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Cosmology and Faith

Cosmology and Faith

An illustration of multiple worlds by 18th-‐century mathematician Leonhard Euler © Science Source
By John F. Haught
Since the beginning of human existence on our planet, people have asked questions of a religious nature. For example, what happens to the dead?
Human beings have always wondered how things hang together. Our minds spontaneously look for connections, and we remain restless until we find them. Nothing is really intelligible unless we can relate it to other things.
This is why science is such a satisfying adventure. Its mathematical principles tightly unify everything that goes on in the cosmos. Every occurrence, science tells us, is subject to the same fundamental physical laws everywhere. You can be sure, for example, that if you travel to another galaxy in our Big Bang Universe you will find the same laws of physics and chemistry operative there as on Earth. Although the Universe unfolds in rich diversity, it rests upon an underlying physical and mathematical simplicity.
Before modern science came along our ancestors were not aware of the physical universality that ties all of nature together. Nevertheless, our ancestors were just as interested in finding connections as we are. The main way in which they brought coherence to their experience of things and events was to tell stories about them. These stories often took the form of myths about cosmic, biological, and human origins. Understanding the origin of things apparently reduces human anxiety in the face of the unknown.
We still need stories. Big history is a good example of the human longing for narrative coherence. We want to understand, for example, how life is tied into physical processes and how the history of human beings on Earth is bonded to the natural world that gave birth to us. Science now allows us to tell a whole new story about our connection to nature. Remarkably, over the last two centuries the natural sciences have increasingly demonstrated that the Universe itself has a history and that human life is a relatively new chapter in the cosmic story. We did not float in from some other world. We blossomed gradually from roots that extend all the way back to the Big Bang.
It is enormously satisfying now to be able to tell the story of the emergence of atoms, stars, planets, cells, organisms, and minds.
A 1784 diagram of the Milky Way by astronomer William Herschel. © Science Source

What about religion?

Science and history both try to understand how things hang together, but religions do too. Since the beginning of human existence on our planet, most people have asked questions of a religious nature. For example, what happens to the dead? Are they somehow still connected to the world of the living? In his insightful book The Broken Connection, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton observes that in the scientific age the bonds our ancestors felt between the living and dead have been weakened or completely broken. Scientifically educated people now often question the connection that religions professed to find between our present life and a wider world of sacred mystery.
Nevertheless, many of us still ask religious questions. Why, for example, does anything exist at all? Why do living beings suffer? What happens when we die? Why do human beings have a sense of rightness and wrongness? How can we find a meaning for our lives? Can we ever find final release from concerns over sickness, oppression, isolation, and guilt? Where can we find perfection? What is really going on in the Universe?
Responses to these religious questions have usually taken the form of myths and other kinds of narratives. To most religions the “really real” world is infinitely larger than the visible one available to scientific study. Religions try to connect people to this wider world. Ever since the earliest stories and oral traditions, most people have had an intuition that the world is large enough to include spirits, gods, and long-departed ancestors. Religions strive to break through the physical limits that cut human existence off from the mysterious worlds to which their symbols and stories point. Religions seek to mend the sense of broken connection that stems from the experience of meaninglessness, guilt, pain, and death.
Major religious traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam still hold out the hope of salvation from everything that hems us in or holds us down, including the fact that everything eventually perishes. It is therefore not hard to understand why religions have been so important to most people throughout history and around the globe.
Each of Earth’s main religious traditions has countless tributaries and off-shoots. Religion on Earth is so complex and diverse that it almost resembles a rain forest. Since religions are so central to the history of human existence on our planet, they rightly attract the interest of natural scientists and not just of historians and theologians. Any objective survey of big history, therefore, cannot ignore the dominant role that religions have played in shaping the consciousness of most people who have ever lived.

