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Essay in August, 1998 issue of Astronomy
by Thomas L. Diana
Humans have maintained belief in a Creator ever since being able to ask the question, "Where did we come from?" As our knowledge of the physical sciences has increased, however, the need to resort to God as a causal agent has steadily decreased. There appears to be little in the area of cosmology that cannot be explained by natural laws. A more likely question may be, "How can one still believe in God given our understanding of the cosmos?"
Early civilizations believed that many gods inhabited the earth and heavens. Each was responsible for managing his or her specific realm. They had a direct and immediate effect on our lives. At best, we could attempt to appease them. After we moved from an anamistic to a mechanical model of the universe, many of these spirits were exorcised. We no longer needed supernatural explanations for natural phenomena.
Humans long believed that the earth was seated at the center of the universe. Everything revolved around us. Although the Copernican revolution eventually shifted us from a geocentric to a heliocentric model of the universe, our world maintained a relatively central location in a fairly small domain. It was only during this century that certain "nebulae" were discovered to be galaxies like our own, receding from us at tremendous rates of speed. As the Big Bang model gained acceptance, we found ourselves further displaced from our privileged position in the cosmos. We have been reduced to infinitesimal beings in a vast, expanding universe to which there is no center.
Many theologians saw no problem with the Big Bang theory. It mattered little if the universe began as a singularity of fundamental particles. Our primordial soup still needed a chef. God's throne simply needed to be relocated. However, quantum mechanics has seriously challenged the necessity of a Prime Mover. Quantum fluctuation allows for the possibility of particles emerging out of a vacuum. God was not even needed to create the conditions prior to the Big Bang! Besides, it seemed absurd to speak of a Being before being.
One of the most compelling arguments for belief in a Creator has been the observation that our universe is structured in such a way that life was able to emerge at all. If the universe's rate of expansion or the values of the gravitational, electromagnetic, or nuclear forces exceeded specific parameters, we would not be here to ask such thoughtful questions as the one posed here. The extraordinarily precise conditions necessary for life to develop appear to be incredible.
Presently, inflationary theory has reduced the need to impose such finely calibrated conditions prior to the Big Bang. We are therefore less compelled to invoke the Anthropic Principle, suggesting that this magnificent universe was specifically designed for us or that it exists as it does because we are here to observe it. This could simply be viewed as another attempt to reinstate our special position in the cosmos.
So how can we as intelligent and informed individuals continue to believe in God? By abandoning some of the narrow doctrines we have embraced throughout history! It is now very difficult to maintain an anthropomorphic notion of God a a being in heaven, creator and ruler of the universe. But knowledge of modern physics does not preclude the belief in God as spirit. Intellectual achievement has not eradicated the need for spiritual fulfillment.
The roots of spirituality are to be found in our consciousness. Once certain portions of the universe developed self-awareness, it irrevocably altered what we could consider "natural." A schizm was created beteen subject and object, inner and outer. These opposing poles maintain an interdependent relationship. One directly affects the other. For instance, as our consciousness develops, so does our understanding of the cosmos. Changes in accepted beliefs about the universe directly impact how we view ourselves. This, in turn, affects our interpretation of events around us and how we approach them. The cycle continues. In this sense, we impart as much meaning to the universe as we derive from it.
Our evolving consciousness has allowed us to direct our attention beyond that which we can actually observe. We look past mere appearances in search of a deeper meaning that may lie within (or behind) the thing itself. This is reflected in our belief in a transcendent God, one who exists beyond space and time. Although physical laws have predominantly replaced the supernatural as an explanatory principle, our tendency to transcend the observable remains as prevalent in theoretical physics as it does in theology. We create hypothetical constructs to explain events that we cannot directly experience. These constructs are accepted as real as long as they comply with our theories.
Our ability to extend our range of understanding and influence has allowed us to accomplish very much. Unfortunately, it has also made us acutely aware of our separation from the world. Our mastery over nature has estranged us from it. We attempt to reestablish the sense of connection or grounding that has been lost. These efforts lead many people to believe in an immanent God. Rather than being infinitely removed and essentially unknowable, this God resides immediately in and around us. We can look to be inspired (i.e., filled with spirit, breath) in our daily lives.
Most cultures have developed elaborate rituals and established guides to assist people in their search for the spiritual. Through specific practices, some people are able to experience moments that profoundly affect them. These experiences have often been described as creating a sense of oneness with the universe. The distinction between inner and outer disappears. Time is altered. We feel a sense of awe and humility in the face of a power far greater than ourselves. Many of us have achieved the same effect by silently gazing at a starlit sky. Our current knowledge about the universe in no way diminishes this experience. If anything, it adds to our sense of wonder at the tremendous beauty and complexity that exists around us.