The Universe and place of human within it
(Edexcel RS IGCSE section A)
The Edexcel IGCSE RS specification says:
Religious and non-religious beliefs/teachings about the origin of the universe and the place of human beings in it; religious beliefs/teachings about its purpose; (differing) views as to why people believe that human beings have a responsibility for the planet; and the different ways in which they can exercise this responsibility. Religious and non-religious beliefs/teachings about the relationship of human beings to other creatures, including (differing) views about the commonality of all living beings; the dominance of human beings over all other creatures; how human beings should treat animals; and animal rights.
Christian beliefs/teachings about creation; stewardship; and the uniqueness of human beings.
(The principle of) treating animals fairly
Commonality (of all living beings): (The belief that) all living creatures are part of the same
process of development
Dominance (of human beings): (The belief that) human beings have been given the right to
exercise control over all other living beings
The Edexcel RS IGCSE requires that you have a good understanding of the scientific theories about the origin and purpose of the universe and of human beings in order to compare these to a religious view.
Non-religious theories about the origin of the Universe and human beings say that both
- Have come about via natural rather than supernatural processes
- Are accidental/coincidental rather deliberate
Steady State theory has now been almost completely rejected and the vast majority of scientists accept Big Bang theory as an accurate account of the origin of the universe.
During the first half of the twentieth century there were two competing theories concerning the origin of the universe.
- Steady State theory
- Big Bang theory
Steady State theory proposed that the universe was infinite or eternal and essentially unchanging. Big Bang theory said that the universe was finite and began with a big explosion.
Big Bang theory originated in a form in the 1930s when Georges Lemaître (who happened to be a Roman Catholic priest as well as a cosmologist) suggested that a 'cosmic egg' exploded creating the Universe. Initially his ideas were not universally accepted and influential physicists like Fred Hoyle supported Steady State theory. Some scientists felt that Big Bang theory left too much room for religious people to assume that God caused the Big Bang. In fact, Pope Pius XII specifically said that Big Bang theory was consistent with Christian beliefs. For many, Steady State theory seemed a more appropriately atheistic theory. However, gradually experimental evidence lent weight to Big Bang Theory.
Red Shift explained
The colour light appears is based on its wavelength. Imagine looking straight along a wavy line. From your position at one end the waves will be foreshortened. Thus a yellow/green wavelength would look more blue or more purple because it appears to be shorter. Imagine pulling a wavy line away from you. This would make the waves appear longer. Therefore, the same greeny yellow light would look more orange or red. Light from galaxies moving away from us has been stretched in the same way which distorts the wave length.
Evidence supporting Big Bang theory:
- Red shift of the light from far away galaxies demonstrates that the universe is expanding. If it is expanding then something must have initiated that expansion. If all the galaxies are moving uniformly away from each other then this suggests that they all began at the same point. Red shift was first proposed by Edwin Hubble.
- Cosmic background radiation was discovered by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson in 1964. This electromagnetic radiation is like the echo of the Big Bang and it was predicted before it was discovered. Penzias and Wilson did not originally realise what they had discovered and assumed that the interference was caused by a problem with their equipment. It was only when they worked out that it was coming from everywhere and detected which every way they pointed their receiver that they realised what it was!
Timeline of the Big Bang
Approximately 13 billion years ago (give or take a couple of billion years) the Big Bang occurred as a singularity exploded.
In the milliseconds after the Big Bang the Universe expanded rapidly in a process known as super-inflation.
Gradually as the Universe cooled down and three minutes or so after the initial Big Bang subatomic particles were formed.
500,000 years later as it cooled further atoms can form.
Gravity caused atoms to form gas clouds. Inside these gas clouds stars form. When the first stars die the matter goes to form planets.
Darwin was born in 1809 in Shropshire. He went to university in Edinburgh to train to be a doctor but then transferred to Cambridge to study Theology instead. He made many of his zoological observations whilst travelling round the Galapagos Islands on the ship HMS Beagle.
