“The fact that most Americans think the country would be better off if more Americans were religious shows that many of those who believe religion is losing its influence may think this is a negative state of affairs,” Gallup said in its statement. About 77 percent of Americans said religion is “losing its influence” on American life, while only 20 percent said religion has gained in influence. The latest responses represent some of the worst ratings given to religion’s role since 1969 and 1970, during the Vietnam War and in the midst of countercultural movements around politics and sexuality. — Jaweed Kaleem

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/29/religions-influence-us_n_3354499.html?utm_hp_ref=religion

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A majority of Americans believe that religion’s influence in the nation is waning, yet also think society would be better off if more Americans were religious, according to a new survey.

The results, released Wednesday by Gallup, represent some of the lowest ratings Americans have given to religious influence in the United States since the organization first began asking about the subject more than 40 years ago.

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The numbers are similar to responses given in recent years about the role of religion in the U.S., but the gap has gradually widened between how many believe religion’s influence is increasing and how many believe it’s decreasing. Only in the year after the Sept. 11 attacks and in 2005 were Americans more likely to believe the national role of religion was increasing.

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“In general, highly religious Americans are neither more nor less likely to say religion is losing its influence than those who are not religious. There is, however, a modest relationship between Americans’ ideology as well as partisanship and their views of the influence of religion,

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with liberals and Democrats more likely than conservatives and Republicans to say religion’s influence is increasing in American society,”

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the group said in a statement.

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In tandem with that downward trend, about 75 percent of respondents also said it would be good if more Americans were religious. This belief was more prevalent among Americans who regularly go to church and who said religion is important in their lives.

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But the survey also found that more than half of respondents who “seldom or never attend” a place of worship and “close to one in three Americans who say religion is not important to them personally” said

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society would benefit if more Americans were religious.

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and yet, pundit Nigel Barber says atheism can replace religion   —

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nigel-barber/can-atheism-really-replace-religion_b_3355172.html?utm_hp_ref=science

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The world is going secular.  Nothing short of an ice age can stop it.

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My blogs on this topic generated millions of hits and plenty of skepticism.  Resistance to overwhelming scientific evidence for the decline in religion is nothing new.  Objections come from religious people and some atheists who argue that there will always be weak people, unlike them, who need religion.  Does either camp have a point?

In the past, some social scientists pushed back against the idea that economic development promoted atheism — the secularization thesis.  In recent years, the pattern became so clear that not even the most myopic social scientist could miss it.

The generalization that more developed countries are more secular is every bit as clear as the generalization that developed countries have smaller families.  It is not impossible for people in modern societies to have large families, of course.  It is just unusual.  Similarly, it is not impossible for individuals to be deeply religious in developed countries.  They are just thin on the ground.

Why Development Chills Religion

In my book Why Atheism Will Replace Religion, I lay out the evidence that religion (however measured) is in sharp decline in the most developed countries that enjoy the highest standard of living for most of the people, namely social democracies such as Japan and Sweden.  It persists in undeveloped regions like sub-Saharan Africa.

The perceived importance of religion (or religiosity) declines predictably with development (however measured), allowing one to predict how long it will take for religion to become unimportant for the majority of the global population.  It will take approximately a quarter-century.  This boils down to about a 1-percent decline of religiosity each year.

Why is the global population turning secular?  To answer this question, it helps to understand the emotional function of  religious beliefs and rituals.  Religion calms distress and thus functions like the security blanket from which a child derives comfort when upset.

The market for religious comfort is strongest in the most miserable places in the world, where life is hard, life expectancy is short and life can be expunged at any moment by infectious diseases, violent criminals, starvation, brutal political leaders or natural disasters.

In the most advanced social democracies, the quality of life is much better, with expectations of good health and long life expectancy.  There is less need of the security blanket of religion, and its emotional functions are supplanted by medication, psychotherapy, sport and entertainment.

So the answer to the question of whether atheism can replace religion is clearly “yes.”  It not only can replace religion but has done so in the most advanced social democracies, such as Sweden and Japan.

The Counterargument

Secularization is real, but many religious people are loath to accept the facts, because it means that they are about to be on the wrong side of history.

Opponents point to the persistence of prophetic movements, new religions such as Mormonism, violent religious extremism and so forth, yet such phenomena are signs of rapid social change.  Extremist sects are historical flashes in the pan, and those that survive become more moderate and mainstream — as Mormonism is doing.

