A paradigm-shifting blend of science, religion, and philosophy for agnostic, spiritual-but-not-religious, and scientifically minded readers
Many people are fed up with the way traditional religion alienates them: too easily it can perpetuate conflict, vilify science, and undermine reason. Nancy Abrams, a philosopher of science, lawyer, and lifelong atheist, is among them. And yet, when she turned to the recovery community to face a personal struggle, she found that imagining a higher power gave her a new freedom. Intellectually, this was quite surprising.
Meanwhile her husband, famed astrophysicist Joel Primack, was helping create a new theory of the universe based on dark matter and dark energy, and Abrams was collaborating with him on two books that put the new scientific picture into a social and political context. She wondered, “Could anything actually exist in this strange new universe that is worthy of the name ‘God?’”
In A God That Could Be Real, Abrams explores a radically new way of thinking about God. She dismantles several common assumptions about God and shows why an omniscient, omnipotent God that created the universe and plans what happens is incompatible with science—but that this doesn’t preclude a God that can comfort and empower us.
Moving away from traditional arguments for God, Abrams finds something worthy of the name “God” in the new science of emergence: just as a complex ant hill emerges from the collective behavior of individually clueless ants, and just as the global economy emerges from the interactions of billions of individuals’ choices, God, she argues, is an “emergent phenomenon” that arises from the staggering complexity of humanity’s collective aspirations and is in dialogue with every individual. This God did not create the universe—it created the meaning of the universe. It’s not universal—it’s planetary. It can’t change the world, but it helps us change the world. A God that could be real, Abrams shows us, is what humanity needs to inspire us to collectively cooperate to protect our warming planet and create a long-term civilization.
“A fine addition to the growing library of alternative approaches to literalism in belief, this book is suitable for academic libraries, liberal churches, and individual seekers.”
“A truly extraordinary read from beginning to end...Informed, informative, thoughtful, thought provoking, inspired and inspiring. Very highly recommended.”
—Margaret Lane, Midwest Book Review
“Like everything else in life, Gods die. And when they do, new Gods come to take their place. Ours is a time of new Gods birthing, and Nancy Abrams’s magnificent book A God That Could Be Real is a powerful act of midwifery. This is not a eulogy for the old Gods but a prophecy of the new.”
—Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent
“You will find that your beliefs are enriched by reading Abrams’s book. I am thrilled that we have the creativity and originality that is exhibited in this book, and I recommend it highly to all, religious or secular, believer or atheist, who are ready to explore honestly their understanding of the divine in our beautiful, expanding universe.”
—Archbishop Desmond Tutu, from the Foreword
“Over the past two decades a largely sterile dispute has raged between two diametrically opposing camps: atheists and religious fundamentalists. It is surely time to move on and elevate the discussion to a higher intellectual level. This ambitious and thought-provoking book by Nancy Abrams on the interface of science and religion is a timely and welcome contribution to a more productive discussion of the topic.”
—Paul Davies, from the Foreword
“A God That Could Be Real is full of sparkling prose, memorable quotes, and strikingly original insights that have never been brought to the page before, despite the long-running culture wars between organized religion and modern science over God and cosmic knowledge. My family and I spent a long dinner and all of breakfast the next day debating the meaning of this book. Give this book to the other questing minds in your family and brace yourself for heated discussions.”
—Sandra Moore Faber, National Medal of Science recipient and University Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz
“Nancy Abrams dares to pose many of the important and challenging questions that arise at the intersection of contemporary cosmology, spirituality, and atheism. I respect Abrams’s moral passion and honest search for a God that could be real, a search beckoning us all.”
—Matthew Fox, founder of Creation Spirituality and author of Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times
“[Abrams] points to a way beyond the boring religion-science debates, which pit secular fundamentalists against religious fundamentalists.”
—Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg, Patheos
From Chapter 2: "A God That Can't Be Real
Science can never tell you with certainty what’s true, since there’s always the possibility that some future discovery will rule it out. But science can often tell you with certainty what’s not true. Galileo, for example, showed with telescopic evidence that the heavenly spheres could not exist, even though he could not actually prove that Earth moves around the sun. When 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 if we cleared away those distracting
notions of God that can’t be true in the kind of universe we actually live in? God can be imagined to do or be anything, but the goal of this book is to find a God that is real.
