God and the History of the Universe

Disagreement and Belief Change:  Disagreeing about God is easy.  If we are going to make headway in our conversations about God, however, we’d do well to focus first on our common ground.  Suppose Smith and Jones disagree about some issue.  If they are rational, thoughtful people, figuring out what the most reasonable conclusion is should be more important than disagreeing, winning a debate, or scoring rhetorical points.  And despite the difficulties associated with belief in God, reasonable people should strive to draw the most informed, thoughtful, and rational conclusion they can about religious issues.  

So Smith and Jones should both be prepared to revise their beliefs in the light of new, relevant information.  They will both want to get their beliefs to align as well as they can with the facts and the canons of inductive and deductive reasoning.  Most often, Smith will have one body of information, experiences, and ideas that she takes to be relevant to the issue and Jones will have another.   There will often be some overlap between the two, but their disagreement about some conclusion is often related to different pieces of information in those two background bodies of evidence that lead to their disparate conclusions.  So in order to make some headway, Smith and Jones need to share evidence, and come to some agreement about the relevant body of information. 

What then is some of the information that is relevant for everyone regarding the God question?  We want to know if there is a God, what God is like, what our relationship is to God, and what is God's relationship to the universe as we find it.  Did God create the universe?  Did God create us?  What is the history of the universe?  

The questions about God will take some working out, but there are a number of widely agreed upon claims from science that we should consider concerning the history of the universe.  The disciplines of physics, astronomy, cosmology, anthropology, biology, chemistry, geology, and history have converged on this short summary of what we will call the history of everything.  A large amount of work, critical reasoning, skeptical scrutiny, vetting, and aggressive efforts at disconfirmation have gone into justifying this account of the history of everything.  That is, this story is the result of the best minds in science, working together, using our best empirical methods for investigating the world.  These claims have achieved a very high level of broad, peer-reviewed consensus in the scientific community.     Discussions about God need to consider these claims (and the evidence that supports them) if they are to be informed, thoughtful, and responsible.   

A History of the Universe

Here’s a summary of the scientific consensus concerning the universe, the Earth, life, humanity, and evolution. 

Approximately 13.7 billion years ago, the universe went from a singularity state of infinite curvature and energy to a rapidly expanding chaotic state, the Big Bang.  During the first pico and nano seconds of this period of rapid expansion, the types and behavior of particles that existed rapidly change as the energy levels dropped through a process of symmetry breaking.  The universe was now dominated by four fundamental forces:  
gravity, strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic.  At the outset of the Big Bang, during the Grand Unification phase, it is thought that there was only one fundamental force.  

Within a few nanoseconds, the kinds of matter and the ways they behave settled into some of the sorts of material constituents we find today.  At this point, only hydrogen, helium, and lithium exist.  Matter continues to expand outward and eventually, several billion years later, gravitational pull congregates clumps of matter together.  Some of those accumulations of matter acquire sufficient mass to collapse and form stars.  The heat and energy at the cores of these stars cook the early forms of matter, transforming it and creating the other, heavier elements on the periodic table.  Some these stars go supernova and explode outward, spraying the new elements formed in their cores out into space.  That matter--carbon, copper, lead, and so on--eventually coalesces into smaller stars, planets and moons like our own.  The Earth formed out of this process, like many other planets,  about 4.5 billion years ago.  
Around 4 billion years ago, geological and chemical processes led to the presence of a a primordial  soup made up of a variety of inorganic compounds.  Out of this ooze, the first simple, self-replicating molecules appearedThis transition from inorganic chemistry to the presence of organic life is known as abiogenesis.  Currently there are a number of theories about how this transition occurred.  The first life may have been seeded on Earth from extra-terrestrial sources via asteroids, meteorites, or planetoids. (panspermia).  Or it may have arisen from terrestrial processes by the introduction of energy from the sun into specific chemical conditions.  A number of the building blocks of life have been recreated in laboratories running simulations of primordial soup conditions.  

