The Uses of Pre-Scientific Cosmology

Before the dawn of the scientific age, humankind had only its unaided senses to examine the universe. Certainly, there were awe-inspiring sights, but those alone give little insight into natural phenomena. At night we saw the stars and the planets circle overhead; each season we felt the rains fall and the wind blow; and in moments of terror, we saw lightning split the sky and the earth shake under our feet. But none of these things gave any clue to what the true nature of the heavens might be.

Uncontaminated by knowledge, the theologians of antiquity spent centuries pondering the nature of the universe in empirical isolation, speculating about what kind of cosmos God would most likely create for us to dwell in. This can be a very useful test. Now that we in the modern world have some genuine data, we can compare it against these pre-scientific cosmologies. If they show a correspondence, we may be justified in concluding that more than human understanding went into the founding of these religions.

But, among the monotheistic religions of the West, there’s little correspondence to be found. The god of the Old Testament is a small god, a provincial, tribal deity; he gives no indication that he is in any way concerned with anything other than one race of people dwelling in one particular region of the Mideast. And the creation story of Genesis is laughably small-minded, treating the entire universe as if it were nothing more than a backdrop for human concerns. As I wrote in “A Much Greater God“:

[T]he god of the Old Testament… was so interested in the Earth that he created it with loving care and effort during the first three days of Genesis, while the entire rest of the universe – awesome collisions and explosions, space and time twisting and warping, stars burning and dying like flares with the energy of galaxies, massive black holes, pulsars like lighthouses, vast and intricately sculpted nebulae light-years across, a cosmos of a hundred billion galaxies each containing a hundred billion stars – was created on the fourth day, as an afterthought, for no reason other than to serve as signs and portents for the residents of the aforementioned Earth.

Christianity, which arose from the blending of Jewish theism with Greek philosophy such as Plato’s idea of emanation or Aristotle’s cosmic Unmoved Mover, had a broader focus and thought of itself as a universal religion in a way Judaism never did. Even so, it too remained moored in those local, tribal concerns, continuing to think of the small, ancient city of Jerusalem as the axis around which all the universe revolved. Islam, too, inherited the provincial outlook that considered its own culture and tradition the apotheosis of the cosmos.

All these people thought long and hard about what kind of universe God would probably create if such a being existed, and I see no reason to disagree with them. Therefore, the fact that the universe is unlike these ideas and like what we observe is evidence against this conception of God. To many religious groups, the idea of a vast and ancient universe was a terrible surprise. Of course, after several centuries, they’ve regrouped and are now claiming that this is what they expected all along, but their own predecessors’ writings put the lie to that.

Furthermore, history makes clear that these were not idle speculations, ready to be altered as soon as better evidence turned up. These cosmologies were central to the various monotheisms. How else to explain stories like that of Giordano Bruno, a freethinker who believed the Earth was just one of an infinite array of worlds each with life of their own? Bruno’s cosmology was not greeted as a potentially new way to understand the majesty of God’s creation. Rather, he was tortured and burned at the stake by the inquisitors who plainly preferred a small god presiding over a small cosmos. Similarly, Galileo was forced to recant and confined to house arrest for the crime of studying the universe and daring to suggest that there might be aspects of it not already accounted for by theology.

These would be no more than inert facts about the past if they did not have so many parallels today. There are still millions of theists who believe in a tiny cosmos, created by God a scant few millennia ago and destined to end in the imminent future. There are still millions who believe the Earth is the only place that matters in the grand scheme of things. And there are still millions who want to make decisions that affect all of us on the basis of this medieval, hopelessly naive and arrogantly anthropocentric belief set. A deeper and more profound understanding, one that grasped the true scale of the universe and humanity’s place in it, might give them a sorely needed measure of humility and a greater degree of reliance on reason.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • velkyn

    “inquisitors who plainly preferred a small god presiding over a small cosmos” which they thought made them “big fish”. Most theists want a small cosmos because they think they, through the endless beseeching of their respective deities, can control it.

  • lpetrich

    Parallel to the Universe’s great extent in space is its great extent in time and its delightfully complicated history over that time. Most prescientific speculations had no idea of this, falling into two main classes:

    * The Universe was created at the beginning of remembered history or not long before.

    * The Universe is eternal, and was always much the same way that it is today.

    The latter possibility was popular among various Greco-Roman philosophers, notably Aristotle, the atomists and Epicureans, and the Stoics. However, most Christian theologians until the last few centuries took it for granted that the Universe was only 6000 years old or thereabouts; in Bk. 18 of his “City of God”, Augustine harrumphed at those who claimed that the Universe is much older than 6000 years.

