In this brief survey of the non-monotheistic beliefs of the world, we will look at the major patterns of how people believe the universe came to be.
Warning! This particular video is a little complicated! If you find your eyes glazing over and you have no idea what I’m talking about, just skip to the next one. This is not vital information to understand Christianity, it is a survey of the other beliefs in the world.
Before we look at how Christians and other monotheists understand the universe, it makes sense to take a moment to look at what other ideas and beliefs the world has on what we are, and how we came to be. Let me be frank though, I am only going to be able to generalize, and I can’t talk about everything. This is a massive subject, and there has been an incredible amount of thought and energy put into trying to understand both the question and the answer to, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” Billions of students, teachers, researchers and common people have looked to the stars and said, “What does it all mean?” I can’t pretend to be definitive.
At the same time though, a few major patterns have arisen, and most people tend to believe one of these patterns, or something like it. Maybe they have their own twist to it, but I think most people will mostly agree with one of these patterns.
I have always disliked the term atheist. It seems funny to me to define someone by what they DON’T do! You wouldn’t call me a “non-water breather” or a “non-bigfoot believer”, yet this is precisely how we define atheists, “People who don’t believe in God.” In fact, when we look closely at atheists, we can see quite quickly that they don’t have any kind of unifying belief at all. I think there are probably as many different kinds of atheism as there are atheists!
Having said that, I think we can make some basic generalizations. Many atheists are what I would call, “empirical”. That is, they believe what they have evidence for. Clearly, this would include things they can sense, things they can see, hear, smell, etc. This would also include some things they cannot sense, but have evidence for, like electricity or radiation. I’m sure atheists a 2000 years ago would not have believed in electricity as they had no evidence. Many of these kinds of atheists would openly admit there are some things we are not aware of, and they would believe in those things once we had evidence for them. The key thing here is in a word: “observable”. They believe in things they have sensual proof of.
Another kind of atheism is more akin to agnosticism. They are more likely to say something to the effect of “If it doesn’t actually affect me, who cares?” These persons have recognized that the question is a very hard one to answer, and have decided to just get on with the business of living their life. It’s not that they haven’t thought about the origins of the universe, they just don’t put too much effort into it, as they don’t see it affecting their life much. In fairness, many people who have religious beliefs are much the same!
But the one thing atheists seem to have mostly in common is the belief that the universe has always existed in some form or another, that matter has just always been around, or if not that, that at least some universal laws have been around, the current ones they hold as permanent seem to be quantum theory. From this fundamental idea we have all sorts of theories, like of a universe that expands and contracts repeatedly, the big bang played out over and over again like a heartbeat played on an epic scale, and the theories of the multiverse where every possibly physical reality can be accounted for.
At its root, it all amounts to about the same idea, “The universe has always been, nobody knows why.”
It is not just atheism that holds this view. While there is much disagreement about the origins of the universe in the eastern religions, much of their basic worldview is actually quite similar, though with spiritual overtones and consequences.
Let’s take Buddhism for example. Buddhists don’t really have an “Origination story”. They fundamentally believe that the universe is a never-ending cycle of cause and effect. One thing causes another thing to happen, like falling dominos, and this works infinitely in both directions, in the past, and in the future. The nearest they come to trying to explain why we are where we are now is looking at a kind of map of what causes what, called “dependent origination”, where the physical reality of the universe goes through a very similar cycle to what the human person goes through, just on a physically grander scale. Cause and effect forever, both ways, that’s the buddhist universe, like a wheel that never stops turning.
Again, when asked why there is a wheel at all, why the universe exists at all, they would have to answer much like the atheists, “The universe has always been, nobody knows why.”
Hinduism has a ton of origination stories, and there is no clear belief that any of them have historical accuracy among Hindus. Most Hindus I have had the pleasure of speaking with, which might not be normative, I don’t know, have seen these origination stories to be primarily symbolic, expressing some truth about what it means to exist. They also have pretty much held to a similar philosophical idea as the Buddhists, which is not a surprise, since they came up with it first. This fundamental idea is that the universe continues through cycles of destruction and creation, that it always has, and that it always will.
They do have one major difference though, and that is on the idea of God. Hinduism is famous for being polytheistic, that is, believing in many gods, but I’m not so sure that is a correct term. Polytheism seems to imply that there are many gods that have some equal power in the universe, and this is not that case at all with Hinduism. Hinduism has endless numbers of deities, and they see these as having real impact on the universe, but the only one that is really a god in the sense that other religions mean, is Brahman.
If the universe is a body, Brahman is it’s soul. Think of it as the spiritual essence of the universe. (This is not accurate, I’m just trying to draw you a picture) The universe IS Brahman. I think this is best described by that greeting known to Yoga enthusiasts everywhere, “Namaste”. Namaste simply means, “God that is in me sees God that is in you.” It is as if Brahman is saying hello to himself through different modes of his being. Any separation we sense in our life is actually illusion, our real existence is a unified one, we are all Brahman.
But when push comes to shove, without the universe, there is no Brahman. They are one. And as to what comes before Brahman, that would be Brahman.
If this sounds confusing, that is because it is. The universe is not a simple thing, and if we are going to look deeply, we have to expect some challenging conclusions. Christianity is no less confusing, and actually moves much closer to this last idea than one might at first suspect.
But first we need to look at Monotheism! Which we will do next time.