Once there are replicating, organic compounds and then simple organisms, the process of natural selection takes hold.  Natural selection is a process of change in organisms effected by the replication and variation of information.  Variations occur in the constitutions of organisms from one generation to the next through DNA and RNA molecule strands.  Some of these variations are random mutations.  So the offspring of organisms inherit genetic variations from their parents.  In many cases, organisms produce more offspring than can possible survive given resources and environmental conditions.  So not all genetic configurations are equally likely to prosper.  On average, the genetic variations in offspring that bestow some advantage will be more likely to survive into the gene pool of the next generation.  Over time, natural selection leads to gene frequency change in populations.  Offspring that have advantageous variations are more likely to reproduce successfully.  Different populations develop into different environmental niches.  Bacteria, for example, have a particular set of properties that facilitate their success in some environments, fungi and tigers have others. Variations that are favorable to survival accumulate in populations, improving fitness.  Thus, organisms and their complex traits (adaptations) will have the appearance of design, or being well-suited to their environment and modes of life.  But the process, as far as we know, is blind, and unintentional.  Over the course of billions of years and billions of generations of organisms, more and more life forms evolve, many of them of increasing levels of complexity, depending on the environmental niche that is available.  Some of them, like bacteria, remain relatively simple. Left click and open the image in a new tab for more details:

Among other organisms, the dinosaurs emerge from this  process.  The Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods range from about 208 million years ago to 65 million years ago.  There are boom and bust cycles of rapid proliferations of life and mass extinctions, such as the asteroid event that we think was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.  The ecological gap left by the dinosaurs provides the opportunity for placental mammals to expand and diversify.  The sudden proliferation of the numbers and kinds of life in the diagram above (represented in red) is known a the Cambrian explosion.  It occurred about 540 million years ago.  

One of the branches of the mammal family tree that develops during this process leads to the existence of primates about 85 million years ago.  Bipedalism and expanded brain volume structures emerge as adaptations.  The basic structures of the thalamus and the neural cortex that produce the rudimentary forms of animal consciousness emerge about 100 million years ago.  A significant increase in brain volume, particularly in the frontal lobe, in hominids leads to the dramatic differences in cognitive capacities that we observe in humans verses other species.  The distinct hominem lineage emerges from primates 5-7 million years ago.  Increased brain size, opposable thumbs, language use, and tool use distinguish the homo genus from other primates.  Other adaptations, like those possessed by chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, facilitate the survival of those species in different environmental niches than the circumstances and environments that hominid adaptations are well suited for.  

The earliest known stone tools originate with hominids 2.5 to 2.6 million years ago.  Estimates about the emergence of language range from 5 million years ago to 100,000 years ago.  Modern humans (homo sapiens) originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago, 60 million years after the dinosaurs have gone extinct.  A variety of early hominid groups vie for survival until all related lines except homo sapiens are extinct.  

We are still piecing together many of the connections and relationships between these species.  Neanderthals were our most recently extinct homo cousins.  

There is evidence of human religious behavior such as burial rituals dating back approximately 300,000 years.  

Only very recently have one of the hominid species--homo sapiens--on the planet developed cognitive faculties that were sophisticated enough to be able to discover these various facts about the universe and themselves.  Some of those discoveries are landmarks of vast significance in our develop, although not in a cosmic scale:  Darwin’s The Origin of Species is published in 1859. In 1929, Edwin Hubble published his paper, “A Relation Between Distance and Radial Velocity Among Extra-Galactic Nebulae,” in which he showed that the universe is expanding.  Extrapolating backward from its rate of expansion made it possible to date the explosive beginning of the universe at approximately 13.7 billion years ago.  In 1953, James D. Watson and Francis Crick published their discovery of DNA in Nature:  “A Structure of Deoxyrobose Nucleic Acid.” 

  • The Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago.
  • Symmetry breaking leads from the Grand Unification epoch to the four fundamental forces we have now:  Gravitation, strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, and electromagnetism.  
  • Only hydrogen, helium, and lithium exist for millions of years until large stars form and create many of the other, heavier elements on the periodic table. 
  •  Some of these stars go supernova and distribute these new elements into space. 
  • That matter eventually coalesces into smaller stars, planets and moons like our own. 
  • The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. 
  • Life in the form of the simplest, self-replicating molecules occurs on Earth around 4 billion years ago.
  • Once there is replication, natural selection and random mutations over billions of years lead to the evolution of more and more life forms, many of them of increasing levels of complexity. 
  • Dinosaurs live from about 208 million years ago to 65 million years ago. 
  • Life on the planet goes through several mass extinctions.
  • The Cambrian explosion—a rapid proliferation of the kinds and numbers of living organisms on the planet,  occurs about 540 million years ago.
  • An asteroid crashes into the planet around 65 million years ago near the Yucatan peninsula, sending enough matter into the atmosphere to significantly alter the global climate.  
  • This climate change leads to the extinction of the dinosaurs, and opens the door for mammals to move into their environmental niche. 
  • Mammals begin to expand and diversify significantly about 54 million years ago.
  • Primates emerge about 85 million years ago.  
  • The homo genus diverges about 5-7 million years ago.  
  • Bipedalism, brain size, language use, and other adaptations distinguish hominids from their primate ancestors and cousins.  
  • Modern humans (homo sapiens) originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. 
  • Human religious behavior starts approximately 300,000 years ago.