Other objections involve rarified theological claims about the meaning and purpose of life, the existence of God and so forth that are irrelevant to the secularization debate.  Perhaps the silliest of these ideas is the argument that a gambling skeptic should put some money on God’s existence just to avoid being wrong after death.

Can Secularization Reverse?

So economic development is weakening religion around the world.  If the global economy went into a tailspin maintained over many decades, religion would unflatten itself like a cartoon animal after meeting a steam roller. Yet that is distinctly unlikely.

Global economic growth is on a torrid upward path that is being accelerated by  technology, urbanization and globalized trade.  The world is going secular.  Nothing short of an ice age can stop it.

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seth-shostak/how-ordinary-are-we_b_3332736.html?utm_hp_ref=science

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How ordinary are we earthlings?

It’s the default premise in science: If you observe something in nature only once, you assume that what you’ve seen is typical.  That’s because “typical” is just another way of saying “most probable.”

Consequently, ever since Copernicus redrew the blueprint of the cosmos nearly five centuries ago, we’ve assumed that there would be other planets that resemble ours, situated in solar systems like our own.

Well, in 1995, we finally found a planet in someone else’s solar system, and it deep-sixed the default assumption. This world was unlike any planet we knew.  51 Peg b, with at least half the mass of Jupiter, raced around its sun in only 4 days.  Compare that to tiny Mercury — the speediest member of the Sun’s brood — which takes 88 days to orbit once.

51 Peg b was unexpected, and so were many of the worlds uncovered in the first decade of exoplanet discovery.  Lots of so-called hot Jupiters were found, massive, gaseous bodies that pirouetted around their host stars in orbits that were often as tight as that of 51 Peg b. More recently, thousands of so-called super-Earths have been discovered — planets somewhat larger than our own, and without peer among our solar system siblings.

These results are surprising: but they are also discomfiting.  Could it be that our planet isn’t typical at all?  If so, then maybe life isn’t typical either.  On the other hand, if there are plenty of planets similar to Earth, we can reasonably hope for lots of cosmic company.

The mission of NASA’s Kepler telescope is to lift the scales from our eyes, and reveal to us just how typical our home world is.  Kepler operates by measuring the dimming of stars as planets pass (“transit”) in front of them.  It has found thousands of previously unknown worlds.

But the space telescope’s holy grail is to answer a straightforward question: What fraction of stars have Earth-size worlds in the so-called habitable zone — where temperatures would allow liquid oceans.  Is it one in ten, one in a billion, or what?

It’s because of the simplicity and importance of this goal, and the excellent chance of reaching it, that I routinely say that Kepler is the most exciting research experiment going.  Sure, my statement would probably start a brawl in a bar full of scientists.  But that, at least, would be memorable.

Be that as it may, if you follow the science news you’ve heard that Kepler is in trouble.  A reaction wheel — an essential component for pointing the telescope — is bedeviled by friction and has stopped.  This is the second of four such wheels to fail.  Since three are needed to keep the telescope accurately aimed, Kepler’s keepers have shut the instrument down.  They hope that a series of commands that torque the wheels will clear the material from the bearings.  If that happens, the mission will collect new data for at least another year.

But what about the darker scenario?  What if Kepler’s data-taking days are over?  Will it still have answered Question Number One: what fraction of Sun-like stars have Earth-size planets in the habitable zone?

Jon Jenkins, a senior scientist at the SETI Institute and analysis lead for the Kepler mission, offers a simple reply: “Yes.”

“We all have reason to be optimistic that we can find that fraction,” Jenkins says.  “The only question is how much uncertainty will be in the number.”

A large part of Jenkins’ optimism derives from the fact that there are still two year’s worth of data in the Kepler pipeline.  Even if the instrument never takes another measurement, those data are in hand — and they will be sufficient to address Kepler’s prime directive.

Can we guess today what that fraction might be?  A separate analysis of the first few years’ of Kepler measures by Courtney Dressing and David Charbonneau at Harvard indicate that 15 percent of very small stars, called red dwarfs, host planets in the habitable zone.  That’s an astoundingly large fraction, and it’s quite possible that Sun-like stars don’t have such a high percentage of planets that might be biology friendly.

But we’ll have to wait and see.  The answer will come — reaction-wheel fix or no — within a year or two, as the data analysis continues.

