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.

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