This weekend my book was reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books by astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser, who concluded with the same belief he held before he read it: “there is no need to invoke a deity…Not all of us need a higher power to guide us.” The spirit of this statement – “you may need a higher power, but I don’t require it” – is something I understand well, because I used to think that way myself. It was only through a twelve-step program that I discovered how exploring the idea of higher power, even without believing in it, could empower me to do what I had never been able to do before, overcome my addiction. I realized then that unless motivated by a life-threatening but absolutely unsolvable problem, personal or planetary, many people like me would never open their minds to this astonishing potential, while others who may always have felt a need for a higher power are also somewhat stymied because they have no way to wrap their modern minds around an ancient God in a way that makes sense in light of what we know today. The clear goal of my book, stated from the start, is to present a scientifically impeccable yet personally empowering way to think about God in the modern age.
I’d like to response to three of Gleiser’s points.
First is his interpretation of what I mean when I say that God is an emergent phenomenon. He writes “[Abrams’] God is made in our image. Or, to put it differently, it’s the sum-total of our collective aspirations.” Completely wrong! An emergent phenomenon is not the sum-total of a collective – it’s something radically and unpredictably new that arises from the collective by the laws of nature. Each of us, for example, is made of trillions of cells, but we are not just the sum-total of those cells, or we would be a large and slobbering mass of unconsciousness. Yes, we exist only because of our cells, but what has over the course of evolution emerged from the complexity of those cells’ interactions is a human being – a complicated, self-conscious, feeling, acting, intellectually curious, potentially spiritual being that far outlasts all its individual cells and is in no sense in the image of a cell. This is the power of emergence! The emerging God is not the sum total of our aspirations but something utterly different and unpredictable that has arisen and continues to arise from the staggering complexity of all humanity’s aspirations interacting over time in mysterious ways no one can fully comprehend. I propose that what emerges is indeed Godlike. I realize that emergence is as new a concept for humanity today as evolution was 150 years ago, but it is the key to discovering a God that could be real.
Secondly, in attempting to explain how I connect God to the new universe, Gleiser describes the dark energy that is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate, as “a mysterious entity that fills the cosmos as a whole — uncomfortably like the Aristotelian ether or Descartes’s Plenum.”
Uncomfortably? This kind of word is a contaminant. Associating dark energy with a human feeling of discomfort imposes a negative narrative on a virtually virgin picture of the universe that is still being discovered and has scarcely been interpreted. Gleiser is not alone in doing this. Others are out there giving popular talks where they cynically condemn our universe as “the worst of all possible universes” simply because of something that may (or may not) happen in billions of years; or they describe the heavy atoms cooked up in stars, which we and Earth are made of, as the “waste products of supernovae” when they could just as accurately and certainly more inspirationally call those atoms “stardust.” There is nothing uncomfortable about dark energy but thinking makes it so. Once we accept that dark matter and dark energy account for 95% of our one-and-only universe, our spiritual challenge is to discover the comfort in them – and there’s plenty, because we owe them everything. Without dark matter and dark energy we would never have existed. For billions of years dark matter has been pulling atoms together while dark energy flings space apart. Their interaction with each other has spun the galaxies into being, thus creating the only possible homes for the evolution of planets and life.
As a hypothesis, dark energy in the early 1990s made some scientists uncomfortable, because they thought it was an ugly idea and thus unlikely to be true. Keats wrote that truth is beauty and beauty truth, but in science human taste in beauty does not always predict truth, especially when it’s about things we have zero intuition for, like the distant universe. Sometimes scientists dismiss a theoretical possibility because it just seems too weird or ugly, and kick themselves for their own prejudice when it later turns out to be true. The evidence for dark energy is in, and the Nobels have been awarded. It’s pointless now to describe what’s true as uncomfortable. Our spiritual challenge is to find the beauty in the truth. And the comfort. And the meaning. And to develop language to share these jewels.
Thirdly, Gleiser assumes that because he doesn’t need a God in the old-fashioned magical sense that he takes for granted, no book can possibly have anything worthwhile to say on the subject. “We must strive to minimize human suffering,” he writes. “The question, though, is why do we need God to help us? Why can't we behave like grown-ups and pursue these goals on our own?”
But he proposes no answer to this last question. Why, indeed, are we not pursuing humanity’s most important goals on our own? The way our species as a whole is behaving today is unsustainable and even self-destructive in the long term. Bronze Age ideas about God are a big part of the problem, not only for believers but for atheists like Gleiser, who still see their job as opposing those old ideas rather than transcending them. But belief and atheism are no longer the only options. We are living in an amazing time when the new cosmology is teaching us not only what kind of universe we live in but how to open our minds to the cosmic deep time from which we emerged and the cosmically long term future our descendants could have . Let’s use this new knowledge creatively! The question isn’t, why do we need God as we’ve understood it before now? The question is, what are we humans missing that is preventing us from saving ourselves? We’re better educated than ever, we’ve got great technology, but collectively we’re heading for disaster. Spiritually we need to step up our game if we want our species, and millions of others, to survive. Cultural history shows us that a shared picture of reality, which for the ancients included the gods, helps bond people together in cooperative groups dedicated to communal purposes. But in today’s globally interconnected world of conflicting religions and ideologies we don’t have this. We have little common ground beyond consumerism, entertainment, and a vague sense of self-determination. These things are not important enough to motivate us toward the existential defense our times are crying for. Atheism is a reasonable reaction to the many impossible notions of God, but it cannot be the final stage of our understanding if we humans want to rise to our full potential and cooperatively confront the global problems that threaten us all.
Am I proposing a worldwide religion? No! Not at all! Spiritual language can help unite humanity only if it’s not contaminated by the dogma of any particular religion, even if the origin of many of its concepts was in religion. There are words of power, like “God,” and given the future we humans seem to be literally cooking up for ourselves, we may need that power, as I did to overcome my personal addiction. We humans are likely to need every advantage we can muster. I am proposing that we refresh our understanding of God so that it can exist in the real universe and actually serve us both personally and collectively in the challenging times we face. That’s why I link spiritual language to scientific reality, which – unlike any religion – is equally true for everyone on earth whether you believe in it or not. Yes, our scientific picture will inevitably evolve, but at any given time it is the closest to truth that we can collectively get.
Gleiser may personally have no interest in the idea of higher power, but this book was written for the rest of us, including many who lack a truly empowering way to think about God that feels intellectually coherent with the high-tech, fast-paced, volatile world we live in. We are grown-ups, and many of us have been through more than one reviewer can know. We need a God that’s real, and my discovery, which is the reason for this book, is that we can have such a God if we take a cosmic perspective.