Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Too-Small God

(by Dave Cortesi)

Had I been born in another time and place, there are gods I could have believed in. In ancient Greece, I'm sure I would have been a devotee of Great Athena, and gone often to the beautiful temple on the Acropolis to worship.

Had I been born in India before 1800, I probably would have prayed often to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of wit and wisdom. Born to a Native American tribe before the coming of the whites, I'd have felt close affiliation with Coyote, the trickster and storyteller.

In fact I had the great good fortune to be born in a Western culture after the Enlightenment, and that placed a lower limit on the size of my God.


The Enlightenment was a great sea-change in the way people thought about themselves and the world. I hold it really began with the geologists. People have been looking at rocks, and digging mines for gold and coal, forever, but the first people who really studied, and drew, and measured the shape of the land and thought about how it could come to be—the first real geologists—worked around 1800, plus or minus 50 years.

What the geologists did was to show, based on careful measurement of things like the rate at which a stream could erode a slope, that the Earth simply had to be very old, millions of years at least.

Understand that before this time, nobody anywhere had a clue how old the earth was. The only numeric estimate anyone even attempted was when Bishop Ussher around 1650 added up the ages of every person mentioned in the Bible. From that he worked out that the date of creation must have been the 27th of October, 4004 BC. That's when God made the Garden of Eden, and so forth. Based on his careful examination of the Bible, the earth was a little under 6000 years old.

People paid attention to this because they pretty much accepted the Bible as factual history. Some people today still think it is; in fact my parents thought so when I was growing up. I don't remember ever discussing it with them, but they would probably have thought Bishop Ussher's estimate had something going for it, despite their both holding BA degrees.

The geologists of the 1800s destroyed that idea, not by arguing, but by taking measurements of the real world. And their evidence-based picture of millions of years of history for the earth just blew the minds of educated people of the day. Suddenly the earth had a huge past, vastly deeper than anything in recorded human history.


The geologists worked back and forth with the Paleontologists, who also got started in the 1800s. Of course, people had collected fossils for centuries. It was common for rich people to have collections of fossils along with other "curiosities." But it was in the 1800s that people began to study fossils in a professional way: measuring, drawing, and comparing them, and putting them together in sequences; publishing and sharing information from one university and museum to another.

This is tedious, painstaking work, comparing bone shapes and measuring. But the paleontologists soon worked out that fossils had to be the remains of living things that were now extinct, yet related to species alive today. They began to put together a rough tree of life, in which most of the species that ever lived, are long gone.

The paleontologists traded data with the geologists to get the relative ages of different animals. Based on the rock strata that the geologists had dated, they could date fossils found in the strata. Then they could date new strata by the fossils found in them, and back and forth.

The Book of Earth's History

Together, the two sciences produced a picture of a vast ancient history of the earth. Today we know the Earth is 4.5 billion years old -- that's 4, 5 and 8 zeros. Imagine that the history of the Earth is a fat book with 450 pages, with 10 million years on each page. In that book, the entire recorded history of human kind—from the first clay tablets from ancient Sumer, about 4000 BC, to right now—all human history occupies the last word, of the last sentence, on the last page of that book. 449 pages of history with no people. On the last page Homo Sapiens, our species, gets one short paragraph—we've been around a million years, a tenth of a page of this book—and the last word of that last paragraph is "Civilization."


There was one more key piece to the Enlightenment: Astronomy. In the late 1700s people learned how to make decent telescopes and started really looking into the sky, again taking careful measurements and sharing what they saw. It was William Herschel around 1800 who first proved by measurement the distance to a few other stars, and that the solar system of the sun and earth were moving through space among the stars.

Before this, as with the age of the earth, nobody had a clue about the nature of the starry sky. The best guess, based on common sense and some Bible passages, was that the sky was a fixed, hollow shell called the "firmament." The stars were little lights on the inner surface of this solid shell. Or maybe they were pinholes and the light of heaven was shining in through them. Until the 1600s, everybody just assumed that the Earth was the exact center of the universe, and everything rotated around it under the shell of the firmament.

Copernicus in 1540 pointed out that a lot of observations would make more sense if the Sun was at the center and the Earth moved around it, but nobody paid much attention until Galileo pushed the idea in 1650. He got in hot water for that, and the Church made him publicly recant, because to move the earth away from the center of the universe would create a conflict with some bible passages.