It’s tempting to guess that answer of course, and there’s a betting pool in my office doing just that.  But as Bill Borucki, a NASA space scientist and the man behind the Kepler project says, “If you don’t have the data, you’re speculating.  You could get an equally valid answer by just asking an astrologer.  We know we’re missing small planets, and we need to bring them out of the noise.  For now, any estimate of the fraction of Sun-like stars with habitable zone planets is pure speculation.”

So yes, the jury’s out, but a verdict is guaranteed.  The technical glitch that has sidelined Kepler won’t dull its luster.  As Jenkins emphasizes, “In the grand scheme of things, we’ll get the answers we seek.  Only the error bars will be a little larger.”

“It’s the difference between using a crayon and using a Sharpie — we’ll still be able to see the picture.”

Then we’ll know whether our planet is typical, or as odd as a polar bear in Palm Springs.

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/t-thorn-coyle/why-i-am-not-a-believer_b_3394044.html

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“Perceive first, believe later.” — Victor H. Anderson

When I say I am not a believer, it doesn’t mean I believe nothing. It is that belief is not central to my religious and spiritual life. As a matter of fact, belief holds little importance to me at all. Belief doesn’t structure my experience; my experience structures what few beliefs I might have.

My spiritual life consists of praxis first, theoria second. Any theories I hold are simply there to explain — or give context to — experience. Sometimes gnosis enters on a flash of synaptic lighting, but the pathway is usually opened by practice first. The times when this process is reversed, it is still practice that shows me whether or not the flash of insight was an aberration. Like the scientific jolt that happens in the bathtub or while stepping on a city bus: after the big event, we return to the processes that test and compare.

To paraphrase Joseph Campbell: I don’t need belief because I have experience. I can have profoundly moving experiences of deities, or swimming in a sea of light and connection, or have a deep intuitive insight into someone else. I might come up with theories based on these experiences over time, and test these against other people’s. I can hold all of this, and still recognize that tomorrow, some new information may come along to change my mind. I can hold all of this, and know that I am holding one drop in a great ocean. I can set my skeptic aside and feel the power of my experiences of the numinous without feeling the need to build a creed around them.

We humans are storytellers. Stories apply meaning to our experiences. This is a good thing. There is truth in our stories, as well as exploration, and a connection to the line of past and future.  When story becomes concretized into an unshakable belief or faith, however, humans run into trouble. We forget that the cosmos is in process. We forget that we don’t hold the whole truth, but only one facet of it. Forgetting that story is a teacher and connector — an explanation of experience and not a thing — means that we run the risk of thinking our story is the story. From this certainty rises intolerance, xenophobia, hatred, even war.

Our stories interlock, all trying to explain the mysterious, trying to understand what is just beyond our grasp. They are always incomplete, but pointing to some reality. Until germs became proven, we needed several stories to explain the phenomenon of germs. Not being a believer offers flexibility to my experience of Mystery. Not being a believer keeps the door of possibility open.

The most succinct way I have found to explain the lack of rationality in the midst of spiritual experiences is to remind myself: “Love is not only dopamine.” I don’t need to believe in love because I experience love. Love is partially a set of chemical responses that affect my emotions, but it is also something more. Love is ineffable. So is how I feel while staring at the night sky, or my experience in the midst of ritual when I call out, and something Other shows up and I am not the only one who experiences it.

My rational brain makes sense of all this by remembering that there are many things we cannot yet explain. The glory of the cosmos is a marvelous thing that causes me to feel a sense of awe. Music transports me when the musicians are in the groove with each other, the music and the audience, and something special just appears. This “something special” is what I name The Sacred. It is holy. None of this requires belief. The numinous arrives, and something in me changes. This can happen during ritual, during prayer or at any other moment.

Are we open to these experiences because of a certain predilection, or because prayer, ritual or meditation have activated certain pathways in our brains? Yes. Are we open to that experience because we are singing in a room together, or gathered around a bonfire on a beach at night, and this has altered us emotionally? Of course! Chemistry meets physiology meets emotionality which, in my experience, touches Mystery.

And sometimes, in the midst of making love, I speak in tongues. There is nothing to believe about that. It simply is.

