Atheism is the prevailing theory of the universe among most intellectuals below a certain age in this country. Many people are ardent atheists, while others acknowledge at least a passing uncertainty, but the avowed belief in God is increasingly becoming categorized in the same general box as those who believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and perhaps that they have personally been kidnapped by aliens upwards of ten distinct times. All of this is done with the same sneering elitism and assumption of universality and correctness with which many intellectuals approach many issues in their life, be it the superiority of certain academic institutions or the idea, say, that people of all races should be treated equally or some other (actual) standard accepted fact.
Much of my source for this understanding of how people behave and think is, of course, the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) community, a place where I spent the formative bulk of my time in my own undergraduate college years and then the last five years of somewhat less formative but somehow no less meaningful or tumultuous time. This is the most unabashedly and thoroughly intellectual community in the United States that exists currently (I will take on all challengers to this mantle, but not spend time doing so in this post) and also among the most sneering… intellectuality and elitism are so intertwined in contemporary America that it makes one almost want to be stupid sometimes just to be unapologetically kind and/or human. And while there are some theists on APDA, they are often ridiculed and scorned, either directly or by association, and the running assumption is that anyone with a shred of skill or talent at debate is of course an atheist, which I ran into in my own personal experience, especially during my recent coaching stint at Rutgers where people would start discussions all the time from the premise that I’m an atheist and would look so puzzled when I corrected them with my actual belief set. One person in such a discussion actually said “But you’re smart!” as, to him, a complete rebuttal to my stated belief in God.
This state of belief and proliferation of atheism as (pun/allusion very much intended) Gospel truth among purveyors of and adherents to logic is, in my opinion, appalling. It is also largely inexcusable for people who actually want to hold a mirror of methodology and logic to their own beliefs which is, near as I can tell, the complete goal of the examined life and logical process in the first place. I would contend that it comes from the same oft-ridiculed place of knee-jerk assumption that is so maligned when it is found among believers. People hear that scientists/respected authorities don’t believe in God, so they don’t either, more or less full stop. Surely some people examine it more than this, some much more, but I don’t think people get a lot further than taking issue with some particular doctrines of specific religions, usually those they have encountered most in their personal lives. Obviously the phenomenon of “person is raised in religion, person has disillusory moment with specific doctrine/person/aspect of religion, person writes off religion wholly as concept” is so common and frequent as to be an almost universal trope of my generation. I had my own religious falling-out when I realized in Catholic mass in seventh grade (Catholic school – I was raised very loosely Episcopalian with salt and alternative theories) that the cross was a method of execution and that if Jesus had been shot, the symbol of Christianity would be a gun, and that there was Something Very Wrong Here and I had to leave the church, both physically at the moment and more metaphorically in the long-term. But to jump from that moment to atheism would be, in my perspective, like having one scientific experiment fail in a chemistry class and then believe that everything ever written or spoken in human history was a deliberate lie.
So let’s address the actual evidence that’s out there, since the idea of God is so often decried as unprovable and irrational and insane. Because science is doing its damnedest to prove and propose the possibility if not the certainty of God and basically no one is paying attention and I find it really irksome.
There are two key issues I’d like to focus on in this post, though there are numerous other proofs of God and aspects of theism that I personally see abroad in the land, so to speak. But the two most obvious and frustrating issues are those that come from the cutting edge of science itself. I’m sure a third would come from the Higgs boson if I understood better what said boson really is or is about (NB: I know that people who like science hate that it’s nicknamed the “God particle” and say it has nothing to do with God. I also suspect that this is because people who like science consider themselves more allergic to the notion of God than EpiPen-wielding children are to bees or peanuts.). Maybe someday. But the two issues that I find glaringly obvious are (1) the simulation hypothesis and (2) the Big Bang.
Nick Bostrom is famous for first seriously proposing the idea that we’re all living in a simulation in a modern scientific-academic context. Of course the idea dates back to Descartes’ brain in a vat and Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream ages before that and the fact remains that for all our invention, intellectual/philosophical thought probably hasn’t progressed during most/all of what we consider human history.