Now, a century later, Herschel could prove by measurement that some stars were at distances we could calculate, and those distances were huge, billions of kilometers. And the new telescopes also revealed millions more stars than people had ever been able to see with the naked eye. The universe suddenly went from cozy and comprehensible to inconceivably huge, and not only were we not at the center of it, but our sun was just another star floating through emptiness like one snowflake in a blizzard.

The Book of Universal History

Today we know that the observable universe, the part we can see, is about 14 billion years old. Remember the book of the history of the earth, 450 pages, 10 million years to a page? The book of the history of the universe is 1370 pages long. In the first two-thirds of it, although it tells of millions of galaxies containing billions of stars each, our solar system just doesn't exist: no sun, no planets. Around page 900, a cloud of gas at one corner of one average galaxy condenses under its own gravity to make a star. Around page 925, that star starts to shine and planets have condensed around it—including one that is at the right distance for water to be liquid most of the time.

Now riffle the pages to the end, page 1370: there we are, Homo Sap. is the last paragraph, and all of recorded history, Greeks and Romans and the middle ages and kings and queens and wars and all: the last word on the last page of this fat tome.

Being Enlightened

When thinking people began to grasp this vision of deep time and huge space, full of stars and animals and beauty and complexity but no people—a wonderful universe just perking along fine without us—it kicked off changes of mind and heart that created the civilization we live in.

Even today with all our education it is sometimes easy to forget the almost-inconceivable grandeur of a universe that we know to be 73 billion light years across. If you want a visual aid, take a few minutes to watch this video on the Hubble Space telescope's Deep Field images:

"Over 10,000 galaxies are in this picture... and each one... has millions of stars... each one with the possibility of a civilization..."

The Enlightenment still happens again and again in the minds of individuals, each time one person starts to get it, as I started to get it when I was around eleven or twelve. When it sinks in, two things have to change in your head.

The first is a change in the way you think about people. You realize that people, including yourself, are just not that important in the big picture. You come to feel, first, some humility, and second some perspective, and finally more patience with your fellow man. We're all just beginners. The bees and the ants have had millions of years to work out the right way to live as a community, and we've done better than they in just a few millenia. And, we humans are just babies, we are only starting out. We have done amazing, wonderful things, we've learned so much in just a few centuries, but that's no time at all. We talk as if we are at the end of history, that our society is the climax of wonderfulness. But in fact history has only just started. What we do today is going to seem tiny compared to what our descendants do.

The Too-Small God

One other thing that must change is: your conception of what a God must be. If the universe has a creator, a prime mover as Aristotle said, that thing, whatever it might be, has to be larger and older than the universe. Older than 14 billion years, and in some sense larger than its 78 billion light-year diameter.

I frankly have no idea of what the nature of such a thing, such a being, would be. What could it be like, a thing older than the universe and bigger? I'll tell you this: even as a boy of eleven or twelve, I knew for certain that the God I was being told about in Sunday School, the Bible God, was nowhere near big enough.

Compared to the vastness of space and time, the Bible God is a trivial thing. It is a being that feels jealousy and rage; a being that could without a qualm drown millions of living things that it had made, because they disappointed it; a being who would knock down the tower of Babel and confuse people's minds because it didn't want them to learn anything; a being who took sides between one tribe and another; a being who couldn't figure out how to be merciful until his son committed suicide in front of him to change his mind. (That's what the new testament message comes down to, if you think it through.)

I was not able to put these thoughts in fine words then, but I knew that the God I was being told about could not possibly be the creator of the universe that science showed me. So what do you call a book that tells you a dramatic story that cannot possibly be true? You call it a fantasy. I was familiar with fantasies, I read lots of them. It was obvious that the Bible was just another fantasy novel, and the God of Christianity was a made-up fiction character. Out of respect for my parents I went to church every sunday until I left home, but there was no time that I believed in what I heard.

And since then, I have never heard or read any description of a God that matches up to the size and scale of this magnificent universe. And I've never seen an explanation how a God who did match up to that scale and size, could have the slightest interest in being worshiped, or indeed could have the slightest concern about what I thought about it or anything else.