 

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/theodicy-why-is-there-so-much-suffering-in-the-midst-of-an-omnipotent-god-dont-think-dont-be-limited-merely-by-what-youre-been-told-that-you-others/

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http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=images+theodicy&qpvt=images+theodicy&FORM=IGRE#view=detail&id=7879D58B29E75A52909E5B4B0283B4928EB2ED56&selectedIndex=12

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http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=images+theodicy&qpvt=images+theodicy&FORM=IGRE#view=detail&id=4D50EEABCE9610853EB14537E1974F42E3055380&selectedIndex=34

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http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=images+theodicy&qpvt=images+theodicy&FORM=IGRE#view=detail&id=CABE982861A8BC8FA95BCFCE221AD259CD94AC87&selectedIndex=7

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http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2013/03/why-is-there-something-instead-of-nothing/

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Does the universe have a purpose? I am not sure. Anyone who expresses a more definitive response to the question is claiming access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations…. To assert that the universe has a purpose implies the universe has intent. And intent implies a desired outcome. But who would do the desiring? And what would a desired outcome be? That carbon-based life is inevitable? Or that sentient primates are life’s neurological pinnacle? Are answers to these questions even possible without expressing a profound bias of human sentiment? Of course humans were not around to ask these questions for 99.9999% of cosmic history. So if the purpose of the universe was to create humans then the cosmos was embarrassingly inefficient about it.

And if a further purpose of the universe was to create a fertile cradle for life, then our cosmic environment has got an odd way of showing it. Life on Earth, during more than 3.5 billion years of existence, has been persistently assaulted by natural sources of mayhem, death, and destruction. Ecological devastation exacted by volcanoes, climate change, earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, pestilence, and especially killer asteroids have left extinct 99.9% of all species that have ever lived here.

How about human life itself? If you are religious, you might declare that the purpose of life is to serve God. But if you’re one of the 100 billion bacteria living and working in a single centimeter of our lower intestine (rivaling, by the way, the total number of humans who have ever been born) you would give an entirely different answer. You might instead say that the purpose of human life is to provide you with a dark, but idyllic, anaerobic habitat of fecal matter.

So in the absence of human hubris, and after we filter out the delusional assessments it promotes within us, the universe looks more and more random. Whenever events that are purported to occur in our best interest are as numerous as other events that would just as soon kill us, then intent is hard, if not impossible, to assert. So while I cannot claim to know for sure whether or not the universe has a purpose, the case against it is strong, and visible to anyone who sees the universe as it is rather than as they wish it to be.

— Neil deGrasse Tyson

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/atheism-naturalism/

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https://curtisnarimatsu.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/stephen-hawking-closed-his-speech-by-outlining-m-theory-which-is-based-partly-on-ideas-put-forward-years-ago-by-another-famed-physicist-caltechs-richard-feynman-hawking-sees-that-theor/

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I remember as a child when I first sensed the power of the word “Why?” Those three letters can transform parent-child interactions. When a parent says, “It’s time to go to bed,” a child old enough to invoke that simple question has a powerful ally: Why? “Because if you don’t go to bed, you’ll be tired in the morning.” Why? “Because your body needs sleep to feel rested.” Why? “Because that’s the way our bodies are.” Why? “Because of how humans evolved.” Why? That small word can become quickly wearisome.

There are a few different ways of extricating yourself from such scenarios. For the exasperated parent or childcare worker, one option, of course, is the classic “Because I said so — that’s why.” For the more philosophically inclined parent, who doesn’t mind perplexing young children, an existential response might be to shrug your shoulders, and say, “Why not?” And there’s always the industrious response of, “I’ll take you to the library tomorrow and you can find out for yourself.” Or perhaps for the twenty-first century parent, you can just tell your kid: “I don’t know. Here’s my iPad. Google it.”

Setting aside these tricks of parental jujitsu, I do remember feeling a shift inside myself as a child when I first asked a second follow-up question of “Why” instead of simply accepting the initial answer. You need to eat your vegetables. Why? Because they are good for you. Why? Because your body needs many different foods to stay healthy? Why?

At some point, I moved from sensing the power of the word “Why” to realizing that there is no end to the number of times that the word “Why?” could be asked. Some of us have even carried this relentless habit of asking “Why” into adulthood. And there are advantages to a healthy skepticism. For instance, the so-called “common sense” answer to the question of “What should the U.S. do about our growing national debt?” is “cut spending.” But regular readers of The New York Times know that columnist Paul Krugman has for many months now been asking Why? He thinks that cutting spending is precisely the wrong approach for saving the economy.