It’s amazing how many unnecessary requirements have gotten tacked onto God. Unnecessary requirements are harmful. They divide us from each other, since different people see them differently; worse, they divide us from our own rational selves. A religion that credits God with powers that can’t exist in this universe sets its followers up for inevitable doubt, which in turn requires of them an exhausting effort to jack up their faith in order to fight the evidence against it. This is self-sabotage. People are expending all that effort and worry to defend “characteristics” of God that no one really needs.
So here’s a chance to pare our definition of God down to the essentials.
In my quest for a believable higher power, I decided to look one by one at the reasons God seemed unbelievable and ask if they really matter or whether they are merely traditional attributes. The results of this exercise amazed me.
Not one characteristic that conflicts with science turns out to matter. We can let them go.
Shakespeare said it best in Richard II: “Superfluous branches we lop away that bearing boughs may live.” Here are the branches that must be lopped away that a real God may live. These beliefs can’t be literally true in our universe. To the extent we cling to these images, even as metaphors, we are rejecting the real universe:
1. God existed before the universe.
2. God created the universe.
3. God knows everything.
4. God plans what happens.
5. God can choose to violate the laws of nature.
I know that approaching with any level of scientific rigor something so personal, so cherished, so core touching as God may be hard at first. But the price of a real God is that we have to consciously let go of what makes it unreal. God can’t be everything or it will be nothing. We all need hope and comfort and inspiration, but we also need the built-in bullshit detector of science.
If you’ve never taken these five ideas literally but instead have seen God as simply a word for the sense of wonder, of the unknown, of endless possibility, of cosmic connection, and of the opportunity to not need all the answers, then it may perhaps seem silly to bother refuting them one by one. Yet I would be surprised if your sense of wonder, of the unknown cosmic connection, and endless possibility connected with the idea of God was not based on an unconscious lifelong association of God with at least some of these impossible characteristics.
1. God could not have existed before the universe.
The history of the universe tells us that complexity evolves from simpler states of being, so there could not have been an intelligence complex enough to design anything at all, let alone a universe, before cosmic evolution even began.
What I’m about to say about the universe is based not only on direct astronomical observations but also on supercomputer simulations. The two standard ways of doing astronomy used to be theory and observation, but simulation is a new way. Direct observation of the universe in many cases is impossible, since dark matter and dark energy, which are most of the universe, are invisible, and because events on the scale of the universe happen across such vast stretches of time that a human lifetime is far too short to experience them. Theory is also inadequate because, no matter how sophisticated it may be, it can’t predict in any detail the kind of awesome transformations that had to happen for primordial particles and energy to turn into galaxies, stars, and planets. But supercomputers can predict them, to a surprising degree. The availability of supercomputers is a key reason why scientific cosmology has entered a golden age.
Supercomputers enable scientists to collapse billions of years of evolution into minutes, and billions of light-years onto a computer screen. My husband’s team of astrophysicists, for example, has several times simulated the evolution, from the Big Bang to today, of a representative cube of universe a billion light-years on a side. The team ran the simulations according to different theoretical assumptions in order to test those assumptions. The supercomputer—the equivalent of fourteen thousand top-of-the-line Intel computers working for two months—can track the motions of many billions of particles and cross-correlate their interactions with all the others for (a simulated) 13.8 billion years.
My husband’s team then compares the final universe produced by the simulation to the real universe as telescopes directly observe it; the computers predict what the observational astronomers will find. Only if the simulated and real universes match were the initial assumptions right. They match in incredible detail.* When the simulation is not stopped at today but allowed to run, we are watching a simulation of the future of our universe.
Not only cosmology but many fields, from neuroscience to climate science, have leaped ahead since the advent of supercomputer simulation. Here, in an abbreviated and simplified form, is what
modern cosmology tells us about our origins.
Right after the Big Bang there was nothing but rapidly moving elementary particles and energy, not even atoms yet, though the simplest atoms, hydrogen and helium, formed after a few hundred
thousand years. The early universe was smooth, expanding but not turbulent. Spacetime (space and time in the universe have since Einstein been understood to be a continuum) came into existence wrinkled, and the wrinkles expanded with the universe. For billions of years primeval particles of dark matter flowed toward the wrinkles by gravitational attraction alone. The dark matter formed clumps along the wrinkles through a process that astronomers enigmatically call “violent relaxation.” Up to here, our cosmic history was simple, governed by pure physics. Scientists deeply understand that era. But as time passed, enormous transformations came about,
and the complexity that resulted is much harder to understand. The immense gravity of the dark matter clumps drew in clouds of hydrogen and helium, which cooled and collapsed to the centers of the clumps, igniting as stars. Surrounded by a halo of dark matter, the stars cooked up inside themselves the heavier atoms, like oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, silicon, and the nearly a hundred natural atoms that are heavier than helium and make up most of the periodic table of the elements. The biggest stars exploded in supernovas and spewed these heavy atoms into space as pure stardust to soar for eons. The intermingling stardust of thousands of supernovas, which had occurred over many eras, got pulled into the gravitational field of our forming solar system, and 4.6 billion years ago the stardust condensed into the rocky planets, including Earth. Hundreds of millions of years passed before the earliest life evolved here, and billions more before intelligence evolved that was complex enough to understand the idea of creation. The evolution of such complexity takes a long time.