The theory of evolution was developed by Charles Darwin although another naturalist, Alfred Wallace, had independently developed a very similar theory. They anounced their discovery jointly in 1858 and Darwin hastily published 'On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection' in 1859. This was followed by 'On the Descent of Man' in 1871 which made explicit the fact that humans, like other animals, had also evolved.
Despite describing the process of Natural Selection neither Darwin or Wallace understood how traits were inherited. Gregor Mendel an Augustinian Friar had studied the process of inheritance in pea plants and published his findings. His findings could have helped Darwin and Wallace to explain how characteristics were passed on however, Mendel's work went largely unnoticed even though he is now credited as one of the founding fathers of genetics.
The theory of evolution:
Animals produce large numbers of offspring many of which die.
Those that survive do so because they are best suited to their environment.
Animals which survive well live longer produce more offspring.
These offspring often inherit traits from their parents. Therefore, beneficial genetic mutations or variations are passed on and preserved.
Over time these small beneficial changes can cumulatively cause huge divergence between species.
Evidence supporting evolution:
- The selective breeding of domestic animals demonstrates that traits can be selected, passed on and that over time huge variety can be produced (all domestic breeds of dog descend from the wolf). This shows that the process works. The only difference between this and evolution is that in evolution the pressures of the natural environment do the selecting.
- The fossil record shows that species have changed over time and also that some species have died out. For example, fossils of a Archaeopteryx (feathered dinosaur) show that birds evolved from dinosaurs.
Religious beliefs (Christian):
Religious beliefs about the origin of the Universe and of human beings differ from non-religious views. Christians would argue that
- The Universe and human beings are created deliberately
- God is the creator of both humans and the Universe
- The Universe and human beings have a God-given purpose.
There are two different biblical accounts of the creation of the world.
In Genesis 1 God creates the world in six days before resting on the seventh. The order of creation is hierarchical. The world is created beginning with light and dark, then sun & moon & stars, then sea and sky, then land, then the plants, then sea life and birds, then land animals including humans. The implication is that the world is created in order to support the life that God has created. In verse 29 God says “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.”
The Genesis 1 story is told in a very formulaic way and after each day of creation we are told that 'God saw that it was good'. This suggests that creation has intrinsic value and is loved by God.
Genesis 2-3 has a different (and probably older) creation story. In Genesis 2 the earth already exists but is formless because there are not yet human beings to work the land and because God has not yet sent rain. God creates man (Adam), then creates the animals which Adam names. Finally God creates woman whom Adam names Eve. This story of creation then leads into the story of the Fall. Adam and Eve live in Eden, a paradise garden full of good things to eat that God has provided. Again the impression is given that God creates the world with the express purpose of providing human beings with a place to live.
Many Christians nowadays do not think that the Genesis stories provide a literal account of the origin of the universe. Most would say that the stories make a more general point that everything is dependent - in some way - upon God for its existence and all parts of creation have a value. Many Christians accept scientific theories about the origin of the universe and of human beings although they might believe that these processes were created by God.
Some religious believers try to use science to support the idea that God must have created the world.
Michael Behe argued that many things are too complex to have evolved. He says that things like the bacteria's flagellum and the human eye cannot have evolved without God's guidance because require many different parts to be present at the same time for the thing to work and to be useful. His theory has been called 'intelligent design'.
Some religious believers argue that the universe seems to have been 'fine-tuned' to bring about life (Dr Paul Davies describes it as 'a put up job'). It has been estimated that if the initial force of the Big Bang varied even slightly life would be impossible. Dr David Deutch said "If we nudge one of these constants just a few percent in one direction, stars burn out within a million years of their formation, and there is no time for evolution. If we nudge it a few percent in the other direction, then no elements heavier than helium form. No carbon, no life. Not even any chemistry. No complexity at all."
