When Nancy Ellen Abrams talks about a god that is “real,” she means a god that exists in the universe we know from modern science, a universe that follows the laws of quantum physics and was unknown to our ancestors.
In her book, “A God That Could Be Real,” about which Abrams will speak this week at three appearances in New Haven, she explains how this god makes sense in a universe that is filled with dark matter and dark energy — concepts unknown to people only a few decades ago.
“Most people don’t believe that God is real in any common-sense definition of the term,” she said Monday. Instead, they believe in a supernatural being who created the universe and lives beyond it, who doesn’t follow natural laws. This was not a god that made sense to Abrams, who belongs to a 12-step program that urges its members to create an image of god as they understand god to be.
What helped her to formulate a “real” god was the dark matter-dark energy theory, which was developed jointly by three cosmologists, including her husband, Joel Primack.
“For me, a god that is real has to be real not in our common-sense world but in the double dark universe, where we now know we live,” she writes in her introduction. That evolving view of the universe, which challenges our limited view, led her to believe in a god that existed within those universal laws and obeyed them.
Therefore, her god could not have existed before the universe, did not create it, does not “know everything,” does not plan events in our lives or “choose to violate the laws of nature,” she writes.
“If I wanted to find a god that is real, I had to start from what’s real, what actually exists,” she writes. “I realized that the question that matters is this: Could anything actually exist in the universe, as science understands it, that is worthy of being called god?”
“We can have a real god that is actually part of this universe but actually follows the laws of nature … and gives us a coherent reality and lets us not fear scientific discoveries,” she said. “We should welcome new realities.
“It’s absurd to keep religious practices and notions that are thousands of years old without figuring out how they can be adapted and interpreted for our time,” Abrams said. “The whole point of keeping something sacred is to keep it meaningful for your time. … Without that, it’s just a dead letter.”
The basis of her theory is called emergence, the idea “that whenever many parts interact in a really complicated interaction, something radically different and complicated emerges,” she said. For example, each real estate transaction helps to create something larger, a real estate market, that has new features beyond that of any individual transaction.
“From all humans aspiring each as individuals … something more emerges on a higher level,” Abrams said.
Abrams uses the concept of an ant colony to explain this. “A colony has incredibly sophisticated abilities that none of the ants have or can have,” she said. For example, according to her book, the colony adjusts the number of ants seeking food, based on population, and sets priorities about where the best food sources are. She calls this “swarm logic.” But no single ant knows any of this; each one operates based on pheromones and limited contact with other ants.
“The state of the anthill tells the ant how to live and the ant contributes to the anthill,” Abrams said — emergence is a two-way street.
“From all humans aspiring, each as individuals … something must emerge on a higher level,” Abrams said. “That is worthy of being called god.”
Thus god is what is created from our individual actions and thoughts, is greater than the sum of all human activity, and evolves over time as humanity evolves in the greater universe, and as the universe itself expands and evolves.
“Instead of thinking of god as the king of the universe,” we can “think of god as the bridge to the universe,” she said. “It is what makes the universe meaningful and accessible to us. … I say god didn’t create the universe; god created the meaning of the universe, which is what matters to us.”
Traditional believers “say God transcends the universe. But my god transcends us, but the universe transcends it,” she said.
God is not static, a being that does not change. God changes, just as the universe, which is constantly expanding, changes. “As we live out our aspirations, we are changing god for the next generation,” she said. “This god has enormous effect on our lives. We are part of it. … We also have the responsibility of improving it for the next generation.”
Abrams’ book discusses such things as prayer and the afterlife, which she believes exist but not in traditional ways. “People speculate about what could happen after death,” she said. “The one thing we know for certain after we die is we become ancestors.”
She believes that now is a pivotal time in human history, because how we use our limited resources with an increasing population will determine our future and thus the nature of our afterlife as a people. “We are living at a period which is going to be a huge transition. … How we handle this could determine the future of civilization.”
“If we are the only intelligence of our kind … we could be the seed of intelligence for our entire galaxy (or) we could be a little flash of intelligence” in the history of the universe.
“It could go either way and if we want to be honored ancestors we have to do the right thing now,” she said.
“We are part of an immense process that’s been going on for millennia,” she said. “That’s the real afterlife and we build it now. The afterlife is a collective existence, just like god. God is a collective phenomenon. One thing we know for certain is that our collective identity can be immortal. This is an idea that is equally true for everyone on Earth. It is common ground.”
Abrams, who lives in Santa Cruz, California, will speak in New Haven at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Yale Divinity School, 409 Prospect St.; 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Yale Bookstore, 77 Broadway; and 7 p.m. Thursday at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of New Haven, 608 Whitney Ave. Her book is published byBeacon Press.