Although my website is called ratio scientiae, which is knowledge of the physical world, in today’s post we are going to indulge in some crossover with ratio sapientiae, which is knowledge of the divinity. And what better place to start something that deals with the divinity than with the universe.
As I have written in a previous essay, the universe is insanely big. The furthest object that humanity has launched into space is the voyager-1 probe, which has taken 45 years travelling at 35,000 miles per hour to be 22 light hours away from Earth. By comparison the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is 4.24 light years away from Earth. Our galaxy, The Milky Way, is 105,000 light years wide. The nearest galaxy to ours, the Andromeda Galaxy, is 2.5 million light years away. Andromeda, our galaxy, and others are part of a group of galaxies called the Virgo supercluster which is 110 million light years wide. The Virgo supercluster is part of an even larger structure of superclusters of galaxies called the Pisces-Cetus Supercluster Complex which stretches 1 billion light years across space, and is one of tens of thousands of such structures in the universe. The visible universe extends more than 13 billion light years away from Earth in all directions, and it contains more than 7 trillion galaxies, 30 billion trillion stars, and as many planets.
So my question is: Biblically speaking, what is the point of this immense humongously ginormous vastness?
The Bible doesn’t say much about the universe beyond the understanding of people living one of two thousand years ago. Stars in the Bible were nothing more than points of light (nowhere is it mentioned they are suns), and their purpose, along with that of the sun and the moon, is to give light upon the Earth and separate the day/light from night/darkness, and for signs and for seasons, and for days and years (Genesis 1:14-18). But this Earth-centric view of the cosmos can only apply to the universe visible with the unaided eye, which comprises about 10,000 distinct stars, so it begs the question as to the purpose of the rest of the universe which was invisible to the ancients. Additionally, considering that just in our galaxy there are at least millions of Earth-like planets orbiting sun-like stars, another issue about which the Bible doesn’t say much is whether there are intelligent beings other than us in the universe.
Of course, because we are speculating about the motivations of the divinity, there can be many answers to this question. For example, you can argue that indeed is only us in the universe and that God created all that immensity that we have uncovered with telescopes to make us feel humble, and there is no way to refute this argument short of being contacted by extraterrestrials. However, as far as I’m concerned, all those billions upon billions of galaxies, and even more stars and planets seem to me like a waste of creation effort if the sole purpose of creation is us. It also seems to me statistically unlikely that we are alone in the universe.
You would expect that now that humanity has attained advanced knowledge about the universe, God would provide us with an update more attuned to our level of understanding of the cosmos. However, according to Roman Catholic and most protestant faiths, all of God’s revelation is contained in the Bible and no new revelation will be forthcoming.
This is not to say that all Christians accept this premise. A notable example is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS Church (The Mormons), which states that revelation is still occurring. Whereas the Bible says nothing about the new world (the Americas), the Mormons believe that people from Jerusalem came to the Americas and that Jesus visited them after he rose from the grave and taught them the Christian Gospel. Then this information was revealed to their prophet, Joseph Smith, who wrote it into what was to become the Book of Mormon in 1830. A remarkable revelation within the Mormon canon is the doctrine of eternal progression where humans have the potential to become gods and engage in acts of creation giving rise to new populated worlds. And these acts of creation are ongoing. Some of these created worlds have passed away, others such as ours are still extant, while many others are in the process of being birthed.
Thus the LDS Church seems to offer an explanation for the size of the universe and whether there are other intelligent beings out there, although other Christians disagree. Additionally, the Mormon cosmology is not completely compatible with current scientific ideas about the universe. Nevertheless, the Mormon claims seem to me at least a step in the right direction towards providing that much needed update, because the Bible, in view of our present knowledge of the universe, comes across as a highly parochial account of the cosmos, which has not even begun to play catch up with other accounts such as that of the Mormon faith. But I think that this will change.
Now I will proceed to make my prediction/prophesy for the ages.
Unless humanity is destroyed say by a collision of Earth with a large asteroid or some other calamity (in which case doctrinarian Christians will be vindicated), humanity will sooner or later begin its trek towards the stars. At first it will be baby steps such as bases and then settlements on the Moon and Mars and perhaps even some of the moons of Jupiter or other planets such as Saturn. Then, if we can develop the technology to cover the vast distances of space, even if it is with generational ships or some form of suspended animation of the crews of these ships, we may actually begin travelling to the nearest stars.