One traditional way of interpreting the Genesis 1 story is to say that the Hebrew word translated 'day' can just mean a period of time (rather like we use the term 'minute' to mean a non-specific short period of time). Thus the six day creation was not six days but six distinct periods of time. Conservative Christians could argue that the six day creation story presents an order of creation that can be roughly aligned with the scientific theories (light/dark, land, simpler life forms to more complex ones).
Liberal Christians are less concerned with correlating the Bible with the science. They would argue that the Bible contains many out-dated and inaccurate teachings and would view the Genesis stories as myths.
However, fundamentalist Christians who believe that the Bible is literally the inspired word of God usually believe God literally created the world in seven days as it says in the Bible. They would reject all evidence to the contrary and argue that
- If the Bible and science contradict then the science must be wrong because God is perfect whereas humans are not so humans must be mistaken. The Bible is God's word so must be inerrant (without mistakes).
- Fossils of extinct animals might have been put there by God to test Christians' faith.
- Dinosaurs co-existed with humans.
You need to be careful when describing 'Christian views' and avoid implying that all Christians believe exactly the same thing. They don't!
Christianity teaches that human beings have a privileged place in God's creation because we are created in God's image and are given a very specific role.
In Genesis 1 humans are created on the sixth day along with the other land animals.
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
After God creates human beings as the pinnacle of creation he rests, his work done.
In Genesis 2 we are given a different and more detailed account of the creation of mankind. God creates man out of the dust of the earth and then breathes into him. (Christians sometimes use this to show that humans have two aspect, a physical body and a spiritual soul). God then creates the animals and Adam names them. The act of naming suggests that Adam has power over the animals and the fact that none of them are a suitable companion for him implies that they are perhaps a lesser form of life. God then makes Adam fall into a deep sleep and takes a rib from him from which he creates Eve to be a companion to him.
The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas believed that humans could use their reason to work out God's intended purpose for creation. This idea is called 'Natural Law' and central to it is the concept that it is good to use something for what God made it for and it is morally wrong to use it in a way which prevents God's purpose from being achieved. Aquinas thought that we could logically work out that humans are intended to:
1) Preserve life
3) Educate children
4) Live in society
5) Worship God
From these 'primary precepts' we can work out other secondary precepts. For example, if we should live in society then we should not tell lies because to live in society we need to trust each other. The concept of Natural Law can be used when discussing moral issues like euthanasia, abortion and sexual ethics.
The purpose of human beings:
The Genesis stories reveal certain aspects of the purpose of human beings.
- In Genesis 1 God tells human beings to 'Go forth and multiply' (Genesis 1:28) which suggests that part of the human purpose is to have children.
- God goes on to say 'Fill the earth and subdue it'. In other words they are told to rule the world. This gives humans the right to use creation for their own good. However, the implication is that they should rule the world as God would want them to. Since God describes his creation as 'good' we can assume that God would want them to rule as a wise God-like ruler who takes into consideration the needs of his subjects. The idea that God and humans should work together to care for the world is found in the beginning to Genesis 2 when the earth is still formless as there are not yet human beings to 'work the ground'.
- Christianity teaches the idea of STEWARDSHIP. A steward is someone who looks after something for someone else. If the world and everything in it ultimately belongs to God then Christians should look after it in the way that God intends. This applies to the environment and to animals but it could also be applied to private wealth and assets.
- The story of the Fall is found in Genesis 3. The punishments given indicate that the purpose of men and women is different. Man's punishment is to have to work hard to make the land productive. Woman's punishment is pain in childbirth and to have her husband as master over her. Traditional Christianity teaches that men and women have sepa Go therefore and make disciples of all nationsrate roles. St Augustine believed that when God created woman he created her specifically as a helper in the task of procreation (because he thought that a man would have made a better helper for all other tasks). Thus the main purpose of women is to be wives and mothers.
Christians would say that humans have other purposes besides those set out in Genesis.
