Nancy Ellen Abrams is the author of “A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet.” She is married to astrophysicist Joel Primack, one of the developers of a new view of the universe, in which invisible “dark matter” and “dark energy” are the universe’s primary constituents. These concepts explain why the ordinary matter we can see clumped into galaxies instead of spreading out into a formless soup, and why the universe keeps expanding at an ever-faster rate.
I appreciate Abrams’ approach to God. For a long time now, my response to the question “Do you believe in God” has been to ask, “What God do you mean?” The traditional view of God I was taught in church as a child no longer makes sense to me, and yet I still feel some connection to the concept of God.
The remainder of this post is an abridged version of Abrams’ article in Salon, “My atheist search for God: We’re debating science and religion all wrong,” which in turn is excerpted from her book.
For most of my life, a God that was “real” seemed a contradiction in terms. Every idea of God I had ever encountered seemed either physically impossible or so vague as to be empty. I was an atheist married to a famous scientist. But a time came when I needed a higher power. I was forced to acknowledge that, but I didn’t know if it would be possible for me.
I have no interest in a God that has to be believed in. If I am going to have God in my life, it has to be a God that cannot help but exist, in the same way that matter and gravity and culture exist. We don’t need to believe in these things; they just exist. We can choose to learn more about them, or not.
The modern world is certainly confused about God. Surveys consistently find that about 90 percent of Americans, and a somewhat smaller majority of people in many other countries, say quite definitely that they believe in God. But when they are asked to explain what they mean by God, they become less certain, and there’s much divergence of opinion. Is God something authoritarian or supportive, engaged or distant, physical or in the heart? Some describe God as all knowing, all loving, all wise, a careful planner—an entity embodying human characteristics raised to perfection—that created and controls the entire universe, including alien worlds where there could be intelligent creatures with little resemblance to humans. Some believe there is no law of physics an all-powerful God could not break.
Religion’s opponents jump in and claim that God does not exist, end of story. This claim is understandable: abuses in the name of religion provide plenty of temptation to feel that the human race might be better off abolishing the whole idea of religion. From this perspective God is at best a fantasy and a distraction, and there are saner and more useful ways to contribute to society.
Twelve-step programs refer to God as “God as we understood Him.” Putting aside the masculine pronoun, at first I took this as an admirable statement that people of all religions or none could work the program. Anybody’s view of God is okay—just have one. But later I began to see that “God as we understood Him” is not only a basket big enough to accept all ready-made concepts; it’s a challenge to each of us to find an understanding of God. We commit to try. Trying to understand is the point.
And then one day it hit me: I didn’t have to work from some prepackaged idea of “God” and ask if that could exist. The question “Does God exist?” is a hopeless distraction that will never lead anywhere positive. I had to turn the fundamental question on its head. If I wanted to find a God that is real, I had to start from what’s real, what actually exists. 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?
If the answer to my question is yes, then this is a huge discovery. It means that those of us who feel conflicted or even intellectually dismissive about a traditional kind of God, but who long for some spiritual connection, can enjoy the benefits of a genuine higher power in our lives, open-heartedly.
This shift in approach was like waking from a dream. Suddenly coherence became possible, because from a cosmic perspective the answer to my question became yes. Yes, there is something that truly fulfills the need for God and is also consistent with a cutting-edge scientific outlook.
If we give this idea a serious chance—if we can tamp down the usual reflex of resistance—this way of thinking about God can be comforting, awe inspiring, empowering, and in harmony with science.
The thing is, the new universe is counterintuitive in several ways, and therefore so is what it allows to be possible. To open our minds to this new understanding of God, we have to be clear about what God can’t be — in this universe, at least. And to liberate the mind to accept what God can’t be, it really helps to appreciate how ideas about God have always been changing.
We’ve all grown up so steeped in tradition, whether we’ve accepted it or rebelled against it, that it’s hard to grasp that the chance to redefine God is actually in our hands. But it is, and the way we do it will play a leading role in shaping the future of civilization. The good news is that we no longer have to do it by compulsion, tradition, or reflex. We can start rethinking our understanding of God in light of knowledge we never had before. We humans are participants in a cosmic venture: the multibillion-year evolution of complex intelligent life from nothing but particles and energy. The way we define God can either bless this extraordinary cosmic venture or slowly choke it to death.
How we think about God matters enormously, and the dawn of a new cosmology is the best opportunity we may ever have to get it right. If we dare to let God be real in this universe, we may actually come to understand aspects of God, as well as feel the intimacy that real presence provides. If we look for God in what is real, the argument about God’s existence is over, and we can begin to learn its true nature and relationship to us. We can begin to experience our special place, and God’s, in the dynamism of the double dark cosmos.
What I have learned is this: Having no spiritual life at all is like never really falling in love. Developing a spiritual bond with a fantasy is like falling in love with someone who will never love you back. But developing a spiritual bond with the real universe is like falling in love with someone who is already in love with you. That’s where God is.