For centuries, it looked as if religion tried
to tell us facts about the world and just
got things a bit wrong:for example, how old
the earth was it claimed 4,000 years old,
or how many suns there were in the universe,
it claimed (one).
But in reality, religion was never really
interested in doing the sort of things science
does. It might have thrown off the odd theory
but at heart it cared about a mission altogether
different: it wanted to tell us stories to
make life feel more bearable. It was interested
in giving us something to hold on to that
could help us to make it through to the next
At the same time, science – properly viewed
- has never been the enemy of spiritual enrichment.
It can yield ideas every bit as consoling
and inspiring, as those found in religion.
bubble transfers between pastor and scientist.
We can usefully look to science for the sort
of ideas we used to seek in religion. Here
are four big consoling ideas that can be found
I: Perspective – The Scale of the Universe
We are at permanent risk – in the conditions
of modern life – of losing perspective, that
is of making more of our troubles and fears
than is good for us. One of the great benefits
of science is that it helps us to feel small!
Science teaches us that our galaxy, the Milky
Way, has approximately 100 billion stars in
it, that there are 10 billion galaxies in
the observable universe, each of which contains
an average of 100 billion stars, which means
that there are around 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
(a billion trillion) stars out there. *do
math 10 billion + 10 billion*
When we lose perspective, as we invariably
do in the course of pretty much every day
in the frenetic city, we should spend a few
moments with a photograph from the Hubble
telescope and remember that we are – in a
glorious and redemptive way – what we always
II: All is Vanity – The Second Law of Thermodynamics
Many of our efforts are designed to perpetuate
ourselves in time. We strive to live on through
our work – and to make something more enduring
than our biological selves. To release us
from this exhausting and vainglorious folly,
religions used to kindly remind us, in the
words of Ecclesiastes, that all is vanity.
Science offers us a yet more powerful expression
of this Biblical concept: the Second Law of
Thermodynamics. This states that the tendency
of all systems – of which the universe is
one – is to dissipate energy over time until
it reaches a state of complete rest. Given
a sufficient span, our universe and its superclusters
of galaxies will all collapse and we will
enter what scientists call a Dark Era, in
which – after so much excitement, individual
and cosmic – nothing will remain except for
a dilute quite gas of photons and leptons.
The situation is no better closer to home.
In about 4 billion years, when the sun runs
out of hydrogen, it will become a ‘red giant’
star, possibly expanding as far as Mars, at
which point it will absorb and destroy Earth.
To repeat the point with NASA’s help: “all
truly is vanity.”
III. Forgiveness – Evolution
It’s often deeply tempting to lose our temper
with ourselves and our fellow humans: why
can’t we be more reasonable? Why are we
so prejudiced? Why are we so prone to anxiety?
Why do we eat so much? Why are we so interested
It’s equally tempting to search for explanations
that emphasise our villainous natures and
then to harshly condemn our lack of self-command.
We end up disgusted with ourselves and judgemental
But science – arguably more effectively than
religion – can teach us the art of forgiveness,
and liberate us from our urge to criticise.
Of course, we are less than ideally adapted
to the civilised and complex lives we aspire
to lead. We have had very little time to do
Science tells us that we appeared in more
or less our current form in Africa 200,000
years ago. For most of this time, we lived
in small groups, we foraged, we grunted, we
didn’t wait for others to stop talking,
we fought constantly, and we were terrified
The time since the birth of Jesus comprises
1% of our history; the last 250 years, the
period since we became urbanised and began
living with technology, encompasses a mere
0.1%. Naturally, therefore, most of our impulses
are going to be better suited to more basic
conditions. It’s a miracle we ever manage
to be polite, to explain our feelings, or
to see it from another’s point of view.
We are – from the vantage point of science
- doing extremely well indeed. Evolutionary
history teaches us that humans should be a
lot worse than they are. The wonder isn’t
in the end that we’re so uncivilised but
that we ever even manage, now and then, to
have a few moments of civilisation.
IV: Our Existence – Cosmic Gratitude
Science is supremely capable of nurturing
feelings of gratitude because of a basic truth
about the way gratitude works: it stems from
an awareness of how much more awful things
might have been.
And here, when it comes to our life on the
planet, science tells us that we have so much
to be grateful for. For example, we can be
- that 13.8 billion years ago, something smaller
than an electron chose to swell within a fraction
of a second like an expanding balloon into
a zone permeated with energy 93 billion light
years in size that we now clumsily call the
- That some of the energy from this swift
expansion was able to coagulate into particles,
which grouped together to form the light atoms
of hydrogen, lithium and helium – which then
assembled into galaxies, which gave birth
to stars, inside whose molten burning cores
all the elements necessary for the nucleic
acids essential to life were forged.
- That gravity drew the stars together to
create galaxies (a hundred billion of them),
including – fortuitously – the Milky Way,
a small corner of the universe containing
just 400 billion stars, in which our sun was
born out of a giant, spinning cloud of dust
and gas 4.5 billion years ago.
- That around the same time, swarms of debris
collided to form our Earth – a lava-washed,
uninhabitable rock, that gravity happened
to throw into orbit as the third planet from
the Sun – the exact right distance for life
- That another planet, Theia, collided with
Earth, gifting us our Moon, which slowed the
Earth’s rotation, stabilised atmospheric
conditions and created the 24-hour day and
caused the Earth to tilt, forming the seasons.
- That ice particles left over from the collisions
of hundreds of comets melted, water vapour
condensed and oceans were formed.
- That comet collisions delivered anot her
chance cosmic gift, the essential components
of life and DNA like ribose, carbon dioxide,
ethanol, amino acids and phosphorus.
- That underwater hot springs released the
right amount of energy and the right mix of
chemicals to allow the first single-cell organisms
to form four billion years ago.
- That Earth’s toxic atmosphere of methane
and carbon dioxide slowly became sweetened
by the release of oxygen from cyanobacteria-
the first creatures to photosynthesise – and
gradually oxygenated 85% of the atmosphere.
- That an asteroid 15 kilometres wide happened
to hit Earth 65.5 million years ago and destroyed
most terrestrial organisms including all non-avian
dinosaurs, but created ideal conditions in
which some small, furry mammals, our close
ancestors, were able to thrive with less competition.
- That your genes managed to pass safely through
an unbroken 10,000 generation chain, despite
the best efforts of cyclones, predators and
a constant barrage of viruses.
- That an average, fertile woman will have
100,000 eggs, and a man will produce a trillion
sperm, each of these very different, but that
- nevertheless – you have managed to emerge
from the options as you are.
And to all this, as they used to say in the
churches, one might cry (or whisper): Hallelujah!
There is enough in science to give birth to
twenty religions – so much to worship, to
be awed by and to be consoled through, things
like dark matter, string theory or quantum
wavefunctions. The curse of the modern world
is not to have invented science; it’s not
yet to have understood all the amazing things
one might still do with it.
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