So, lo and behold! As what I have outlined above unfolds, I predict that in the future within the mainstream Christian religions someone will claim that they have received new revelation from God, a gospel for the space age if you will, which may even include an apparition by Jesus himself. And in this new revelation the questions I have raised in this essay will be answered and a new plan will be revealed for humanity to be fruitful, multiply, and expand into the cosmos where they will meet other intelligent beings. This claim will be attacked by mainstream Christian churches, but it will spread like wildfire and become the leading Christian religion of the space age.
When will this happen? I don’t know. It may be in 10, 100, 1000 or more years, but if it happens, let future generations know that people in this century read about it here first!
Image by R. Halfpaap from flickr is used here under an Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0) license and has not been modified from the original.
On a recent trip in the Midwest, as I was perusing the tourist brochures in a stand of the hotel where I was staying, I spotted one that read: “Creation Museum, Prepare to Believe”. I shook my head and sighed. Creationism has been around for a while. But the building of modern-looking museums where creationist can present their case to the people is a more recent development that probably reflects the sad state of acceptance of misinformation and rejection of facts and reason that currently prevails in our society.
I have addressed the topic of creationism several times in my blog. Creationists believe the Bible to be the literal word of God. Therefore, when they perceive there is an apparent contradiction between science and their interpretation of the Bible, they choose their interpretation of the Bible.
While many people and religious denominations understand that there are sections of the Bible that are not to be taken literally, creationists are wary of this notion. They argue that it is tantamount to human beings deciding what parts of the word of God they will believe, and they see this just as a recipe for distorting God’s message. They also ask, “Where do we draw the line?” If one passage is declared not to be the literal word of God, and then another, and another, where does it stop? Creationists also argue that God would not lie to us. If God communicated in the Bible that something happened, or if we can infer it from his words, then it must be true.
While some people may roll their eyes at these arguments, they are certainly not trivial. Faith is central to the lives of creationists. They see any belittling of the word of God (the Bible) as anathema to their faith, and people who hold creationist views represent a strong and motivated economic and political block in our society. It would be to everyone’s advantage if the conflict between creationists and science could be resolved, and heaping scorn upon creationists does not help. In fact, many creationists are actually eager to find ways to reconcile their faith with mainstream science. But how do we go about this?
There is a possible resolution to this conundrum that has been proposed by several individuals in various versions over the years. In this post I will try to convey my own version of this proposal.
Although people believe that the general message in the Bible is timeless, the book is clearly addressed to people living thousands of years ago who didn’t have the understanding or the thinking about the world that we have today. But how was God to address those people?
Look at it from the point of view of God. God wanted to get key points across such as love each other, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, and so forth, but at the same time God had to provide a background to address certain common-sense issues such as how everything started, how it’s going, how it works, and how it will end. But God couldn’t do this employing the comprehension of the natural world we have today, as it would just have created confusion and bewilderment among those people. God would have had to introduce new terms such as genes, chromosomes, cells, mutations, species, evolution, deep time, plate tectonics, the fact that stars are suns, supernovas, gravity, the speed of light, etc. to describe realities that were alien to the beliefs and notions those people had regarding how the world works. It would have been counterproductive for God to dwell on complex subjects beyond the understanding of the people of those times. So the solution was to simplify the message, present it at their level of understanding, frame it within the context of their commonly held beliefs, and then move on to the really important things.
Believing that the Bible is the literal word of God is perfectly compatible with this view. The world was not created in seven days and is not six thousand years old. Life arose on Earth by a process of evolution, and there was not a universal flood. However, God communicated otherwise to the people of those times so they could relate to what he was saying in a manner compatible with their understanding and beliefs about the world around them.
There are several levels of what we call “the truth”. When we greatly simplify things for our children and explain issues and things in ways that they can understand, you could argue that we are “lying” to them because we are not conveying the actual complex, detailed truth. But it is unfair to say we are lying to them because they would not understand or relate to the truth if we were to explain it to them at the adult level. Similarly, the intention of God was not to lie, but to make the Bible accessible to the people of those times who had a limited understanding of their physical world.
And as to the Creationist question of where do we draw the line, my answer is that we draw it at science. When God inspired human beings to write the Bible, God did not intend to teach science. The Bible is not a science textbook. The Bible is not intended to teach natural history. Pronouncements about how the physical world works are not the warp and woof of the Bible. That’s the realm of science. The Bible is about how to go to heaven, not about how the heavens go. The Bible is about the Rock of Ages, not about the age of rocks.
Science has limits. It cannot tell us what is good or bad, moral or immoral, ethical or unethical. That’s the field of expertise of the Bible and religion. As a scientist I accept that science has these limits. However, at the same time, the Bible has limits too, and creationists have to accept this. The Bible cannot tell us accurate truths about the chemistry, biology, and physics of the natural world beyond the understanding of people who lived a long time ago. Science and religion have different fields of expertise or non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), as proposed by the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.
