Atheism Cosmology Intelligent Design Philosophy

Does the size of the universe sweep us toward atheism?

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This image represents the evolution of the Universe, starting with the Big Bang. The red arrow marks the flow of time.
Big Bang/NASA

From Emily Thomas at The Conversation:

Over the last few decades, a new way of arguing for atheism has emerged. Philosophers of religion such as Michael Martin and Nicholas Everitt have asked us to consider the kind of universe we would expect the Christian God to have created, and compare it with the universe we actually live in. They argue there is a mismatch. Everitt focuses on how big the universe is, and argues this gives us reason to believe the God of classical Christianity doesn’t exist.

The weight of galaxies, and the press of years, seem to sweep us towards atheism. More.

The size of the universe would only “sweep us towards atheism” if we wanted to go there in the first place. It sounds eerily reminiscent of people explaining why they were “swept” into some kind of corruption or crime.

“Philosophical atheist” offers a response, noting that this is an old chestnut and citing Chesterton among others:

“[Spencer] popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to overawe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God, then a whale may be the image of God…. It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.”

See also: Philosopher: If there is something rather than nothing, questions around God cannot be ignored . Waghorn: “Firstly, that on the most plausible demarcation criterion for science, science is constitutionally unable to show theism to be a redundant hypothesis; the debate must take place at the level of metaphysics. ”

27 Replies to “Does the size of the universe sweep us toward atheism?

  1. 1
    daveS says:

    The size of the universe would only “sweep us towards atheism” if we wanted to go there in the first place. It sounds eerily reminiscent of people explaining why they were “swept” into some kind of corruption or crime.

    I also don’t feel the apparently large size of the universe is a compelling argument for atheism. It definitely cuts both ways.

    I can imagine that a god might deliberately create a vast universe to draw humans into exactly this type of philosophical investigation, with the hope that they would discover theism.

    On the other hand, humans did experience a shock when it was discovered that the universe is indeed very large, and they weren’t at the center of something like this.

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    The shock wasn’t widespread. Only a handful of academics have EVER bothered to think about the size of the universe. For 99.999% of humans the universe consists of our neighborhood plus the Hollywood stage sets inside our TVs.

    For me at any rate, the real shock comes from learning about the tiny and infinitely complex details of cells and organs. That’s where you find inescapable evidence of design, not in the vast purposeless orbits of space.

  3. 3
    daveS says:

    Correction to post #1: Apparently many pre-Copernican models were also very large.

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    The expansion of my waistband, and the press of years, seem to sweep me towards atheism.

  5. 5
    Jon Garvey says:

    Hmm – look at this from a very traditional Judaeo-Christian viewpoint.

    In the Bible God created the earth for the dwelling of mankind, and he created the heavens to represent his own dwelling (though as Solomon said, “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you”). The only bits of the heavens, beyond the clouds, intended (or seconded) to serve mankind were the sun, moon and stars for seasons and signs.

    Ergo, the bigger the heavens are found to be, the greater God’s own glory appears, tending towards infinity (traditional teaching being that God is infinite). Man is not diminished by that in any way beyond what was always taught: he still possesses the earth from God.

    Now, if the earth were found to be infinitely bigger than we thought, and mostly uninhabited, that would be a problem. As it is it’s the still the size the Greeks calculated, as has been known for the whole of Christian history.

    Arthur Lovejoy wrote that the biggest shakeup of the Copernican revolution was indeed not heliocentrism, but the realisation – once science found the means to detect it – that the stars were suns at huge distance.

    But apart from pleasing the post-renaissance humanists by making the earth a heavenly body instead of the lowest part of the universe (think of the sump in the middle of the death star), it pleased many Christians too.

    For the effect was in large measure to solve a pressing theological/philosophical problem of the time – the large gap between man and God in the scale of nature (aka the great chain of being) was likely to be bridged by advanced beings on a huge number of other worlds. That was a big advantage since they were not being discovered by exploration of the earth, but were believed philosophically to be necessary.

    So the seventeenth century saw quite a lot of theological interest in extra-terrestrial life, including for example positive expectations about it by such people as the Puritan Richard Baxter. Here’s a short survey.