(Brief aside: my friend Michael a month or so ago was discussing a passage in the Odyssey that he loves about Odysseus wailing like one of his victims and that in this moment he seems to be learning compassion for his enemies and realizing that they bleed as he does and that this is beautiful art. I retorted, crankily, that this realization made me suicidal because in 2014 we are no closer as a society or people anywhere to that understanding and we could easily look at all time since ancient Greece as wasted wheel-spinning. Michael was understandably put off and said “okay, Homer makes you want to kill yourself”. This was before the recent re-eruption of Israel/Palestine War number 86,000 roughly reminded me of my own point. We are not making any progress as a species whatsoever.)
In any case, we now have Scientific (TM) backing for something that philosophers and intellectuals have always feared/suspected/wondered about, namely that reality is illusory and perhaps itself a self-defeating concept and that some other force is behind what we see to be true. Bostrom’s paper caused a firestorm in the scientific community and now we have news/media outlets regularly publishing the idea that there’s between a 20-50% chance this is all a simulation. Very serious scientists are now even developing new tests to see if we’re all simulated. And everyone seems to at least be taking this idea seriously until it is concretely disproven somehow.
Yet despite all this recent fervor for the idea that super human intelligence has created simulations and possibly even nested simulations that actually explain what we perceive as reality, no one seems to be making the logical leap (or tiny step, I would argue) that super-human intelligence could be capable of same. In other words, we are somehow capable of imagining and seriously logically engaging with the idea that clones of ourselves could create this reality, but that no one else could. This is, in a word, short-sighted. That’s probably the kindest word I could come up with for it.
At the point where we are willing to put lofty double-digit percentages on the chance that everything we are and see and sense is fabricated as some sort of simulation, the idea that something like God is behind that simulation seems so obvious that it almost defies the suggestion. At the very least, we should be creative enough to imagine that entities far more capable and intelligent that current humans (remember how much progress we’ve made since ancient China and/or Greece) are behind the one-way glass of our simulated existence. At the point where we’re being deliberately simulated, almost anything on the other side of that mirrored wall becomes akin to God in a way that’s meaningful and powerful, and yet there are no serious academic articles a la Bostrom putting God back in the discussion of our everyday life. Somehow we find it realistic and comforting to believe that a 4th grader in Earth-prime could be making us as a science project, but not that someone slightly smarter than a 4th-grader is conducting this as a test of moral progress? Are we really that self-obsessed?
The only viable explanation I can find for this is the same that I find endemic to almost all aspects of atheism: hubris. The atheist, as a general rule, finds it impossible to imagine an intelligence that is more developed or sophisticated than the contemporary Earth human. It places itself at the very pinnacle of the universal food chain, something that one would think at least takes some sort of hit in reference to the idea of a simulated reality when we are not yet, in 2014, capable of creating such seamlessly simulated realities ourselves. But they still put an Earth human behind that glass because it is so hard to admit that Earth humans may be riding the universe’s very short bus indeed compared to what else is out there, let alone what is behind that glass. Given the extreme vastness of the universe, it seems obvious to me that the intelligence of whatever’s behind the glass if we are a simulation is so great as to be worthy of reverence and arguably worship on face. Granted, the cynical among us must entertain the idea that the force is value-neutral or malevolent, and the divorce between intelligence and morality is all the rage these days, but I think there’s plenty of additional evidence abroad in the land for realizing that benevolence is very much a part of the universe’s agenda, in addition to an unending sadness/disappointment at what we, both collectively and individually, manage to squander in terms of opportunity/potential.
In any case, I’m not looking to convince you today that the Benevolently Sorrowful God I feel I interact with (not Uniquely or Specially, mind, but as a normal everyday human being) exists. I’m looking merely to convince you that it is wholly rational to believe in God or at least the possibility of God and that, as such, Sneering Obvious Atheism is irrational.
If you disagree with this premise still, I would ask you to explain how you can simultaneously (a) entertain the realistic possibility of the simulation hypothesis and (b) entirely disregard the possibility that God or similar is behind the proverbial curtain of said simulation.
I have long disabled comments on this webpage because, well, read Internet comments anywhere, but I will entertain and rebut any serious explanations of the above. firstname.lastname@example.org
And you might not really take the simulation hypothesis seriously, which would be totally fine. But if you don’t, I bet you believe in the Big Bang. So the next part of this post is for you.