The question of science and faith

In the age of science, however, what are we to make of religions and their sense of a connection between our present existence and a larger, scientifically unavailable life-world? Hasn’t science made religious symbols, narratives, and teachings unbelievable?
For the sake of simplicity, as we address these questions let us refer to the whole body of religious hopes, stories, doctrines, speculation, prayers, and rituals as “faith.” More fascinating questions arise for your consideration:
Can human minds shaped by faith traditions that stem from a prescientific era honestly take modern science seriously? Or, if you develop a sense of big history, can you still honestly accept the teachings of your faith tradition if you have one? Does belief in God, for example, contradict science, as many educated people now maintain? Isn’t it hard to be both a serious scientist and a person of faith? Or is there a way of making a plausible con- nection between science and faith?
Even though it is not my task to answer such questions, it is appropriate at least to take note of their existence, especially since humans and their religious instincts are as much a part of nature as rocks and rivers. What does it say about the Universe that it has recently given birth to conscious beings who want to connect their lives to worlds that science cannot see?
Many scientists, philosophers, and other skeptics wish that religious faith would just go away so that only science would remain to fill our minds and aspirations. Others, however, think that scientific discoveries, including our new sense of cosmic history, still raise questions that science alone is powerless to address. For example, why does the Universe exist in the first place? Is anything of lasting significance working itself out in the 14-billion-year-old cosmic story? Is there any point to it all? What are we supposed to be doing with our lives if we are a part of a Universe that is still coming into being? Is there any solid reason for hope in the future?
There are at least three main ways of responding to questions that science raises for people of faith:
Shape your own answers, make your own connections, and find your own way of understanding the beginning and how things “hang together.” For most people these are questions that will not just slip quietly away.

For Further Discussion

Think about the conflict, contrast, and convergence ideas that were presented in the Haught article—what do you think makes the most sense and how can you logically argue for your side?
In the Questions Area below, post the side that makes the most sense and provide two reasons that support your choice.

Author Bio

John F. Haught is a Roman Catholic theologian and senior research fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. He established the Georgetown Center for the Study of Science and Religion and is the author of numerous books, including Science and Faith: A New Introduction (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012).

Image Credits

An illustration of multiple worlds by 18th-century mathematician Leonhard Euler© Science Source
A 1784 diagram of the Milky Way by William Herschel© Science Source
Young Buddhist monks praying© Scott Stulberg/CORBIS

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf green style avatar for user weber
    There are some people with deep and specific faith-based beliefs that are contradicted by the observations and considered opinions of most scientists. There are other people who compartmentalize their less deep but still traditional religious beliefs, keeping them separate from their understanding of science, and that works for them.

    Integrating two such disparate approaches to knowledge--faith and Baconian science--is a tough row to hoe. Perhaps what happens is that as science fills in our terra incognita the space left to faith changes. What remains is both more distant and more awesome. The universe is vastly grander, older, and more complex than the nested spheres of our ancestors.
    (18 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user Lena Lindström
      Usually on KA the questions section is for questions only. It's a bit different her in the Big History part of KA. We are invited to post our ideas and opinions and create a lively discussion. At the end of the article above it says:

      For Further Discussion
      Think about the conflict, contrast, and convergence ideas that were presented in the Haught article—what do you think makes the most sense and how can you logically argue for your side? In the Questions Area below, post the side that makes the most sense and provide two reasons that support your choice.
      (5 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Rubaiyat Tasnim Adwitiya
    I believe the answer is CONVERGENCE.
    I am a sincere Muslim.But I am also a student of Science.What I do is whenever I find a new information(be it scientific or religious),I try to connect the information with both my scientific & religious views.And I have succeeded most of the time.
    Our Holy Book Quran has many things which science tells true now.
    And the most important part is,I never found anything which I can disbelieve be it in science or in Islam.I believe in everything Islam says and everything science says and I never find any difficulties to do so.
    (14 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Mildred Mobus
    I think contrast makes the most sense. While science and faith may be asking a larger, overarching question (how did we get here), the methods in which they answer those questions are so different that it's in many way two different things. Scientists are looking at cells and the earth and other things to draw conclusions, while those who are religious look to stories from the past and old texts. The evidence is so different that they contrast. Also, religion takes a stance on morality and often asks what is right and what is wrong. Science does not do that. I think that religion and science do not have to disagree, they are two very different things.
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Izzy
      Science can answer questions of morality. Can't we all, in a secular manner, agree that suffering, pain and injustice are bad? Through science we can discover what the physical processes are that bring these phenomena about, and from there we can look for new ways to alleviate and change those facts. I guess you could consider it "practical morality".

