At one time in our lives we are going to have to decide what we think about how this all came to be. How was this all created and why am I alive? That is a pretty simple question. If we are thinking about anything, that thought has probably passed through our consciousness at least once. It might be the biggest question we can ask ourselves, or anyone else. It has certainly been asked often.
All of religion, philosophy, and science are built with that question as, at least, part of their foundation. One would think someone would have found the answer by now. No such luck.
So far, there is no answer to how or why we and our entire universe are here. No matter where you turn, philosophy, religion, science, logic, mathematics, instinct, intuition, guesswork, and hope, none will tell us how or why we, and all this, began. Here comes the fun part: Everybody thinks they have the answer. While philosophy, as she always has, will offer all ideas and their champions a home, science and contemporary Western religions are not agreeable on this subject.
Here is where we seem to start: In the beginning, either God created all of this or some type of “singularity” caused a universe-wide explosion, or a “quantum vacuum fluctuation” created everything, or maybe all three of them are responsible, or maybe some two of them, or maybe something happened we don’t know about yet. Aliens, perhaps? No, they would have the same problem. Who knows? Is it even possible to know?
Ideas about the beginning – cosmology — have grown from thoughts formed by awakened intellects long before recorded history. Pantheons of gods ruled the world thousands of years before the birth of Jesus from Nazareth.
All studied civilizations have had creation stories. The oldest, that we know of, is the Enuma Elish (The Seven Tablets of Creation). It is the Mesopotamian creation myth found at Ashur, Kish, Ashurbanipal‘s library at Nineveh, Sultantepe, and other excavated sites. It was dated at around 1100 BC, but it is believed that what was found are copies of a much older writing.
Archeologists and anthropologists have presented evidence that people who lived as long as 225,000 years ago buried their dead in rituals (British Archaeology, Aug. 2002). John Noble Wilford, in the article, “Neanderthals and the Dead,” New York Times (December 16, 2013), states, “at least 40 subsequent discoveries, a few as far from Europe as Israel and Iraq, appeared to suggest that Neanderthals, long thought of as brutish cave dwellers, actually had complex funeral practices.”
In the first quarter of the 6th century BCE, the beginning of Western philosophy and science began with a simple question: “What is all this made of?” Thales of Miletus, in Greek Ionia, is given credit by Aristotle, and everyone after, for being the first person in the Western tradition to ask questions about the fundamental substance of all being. We use Thales as the beginning of our natural philosophical and scientific tradition.
Since then the world’s knowledge has steadily advanced through the uniquely fertile minds of the Greeks and Romans until the advent of Christianity and the resulting period of decline from the 6th to the 14th centuries. Then a rebirth, a renaissance, initiated by an influx of books by ancient Greek and Muslim authors, found in Muslim libraries during the re-conquest of Spain, culminating in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, a profound thinker for Christendom, who shined a light on Aristotle’s writings and reconciled them with the doctrines of the Catholic Church.
Today, science and religion are viewed as autonomous studies who view and pursue their truths differently. It is widely believed that scientists are not religious and religious people are not very scientific.
The differences between science and religion can be found in the central assumptions and axioms of each and in their chosen methods of investigation. Religion relies on faith, sacredness, revelation and tradition. Science relies on observation, categorization, and reason. These differences in purpose and methods have led to the superficial view that science and Western religion have always been in conflict. What many people miss is that much of science has been done in countries with established religious societies by religious scientists.
Research over decades indicates that, although scientists are less religious than the general population, they are by no means godless. In 1914 psychologist James Leuba surveyed 1000 scientists in the United States and found 42% said they believed in a personal God, with an equal amount saying they did not. In 1996, Dr. Edward Larson, from the University of Georgia, asked the same number of scientists the exact same question and found nearly the same result. Dr. Larson found 40% of the scientists polled believed in a personal god, while 45% said they did not. In 2009, the PEW Research Center surveyed scientists and found 51% either believe in God (33%), or believe in a “universal spirit or higher power” (18%).
So, here we are at this moment at the pinnacle of human knowledge and understanding. The greatest minds who ever lived have given their opinions on cosmology. Let me see if I understand this.
Western theology, and particularly Christianity, says God created everything. God has always existed and God is responsible for all things. Why God exists and how God interacts with us is not fully understood. God is said to have revealed itself to people in different and conflicting ways and God has given people different and conflicting books with justifications for belief and rules for behavior. There are different and conflicting rewards for compliant behavior and different and conflicting punishments for noncompliant behavior.
Science, Western science, for our purposes, is tasked with understanding and explaining the origins of the universe from what evidence can be gathered from our little planet.
Science is working on the following problem: For no discernible reason, without a mind, with no goal, plan, method, expected outcome, or purpose, nothing decided to get together at the same place, or everywhere at the same time, for absolutely no reason, and create everything. How did this happen? Tough question.
There’s more. Before science can explain the universe, it must first explain how the very act of observing it is reliable, and in what ways, if any, observing it changes it. This might take some thought. There is no answer book for science.
What of that first instant of beginning? Is it even possible for science to work itself that far backwards? Religion is comfortable with its creation story and is making it functional for millions of people. Science must continue to search.
Christians trust, believe, their answers are found in the Bible through the revealed words of God. Science trusts, believes, in its methods of discovery and verification to find the causes of all things.
Are those two approaches mutually exclusive? That “big bang” thing, can it simply be God snapping its fingers? I don’t know. I don’t think I can know. I’m good with that. And, I definitely don’t think the people who say they know, can know either. As far as they do know, is not far enough.
Why is this important? Why all these words thrown at a subject that probably can’t be understood? Because the Christian religion is being hijacked by American politicians and to complete the coup, science is being marginalized as a godless pursuit.
Think about it, who won’t vote for the party of God? Even better, and we have all seen this before, the head of God’s party, speaks for God. Really, that’s better than controlling the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the presidency, forever.
Is it even possible for anything but an unholy alliance to exist between politicians and religious leaders? The Republicans are using proximity to legitimate faith in order to solicit and manipulate voters. Unfortunately, American Christians seem to be willing to march to their own demise. Politicized Christians miss the point that the very definition of politics is compromise. Exactly what tenants of Christianity are acceptable to compromise? I’m pretty sure I’m not the only sinner interested in the answer to that one.
Science will continue to work its verifiable miracles. Working within a system of investigation that prohibits faith from influencing outcomes, it must toil in the increasingly hostile atmosphere created by contentious political and faith-based movements.
In a country where politics is communicated by way of polar opposites, the very act of seeking scientifically verifiable facts is being painted as an assault on the Holy Word of God. If the Republican Party is successful in this dangerous game, there will clearly be new limits on God-less science, and a brand new, shiny, definition of what it means to be a good party Christian. The only thing sure to change from the alliance of Christians and politicians will be religion, and not for the better.
For decades Christians have been growing increasingly dissatisfied with organized religion. In the 2007 book, unChristian, Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman found the largest complaints about Christianity had very little to do with theology. The majority of complaints focused on perceptions that the church is anti-gay, judgmental, hypocritical, or “too involved in politics.”
Politics and religion are not a good match. This may be the century where Jesus of Nazareth gets killed off again. This time by his followers.
Mark Johnson is a freelance writer living in the high desert of Southern California. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from California State University, Los Angeles.