Our use of science has to be tempered by values, morals, and ethics, which most of the time have their origins in religion, but what we choose to believe has to be tempered by science. Science and religion have to coexist and work together, not be adversarial, and I hope that the particular view of the Bible that others and I have proposed gains acceptance among creationist circles.
Photograph by the author can only be used with permission.
I recently went to Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee and visited several of its waterfalls including the magnificent Fall Creek Falls, which is the tallest free-falling waterfall in the Eastern United States (see below).
When I visit a place such as Fall Creek Falls, I like to enjoy the immediate beauty of the area which I can perceive through my eyes, but I also like to place what I see around me in the context of the scientific knowledge we have about the place.
The park is part of a geological area in Tennessee that is called the Cumberland Plateau which rises about 1,000 feet over the Tennessee River Valley. Several of the limestone, dolomite, and shale rocks in the Cumberland Plateau started out as sediments deposited in a swallow sea 360-320 million years ago. And from 320 to 300 million years ago the erosion of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which once were as tall as the Rocky Mountains, also contributed sand and pebbles to the area. Over millions of years the sediments were compacted (lithified) into rocks and the whole area experienced an uplifting event which led to the creation of swift streams that carved out gorges in the plateau creating beautiful waterfalls such as Fall Creek Falls.
When I stand near Fall Creek Falls, I am standing in an area that hundreds of millions of years ago was a tropical sea. And when I look at some of the rocks under the waterfall, I am looking at sediments that came from the summits of mighty mountains. Isn’t that amazing? Doesn’t that knowledge increase our sense of wonder about the place? It does so for me, but my enjoyment was dampened a bit when I saw that some of the park signs had been vandalized in a particular way.
Signs everywhere are often vandalized by individuals for different reasons, but I noticed that the sign next to Fall Creek Falls (as well as other signs in the park) had one word crossed out: the word “millions”. And in this particular sign, the word “thousands” had been scratched in below. Clearly the person defacing the sign had a problem with the sign alluding to geologic formations “millions of years old” feeling that the proper description should have been “thousands of years old”. Who would this person be and why would they choose to vandalize the sign in this way?
Although I have no definite proof, I presume that the individual(s) who vandalized this and other signs in the park believe in creationism. Other persons who have read these signs have arrived at the same conclusion.
Creationists are people who adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible and believe in several things that are contrary to scientific evidence such as that the Earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 thousand years old, that there was a universal flood that covered much of the Earth, and that all living things were created at the same time, and therefore human beings coexisted with dinosaurs. In recent years, creationists have framed the refusal of mainstream science to accept their views while promoting the teaching of evolution in schools as an attack on religion and the imposition of atheism. This is not true, but I have dealt with creationists before in my blog, so I am not going to repeat myself in this post. However, I do want to address the issue behind the vandalism. How do we know the Earth is much older than 6,000 years? There are many ways to figure this out, but I will only talk about two of them here.
I have already mentioned in the Interesting Stuff section of my website that one of the methods scientists use to determine the age of rocks is radiometric dating. Radioactive elements decompose into other elements at fixed rates, and by measuring the proportion of both the parent and daughter elements in the rocks, scientists can find out when these rocks were formed. The results repeatedly obtained by many scientists using these techniques applied in many areas of the Earth is that the oldest rocks of our planet are billions of years old. This result has also been obtained when radiometric techniques were applied to meteorites and moon rocks. Creationists argue that radiometric techniques rely on false assumptions and have seized on mistakes made by some scientists to discredit these techniques. However, not only have creationist arguments been refuted, but many examples abound of rocks that have been carefully analyzed and found to be much older than creationist claims.
Another way to figure out that the Earth is much older than 6,000 to 10,00 years is using the science from plate tectonics. The continents of the Earth are sitting on top of areas of the Earth’s crust called plates that move over the Earth’s mantle very slowly. Some continents that were connected in the past, such as North America and Africa, have since moved away from each other, while India has crashed into Asia giving rise to the Himalayan Mountains. The rate of movement of these plates nowadays can be measured by GPS and it is in the order of 0.6 to 10 centimeters per year. If you calculate the thousands of miles that the continents must have travelled at these slow rates, you arrive at figures in the tens to hundreds of millions of years. Creationists claim (with no evidence) that plate movement was much faster in the past, but to pack all that movement of colossal landmasses into a span of a few thousand years would be impossible from a physical point of view.
