There's only one thing wrong with religious cosmologies: they aren't true. And that's a pretty damn serious thing. Which is why we shouldn't take erroneous views of the universe seriously.
Yet we humans are meaning-creatures. Bare facts aren't enough for us.
Our highly evolved minds love to construct stories about what life is all about, what's most important for us to do, and other value-laden layerings that provide a increased depth to our existence.
The choice each of us faces is how realistic our "myths" are.
Now, that word, myth, doesn't need to refer to something untrue. There's another way of regarding that term, as described by physicist Joel Primack and philosopher of science Nancy Abrams in their book, "The View From the Center of the Universe: Discovering our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos."
Myth is a way human beings relate to their universe. What exactly is a myth? In his last book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, mythologist Joseph Campbell made the passionate argument that what our society most desperately needs is a new story of reality for all of us -- not just some chosen group. The story must demonstrate humanity's connection to all there is, yet be consistent with what we know scientifically.
...Unlike Campbell, many people use the word myth to mean "the opposite of reality" -- that is, a notion held by other people who are delusional or at best quaint, but this is a very unfortunate understanding of myth that limits our ability to draw on its power and its importance to the human mind. Myths don't just represent a reality people already know about: myths present reality. They define it.
In this book, when we use the word "myth," we mean what Campbell meant: the highest-order explanations, the stories that people of any culture, at any time including today, communally believe and use to explain the larger reality, including their own place in it.
Here's the exciting thing about living in the 21st century: for the first time in human history, we have the ability to construct myths about our place in the universe that are actually true.
Primack and Abrams demolish an erroneous myth: that science keeps overturning ways of understanding the cosmos, so seemingly valid current scientific theories are just as flimsy as the pre-Copernican concept that the Earth was the center of the universe.
Actually, they correctly point out, what has been happening since the time of Newton is that new theories encompass old theories.
There have been several revolutions in physics since Newton, but none of these has overthrown the previous theory. Revolutionary scientific theories do not have to overthrow their predecessors except at the earliest stage of a science when a scientific theory is replacing earlier ideas that were not well supported by evidence.
Once a field of science undergoes the revolution that creates for it a solid intellectual foundation -- like the one Newtonian mechanics gave physics, or Darwinian evolution gave biology -- that foundational theory can stand forever. Science then progresses by encompassing the foundational theory in a new and larger theory that explains things beyond the ken of the older theory.
So we can have a lot of confidence in what is currently known about the cosmos.
That knowledge is incomplete. It has lots of holes and contradictions (such as the differing perspectives of relativity theory and quantum mechanics). But basically it is almost certainly true.
Which is why both our personal and collective meaning-myths need to be founded on scientific facts. This still leaves a lot of room for creativity, imagination, and hypothesizing about what lies out there beyond the horizon of our current Knowledge Ocean.
For example, this morning I read the "What is the Universe Made Of?" chapter in The View From the Center of the Universe. Here's a marvelous visual summary that appeared in the chapter of a whole lot of scientific research, and was thankfully shared on the book's web site.
Visible matter is only 0.5% of the total. The black part of the pyramid represents the invisible: that is, what we do not see but know is there. The top and smallest layer of invisibility is simply non-shining and unlit atomic matter -- matter that is invisible in fact, but not in principle. It is about 4 percent of the total.
Below it lies the far more massive layer of dark matter, which is invisible in principle. It represents about 25 percent of the total. And below that lies the energy that is accelerating the expansion of the universe, dark energy. It is 70 percent of the total density of the universe now.
Religious people often talk about the mystery of God, which attracts them. Yet there is so much mystery to be found within the bounds of science. Who needs God? Mysterious reality is much more appealing than mysterious fantasy.
True believers in some faith also enjoy the feeling of being special that their religion offers them. Here again, though, facts of science trump the illusions of dogma.
Primack and Abrams speak of how rare is that .01% of all matter and energy in the universe comprised of heavier elements than hydrogen and helium. That's us! We conscious beings are literally made of "stardust," since those elements are the result of exploding stars.
Here's a modern myth shared in the early part of the book, which the authors elaborate on in succeeding chapters:
Imagine you have suddenly lost your memory. You see yourself in a mirror, but there is only this moment. You are unaware of any past, even the very moment before this one. You are solid, your cells are real, your heart is pumping, but how you got to the spot on which you stand, you have no idea.
Who are you? There is no answer.
You are not your family background, your personal history, the work you've done, your hopes for the future. These don't exist. You have no family, no associations. You're like a computer with hormones. You have lost your soul. You are listening to the latest music, buying the latest improved products, and believing the latest media interpretations of the world outside your room. This is all you know.
Now instead imagine yourself as a branching history and send your consciousness backward through the branches at lightning speed. Down past your parents and grandparents, down the countless generations before them, through your ancestors roaming from continent to continent, your primate ancestors, down through all the animals that preceded them, back through the earliest life, into a single cell, down into the complex chemicals that made it possible, down into the molten planet and the forming solar system, the birth of your carbon and oxygen and iron in exploding stars far across the galaxy, back through the universal expansion to the creation of your elementary particles in the Big Bang.
This is not fantasy. This is science: you are all this. Who you are is the sum total of your history. How far back you take that history -- how much of your own identity you claim -- is up to you.