Sunday, June 28, 2009

You Don't Need Gods To Feel Small

There's a persistent myth out there among certain believers, Christians in particular, that somehow a person who doesn't believe in a god must not be able to imagine anything more important than himself. Here's an example of such "thinking", courtesy of some random fool whom I found in a Google search:

Perhaps the issue comes down to the inherent narcissism of our times that too many of us can’t imagine something or someone bigger than ourselves and the idea of confronting our moral failings has become too damaging for our inflated self image. It would be great to live in a world where self esteem was never lowered and where any act we commit, or omit, can be justified to ourselves and our fellow humans and where shame became obsolete.

For Goodness Sake: Who says Atheists have no Sense of Humor??

Here's another example, courtesy of this putz:

No. Becuase then they wouldn't be an atheist. I belive that people who are atheists are just ignorant fools who do not want to open thier mind to the fact that there is something bigger than themselves (and science) out there. Everything needs a beginning. I just belive that that beginning is God.

Can atheists hate God?

To my way of thinking, this attitude demonstrates ignorance on a scale that is breathtaking. By "ignorance", I mean an ignorance both of the world and non-believers. Let me illustrate with a picture:

Image credit: Cujo359

It's a picture of the Grand Canyon, in northern Arizona. Those little specks in the upper left hand corner (click the picture to enlarge) are people. This picture doesn't even show the full depth of the canyon, yet the people look tiny in comparison. If they had been dressed in clothing that matched the surroundings, they'd have been barely noticeable. If placed the bodies of all the people who have ever visited it in the canyon, they wouldn't come close to filling it. A back of the envelope calculation suggest that literally trillions of human beings would be required.

The largest structures human beings have ever built would be lost at the bottom of the canyon. The Boeing plant in Everett, WA is roughly a million times smaller than the canyon.

So far, we've only considered linear dimensions. Looking at the time scale of the place suggests even more reasons to feel insignificant in comparison. As the National Park Service's website notes:

Grand Canyon National Park [see Photo 1] is one of the best places in the world to gain a sense of geologic, or “deep,” time because the canyon exposes a great swath of geologic history. Rocks exposed in Grand Canyon are truly ancient, ranging from 1840 million years old (m.y.), or 1.84 billion years old (b.y.), to 270 m.y. The Grand Canyon landscape is geologically young, being carved within just the last 6 m.y. There are younger geologic deposits in Grand Canyon too, such as the Ice Age fossils found in caves, a 1000-year-old lava flow in the western canyon, and even the debris flow deposits that continue form each year.

The Grand Age of Rocks: The Numeric Ages for Rocks Exposed within Grand Canyon

Image credit: National Park Service

The Colorado River, which formed the canyon, is now cutting through rock that is nearly two billion years old. At that time, the only form of life was unicellular. There were no plants, let alone animals. The Wikipedia entry on the canyon says that it has been formed over the last 40 million years. Biologists estimate that the species homo sapiens sapiens is perhaps a quarter of a million years old. When the first human beings walked the planet, the canyon was scarcely shallower than it is today. In an ordinary human lifetime, only the most superficial changes will occur.

Speaking of time scales, here's another interesting picture. It's roughly where our solar system is in the Milky Way galaxy. The galaxy is roughly 100,000 light years across. If the earliest humans had boarded a spaceship that could travel at the speed of light to circumnavigate the galaxy, they'd still be out there somewhere. The nearest galaxy to our own, Andromeda would take roughly ten times longer to reach. Our galaxy is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. To call our planet a fly speck in the universe is to overstate its relative size by many, many orders of magnitude.

If you're a believer, the next time you feel tempted to assume that non-believers must see no reason to feel humble, try learning something about the universe you live in. The truth is that the universe is vast in any terms human beings can imagine. We exist on one tiny speck of rock in one little corner of it. Unless we can figure out how to live in other solar systems, we will probably be gone in a blink of an eye on its time scale. The universe cares nothing about us as individuals or as a species.

Non-believers live with this knowledge. We don't assume there is some deity taking care of us. We know that, in the end, all we humans can count on is that our survival rests on chance, and our ability to understand and adapt to the universe we live in. We also know, as geology teaches us, that even that may not be enough.


Serving Patriot said...


A most excellent post! Reading it immediately brought to mind this book: Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism

If you haven't read it -- do yourself a favor and connect with more than 200 years of traditional American skepticism!


Cujo359 said...

That's at least the second Susan Jacoby book I need to take the time to read.

I suspect that I haven't made any basic points here that others haven't made elsewhere. That just makes it all the more annoying that people still trot out this old bromide about non-believers.

badrescher said...

Wow. VERY nicely said, with some thought-provoking stuff for all of us.

I have not actually heard this insult before. The closest has been a few people describing faith as "seeing the dolphin" in a "magic eye" image while atheism is seeing a bunch of dots. They really think it's MORE "perspective".

My answer? I "see" the dolphin, too. The difference is: I know it is just a picture. (And I am interested in how the picture was made to look like a dolphin.)

Anonymous said...

Equally amazing is small. To the same scale as the large described, there is small scale, molecules, atoms, protons and electrons, quarks and photons and neutrinos, and stuff. And that is not the smallest scale at all by far. The smallest goes by the name of Planck for the smallest possible scale.
And your living at a scale just in the middle. Probably the most amazing fact there is.

Cujo359 said...

Hi badrescher,

It's been amazingly common in my experience. After "So when you die, you think that's it?", it's probably the most common response from Christians when I tell them I'm an atheist. Maybe you hang out with a better class of Christians than I do.

What dolphin? ;-) Good point.

Cujo359 said...

Anonymous @ 1:45 AM - Yes, the idea that everything around us is composed of these particles is certainly amazing. But nothing makes me feel small and insignificant like imagining how large the universe is that we inhabit.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cujo359 said...

The previous comment was a nice one, and I appreciate it. Unfortunately, it's good manners here to refer to someone by his screen name, rather than in some other way you might know someone.

Dana Hunter said...

You don't need gods to feel small, absolutely. Nature and science can put things in perspective, as you pointed out. I myself find that owning a cat does a better job than various and sundry gods of putting me in my place.

There's a reason I still have that "The cat and her personal servant live here" plaque around somewhere...

Cujo359 said...

For anyone who is open to the lessons, the world has many ways of teaching us humility. Cats are certainly one of those ways.