This is the kind of universe we live in. This is where our thinking should start.
Something as complex as a mind capable of planning and creating the universe could not possibly have been there to do so.
What’s more, it’s not clear where “there” would be, since cosmologists are continually pushing back the beginning. The Big Bang used to be thought of as the beginning, but the larger theory of cosmic inflation now explains what set up the initial conditions for the Big Bang and caused the wrinkles that later attracted dark matter. The theory of cosmic inflation has made five specific predictions, and the four that have been tested so far have all been confirmed by observation, so the theory has become part of the standard model of cosmology. Astrophysicists have also extrapolated backward from cosmic inflation, theorizing what may have happened before. This theory is called eternal inflation, and it posits a pure quantum state of being outside our universe that, once begun, can never stop and may continue eternally, producing multiple universes, including ours. Where, in that case, would the beginning be?
Let’s suppose the theory of eternal inflation turns out to be right. Does eternal into the future require eternal into the past? Not clear. It’s not even clear what “eternal into the past” might mean. In eternal inflation not even an atom can form. No information can be preserved in any way, and thus no meaningful past could exist.
Furthermore, “eternal into the future” is not even a meaningful concept inside our universe. The largest structures in our universe are called superclusters of galaxies. They will exist for many billions more years, but gradually the dark energy that’s causing the universe to expand faster and faster will tear them apart. Unlike superclusters of galaxies, our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is bound together by gravity, which will permanently prevent dark energy from tearing it apart. Instead our Milky Way will merge in five billion years or so with our neighboring large galaxy, Andromeda, and tens of smaller nearby galaxies will also fall into the forming megagalaxy that we might call Milky Andromeda. New stars will keep forming, and Milky Andromeda will shine on for a trillion more years, hundreds of times longer than Earth has existed. That’s pretty close to eternal—but not the same.
The fact is, “in the beginning” is no more precise than “once upon a time.” The beginning is just a line we draw in our minds to be able to start telling a story. The end is a line we draw to stop. They have no objective reality. They can’t even be defined, let alone explained. So demanding to know the very beginning of the universe is as misguided as trying to understand the last moment of the universe.
*You can watch visualizations of these simulations on the website for the most recent book I coauthored with my husband, The New Universe and the Human Future, http://new
Foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Foreword by Paul Davies
Chapter 1 God Evolves
Chapter 2 A God That Can’t Be Real
Chapter 3 A God That Could Be Real
Chapter 4 Is There a Spiritual World?
Chapter 5 Does God Answer Prayers?
Chapter 6 Is There an Afterlife?
Chapter 7 Renewing God, Renewing Religion
Chapter 8 Planetary God, Planetary Morality
Chapter 9 A Big Picture for Our Time
- America, review, 10/12/2015
- The Los Angeles Review of Books, review, 5/22/2015
- CBC Radio's Tapestry, interview, 5/21/2015
- The Daily Beast, mention, 5/8/2015
- NPR's 13.7 Culture and Cosmos blog, blog response, 5/1/2015
- The Gary Null Show/WBAI, interview, 4/24/2015
- Religious News Service, profile, 4/24/2015
- NPR's 13.7 "Cosmos and Culture" blog, Part 1 and Part 2, 4/23/15, 4/24/15
- On Faith, original piece, 4/22/15
- Utne.com, excerpt, 4/14/15
- The Joy Cardin Show, interview, 4/8/15
- Things Not Seen: Conversations about Culture and Faith Radio, interview, 4/5/15
- Salon, second excerpt, 4/4/15
- Monterey County Herald, original piece, 3/19/15
- Good Times Weekly of Santa Cruz County, Q&A, 3/18/15
- Debate This Book, original piece, 3/17/15
- The Friendly Atheist, excerpt, 3/10/15
- Tikkun, adapted piece, 3/10/15
- Salon.com, excerpt, 3/7/15