- The ultimate purpose is to get to heaven.
- Jesus summarised the whole law in the statement 'Love God and love your neighbour as yourselves' (Luke 10:27).
- Many Christians believe that it is part of their duty to proselytise (preach the word of God). They might support this by pointing to the 'Great Commission' found at the end of Matthew's Gospel in which Jesus says 'Go therefore and make disciples of all nations' (Matthew 28:19)
You might be able to think of other things that Christians would regard as part of the purpose of human beings.
The relationship of humans to other animals:
Commonality versus Dominance:
Christianity teaches that humans are made in God's image whilst animals are not. Humans are like God in that they
- Are rational
- Have moral awareness
- Have a spiritual aspect
It is these abilities that mean that humans have the qualities required to rule over the rest of creation and act as steward for God. The Bible teaches that God cares for all creation human life is more valuable and humans can use animals for their own good. The Christian view is that humans have dominance over other animals rather than commonality with them.
However, some Christians might stress that all living things including humans are created by God and to that extent they are part of the same process of development. Christians who believe in evolution must accept that humans have evolved in the same way as other animals and biologically are part of the same process of development.
Buddhist and Hindu views:
Hindus believe that when a person dies the atman (soul) is reincarnated into a new body on the basis of past karma. Good karma (gained from morally good voluntary actions) leads to a positive rebirth whereas bad karma can lead to a negative reincarnation. According to traditional Hindu teaching the best form of reincarnation would be to be born into a Brahmin (priestly) caste as that rebirth would make it most likely that you would go on to gain good karma in your next existence. To be reincarnated as an animal is unfortunate as it makes it much more difficult to gain good karma. Buddhists have a very similar idea although they do not believe in a personal fixed atman.
For both Buddhists and Hindus animals are connected as part of the same cycle of samsara (the cycle of life/death/rebirth). In other words, they have commonality. To take an animal life might be therefore taking the life of a living being who one day had been or could be a fellow human being. Buddhists have the principle of ahimsa (non-harm) which is supposed to apply to all living beings.
Buddhist or Hindu views provide a useful contrast to the Christian view.
Even thought the Bible makes it clear that humans can use animals for their own use it also stresses that they should be treated fairly and the use of animals should not be cruel. Some Christians might make the distinction between using animals in a way which is necessary for humans (e.g. for food or for medical research) and using them for unnecessary things (e.g. testing cosmetics or putting wild animals in circuses).
Individual Christians might make their own choices about how they will try to treat animals fairly. For example they might:
- Buy only free-range products or meat with the RS freedom food label.
- Avoid products that had been tested on animals.
- Give money to charities that support conservation. A Rocha is a specifically Christian environmental charity and Operation Noah is an anti-climate change Christian group.
- Choose to be vegetarian or limit the amount of meat they eat. Traditionally Christians avoided meat on Fridays and during Lent.
Biblical teachings about the use of animals and treatment of the environment
Consider how the following teachings might be useful. Try to consider what general principles these teachings contain rather than just looking at what they specifically refer to. You can then see how these general principles might apply to issues not specifically dealt with in the Bible (like animal testing for example).
- 'Eat the fruit but do not destroy the trees; the trees are not your enemies' (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)
- God blessed Noah and said 'All the animals, birds and fish will live in fear of you. They are all placed under your power. Now eat them as well as green plants' (Genesis 9:1-3)
- 'You [God] appointed them [people] to rulers over everything you made; you placed them over all creation; sheep and cattle, and the wild animals too' (Psalm 8:6-7)
- 'Good people take care of their animals, but wicked people are cruel to theirs' (Proverbs 12:10)
- 'Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one sparrow is forgotten by God' (Luke 12:6)
Link back to Edexcel RS IGCSE Section A page.
The Natural History Museum has detailed resources on evolution including video clips. Find their section on evolution here.
Operation Noah website.
A Rocha website