The error in the creationist beliefs comes from using the Bible as a textbook of natural history, which it is not. To express this in a couple of sentences. The Bible is about how to go to heaven, not about how the heavens go. The Bible is about the rock of ages, not about the age of rocks. Creationists do a disservice not only to science but also to religion itself when using the Bible in this way. All the evidence we have clearly points to a very old Earth where most changes in the landscape have taken millions upon millions of years.
And vandalizing park signs is not going to change that.
The photographs belong to the author and can only be used with permission.
Although this is a science blog, I often address instances when belief clashes with science. I subscribe to the notion that religion and science have expertise over different areas and should be kept separate as per the concept of non-overlapping magisteria advocated by the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. But I recognize there will be cases where that separation becomes fuzzy or unworkable. I have made the point several times in my blog that science is the best method we have to discover the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us, and this is not an opinion. The success of science in discovering how the natural world works is plain for all but the most irrational skeptics to see. However, at the same time I accept that science cannot operate in a vacuum, and we have to contend with the reality of belief. In these trying times when we are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, one of the crucial guidelines that scientists have issued to our population is the need for social distancing and avoiding crowds to reduce the spread of the virus. This guideline is derived from our knowledge of how the virus spreads.
Because of this I was shocked when I saw the video below.
This woman, who had just attended a church gathering where dozens of people hugged and assembled inside, has the firm conviction that the virus won’t infect her, and that she will not give it to others, because Jesus is protecting her.
Most people will criticize the belief of this woman and her congregation and view them intellectually in unflattering terms. However, I understand the need that people have for religion, especially during trying times such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact this is nothing new. For millennia, human beings have invoked the deity to help them overcome challenges. I also understand that for many individuals, psychological well-being is often as important as physical well-being. This is not to say that all religious congregations have responded in the way this one did. The majority are offering virtual religious services and other activities that follow social distancing guidelines. But there are a substantial number that are still refusing, and these can (and have) become hot beds of virus spread. However, I don’t think this is solely a religious issue.
In the United States, there is a distrust of government among many people. Any ordinance that in any way limits freedom is viewed with suspicion. If you include that there is the belief among some religious groups that a war is being waged on Christianity by atheists aligned with liberal organizations that wish to spread socialism and destroy the American way of life, you begin to get the idea of what may really be transpiring behind this opposition to common sense safety rules that interfere with regular worship. To this, of course, you must add the delegitimization of science that has taken place in our society, and the rise of antiscience movements such as those that advocate opposition to vaccination and climate change denial or the acceptance of conspiracy theories ranging from 911 and chemtrails to the flat Earth.
I believe, however, that there are ways to harmonize belief with science. If you look at the video of the woman again, you can see that she is wearing a seat belt. This makes sense, as science has generated evidence that seat belts along with air bags save lives during collisions. The woman probably doesn’t even think about this when she adjusts her seat belt upon entering the car. She also probably doesn’t even consider driving without a seat belt expecting Jesus to protect her in case of a crash. Additionally, the church she attends probably has lighting rods on top of the roof to protect the building and the people inside from lighting. It is likely that no one in the congregation has even considered removing the lightning rods and relying just on their faith in Jesus to protect the church. So there are clearly science-derived safety measures that these people accept. Why not then accept the safety measures against the coronavirus?
While it’s true that, unlike the acceptance of seat belts or lighting rods, the social distancing guidelines impose a serious restriction in their ability to worship, in essence the occurrence of a viral pandemic is not different from a lighting strike: they are both natural phenomena. Car crashes are a more artificial situation, but they can be rationalized in terms of collisions among moving bodies (a physical phenomenon). If these people have accepted, or at least don’t question, the science and the necessity behind seat belts lighting rods and other such safety measures in their daily lives, how can we convince them that the safety measures against the virus are no different?
As it turns out, many religious congregations, including some that share the same brand of Christianity as that of the woman in the video, have already taken care of this issue. They argue that God has responded to our prayers to keep us safe by giving us science, and through science we can understand how the world works and react accordingly. Viewed from this vantage point, applying our God-given science to come up with safety guidelines for the coronavirus is no different from applying it to come up with things like seat belts or lighting rods. No conspiracy. No attack on Christianity, No atheism or socialism. Science does not have an ideology. Science is a tool, and it the right hands it can be used for good.
Of course, the above argument that God has given us science is a religious argument and therefore outside the scope of science. But if it means having people accept safety measures that will save lives, I am all for it. Rather than condemn and berate these people for their beliefs, I am of the opinion that the best way to proceed is to search for individuals whom these religious denominations will trust, and have them deliver this argument. Then it can be worked out how to adapt the coronavirus safety guidelines to meet the needs of these religious congregations.
Image by geralt from pixabay is for public use.