  6. 6
    daveS says:

    PS to my #1:

    I can imagine that a god might deliberately create a vast universe to draw humans into exactly this type of philosophical investigation, with the hope that they would discover theism.

    Perhaps there is some parallel between this notion and the idea that religions often(?) originate in deserts and other locations which encourage reflection.

    From this page:

    After a long, productive summer, the CSWR will ring in the new school year with a panel discussion entitled “Barren Landscapes and Open Spaces.” The panel will seek to address the question of how land and landscapes influence our religious imagination and vice versa.

    Larger version of the Death Valley picture here.

  7. 7
    J-Mac says:

    It sweeps toward infinity…and if in fact the expansion of the universe is accelerating, then it will eventually surpass the speed of light if it hasn’t done so yet…

    What would the universe expanding faster than the speed of light mean for the general theory of relativity that among other claims that nothing can travel faster than light?

    Well… entanglement proves that “information” can travel faster than light so how many more evidences do we need to reconsider that GTOR might me wrong?

  8. 8
    mike1962 says:

    If God is human-oriented, wouldn’t you expect him to create a universe in which humans feature prominently? You’d expect humans to occupy most of the universe, existing across time. Yet that isn’t the kind of universe we live in. Humans are very small, and space, as Douglas Adams once put it, “is big, really really big”.

    The problem with their thinking is that the story of God creating humans isn’t over yet. We’re presently only in the second act. There is a third act, when the entire universe will be handed over to the glorified and exalted Sons of God who will rule the cosmos “on the throne of Christ” with him. The story ain’t over.

    I guess they didn’t read about that part.

  9. 9
    ET says:

    The weight of galaxies, and the press of years, seem to sweep us towards atheism.

    And that is because atheists have a testable explanation for the weight of galaxies? Or is it due to self delusion?

    Has anyone ever met an atheist who wasn’t also self-deluded? Anyone?

  10. 10

    Another a/mat blunder. “The weight of galaxies, and the press of years” sweeps us toward neither theism nor atheism. It is completely irrelevant to the question.

  11. 11
    News says:

    Truth Will Set You Free at 10: When I (O’Leary for News) was a child it was still legal to teach about religions in school. So I was told by teachers that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, and immaterial (except by choice, when dealing with us). The questions Thomas raises would be considered evidence of a dull mind. But then this is a time when naturalism and superstition are mainstream.

  12. 12
    Axel says:

    The two major factors that prompt me to believe that, while we cannot be certain our Christian God has not created other beings on other planets, we and planet earth are, in fact, all there is apart from vast galaxies and empty planets without living creatures, certainly anything like comparable to ourselves, are:

    a) It would be characteristic of our God to create this truly immense universe, simply in order show us how much we are valued by Him, how much we mean to Him… as if being made to share in the divine life of the family of the Holy Trinity, by adoption, were not enough.

    Oddly enough, it is a characteristic of atheists that they scoff at an Almighty God bothering himself with tiddly little nonentities such as ourselves. Small is not beautiful to the atheist, but essentially, contemptible; and

    b) Well, I’ve forgotten b) now, but it may come back to me later…

    PS: Spot on, News. That such a weird, gratuitous inference should be considered by adults is quite surreal.

  13. 13
    Belfast says:

    As the saying goes: I am pitifully small and powerless compared with the sun, but I know something of the sun and the sun knows nothing of me.

  14. 14
    EricMH says:

    A huge universe all carefully orchestrated for the sake of one species that barely populates a single planet does not seem to support atheism.

  15. 15
    kairosfocus says:

    Folks, What part of extremely fine-tuned for C-chem, aqueous medium, cell-based life is so hard to understand? (Save, for those desperate to find any other explanation than intelligently directed configuration of the physics and circumstances of a cosmos that happens to be inhabited by morally governed, responsible, [potentially] rational and thus both free and accountable creatures who are embodied?) KF

  16. 16
    kairosfocus says:

    DS, C S Lewis was fond of pointing out that the Ptolemaic cosmology implied and stated in Almagest that the distance to the fixed stars was effectively infinite, i.e. so far that by comparison earth was comparable to a mathematical point. KF

  17. 17
    Axel says:

    I’ve remembered: why would God make such ugly aliens, when he has shown us such sublime beauty, here, on earth – and which is said to be a mere glimmer of the beauty in heaven?

