The Atheist's Sense of Wonder

This is an pretty old post from my blog, which has been preserved in case its content is of any interest. You might want to go back to the homepage to see some more recent stuff.

I’ve no idea why this thought should crop up now, but I recall being asked several times by religious folk why I would choose not to believe in a god. Often their question is something like “Why believe that everything you see around you was created by random chance, when it would be so much more wonderful to think that someone created it all just for us?”

I disagree completely.

Isn’t it more wonderful to think that at some point, billions of years ago, everything we know was just an unimaginably tiny, unimaginably hot and dense energy field? That within seconds, it coalesced into quarks and leptons and other stranger things, that those quarks became protons and neutrons, then on into hydrogen and helium atoms?

Isn’t it more wonderful that a simple force like gravity drew those atoms together into huge balls of gas, so hot and dense that they ignited and became shining beacons visible from the far end of the universe? And that they eventually exploded, scattering heavy atoms far and wide? And that those atoms – oxygen, carbon, iron, even as heavy as uranium – gathered around another newly-forming star, clumping together into big balls of rock, one of which happened to be in just the right place around just the right kind of star to sustain liquid water on its surface?

Isn’t it more wonderful that after a billion years of volcanism, asteroid impacts and boiling, toxic atmospheres, somewhere in that water, a bunch of molecules lined up in a pattern on the surface of some clay and became the first proteins? That these chemicals strung themselves together in molecules so complex they could contain the code for their own reproduction? That they became so much more complex still that they could encode the information to generate a cell, a microscopic blob with a membrane that means it can keep conditions inside itself different from those outside?

Isn’t it more wonderful that over millions or billions of years, they developed gills so that they could extract oxygen from the water, and gain their energy from that rather than directly from the sun? That after yet another unimaginably long time, some of them went on to develop legs that would allow them to colonise the land?

Isn’t it more wonderful that millions of years ago the Earth was ruled by giant lizards, and that that isn’t just the plot of a science fiction movie but the real history of our planet?

Isn’t it more wonderful that 14 billion years after the first quarks formed, we stand here today? For all that we are vulnerable, disease-ridden, selfish and fond of killing each other, we alone have the medical knowledge to understand ourselves, and we alone have brains advanced enough to contemplate themselves. We alone understand biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics. We alone have telescopes to study distant stars, and we alone have built spaceships that we have thrown out beyond our solar system into the cosmos beyond.

And is it not more wonderful still that we may not be alone in the universe, that amongst the billions of stars and maybe trillions of planets, there could be other creatures like us – or even that the universe could be swarming with life; great civilisations spanning the distant galaxies.

But an omnipotent MacGuffin that made the Earth just for us? That’s not all that great.


Danfox Davies 29 October 2010

It is, however, a comfort to millions, even billions of people. That's why they go to church, why they pray in their mosques and temples and shrines, why they worship and sing and gather. It makes no sense, but it does have a certain cosiness to it all.

Thomas Coton 29 October 2010

The two views are not mutually exclusive. No reason why God or gods unknown couldn't have set all that in motion.Which, to be honest, I find to be the best of both worlds.

Andy Renton 29 October 2010

The McGuffin theory may not be that great but it's a lot more believable to some (sorry! - just a thought.)

Eduardo Henrique Chavez Pino 29 October 2010

@Tom: Actually the two views mentioned are mutually exclusive. a) God created everything just for us, or b) a long time ago, the big bang happened. The view you put forward is a variation on b. Namely "a long time ago God/god/gods kicked everything off in what, to our best estimates, was a big bang and everything has come from that.

Al Marshall 29 October 2010

^ Depends. Assuming the Universe is deterministic, God could, in theory, have kicked off the Big Bang, knowing that billions of years later the universe we inhabit would be the result. And the reason he did it could, in principle, have been so that we would happen and have this Universe to live in.Of course, an omnipotent god who did this would have to be a complete monster. Evolution works because life is a constant struggle to survive; it's an approach to creating complex life that depends on generation after generation of fear, pain and suffering. A god that would use such an approach when he had the power to create everything instantaneously would be either immeasurably cruel, or at best horrifyingly callous.

Eduardo Henrique Chavez Pino 29 October 2010

^ Even assuming what you say is correct, it is still very much a different theory than "God created the earth the sun and the moon etc pretty much as is (which is what I assume Ian was talking about) specifically for us to piss around in".

Scott 'Inquisitor' M 29 October 2010

Yeah, it's an age old no-win situation, one side doesn't see how the divine connotation is wondrous, the other doesn't see how anything can be wondrous without it. The only way to win is to just sit back and bask in the resplendent wonder and not give a flying fuck WHY.(though of course personally I will always see the divine argument as pleasant folly, no offence intended)

Meh, this is one of the reasons I've started avoiding debates on omnipotent beings. Saying x is a reason for God to exist doesn't mean anything. Its like asking why does gravity follow the inverse square law? It just does. The relevant bit is figuring out that it does that in the first place. The why isn't something you can generally answer with any certainty and I'm not sure its something worth caring about really. Now finding out how stuff happens, that's interesting.

Owen Thomas Perring 29 October 2010

The problem I have with the very start of the argument, and my reply, is 'If someone has to choose what they believe in, they clearly don't understand the term 'belief''. It's like trying to choose your philosophy or morality.

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