Similarly, the Unitarian Universalist Association, selects one book for all Unitarian Universalists to discuss as a “Common Read.” This year’s selection is Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. Alexander was not content to simply observe the high rates of mass incarceration, especially among African-American males. She asked, “Why?” Likewise, as I’ll explore in depth in a post next week, questions of “Why?” are also finally being asked widely about the carnage caused in our country each year from gun violence. Stepping back and asking “Why” can expose that sometimes there aren’t good reasons for why things are the way they are. And the question “Why” can be more than just an annoying infinite regression. Asking “Why?” can unlock new perspectives that can potentially change the status quo.

The Templeton Foundation is a philanthropic organization that funds research into asking the “Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality” — the sorts of Big Questions that you quickly reach if you keep asking “Why?” One of their projects brought together a group of 12 leading thinkers and asked them to respond in 500 words or less to the question “Does the Universe have a Purpose?” The Templeton Foundation then summarized their answers into short titles. Because they are so succinct, I’ll list all 12. In response to the question“Does the Universe have a Purpose?” respondents wrote “Unlikely. Very Likely. Yes. Yes. Yes. Certainly. No. No. Not Sure. Perhaps. Indeed. [And] I Hope So.”

For me, one of the most compelling responses was the one you quoted at the top of this post from Neil deGrasse Tyson. I appreciate the honesty of his answer: “I’m not sure.” Concerning all our questions of “Why,” Tyson reminds us that, “humans were not around to ask these questions for 99.9999% of cosmic history. So if the purpose of the universe was to create humans then the cosmos was embarrassingly inefficient about it.” He continues that, “if a further purpose of the universe was to create a fertile cradle for life, then our cosmic environment has got an odd way of showing it…. Ecological devastation exacted by volcanoes, climate change, earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, pestilence, and especially killer asteroids have left extinct 99.9% of all species that have ever lived here.”

Jim Holt, the author of last year’s bestselling book Why Does The World Exist? spent time reading through the work of philosophers through the ages who have wrestled with this question as well as interviewing contemporary scientists, philosophers, and theologians, who continue to ask, “Why is their something rather than nothing?” After all this research, Holt confesses that he reached a much different conclusion that the early eighteen-century philosopher Leibniz who called our universe “The best of all possible worlds.” In contrast, Holt says that the conclusion he has reached for himself is that, “the universe was created by a being that is 100% malevolent, but only 80% effective” (34).

My worldview is not that pessimistic. But when I first read Holt’s quip, I did find it jarring to consider the possibilities that we live in a universe “created by a being that is 100% malevolent, but only 80% effective.” This perspective raises the question of the biases that influence how we respond to the question of “Why does the universe exist?” To recall deGrasse Tyson’s sober conclusion to this question, he wrote, “while I cannot claim to know for sure whether or not the universe has a purpose, the case against it is strong, and visible to anyone who sees the universe as it is rather than as they wish it to be.”

I spoke earlier about the inquisitive nature that leads many young children to ask, Why? Why? Why? for as long as the adult in the room can take the heat. That question, “Why,” for the most part, is an earnest attempt to investigate the universe as it is. In contrast, Tyson’s charge that some of us see the universe “as they wish it to be” reminds me of the beginning of Christopher Durang’s 1980 play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. In this scene, the adult is asking the infinite series of questions, not the child.

Durang, the playwright, describes the protagonist, Sister Mary Ignatius, as “dressed in an old-fashioned nun’s habit” and “of indeterminate age, though probably anywhere from 45 to a vigorous 65.” Her charge, Thomas, is “a sweet-faced, obedient boy of age seven. He is dressed in a parochial school boy’s uniform of gray dress pants, white shirt and navy blue tie, navy blue blazer.” She begins:

SISTER: Thomas, who made you?

THOMAS: God made me.

SISTER: Why did God make you?

THOMAS: God made me to show forth [God’s] goodness and share with us [God’s] happiness.

And the scene continues with a relentless series of questions from the catechism. In a much more widely known story, the opening verses of the book of Genesis tell us,

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

If you read those verses carefully, you’ll notice that the story is more complicated than simply that God created the world out of nothing. According to Genesis, there was already a formless void and waters at the beginning of creation, but that’s a topic for another day about how Ancient Near Eastern Creation myths influenced one another.