    Many present-day fundies continue to believe in such a limited timeline; they believe that the Universe is only about 6000 years old and they believe that Jesus Christ’s Second Coming or the Rapture or whatever will happen any day now. In fact, many fundies seem to skip from the “Bible time”, as it might be called, to some time in the last few centuries when True Xianity was supposedly reintroduced. In fact, some fundies seem to believe that True Xianity was kept going all those centuries by a colony that hid away in the mountains of Switzerland. They moved there when the Church got corrupted in its early centuries, and they moved out after the Reformation broke that fake Church’s hold on northern Europe.

  • David D.G.

    There are still millions who believe the Earth is the only place that matters in the grand scheme of things.

    Even worse, there are still millions who believe that even Earth doesn’t matter — that they can despoil it with abandon, precisely because they expect God to come along any day now and, after a few years of inconvenient tribulation (for everyone else, while they are safely raptured away), completely rebuild the Earth anew.

    In other words, they see our life-giving planet as disposable, and some even go so far as to say that to act otherwise (by recycling, conserving resources, etc.) shows a lack of faith in God! It’s a terrifyingly disturbing mindset, literally glorifying the practice of environmentally destructive waste. The rational mind boggles.

    ~David D.G.

  • Tommykey

    Good post Ebon. Once again you hit on a topic that I have been meaning to address, though I still have enough of my own angle on it that I will still get to it when I get the time.

    A couple of minor points:

    Christianity had a broader focus and thought of itself as a universal religion in a way Judaism never did.

    From what I have read, Judaism was an evangelical religion before it was eclipsed by Christianity. It is estimated that at one point roughly 10% of the population of the Roman Empire was Jewish, which could have only been attained if non-Jews were converting to Judaism.

    There are still millions of theists who believe in a tiny cosmos, created by God a scant few millennia ago and destined to end in the imminent future.

    I have butted heads (figuratively, of course!) with a few Christians who actually argue the opposite, that the vast extent of the cosmos is only further evidence in their eyes of the greatness of the God of the Bible. When I ask them what the rest of the universe is for if all that matters is for humans on one small planet in just one of billions of galaxies to accept Jesus and be saved, they just dismiss it as being part of God’s plan that we just can’t know at this time.

  • the chaplain

    Good post, Ebon. David G., I agree with your criticisms of Christians who use the imminent end of the world as an excuse to behave carelessly. There are other Christians, though, who believe that humanity should exercise good “stewardship” of the dominion that God has placed in their care. Both attitudes exhibit different forms of arrogance.

  • Eshu

    It might be interesting to compare this with other religions such as Buddhism. It perhaps doesn’t give any great insight into the workings of the cosmos, and it certainly has it’s share of silliness, but some of the ideas are more reasonable than they first appear. In one sense reincarnation happens at least with the atoms in an organisms’ body being recycled and used in other, later creatures. Almost certainly not what they meant, however.

    But it makes me wonder – were there any religions whose guesses about the cosmos were much better than average?

  • Ebonmuse

    From what I’ve seen, Eastern religions tended to do somewhat better than their Western counterparts. The Hindu cosmology, for example, has a cosmos whose existence is within a few orders of magnitude of the real answer. Other people have seen additional parallels, though I find most of those to be more of a stretch.

    Ironically, I think the one group of ancient people that did the best was the group that wasn’t motivated by religion at all: the Greek philosophers of antiquity. Democritus and Epicurus, for example, correctly guessed that the cosmos was made of atoms, millennia before there was any way to experimentally confirm such an idea. If they had claimed divine revelation led them to this belief, it would probably have been the most impressive example of a religion correctly anticipating a later scientific discovery.

  • goyo

    Don’t forget the Antikythera Mechanism, which shows that the Greek philosophy, if continued, would have brought science into the forefront, instead of 1,000 years of dark ages ruled by backwards religious philosophy.
    It always makes me wonder what would have happened if this scientific thought had caught up with Leonardo da Vinci, at the right time.
    As others have said, he just lacked a motor.
    But you’re right, no religion anticipated any later scientific revelation.

  • Will E.

    Religions which somehow managed to “guess” at the correct age of the earth or the make-up of physical beings like Buddhism or its parent religion Hinduism, to me, aren’t any better than religions which are completely off-base, such as fundamentalist Xianity or Orthodox Judaism. A guess is still a guess–in these instances it wasn’t an educated guess based on experiment or logic. Unlike many unbelievers I see no special relevance in Eastern faiths, except that to us Westerners they seem “exotic” only because of our unfamiliarity with them. While I do find an entity like Kali more interesting than, say, Jesus, that’s akin to saying I prefer Batman to Superman. Or Indiana Jones to Han Solo. Or Travis Bickle to Hamlet. Made-up BS is still made-up BS no matter how much it seems to anticipate to the results of rigorous, logical, falsifiable experiments made by real hard-working scientists.

  • Malenfant

    Maybe these People should read some books by Brian Greene or Lisa Randall. But i am afraid that speculations on M-Theory , 11 Dimensions or Multiverses of Branes might give them even crazier ideas of the possibility of a ‘Maker’. So, they better stick to their ancient ideas and pose no real danger to Science.