  18. 18
    Axel says:

    Hilarious, Belfast. In a nutshell. Materialists are beyond ridiculous. It is absolutely demeaning for these brilliant boffins on here to be arguing against such surreal nonsense.

  19. 19
    daveS says:

    KF,

    DS, C S Lewis was fond of pointing out that the Ptolemaic cosmology implied and stated in Almagest that the distance to the fixed stars was effectively infinite, i.e. so far that by comparison earth was comparable to a mathematical point. KF

    Thanks for that.

  20. 20
    Bob O'H says:

    Over the last few decades, a new way of arguing for atheism has emerged. … Everitt focuses on how big the universe is, and argues this gives us reason to believe the God of classical Christianity doesn’t exist.

    That’s a pretty big leap! Even if the argument is sound, that doesn’t take you to atheist, it only rules out one god (indeed, only some interpretations of that one god).

  21. 21
    Pearlman says:

    so foolish it is funny as the secular deep-time dog-matics are not even close in their SCM consensus on the size and structure of the universe.
    even if SCM were right still need our One supernatural designer/creator.
    reference SPIRAL CR hypothesis for the strongest cosmology model, where the physical universe approximates the sphere that is the visible universe and the radius is up to about 2B LY, not 46.5B as asserted by the much weaker science that is SCM.

  22. 22
    rvb8 says:

    NEWS @11,

    “But then this is a time when naturalism and supernaturalism are mainstream.”

    NEWS then, ‘self-referentially’ (as Kairos is want to say), refers to an Uncommondescent post, posted by NEWS. (And BTW, it’s a Social Science reference.)

    ‘Naturalism’ linked to ‘Supernaturalism’, is oxymoronic, it may not even be, ‘oxy’.

  23. 23
    Seversky says:

    I don’t think the sheer size of the Universe sweeps us towards atheism but we have to wonder why, if we are the pinnacle of God’s creation, the overwhelming majority of the Universe He created for us is so utterly hostile to human life.

  24. 24
    FourFaces says:

    Seversky:

    I don’t think the sheer size of the Universe sweeps us towards atheism but we have to wonder why, if we are the pinnacle of God’s creation, the overwhelming majority of the Universe He created for us is so utterly hostile to human life.

    It’s not just the universe that is hostile to human life. Being human is hostile to life unless, of course, you know an immortal human that the rest of us don’t know about.

    Besides, we live in a yin-yang reality. We have both pleasure and pain sensors. By your argument, should God have created us with only pleasure sensors? How would that work?

    Humans are not greater than God. We must all be tested and we must experience the good and the bad, life and death, joy and sadness, war and peace, health and sickness, etc., before we are accepted into the company of the immortal Gods. Initiation is always a pain in the butt.

  25. 25
    daveS says:

    Do people actually get “swept toward atheism”?

    I think it’s more common for people to get “swept away from” their particular religious beliefs, and after some re-evaluation, settle on atheism, agnosticism, or something else.

    I’m sure we all have heard of instances such as:

    –Young LDS member goes to college, learns some anthropology, and decides that LDS teachings on the lost tribes of Israel are wildly implausible. Realizes s/he has been deceived, and either moves toward orthodox Christianity or rejects theism altogether.

    and many variants, where a person gradually realizes that (some of) what they have been told all their life simply cannot be true. When that happens, it becomes unlikely that they will return to their former belief system.

  26. 26
    EricMH says:

    @Seversky, that’s my point. That the entire universe is completely hostile to life, yet it exists in an incredibly small speck, is incredible evidence for design.

  27. 27
    Querius says:

    Yes, the size of the universe does indeed impel some people toward atheism. This is also true in mathematics. For example, most people have absolutely no use for anything to do with whole numbers in the billions!

    If nearly all humanity can exist comfortably within a few thousands, why would God create any whole numbers above, let’s say, a million? The rest are simply wasted decimals! 😉

    -Q

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