      Religion and science do fundamentally disagree. If I claim to be able to explain how and why the world is the way it is, it doesn't matter if i'm using scientific data or if I'm using a crystal ball, the question is the same. Religious truth claims impinge directly on the domain of empirical fact.
      (8 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Gunnar Ohberg
    I believe that religion works best when used as a way to derive a moral or ethical conclusion from a scientific one. Science explains "how" something happens, then religion seeks to explain "why" it happened. In many cases this requires severe editing of religious texts in places in which they are in conflict with scientific understanding.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user clarenimbus
    Sometimes I see things in nature and mathematics and they're so perfect. It taxes my level head.
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user popcorn.tomato.dude
    I believe the answer is contrast. Science endevours to explain how, when, where, what, whereas faith tackles who and why.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Yvonne Fritz
    In the second paragraph of the part "What about religion" the author says that the following are religious questions: "Why, for example, does anything exist at all? Why do living beings suffer? What happens when we die? Why do human beings have a sense of rightness and wrongness? How can we find a meaning for our lives? Can we ever find final release from concerns over sickness, oppression, isolation, and guilt? Where can we find perfection? What is really going on in the Universe?"

    To me they are philosophical questions, and some of them can be answered by science, such as: What happens when we die? (biology) Why do human beings have a sense of rightness and wrongness? (biology/psychology) How can we find a meaning for our lives? (psychology) Can we ever find final release from concerns over sickness, oppression, isolation, and guilt? - the answer to this would be combination of different sciences such as biology and psychology - and my answer is: when you die then you are finally released from all these concerns, until then you have to live with them and deal with them one concern at a time.

    In my experience, it can become a rather fruitless enterprise to try and find answers to some of the questions he defined as religious: "Why, for example, does anything exist at all? Why do living beings suffer? Where can we find perfection? What is really going on in the Universe?" - First, when would you ask questions like these? - When you are unhappy or in distress and when you are not ready to accept the imperfections/the reality of life. I find the answers science can give - and Big History is very good at this - much more satisfying and meaningful than what religion, as it traditionally has been, has to offer. If religions, too, could evolve, then I would evaluate them anew. The way they are now, it is very easy to fall into the trap of wishful thinking.

    Religious people that greatly impressed me are the religious naturalists. http://religious-naturalist-association.org

    What puts me off of religion is the "supernatural". So, I'd guess, I still see rather conflict between religion and science, unless religions turn to the "natural" and then could converge in a way that makes sense and is reality congruent at the same time. For, what ever we may (want to) believe - we have to deal with reality.

    The question: what is real and what is imagined? has been a good guide for me and I think science helps a great deal more to answer this question.
    By science I mean ALL of the sciences, not just the natural but also the social sciences.
    (2 votes)
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  • stelly yellow style avatar for user Mia
    The word for me is CONFLICT. While none of religion's creation myths are or can be disproved, there are better explanations for how the world came into being and how we humans are here. There is scientific evidence that supports theories like evolution, the big bang, abiogenesis, and many others that are in conflict with religion and are better explanations than the myths offer.
    (2 votes)
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  • starky tree style avatar for user Alexandra Hayes-lundry
    I have a complicated mind that logically thinks there is no current way to have an exact answer but I would like to point out that the idea and belief that we cannot create something out of nothing and even if there is a god or something else that also had to be created just like the big bang. My weird theory is the only way existence is possible is time travel or the idea the it is a loop. something had to suddenly be in the beginning and how would that start if not by something else creating it?
    (2 votes)
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  • starky tree style avatar for user ramadhandeva
    " that if you travel to another galaxy in our Big Bang Universe you will find the same laws of physics and chemistry operative there as on Earth"
    Is that means when we travel to other Universe, the law of physics will be different? why?
    (1 vote)
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