Can a secular age return to an age of faith? No. Despite the hopes of people who still follow traditional religions, the modern age is too entrenched in its values to ever regain faith as it was once known. The issue isn't church attendance, which has been declining in every developed country for decades. Nor is it fundamentalism, which is like a family squabble among believers. The core issue that has led to the decline of religion has to do with reality itself.
In the modern age, reality has been defined by science, and wherever science goes, so will God. Many people assume that God has no chance of returning, that science has permanently vanquished the reality defined by religion. But the story is more complicated than that. Let me look at the picture in the broadest terms. What would it take to make the universe a living thing? What would it take to make it human once again, a secure home for us instead of a cold, meaningless place? What would it take to give God a future?
As disconnected as these questions may seem, the deeper one looks, all three issues - a living universe, a human universe, and a universe that holds a place for God - start to merge. If they actually do merge, our view of reality will radically shift. There have been great physicists who were deeply religious, such as Sir Isaac Newton, or who had a religious feeling when confronting the universe, such as Albert Einstein, but God isn't the right place to start with these huge issues. No matter who or what created the universe, it's here now, and we have to relate to it.
How? One of the oldest ideas, which can be found in every culture, holds that Nature is a mirror. We relate to it by seeing ourselves, but not passively. Messages are constantly going back and forth about birth and death about constant change and the bond between our life and Nature itself. To the ancients, a natural disaster - fire, flood, earthquake - showed that the gods were angry. If the gods were appeased, the harvest was good and the sun shone. It was unquestioned that the universe meant something, and usually it meant that a loving deity had created a special place for his children.
It's astonishing how quickly a timeless worldview was utterly destroyed by science. Now we relate to a completely mechanistic universe devoid of purpose, one that operates through random chance perfectly meshed with evolution operating through random genetic mutations. The mirror has shattered. We no longer see ourselves in it, because there's nothing meaningful to see, no purpose, no Creator. Even more absurd is the notion that Nature is sending us messages - from the collision of quarks to the collision of galaxies, nothing is happening "out there" to reflect human existence.
More than any other science, quantum physics delivered Nature to its present state as random and meaningless. The reliable world of the five senses was undercut by the quantum world, where nothing known to the five senses holds true. It seems totally impossible that the gap between the two worlds could ever be closed. Yet it can't remain open, either. Human life is meaningful, not random. It is filled with purpose, intelligence, creativity, and values like love and compassion. No one has explained how matter and energy acquired purpose, meaning, and all the rest. Electrons and hydrogen atoms floating in the bleakness of outer space bear no resemblance to the electrons and hydrogen atoms in your brain. Their random activity somehow turned into the most orderly, intelligent, creative activity in the known universe. How?
Let's say we want to take this question personally. Reality is an interesting topic, but it becomes a fascinating topic when it's your personal reality. If you knew where your own intelligence came from, why you are alive, where you are going, and what the next leap in your evolution will be, everything would change for you. In their pursuit of a Theory of Everything, the holy grail of modern physics, scientists have bypassed a Theory of Me, an explanation for why each of us matters. That, in a nutshell, is what's at stake. How do we fill in the gap created by the quantum revolution, so that the world we experience personally matches the data collected by science?
Science is considering this issue on several fronts. Neuroscience is delving into the brain processes associated with subjective feelings like love, compassion and faith. The prospect that the brain has a quantum foundation is being taken seriously. For a long time the "observer effect" has been part of quantum mechanics. This is the effect that occurs simply by having an observer make measurements.
Although by no means a consensus, some physicists hold that particles comes into existence only when observed, that without an observer they exist only as probability waves. Finally, cosmologists must answer the riddle of why the early universe was so fine tuned. The various constants like gravity, the speed of light, and the values of the strong and weak force are precisely meshed, and even the slightest change would have caused the early universe either to implode or to fly apart in in such a way that matter could never have formed. One school of thought holds that human beings may be the end product of the universe. The events that led to our emergence are too fine-tuned to be random.
I've barely sketched in a wholesale shift that has the effect of making a human universe possible, one in which evolution is working toward a goal - namely, us. But all of these trends ultimately may depend on a single hypothesis: the conscious universe. A quick search of Amazon reveals a clutch of books devoted to the living universe, the holographic universe, and so on. In their different ways, these books attempt to answer the Big Question: How did mind enter the cosmos? It is all but impossible to derive mind from the random bombardment of atoms. It is far easier to place the seeds of consciousness inside the precreated state, the void from which time, space, matter, and energy emerged. The precreated state is inconceivable, because we can only describe reality as we know it, which means using thought processes that depend on time, space, matter, and energy.
Once you are forced to look at the precreated state (a perfectly respectable inquiry - string theory does it, for example) all possibilities are open; the playing field is level. Something organized the universe from the precreated state. Something outside time gave rise to time; something outside space gave rise to space. Perhaps that something is a kind of proto-consciousness, or an infinite consciousness, or the very framework for mind itself. Terminology gets blurry; indeed, being able to think about the precreated state is extremely questionable. I am not sneaking a Biblical God - or the ancient gods - back into the picture. If science fully confronts where intelligence, creativity, and the operation of mind came from, what will shift is the story of reality. As reality goes, so goes God. The two are inevitably linked, since God is a verbal tag for the source of creation. Verbal tags are clung to for emotional reasons, which isn't science.
But relating to reality is science, and so is true knowledge. It is undoubtedly true that we are conscious beings, and just as true that everything we know comes via experience. Reality is experienced in consciousness. The world's wisdom traditions agree that there is a source beyond the world of the five senses that gave rise to intelligence, creativity, love, and so on. By staring into the precreated state of the universe, science has arrived at the juncture where the source of creation must be confronted. No one can predict where this investigation will wind up. But something like God has a future, and there's a good chance that this something will be God.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, is the author of more than 65 books including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest novel, God: A Story of Revelation (HarperOne)