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by writerdd

Hi All! I've been away doing knitterly things lately. When I started posting on this blog, my goal was to periodically write about "spirituality without religion" and I still want to continue with that topic. I just have a crazy life and sometimes my paying jobs get in the way of my blogging gigs! For now, I would just like to point your attention to an interesting post on this topic by one of my favorite bloggers, Hemant Mehta, on The Friendly Atheist.

The post is about people changing their religious affiliation, but what caught my attention is that a very large number of people leave their church and religion because it is not filling their spiritual needs. This topic, apparently, caught the attention of other readers as well, and is being discussed in the comments. As atheists, I think we need to think and talk about this more than we do, and in a way that does not belittle those among us who are drawn to spirituality.

I notice that on many atheist blogs, readers who mention that they are spiritual or that they are interested in spirituality are criticized or ridiculed by the majority of people in the comments. (That happens less on this blog than on others, from my observations.) We need to stop doing this. It’s true that some, maybe most, atheists do not feel any need for the “spiritual” or hate the use of that word because of its religious baggage. But there are many, probably most, people in general who feel that spirituality is very important.

To use popular authors as examples, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and Eric Maisel have written about this and fit into the latter category. Dawkins fits into the first category, and does not seem to understand the need for spirituality at all.

This is a topic I think about, and have written about, a lot. I hope that more people begin to discuss this topic in a way that does not ridicule those who have the desire for spirituality without religion and without gods. I especially look forward to more from Harris on this topic. I found the last chapter of The End of Faith, "Experiments in Consciousness," to be one of the most interesting, but just a teaser.
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Friday, April 24, 2009

15 Responses to Believer Complaints

I was working this morning on adding my responses to “15 typical believer charges against atheists” to my powerpoint presentation in support of my book The Atheist’s Way. I just finished my responses and thought I would share them with you. I’m delivering the presentation to the monthly meeting of San Francisco Atheists tomorrow and East Bay Atheists next month. Cheers!

Here they are:

1. Atheists rob our children of Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, and the Tooth Fairy

I think that the most straightforward and powerful retort to this complaint is, “Exactly.” It is much better that a child get excited about her parent slipping a quarter under her pillow than that she believe, or have to act like she believes, in the existence of a fiction. You do not have to steal away excitement by telling the truth: be excited that you have kind parents who will buy you the bicycle that you want and leave Santa Claus out of it.

2. Atheists claim to have the truth and no one has the truth (except us).

Actually, atheists claim three things in this regard: we claim that you are patently lying when you invent some god or other; we claim that no one has the truth, if by “truth” you mean an understanding of why the universe exists; and we claim that the application of reason gets us to everyday truths better than does wishful thinking. The shorter answer is, “We have a much better grip on the truth than you do.”

3. Atheists are arrogant to assert that there are no gods.

There are two different sorts of responses to this charge. The first is, “Fine, I accept the charge, if you accept that it is incredibly arrogant of you to assert the existence of a god.” The second is, “No, reason is on my side and all you have is wishful thinking.” But it is really the form of this charge that interests us: all sorts of words can be substituted for “arrogant” in an “ad hominem” sentence with this linguistic form: words like “silly,” “short-sighted,” “deluded,” “mean-spirited,” and so on. So a blanket reply might be, “You sure do know how to use language!” and leave it at that. Or maybe just, “Same back at you!”

4. Atheists are merely negative—they provide nothing positive.

We affirm that human life is as meaningful as we make it. We affirm that a ripe peach is sweet, that love exists, and that a good movie is hard to beat. We affirm tons of things, individually and collectively. And, yes, we do take believers to task for making up gods and using god-talk to perpetrate tyrannies, but we have lots of positive things to say. We only wonder if you care to listen.

5. Since billions of people disagree with atheists, atheists can’t be right.

The idea of responding with a “flat earth” argument springs to mind: at one time virtually everybody believed that the earth was flat, except for a few enlightened folks who knew better. So what a majority believes can’t be the measure of truth. But of course comparing believers to flat-earthers drives the wedge between us deeper. Probably the more useful response is, “If billions of people were atheists, would you still believe?” I think this response is nicely provocative and also paints a picture of a world where atheists are the majority, which is not a bad picture to promote!

