Scientists now know that the universe is a story still unfolding. Fairly recently, as the story goes, on planet Earth in the Milky Way galaxy a new species of organisms, one endowed with conscious self-awareness, ethical aspiration, and an insatiable restlessness for more being, has entered into the narrative. New scientific awareness of the long cosmic preamble to this arrival has inspired attempts recently to connect the relatively short span of our own existence to the longer epic of the universe. These efforts, known as Big History, try to tell the story of everything that has taken place in the past, including what was going on in the universe long before Homo sapiens arrived. The emergence of Big History, I propose, offers us a new way of understanding the relationship of science to religion.
Startlingly absent from Big History so far, I point out, is a sense of how religion fits into the story. The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe is an attempt to address this omission. It argues that we cannot understand what is really going on in the universe by looking at it exclusively in a scientific way but only by taking into account also what goes on in the dramatic interior striving of life that reaches the summit of its intensity in humanity’s spiritual adventures.
With the relatively recent arrival of distinctly religious experience in cosmic history, the universe is now awakening to horizons previously unknown. From the perspective of physics the cosmos may look like a process of heat exchanges and energy transformations, but if we look deep inside the story we see also that the universe has given rise, at least on Earth, to beings eager to understand where they came from, where they are going, and what they should be doing with their lives. This adventurous quest, made most explicit in our religious traditions, may seem at times like a longing to escape from the cosmos. From the perspective of a truly big history, however, religion is part of a long cosmic awakening now concentrated in communities of human subjects anticipating an indestructible “rightness” that is still out of range. This religious anticipation of rightness now gives meaning to the lives of millions, and it tacitly undergirds and justifies the confidence required to carry out scientific research as well.
Big History scholars locate—and deflate—the human story by placing it against the backdrop of the universe’s newly discovered spatial and temporal immensity. This is a useful point of view, but not the only one. The universe, after all, includes subjects, hidden centers of experience whose significance cannot be measured by science or captured by purely historical reporting. Not only is subjectivity real but its emergence, development, and thriving also give meaning to the universe. Without subjects the universe would be a pointless series of material states. It would be as though the universe does not even exist. Why the universe exists, and why there are subjects—these are two inseparable questions. In the course of life’s evolution, moreover, subjective states have become increasingly aware and eventually conscious. In human beings subjectivity includes not only bodily sensations and a wide range of psychic states but also the capacity to ask questions, to distinguish between right and wrong, and to yearn for the infinite.
If the cosmos is an epic of gradual awakening, it follows that the story of the universe is no less about emerging subjectivity—including religious subjectivity—than about the movement of atoms, molecules, cells, and social groups. From the start, the cosmic story has carried with it, at least faintly, a scientifically inaccessible lining of “insideness.” As far as we can tell, subjectivity burns most feverishly in humans, but it has been awakening more quietly in the story of life, and implicitly throughout the whole cosmic journey, for billions of years prior to our own recent arrival. But the cool detachment of science—and of Big History as it is usually executed—never feels fully the heat of inner experience and the dramatic quality of subjectivity’s emergence. What is needed, then, is a narrative that tells the whole cosmic story, inside and outside simultaneously. The New Cosmic Story sets forth what I considered to be a thicker and richer big history, one that allows us to understand science and religion in a fresh way as indispensable but distinct ways of contributing to the grand enterprise of telling the story of everything.
In the case of humans, the emergence of subjectivity has become palpably manifest in our many passions, our sense of freedom, ethical aspiration, and aesthetic sensitivity, but especially in our religious longing for meaning and lasting significance. The birth and survival of religion, in that case, is one of the most significant developments in the story of the universe. Yet most of those who are telling the story nowadays do not take it seriously as an important part of cosmic history. Often they are embarrassed about religion. They see it as an expendable adhesion that needs to be surgically removed from all cosmic precincts in order to make more room for science. Such an excision, I argue, is arbitrary and narrow.
