The Cozy Cosmos vs. Growing Up

Some religious folks don’t like Cosmos because they prefer a cozy universe with human beings at the very center: nice article by Adam Lee about Why Small-Minded Religious Fundamentalists Are Threatened by Wonders of Universe.

For the vast majority of our history as a species, we were wanderers, small hunter-gatherer bands. Civilization is a recent innovation, arising within the last few thousand years, and science is more recent still, appearing only in the last few hundred. But in just those few short centuries, we’ve made dramatic strides, from wooden sailing ships to space shuttles, bloodletting to bionic limbs, quill pens to the Internet. We’ve drawn back the curtain on ancient mythologies and glimpsed the true immensity of time and space. Compared to that vastness, we’re unimaginably small and insignificant; yet we possess an intelligence and a power of understanding that, as far as we still know, is unique among all the countless worlds. As Carl Sagan said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

However, not everyone accepts this as a positive development. There have always been those who prefer a small, comprehensible cosmos, with human beings placed firmly at the center. The religious belief systems that posit such a universe were our first, fumbling attempts to explain the origin of the world, and they rarely share power gladly. Those who clash against conventional wisdom, who dare to suggest that the cosmos holds wonders undreamed of in conventional mythology, have always found themselves in grave peril from the gatekeepers of dogma who presume to dictate the thoughts human beings should be permitted to think.

Lee goes on to cite some religiously-motivated folks who actually still defend the execution of Bruno, the persecution of Galileo, and the Spanish Inquisition. The article continues with the all too familiar contemporary litany of science-denial that dismisses climate change, evolution, and vaccination as targets of “regressive, superstitious, authoritarian world views both religious and political”.

I suppose the same kind of worldview uncomfortable with the immensity of the universe would also wonder why the universe should be any older than traditional recorded human history – a few thousand years. I imagine that’s partly why Creationism makes sense for many people. What would be the point of a universe older than modern humans, if the entire purpose of the universe is to host humanity? For that matter, why shouldn’t the universe be a flat immovable tablet under a dome with tracks for the sun and moon to go around and around, as the ancient mythologies supposed? The rejection of science is because the scientific evidence that the universe is much larger and older than those ancient notions leads to the implication that, hey, maybe the universe *isn’t* in existence merely to host one race of beings on one tiny planet in a vast cosmos full of billions of galaxies… And that discomforts many people.

The steadily increasing understanding of humanity’s place in the cosmos is analogous to a child discovering the world as it grows up. As a child your whole world is at first only your parents and your immediate surroundings. Then you become aware of other family members, if you have siblings. Eventually you meet outsiders, kids whom you recognize as somewhat like yourself, adults somewhat like your parents, but somehow strange and different. Your worldview expands. You meet more and more of these strange others, you realize how many there are, even if part of your extended family or community, but how different their lives and concerns are compared to yours. You realize that the entire world doesn’t revolve entirely around you! As your awareness of other places and other people expands, you come to realize that there are many, many other people in the world whom you will never meet, who know nothing about you, who have lives of their own, often with values completely contrary to those of your family and community. That’s part of growing up, maturing: the realization that you are not sitting at the center of the universe, that your family or hometown or home state or country isn’t necessarily the most correct or special place in the whole world (or universe!) just because that’s where you happen to have grown up. In a sense, the creationists and cosmos-deniers who point to some ancient holy book and say end-of-story, haven’t realized this; they cling to a universe in which humanity is at the center of everything. The evidence suggests otherwise. In a cosmic sense, they have not grown up. Or even realized that it’s possible to do so.

[last para revised 22mar14 5pm]

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