For now, my point is that stories such as “God made me to show forth [God’s] goodness and share with us [God’s] happiness” and “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” can profoundly affect our ability to objectively respond to questions like “Why does the universe exist?” Does the universe have a purpose?” and “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Stories of “creation out of nothing” can predispose us to think that there was something before the universe existed. In contrast, if you talk to physicists and philosophers of science, you will hear mind-blowing possibilities such as the following:

It is tempting to imagine the Big Bang to be like the beginning of a concert. You’re seated a while fiddling with your program, and then suddenly at t = 0, the music starts. But the analogy is mistaken. Unlike the beginning of a concert, the singularity at the beginning of the universe is not an event in time. Rather, it is a temporal boundary or edge. There is no moment of time “before” t = 0, so there was never a time when Nothingness prevailed. And there was no “coming into being” — at least not a temporal one…. [E]ven though the universe is finite in age, it has always existed, if by “always” you mean at all instants of time.

Such mind-bending scenarios follow from Einstein’s theory of relativity and the realization of how deeply interconnected space-time is.

From another angle, consider that as wild as it is to try to conceive of the universe as almost 14 billion years old, that huge number is an almost infinitesimally small drop in the bucket compared to whatever it would mean to talk about the infinity of an eternal universe that has always been in existence and always will be. Indeed, just as physicists and philosophers speculate about the beginning of the universe, one theory about the end of the universe is that the 400 billion galaxies in the universe will continue to expand until, approximately 2 trillion years from now, the other galaxies will no longer be visible from our vantage point. Of course, our vantage point likely won’t exist at that point since our sun is predicted to burn out after only 5 billion years. And all of this scientific, empirically-based speculation is a significantly different worldview than that of a 17th-century Anglican Archbishop, who calculated through his reading of the Bible that the universe began 6,000 years ago, on Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C.E to be precise.

But we don’t have to rewind time to the 1600s to find a radical shift in our conception of the universe. Consider that only a century ago, at the beginning of the twentieth century, we had long since abandoned the idea that Earth was the center of the universe, but we still thought — only a century ago — that our galaxy, the Milky Way, was the only galaxy in the entire universe. Whereas, here in the early twenty-first century, astrophysicists speculate that our galaxy may be merely one galaxy out of perhaps 400 billion — 400 billion! — other galaxies. Moreover, our entire universe may be merely one of many other universes, an idea sometimes called the multiverse.

One reaction to the size of the universe is to despair about our insignificance as a species. But an equally legitimate response is exhilaration that we are here. There is something rather than nothing. And we have this life, this world, and one another. We have all of that — right here and now. Rather than despair, my takeaway from the intellectual history of the universe is a mix of both ongoing curiosity and epistemic humility. Epistemology is just a fancy philosophical word for the study of knowledge: what it is (and isn’t) possible to know. So epistemic humility is a chastened stance about what it is possible for us to know as a human species. Instead of “Sister Mary Explains It All,” we confess both the impressiveness and the limitations of what it is possible to know about the universe from our finite human perspective. As one scientist famously said, “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

At the same time that the size and scope of the universe — or multiverse — humbles me, the intellectual history of cosmology intrigues me about how much there is still to discover. Before Copernicus’ work in the 16th century, we thought that Earth was the center of the universe. Before Darwin in the 19th-century, we thought that humans were the center of creation. But instead of being a little lower that the angels, Darwin shows us that we are merely a little higher than the apes — and deeply part of the interdependent web of all existence. And as I said earlier, at the beginning of the twentieth-century, we still thought that our Milky Way galaxy was the center of the universe. Assuming that we can find a way to live sustainably on this planet, this trajectory of de-centerings and expansion of knowledge leads me to think that there are likely many more mind-blowing paradigm shifts to come as science continues to advance. Perhaps there is even life out there somewhere in one of those 400 billion galaxies. As one of my favorite quotes from the film Contact says, “I’ll tell you one thing about the universe. The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space.”

And just as we continue to learn about how unbelievably wild and huge the universe is, I don’t think that the dictum, “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine” applies only to the exterior world. The work of thinkers like Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung challenge us to consider that our interior, subjective experience and our sometime spooky connection to one another and to the world — what some scientists call Quantum Entanglement — is also not only “stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

I am deeply grateful that Unitarian Universalism encourages us to hold all these realities in tension from our First Source of direct experience (what you know to be true because you have experienced it firsthand for yourself) to our other five sources, which span the best of the world’s religions to the best of modern science. And as we together, as a movement, seek to experiment with and explore where our UU Principles and Sources can lead us — both out there in universe and in here in our deepest self — I want to leave you with this quote from one of my favorite philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said, “Don’t think — but look and see!”