The cosmos clearly has an inner side that is no less part of the story than what lies outside, and it is in religion that this inwardness becomes most striking. So if the arrival of religious subjectivity is just as much a part of the cosmic story as the formation of atoms and galaxies, then a widely empirical big history must weave it seamlessly into the whole epic of the universe. To view religion simply as mere escapism or blind evolutionary adaptation would be to miss its dramatic significance as an essential part of an awakening universe. Even though religions may be psychologically childish in many instances or biologically adaptive in some environmental situations, they are more than mere factories of illusions reconciling humans to a pointless universe. And although religions have come into the emerging universe mixed with crudity and barbarism, in all their ambiguity they may be carrying important hints as to what the universe is all about.
After giving birth to sentience and the capacity to see, taste, touch, smell, and feel—traits common to both human and nonhuman forms of life—the cosmos recently gave rise to organisms endowed with religious inclinations. From a cosmic point of view terrestrial religious traditions are essential new chapters in an unfinished story. They are not all saying the same thing, of course, but even with their countless differences they have common interests and dispositions whose cosmic significance is worth highlighting. They all assume, for example, the existence of an interior life and of the need to undergo awakening and transformation. They nourish a sense of obligation, and they all idealize “rightness.” That is, they reach out at least implicitly toward an imperishable horizon of meaning, truth, goodness, and beauty that they call by many different names. They speak symbolically about evil, perishing, purpose, everlastingness, happiness, and transcendence. Only against the backdrop of these constants do the variables among religious tradition show up at all.
My focus in this book, then, is on religion as an extension of the cosmic story. I ask, first, why the universe has given rise to religion at all and, second, what the recent arrival of religion tells us about the universe. Invisible to science, the universe has always been awakening, eventually emerging into the daylight of thought, morality, and religion. Immediately underlying this threefold awakening, and coinciding with the striving of life itself, lies a deeper and more primitive strain of anticipation. We have no better word for it than faith. It is on the foundation of faith that mind, morality, and religion have established themselves as essential parts of an awakening universe. Faith is not “belief without evidence,” as contemporary devotees of scientism claim. Rather, it is a universal human response to the mystery of being and the dawning of rightness. Faith, as I use the term, is an irrepressible trust that in spite of all suffering and death the world is intelligible and rooted in rightness. It is a force that enlivens, gives courage, and makes life worth living. Faith gives birth to moral aspiration and sustains it from one generation to the next. Faith also underlies any realistic and robust exercise of our intellectual capacities, including those we employ in the service of science.
Science itself is now telling us that the eventual emergence of subjectivity was already implicit in the physical properties of the early universe. The question of how life, mind, morality, aesthetic sensitivity, and religion came into being is now tightly connected to that of how the physical universe began and developed. The origin of subjectivity somehow coincides with the birth of nature, as present-day astrophysics allows us to realize. Until roughly the past half-century, however, scholars knew little about the remarkable physical and astrophysical connections that exist between cosmos and consciousness. Scientific skeptics took for granted that the universe is fundamentally lifeless stuff suspended in space, perhaps forever. They assumed that, in the absence of a creator, mindless matter must be eternal and that sooner or later subjectivity would burst out only as a transient interruption of the universe’s normal state of undisturbed silence. Remarkably, many scientists and philosophers still cling to this questionable set of beliefs. My new book seeks, therefore, to expose the irrationality of the sometimes academically endorsed conviction that the universe is essentially mindless. In it I provide both scientific and logical reasons to doubt the assumption that subjectivity is an eventually extinguishable anomaly in an underlying cosmic mindlessness.
If I am right about this, then the emergence of religious subjectivity is not an infantile escapism that humanity now needs to outgrow, nor is it an evolutionary adaptation to be condoned condescendingly. Rather, it is an indispensable new epoch in a cosmic story. A cosmic perspective on religion is not the only way to look at it, but our new awareness of an ongoing cosmic journey now offers us an unprecedented way to understand humanity’s religious quests in the age of science. Each of my book’s twelve chapters focuses, therefore, on a feature of religion shared by many traditions—such as enlightenment, interiority, transformation, obligation, sense of meaning, transcendence, and imperishability. In each case it asks what that facet of faith looks like if we see religion as an essential part of a cosmic story. Simultaneously the book argues that religious traditions the world over will become increasingly irrelevant, especially to educated people, unless they begin soon taking into account the new scientific story of the universe that gave birth to them.
John F. Haught, The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe (New Haven: Yale University Press, October 2017).