What about God?  

Now that we have an overview of the history of the universe in place, we can better frame our questions about God.  If there is a God, then what is his relationship to the universe?  Did he create it?  What about creation accounts like the Adam and Eve story in Genesis of the Bible?  Was God responsible for the Big Bang?  Can God and evolution be reconciled?  

American's views about these questions can be gathered roughly into 3 or 4 different positions:  

Recent polling data indicates that about 40% of Americans are Young Earth Creationists.  Another 40% of Americans subscribe to Intelligent Design Theism.  And about 16% believe that humans evolved without any divine assistance.  In other technologically advanced and educated countries such as Sweden, Italy, or Germany, the rates of people who accept the Old Earth Thesis and evolution are much higher.

Let's clarify the views represented here:  

Atheistic naturalism, for lack of a better label, is the view that there are only physical, not supernatural or divine, explanations for the existence of the universe.  The Big Bang was a solely natural event, and the natural account of everything that occurred subsequently--the formation of stars and planets, the advent of life, evolution, and development of humans--is sufficient to explain the world without any appeal to supernatural or divine agency.  

Big Bang Theism is the view that God, in his role as creator of the universe, was causally responsible for the occurrence of the Big Bang that eventually led to physical events that produced humans through evolution.  People endorsing this view don't deny that that Big Bang or evolution occurred; they believe that God was responsible for causing the Big Bang.  It was God's method of creation, so the scientific hypothesis is compatible with the view that a creator God exists.  

Big Bang and Intelligent Design Theism is the view that God, in his role as creator of the universe, was causally responsible for the occurrence of the Big Bang, and God was also causally responsible for some or many of the particular events during evolutionary history that led to the development of humans through natural selection.  It has been suggested that God was miraculously responsible for the abiogenesis of life, or for miraculously guiding some of the events the contributed to the specific course of natural selection to produce humanity.  Again, this view does not deny the 13.7 billion year age of the universe, nor does it deny the occurrence of evolution or the Big Bang. Those claims are compatible, on this account, with the existence of God.  

Young Earth Creationism is the view that the universe, the Earth, and all life on Earth were created in their more or less present form 6,000-10,000 years ago.  Religious texts such as the Biblical account of creation in Genesis, or Jewish or Muslim texts are the principle source of this worldview.  Many conservative, fundamentalist and literalists within Christian, Jewish, and Islamic religions subscribe to this view.  The age of the universe is gathered by calculating the number of human generations enumerated by the Biblical account of history since Adam and Eve.  Besides the different account of the age of the universe according to Young Earth Creationism, this view asserts that human, plant, and animal life all came into being at once or in a relatively short time (6 days), and those species all came into being in the forms we observe them today.  That is, on YEC, there was no gradual process of development through natural selection wherein life on Earth changed gradually over billions of years, and humans did not evolve from apelike ancestors.  

Is theism compatible with science?  

The brief history of the universe given at the beginning of this page is supported by the best collective efforts of our most rigorous methods in biology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, anthropology, paleontology, genetics, and history to determine the truth.  Given the quality and quantity of that evidence, it would be intellectually irresponsible to deny the Big Bang thesis, the Old Earth thesis, evolution, natural selection, and the descent of modern humans from apelike ancestors.  Of the most common views about God and the universe, only Young Earth Creationism stands in stark conflict with what we know about history since the Big Bang.  The view that the universe was created at once within 10,000 years ago is not compatible with the view that the universe began with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.  The view that the Earth formed 4.2 billion years ago is not consistent with a literal Genesis account of the Earth's origins.  And the view that all life was created in its present form in 6 days is not compatible with the evolution of life on Earth through natural selection beginning about 3.7 billion years ago.  

While there is no glaring logical contradiction between Big Bang theism or Intelligent Design theism and the scientific account of the history of the universe, astronomers, physicists, and cosmologists for the most part do not believe there is any empirical evidence in favor of Big Bang theism.  And the vast majority of biologists deny that the evolutionary process was guided or aided by any supernatural agency.  Efforts to argue that the evolutionary evidence supports the Intelligent Design thesis have been repeatedly rejected by the best, peer-reviewed scientific journals, and Intelligent Design has not achieved any consensus support among biologists.  Nevertheless, the Gallup poll linked above shows that 80% of Americans continue to reject the consensus scientific views and endorse YEC, Big Bang theism, or Intelligent Design.