6. What’s the harm in believing in karma, past lives, or some gentle, loving spirit at play in the universe?

The harm is that maintaining any supernatural enthusiasm weakens your ability to speak out against god-talk. You become a fellow traveler and an implicit supporter of other people’s supernatural enthusiasms. Your “innocent” fantasy ends up supporting much more dangerous fantasies.

7. Religions provide a moral framework—without religion every evil would be permitted.

Probably the simplest response is to point to contemporary research that convincingly demonstrates that the most religious nations are also the most violent, rabid, and dangerous. Another simple response is to note how content and crime-free the least religious nations are, nations described, for instance, in Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Teach Us About Contentment.

8. Religions provide comfort—without that comfort life would prove just too hard.

This is a compelling complaint and not unlike the argument one might make for morphine. Doesn’t religious comfort have its place, as morphine has its place? Karl Marx famously said that “religious is the opium of the masses” and don’t people with hard lives deserve opium? The only answer is that a dangerous lie can’t also be supported as a legitimate comfort. If the truth provides less comfort, so be it. The choice is between fighting dangerous god-talk and embracing a comforting lie and we know which choice we hope that people are brave enough to make.

9. The wisdom traditions share so many values that they must arise from a common source.

They do arise from a common source—from the minds of men and women. Each tradition is different from the next because John concocted this one and Harry concocted that one, and each tradition is similar to the next because everyone knows what to value. Naturally the wisdom traditions appear to come from a common source: they do, from one single species.

10. Atheists rely too heavily on the methods and findings of science.

“Too” is the essence of the charge, since the whole world relies heavily on science—do believers not watch television, fly in airplanes, or check their email? So the simple reply is, “Dear believer, please define ‘too.’” Or an atheist can just smile and say, “Yes, I rely heavily on science. Don’t you?” Or we can play their game and respond in all seriousness and in all innocence, “Maybe we do over-rely on science, but surely you believers do not rely on science enough!”

11. On balance, religions do more good than harm.

At root this is an argument that people would not support orphanages, avoid adultery, or cross only on the green light unless they believed in a punishing god. Believers indict themselves and show how weak they fear themselves to be when they say that they would not be good without religion to “guide them.” Their fear is not a reason to countenance religion. Let them be brave and good of their own accord, just as we ask of ourselves and everyone else.

12. Aren’t prophets like Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha worth emulating?

All people are just people. They are brave here and fearful there, compassionate here and selfish there. When we say that someone is worth emulating what we actually mean is that we respect certain aspects of the person: her courage, her creative spark, her work ethic, something in particular. The less we engage in the cults of personality and celebrity and the more we announce which personal qualities we revere, the better. There are no prophets—there are just very human human beings.

13. The existence of gods can never be disproved.

Fine. We’d be happy not to bother. You stop creating gods and we’ll stop wasting our precious time helping you see that they are just your inventions.

14. In the absence of certainty, it makes more sense to err on the side of belief than unbelief.

Pascal’s wager boils down to the following: in case there is a god, better stay on his good side! An atheist simply says that he believes the opposite, that in the absence of certainty he will follow reason. The believer can cower, just in case there is a god, and while the believer is cowering the atheist will continue doing his everyday duty, without worrying in the slightest that he has made some miscalculation that will cost him dearly after he is dead.

15. Atheism is just another religion.

Yes, but the right one. And if you can’t that joke, then at least admit that a religion without gods is a pretty mild affair and leaves atheists pretty much to their own devices, having to decide everything for themselves. If you accept that as a reasonable definition of religion—everyone figuring out things for themselves—then we can accept that atheism is a religion. But as linguistic philosophers like to remind us, you can call a horse’s tail a leg but that doesn’t mean that a horse has five legs. You can call atheism a religion, if you like, but you would be doing quite a bit of definitional stretching. Read more!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Life and Death on Easter

It’s Easter; I have memories of getting up early year after year as a child to go to Easter Sunrise Service. We gathered somewhere outdoors, simulating the women and disciples who went to Jesus’ tomb in the early morning on the day of his resurrection. We sang certain hymns that were only for Easter – “Christ the Lord is ris’n today, Ha-a-a-a-He -lelujah,” “He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today. He walks with me and talks with me, along life’s narrow way!” I liked it – the brisk early morning, the feeling of life and hope, the joy of the music. Unlike a lot of other church experiences, it was a day of celebration. And what a profound message – death has been conquered! Just put your faith in Christ.