Before the US media had decided that Israel/Palestine War 86,000 deserved all/most of your attention, there was a lot in the US media made of the recent discovery of “proof” of the Big Bang, manifest through the sighting of gravitational waves that are consistent with the inflation model of the universe stemming from said Bang. I only vaguely understand the precise science of things like, say this, but the upshot is that the Big Bang looks all kinds of correct as an Origin Story for our universe, which is so vast as to be utterly beyond incomprehensible to human understanding.
Now one of atheists’ favorite games is to make fun of God-based Origin Stories, such as, e.g. Genesis, wherein God is so ridiculously powerful that it takes just seven days to form a world and one of those isn’t even busy! Of course, here is the prevailing scientific understanding of how long it took the entire universe (functionally infinitely larger than Earth) to form from literally nothing:
If you’re scoring at home, some of the relevant time markers there are one-one-hundredth of a second and three minutes. According to this rationally proven prevailing scientific understanding of the universe, everything necessary to build our universe was inevitably underway one-one-hundredth of a second after there was literally nothing there before. And, at that time, while expanding, the universe was roughly 85% of its current size with all the matter it would need to form, well, everything.
One-one-hundredth of a second. Or, if you prefer, three minutes, when the nuclear fusion had finished and all the matter set to, I guess, cool for the next few hundred-thousand years.
Two key questions arise from this. (1) Why is it rational to believe it took three minutes or less to create everything in the universe, but irrational to believe it took six days to create the world? and (2) Why/how did the Big Bang happen?
(2) makes people crazy. I have never encountered someone who has a good reaction to that one. It is where all of science, for its claims to proof and obsession with replicability and ultimate complete understanding, gets its spade turned, hard. And so science leaves us with this unsettling idea that it is crazy to believe there is intelligence or deliberate thought behind the formation of the universe, but wholly rational and consistent with understanding to believe that nothing became something in a period of time so short that it is unimaginable to human feeling. And not just something, but the building blocks for EVERYTHING. To insert God into that creation process, that something-from-nothing hypothesis, is ruled straight out by people who have no alternative explanation and find the whole question of explaining it tiresome. This is the height of irrationality and uncuriousness. But it seems bizarre to conclude that one should devote their life to discovering minute details of this process of ultimate creation, but take zero interest in what may have caused it.
Look, I’m not defending Genesis specifically or the people who run around saying dinosaur bones are in the Earth to test our faith and fool us into following Satan. I don’t believe in Hell or the Bible’s specific Origin Story (though I think the metaphor of this quick creation dovetails impossibly nicely with current theories of actual creation, which is the whole point of this half of the post, QED) or the Garden or the ribcage or any of that. But it is so weird that God is so quickly dismissed by people whose best and tested explanation is that everything came from nothing in a hundredth of a second. Look at that graph. Look at that expansion and that timeline. It’s like watching a firework and saying that no one shot it in the air and there was no intent behind the explosion, but one second there was sky and the next second there was color and sound everywhere and who cares why. Really? Really??
Look, I’m not saying you have to believe in God. Nothing I’ve offered here proves a divine intelligence is behind these things. But I think you have to conclude that being sure there’s no God is poppycock. It is intellectual absenteeism to care about the Big Bang and then abdicate the question of how or why it happened. And everything-from-nothing-in-no-time looks more like God and Creationism than it looks like anything else at all. Every scientific method and explanation we have looks at all matter coming from nothing in zero time and rails against that, demanding some sort of source or force or deeper reason. It breaks all the rules. So the closer we get to proving that this model is an accurate depiction of how we got here, the closer we get to having to face something that looks an awful lot like God.
Again, I’m more than open to refutations. With permission, I will reprint an rebut them in the coming months if anyone’s interested in having this debate out more thoroughly. Or just summarize and rebut them if you don’t want that kind of pressure. I am genuinely curious about the mind of an atheist and how it grapples with these possibilities, realities, and understandings. I may have missed something or lots of somethings. But ultimately, I just don’t think it’s rational to look at the way the universe seems to be shaped, have started, and may possibly have started, and to be sure that there’s no God behind it. And at the point where atheism is irrational, then its sneering superiority to belief falls away and we can agree that we’re all just choosing premises we like and running with them rather than some of us thinking and others of us not.