In the abstract, it could seem sensible to think that our planet is the center of universe. But Copernicus didn’t just think. He took time to look and see — to observe through empirical study —  that we are merely the third rock from the sun. In the abstract, it could seem sensible to think that our species is the pinnacle of creation. But Darwin didn’t just think. He took the time to look and see — as a naturalist through intensive detailed study of the Galapagos Islands — that human are just one species among many.

I have no intention, nor did Wittgenstein, of being anti-intellectual. At the same time, the tendency of some intellectuals to theorize in an ivory tower can undermine their work. We need more than abstract thinking. We need to look and see what happens when our ideas about the world are tested in the crucible of reality.

For example, in the abstract, as strange as this notion may sound, it makes more sense, at least to me, that there would be nothing instead of something, because “nothing” ever existing would be the simplest explanation. But as powerful as Occam’s Razor is — the logical rule that the simplest explanation is probably the correct one — the universe isn’t simple. It’s exceedingly, hyperbolically, unbelievably wild, huge, and complex. “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” How amazing that we are here and conscious of our fragile existence. How incredible that there is something instead of nothing. How amazing that our entire solar system is merely on the edge of the humongous spiral galaxy known as the Milky Way that is itself merely one of perhaps 400 billion galaxies in the universe (or multiverse). And that’s only what we know now in the early twenty-first century. Who knows what more we may discover about ourselves, this world, and one another.

This post began with a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson. Another, much briefer quote attributed to him says, “I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” That philosophy is not a bad starting point for figuring out how to live as responsible citizens of this far flung planet in our 14 billion year old universe.

Who knows what path-breaking discoveries are yet to be made — or are in the process of being made right now. Our current ways of thinking and living may someday reveal a better way, more in touch with the nature of reality. In the meantime, “Don’t think” (don’t be limited merely by what you’re been told that you, others, or the universe is like or has to be like), “look and see” how things are (which may be different from what you’ve been told). Give yourself permission to wonder. Why does the world exist? Does the universe have purpose? Why is there something instead of nothing? Allow yourself to get back in touch with the power of that childhood question: Why? Why? Why?

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Notes

1 To read Tyson’s essay, visit http://www.templeton.org/purpose/essay_Tyson.html. To watch a animated video presentation of the essay see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pL5vzIMAhs.

2 For two recent Krugman articles, see http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/18/opinion/krugman-the-dwindling-deficit.html?ref=paulkrugman or

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/25/opinion/krugman-deficit-hawks-down.html?ref=paulkrugman.

3 To read all twelve Templeton Foundation responses, visit http://www.templeton.org/purpose/.

4 For a recent, controversial foray into why the universe might have purpose in the teleological sense from a world-class philosopher, see Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

5 “It is tempting to imagine the Bing Bang to be like the beginning of a concert” — Holt, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, 74-75.

6 “other galaxies will no longer be visible from our vantage point” — Lawrence M. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing? 106ff

7 James Usher is the Anglican Archbishop in question.

8 “one galaxy of perhaps 400 billion other galaxies” — Krauss, A Universe from Nothing, 3

9 multiverse — Holt, Why Does the World Exist?, 84.

10 “The universe is stranger than we can imagine” — The origins of this quote seem to be adapted from J. B. S. Haldane’s Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927), 286, which says, “The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

11 My use of the word “spooky” is an intentional allusion to the scientific theory of Quantum Entanglement, sometimes referred to as “Spooky Action at a Distance.” For more, see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/spooky-action-distance.html.

12 Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in his Philosophical Investigations, “Don’t say: ‘They must have’ … but look and see” (36). Another way to translate the sense of the original German is, “Don’t think, but look!”

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http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/03/god-was-not-in-the-earthquake/

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1 Kings 19:11 says, “God was NOT in the earthquake.” If you keep reading, you will see that Elijah likewise does not find God in the “great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces” or in the “fire.” Instead, Elijah meets God in the “sound of sheer silence.” So, before preaching that God caused the recent earthquake in Japan, I recommend that someone get that pastor — or anyone else preaching similar bad theology — to a Centering Prayer retreat STAT!

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3 Responses to “The fact that most Americans think the country would be better off if more Americans were religious shows that many of those who believe religion is losing its influence may think this is a negative state of affairs,” Gallup said in its statement. About 77 percent of Americans said religion is “losing its influence” on American life, while only 20 percent said religion has gained in influence. The latest responses represent some of the worst ratings given to religion’s role since 1969 and 1970, during the Vietnam War and in the midst of countercultural movements around politics and sexuality. — Jaweed Kaleem

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