Among the creation stories of the major world religions, the Hindu cosmology may be — and I have this from the highest Wikithorities — the one that tracks most closely with our present scientific understanding. It’s a cosmology and an eschatology both, actually, a beautiful story of eternal recurrence in which we occupy one of an infinitude of universes hatched from nothingness by a Creator called Brahma, destined to unfold into a state of maximal complexity before collapsing in on itself and being reborn anew.
Sure, the “runaway universe,” born of a singularity and accelerating toward its own demise, is familiar from the Big Bang Theory, and even the idea that this isn’t Mother Nature’s first rodeo, that not just beings but Being is reincarnated, can be made compatible, or not incompatible, with our best physics. But when you get into the details, the dates and times, things get a bit dicey. And here I quote, again, Wikipedia’s best comparative theologians:
We are currently believed to be in the 51st year of the present Brahma and so about 156 trillion years have elapsed since He was born as Brahma. After Brahma’s “death,” it is necessary that another 100 Brahma years (311 Trillion, 40 Billion Years) pass until a new Brahma is born and the whole creation begins anew. This process is repeated again and again, forever.
Brahma’s day is divided in one thousand cycles (Maha Yuga, or the Great Year). Maha Yuga, during which life, including the human race, appears and then disappears, has 71 divisions, each made of 14 Manvantara (1000) years. Each Maha Yuga lasts for 4,320,000 years. . . .
. . . and it goes on like that. To me, this tick-tock raises as many questions as it answers (if Brahma creates time and space, and does so an infinite number of times to boot, then how can he be said to have an age at all?). I’m sure practicing Hindus have views on this and other matters of their faith, and an enterprising reporter might have asked a prominent Hindu — say Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D., Hawaii), the first to be elected to Congress — about hers. But near as I can tell, nobody has. Sure, it was widely noted as a source of pluralist pride that Representative Gabbard would be sworn in on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, and presumably Gabbard’s connection to that book is sufficient to ground its use in underwriting her sacred oath, but nobody thought to query her about how she understood and related to the truths contained in it.
Not so for the good old King James Version, whose own creation story, the Genesis, was a subject that came up in a recent GQ interview with young Senator Rubio of Florida. The question was simple enough: “How old do you think the earth is?”
Here’s Rubio’s answer:
I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.
There’s much that’s right with Rubio’s answer — first on the list is the indisputable assertion that the age of the universe is not straightforwardly correlated with the United States’ gross domestic product — and plenty I’d have put differently. Unlike Gabbard’s beliefs, Rubio’s Catholic faith doesn’t leave him an easy parry to GQ’s question (which Earth do you mean?), but certainly Rubio could have hedged his bets in a less scattershot way. My preference would have been for Rubio to say that the Earth is as old as the best science says it is (4.54 billion years, give or take) though the First Amendment leaves all Americans free not only to disagree, but to proselytize on that disagreement. And if his interlocutor had followed up by asking how Rubio squared that with his own religious beliefs, he might have shrugged and added that mystery is a central component of faith.
On the Right, there is at least as much discussion of the fact that Rubio was asked this elephant trap of a question at all as there is of the details of his answer. And that’s good. But a better question might be, why wasn’t Gabbard asked it? Or President Obama, or Senator Harry Reid or Representative Keith Ellison? After all, Gabbard’s espoused Hinduism, like Obama’s espoused Christianity or Ellison’s espoused Islam or Harry Reid’s espoused Mormonism, entails a range of commitments to claims that are, prima facie, at odds with the empirical record. But there isn’t a cottage industry in interrogating Democrats on their faith the way there is with religious conservatives.
One reason for this is that elected religious conservatives tend to be white, male Christians, and owing to those groups’ cultural and political position of power, we as a society are freer in challenging the pieties (in both the positive and negative senses of that word) of whites, males, and Christians. By contrast, liberals and conservatives alike tend to be queasier over the idea of hassling members of minority religions, or minority members of Christian confessions (both of which groups tend to lean Democratic), about the details of their faith. This explains why you’re not likely to see an interviewer ask Gabbard whether she thinks we really are in the 156 trillionth year since the last Brahma was born. Is there a familiar whiff of condescension in all this? Sure, but let’s suppose it’s innocent enough and leave it to one side.
Even so, as the number of nonbelievers in political life is vanishingly small, there are still plenty of white, male Democrats who espouse a Christian faith. Why aren’t they asked how old the universe is? (Or better yet, a more loaded version of that question that would be far more revealing: “Do you think God created the universe 4.54 billion years ago?”)
They aren’t asked such questions because the proximate purpose of asking such questions isn’t to start a conversation about metaphysics, it’s to get conservatives to say odd, politically damaging things. Asking Richard Mourdock about abortion in the case of rape wasn’t aimed at starting a theo-philosophical debate about whether the dignity of human life is contingent on the circumstances of its creation. It was about exploiting Todd Akin’s idiocy to generate politically advantageous sound bites. Likewise, asking Marco Rubio about the age of the universe was an invitation to out himself as an anti-scientific rube, not an invitation to reflect on the intersection of religious and scientific truths.
If it was the latter, there are a number of intriguing and learned attempts to square just that circle. Think of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” or the Vatican’s rejection of both “crude creationism” and “intelligent design” and its affirmation that the Bible is not “a source of scientific knowledge.”
Though if I were Rubio, I might have been tempted to mess with GQ, to one-up Young Eartherism and tell them that I held with Bertrand Russell’s radically skeptical lark that the universe was created five minutes ago — fully stocked with fossils and tree rings and ruins, and baiting GQ interviewers.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.