And now? It’s been many years and I’m no longer a Christian. I do not believe I will continue after I die. In my work as a psychologist, I work with people coming out of religion. There are many issues to deal with, and top of the list for many is this question of death and hellfire. The indoctrination is deep and insidious, a form of child abuse in my opinion. Even without hell, the idea of nonexistence (if that is the direction of change in belief), is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow. Fundamentalist Christianity downgrades a human lifetime compared to eternity and denigrates the whole world as fallen. How many times were we told to focus on where we will be in the hereafter? The result is fear, because no one is certain, and also neglect of the life that we have now.

For those of you who are anxious today and struggle with the idea of death, I can tell you that it is possible to stop fearing damnation. I certainly have and many other former believers have too. It is a phobia indoctrination that serves the religion. If you think you should believe “just in case,” think about what you would be missing. Essentially, your life. The greatest challenge for a human is to know about death, and live fully in the face of it. Other animals can more easily “be here now,” and we can learn from them. However, we have more awareness and it is our existential dilemma to make peace with death.

In a way, we do continue on. Our molecules get rearranged and become other things; nothing is lost, not one atom. All matter and energy in the universe is conserved, according to what we know from physics. I find it beautiful to walk in a forest and see a fallen tree where it is decomposing, nourishing the earth, and causing new life to spring up. And if you worry about your soul, ask yourself, “Where were ‘you’ before you were born?” Is that so frightening?

No, we are better off paying attention to the present. This life is limited but so are a lot of things. The Christian attitude of denigrating life because it is short makes no sense. Is a wonderful meal any less wonderful because it ends? When you are listening to incredible music, are you upset because you know the piece will finish? Hopefully not, and we can extend that lesson to life itself. People who have a brush with death often learn to appreciate life in a special way. Our time on this earth is precious. Perhaps when we cherish our days, honor what is possible, love our fellow humans as best we can, and look at the world with awe and wonder, we can achieve a spirituality of a different kind. Of our own free will, we can commit acts of random kindness and dance for no reason at all. Death be damned.

For the recovering fundamentalist, reclaiming intuition and learning to trust one’s inner wisdom is an exciting process. We are not empty, weak, incapable, or bad. We are all interconnected and a part of our amazing universe. Even Einstein said thinking we are individuals is an illusion.
One day, when I was a little discouraged, I wrote to myself from the wise part of me (yes, we are all multiples), and then wondered about that voice. This is what emerged, and it applies to all of us, so I hope you find a bit of inspiration too. I asked where the encouragement was coming from:

“This is from the force that makes the new shoot grow between concrete slabs. This is from the symmetry of fractals. This is from the incomprehensible distance of space, this is from the sound waves that blend and beat and tell you to dance, this is from the little child that looks at you clearly with no fear and says hi, this is from the unadulterated force of the sea under you and all around you when you swim in the ocean, the sea that takes no prisoners when the tide comes in, the sea that spawned life, and the same sea that sends a wave spreading up the sand to your bare feet, with rhythmic purring caress, bringing you the gems that make you smile - the perfect tiny shell, the fragment of blue glass that you tuck in your pocket.

“This is from the cosmic red afterglow of the big bang. This is from all eleven dimensions, from all the things you don't understand and like that you don't understand. This is from the parallel universes that come with the eleven dimensions, penetrating the membrane. This is from the aquifer beneath all of you, the source feeding flashes of human greatness. This is from the massive network of fungus, hidden from view under seemingly separate plants. This is from the power behind the form, the elusive explanation, the delectable mystery. I only have one thing to say to you right now - and that is REMEMBER ME. You are not alone. You always have a reason to go on. and there is no choice; you will go on anyway. Ineffable and inexorable, both. The tide is coming in again today; the ocean has not been deciding.”

Happy Spring.

Marlene Winell

Recovery retreats May 1-3, June 5-7, 13-15
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