greatest instruments — all the stars, planets, and glowing gas clouds in our galaxy, and all the distant galaxies in the entire visible universe — total less than half of one percent of what’s out there.
Our universe is almost entirely made of two dynamic, invisible presences called dark matter and dark energy, which were unknown and undreamed of until the twentieth century.
For billions of years they have been in unending competition, with dark matter’s gravity pulling ordinary (atomic) matter together and dark energy flinging space apart. Their cosmic interaction with ordinary matter has spun the visible galaxies into being and created the only possible homes for the evolution of planets and life.
While science can’t tell us what God is, it can rule out the impossible — and really, nothing short of that will ever free us to discover a God that actually exists in the scientific universe.
What’s surprising is that the major source of conflict between religion and science is simply traditional theology — these are not things essential to our relationship to God, which is fortunate, since they’re all impossible.
So, here are five things we need to accept to truly understand God:
1. God could not have existed before the universe.
The whole history of the universe shows that complexity evolves from simplicity. At the Big Bang there was nothing but free particles and energy, not even atoms, yet over time atoms, galaxies, stars, elements, planets, and life slowly evolved. That’s how our universe works.
Something as complex as a God who could plan and create a universe could not have been there to start things off.
2. God did not create the universe.
There is no clear beginning to the universe. Cosmologists are continually pushing back the beginning. For a few decades it was thought to be the Big Bang, but a larger theory called “cosmic inflation” now explains what set up the initial conditions for the Big Bang, and cosmic inflation is now part of our origin story.
What caused cosmic inflation? A fascinating theory based on mathematical extrapolation but zero data describes a strange state of being called “eternal inflation” that may have come before cosmic inflation — and is still continuing outside our universe. There could be countless universes immersed in eternal inflation.
So where’s the beginning? Before eternity? That phrase doesn’t mean anything. If we insist that God can only be God by having created this universe, then we don’t understand what we’re crediting God with having created and never will.
3. God can not know everything.
In our universe, no consciousness can know everything, because there is no possible unified view. According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, events don’t happen in the same order for two travelers moving at close to the speed of light with respect to each other.
It’s not their perception: the same events really do happen in different orders in their frames of reference. So there is no absolute truth that God could even know. Much truth is local.
Furthermore — from any point of view — most of the universe is forever beyond contact. Every galaxy is surrounded by a cosmic horizon, because there hasn’t been time enough in the age of the universe for information to arrive from beyond the horizon — that’s what creates the horizon. Nor will it ever arrive, because the expansion of space is accelerating, pushing the most distant galaxies out of our sight over the cosmic horizon, emptying out the visible universe.
So no intelligence anywhere could ever know what was going on or had gone on “everywhere.” Nor could God “be everywhere” (and thus know all local knowledge) or God wouldn’t even be in touch with its own self.
4. God can not intend everything that happens.
At the level of elementary particles, nature is random, according to quantum physics, and the behavior of any single particle can never be predicted. Probabilities are all that can be predicted.
For example, physicists can predict the number of atoms in a gram of radium that will radioactively decay in the next minute, but not which atoms. On the larger scale of biology, evolution is also unpredictable in principle because it depends on random mutations interacting with a changing environment.
Consequently, no God could have “used” the process of evolution to create us, because if such a God had any intention before starting — for example, to create human beings — that would never be what ended up evolving. For the same reasons God couldn’t intend us, God can’t intend what happens to us.
5. God can not violate the laws of nature.
Nothing that exists in the real universe can violate the laws of nature, since what exists is an expression of those laws. The belief that God can violate the laws of nature is based on the assumption that the spiritual realm is somehow separate and independent from the physical universe, so God is unconstrained by physics.
Yet this nonphysical God can presumably reach across in some inexplicable way to affect events in the physical realm. This idea may have been attractive in an era when no one understood the nature of our universe, but that time is past. A God that resides outside our universe cannot have any contact with us. It can’t be our God.
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Many atheists think these impossibilities prove there is no God, but that conclusion doesn’t follow. We’ve merely stated what God can’t be. We haven’t considered yet what God could be.
We’ve all grown up so steeped in some tradition or another that it’s hard to grasp our chance to re-define the uncannily powerful word “God.” But we can do just that, and the wisdom — or fear — we use will play a leading role in shaping the future of our planet.
How do we begin?
With the bottom line. Once we let go of the grandiose, impossible claims, what is the essence that is still God? For me, to be worthy of being called “God,” God has to do for us the central things that the divine has always done: give us serenity, hope, confidence, and a big new perspective.
God has to nurture our aspirations and open our minds and hearts so we can feel our deep ties to each other, to the future, to our planet, and to this astonishing universe. God must inspire our personal quest for meaning and bravery in an often frightening world and give us common ground. Less than that is not worthy of being called God. But more than that is unnecessary.
If we humans are ever going to have a God capable of helping us survive in the long term, we have to take more responsibility for discerning what it is or might be. We need a God that connects us spiritually to the real universe and can guide our globally connected species toward a long-term and honorable civilization.