"God" is a word. If we define it, even subconsciously, as something that cannot exist in our universe, we banish the idea of God from our reality and throw away all possibility of incorporating a potent spiritual metaphor into a truly coherent big picture. But if we take seriously the reliable — and, thus, invaluable — scientific and historical knowledge we now possess, we can redefine God in a radically new and empowering way that expands our thinking and could help motivate and unite us in the dangerous era humanity is entering.
For more than 30 years, I have had a ringside seat to one of the most exciting scientific revolutions of our time, the revolution in cosmology. In the 1970s, the great cosmological mystery was this: If the Big Bang was symmetrical in all directions, why isn't the expanding universe today just a bigger soup of particles? Instead, beautiful spiral and elliptical galaxies are scattered throughout, but not randomly; they lie along invisible filaments, like glitter tossed on lines of glue. Where several big filaments intersect, great clusters of galaxies have formed. Why? What happened to the soup? Where did all this structure come from?
My husband, Joel R. Primack, is one of the creators of the theory of cold dark matter, which answers these questions by telling us that everything astronomers can see — including all the stars, planets and glowing gas clouds in our galaxy, and all the distant galaxies — is less than half of 1 percent of the contents of the universe. The universe turns out to be almost entirely made of two dynamic, invisible presences unknown and undreamed of until the 20th century: dark matter (invisible matter not made of atoms or the parts of atoms) and dark energy (the energy causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate). They have been in competition with each other for billions of years, 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, thus, created the only possible homes for the evolution of planets and life.
Over the decades, as data confirming this story began to trickle — then pour — in from telescopes and satellites, I kept wondering: What does it mean for us humans that we're not living in the universe we thought we were in? Today, astronomers worldwide accept the double dark theory as the modern story of the universe, but they have not answered this question. Someone must.
Does God have to be part of our understanding of the universe? No. But if scientists tell the public that they have to choose between God and science, most people will choose God, which leads to denialism, hostility to science and the profoundly dangerous mental incoherence in modern society that fosters depression and conflict. Meanwhile, many of those who choose science find themselves without any way of thinking that can give them access to their own spiritual potential. What we need is a coherent big picture that is completely consistent with — and even inspired by — science, yet provides an empowering way of rethinking God that provides the human and social benefits without the fantasy. How can we get this?
Science can never tell us with certainty what's true, since there's always the possibility that some future discovery will rule it out. But science can often tell us with certainty what's not true. It can rule out the impossible. Galileo, for example, showed with his telescope that the medieval picture of earth as the center of heavenly crystal spheres could not be true, even though he could not prove that the earth moves around the sun. Whenever scientists produce the evidence that convincingly rules out the impossible, there's no point in arguing. It's over. Grace lies in accepting and recalculating. That's how science moves forward.
What if we thought this way about God? What if we took the evidence of a new cosmic reality seriously and became willing to rule out the impossible? What would be left?
We can have a real God if we let go of what makes it unreal. I am only interested in God if it's real. If it isn't real, there's nothing to talk about. But I don't mean real like a table, or a feeling, or a test score, or a star. Those are real in normal earthbound experience. I mean real in the full scientific picture of our double dark universe, our planet, our biology and our moment in history.
These are characteristics of a God that can't be real:
God existed before the universe.
God created the universe.
God knows everything.
God intends everything that happens.
God can choose to violate the laws of nature.
I explain in my book, A God That Could Be Real, why physically each of these is impossible, but I don't think the scientific readers of this blog need that. The point I want to make here is that this list pretty much agrees with most atheists' reasons for dismissing the existence of God. But this is no place to stop. 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 religious tradition or other, whether we've accepted it or rebelled against it, that it's hard to grasp that the chance to redefine God is actually in our hands. But it is, and the way we do it will play a leading role in shaping the future of our planet.
To me, this is the key question: Could anything actually exist in this universe that is worthy of being called God? My answer is yes, and in my next blog post I'll explain what I mean by "a God that could be real."
Nancy Ellen Abrams is an author, musician, lawyer and philosopher. Her latest book A God That Could Be Real, was released in March 2015. You can find her here and on Twitter: @cosmicsociety.