When I started blogging here, one of the first bloggers I followed was Robin, of Witless Dating After Fifty. Over the years, she’s several times mentioned a great question her dad often posed when discussing religion with someone: “How big is your god?”
Last week my buddy and I were having our weekly beer- and gab-fest and our (typically very meandering) conversation came to touch on the problems with young Earth creationism — the Christian fundamentalist idea that the universe is only thousands of years old.
In fact, there’s a pair of real whopper problems involved!
And “whopper” (as in “big lie,” not as in “burger”) is a good word. The fundamental problem with this type of creationism (there are other types that agree with the apparent age of the universe) is that it requires a trickster god. It assumes god set up a giant lie to fool us or — as some claim — to test us.
My bottom line is that I wouldn’t follow a god like that even if he were proven to exist. My other bottom line is that my god — and I do have spiritual suspicions that allow for a god — is a lot bigger than some joker who created a vast April Fools on all of humanity.
I always looked at young Earth creationism from a science point of view.
Our technology demonstrates that science clearly works. Technology is the application of science, so if the science is wrong, the technology doesn’t work.
And yet it does. Our cell phones obviously work. Telescopes and microscopes work. Refrigerators and cars work. Computers and GPS work. They all work every time! (When they don’t, we can find and correct their problems.)
Science works. It got us to the Moon. It put robots on Mars and sent spaceships to all the other planets — even cold distant Pluto (the planet).
Science works on Earth, and it works in nearby space. We’re pretty sure it works throughout the universe.
So here’s the problem:
We think we understand how stars work, especially the closest one, Sol, our Sun. The tests we make all confirm our understanding. Science seems to have a clear understanding about the Sun.
That science says the Sun is (about 4.5) billions of years old. For the Sun to be only thousands of years old, either science lies or the Sun lies.
Speaking of stars, another problem is the light from distant stars that has traveled far longer than tens of thousands of years. The light from distant galaxies takes millions of years to get here.
Again, we seem to have a very good understanding of how light works. Its behavior here on Earth agrees 100% with that knowledge, and we use that knowledge to build technology that always works as designed. Our tests in space confirm light works the way we expect in the neighborhood of Earth.
So the light from distant stars is apparently another lie.
Radioactivity is yet another science we understand. We use it to build reactors and bombs, and those work. All our tests give us a single, consistent picture — a picture that says the Earth is billions of years old.
And I haven’t even touched on the fossil record. Or the geological record.
An answer to all of this is that god might have created an old universe the way furniture, photos, and clothing, can be newly made to appear old. This means the universe is a kind of forgery, a trick, and I’m just not down with a trickster god.
My buddy pointed out another way to look at it, and this ties back to Robin’s dad’s question about how big god is.
Considering the universe, how much of it was created to establish the Big Lie? In particular, how much of its vastness compared to us down here on Earth?
In very ancient times, it was possible to believe the “universe” was the local neighborhood we could explore on our own. But as we explored, it became apparent we lived on a giant ball (the ancients knew the Earth was round).
For a while it was possible to believe the “universe” was just the Earth and the sky was a backdrop of sorts that played out heavenly events. Then our reality expanded to include the planets of the solar system (although it took a bit longer to realize we all circled the Sun together).
Next we realized that the stars were other suns, and the “universe” expanded to include the Milky Way galaxy. For a long time we thought our galaxy was the only one.
But better telescopes showed that some nebula were separate galaxies, and eventually the universe grew to include billions of other galaxies.
So now we live in a very, very large — very, very old — universe.
That’s an incredible amount of work for a teeny, tiny speck floating in the midst of all that. Either the appearance of a vast and ancient universe is a trick, or it was all brought into being for just us.
Is it possible god has a major case of OCD? He started creating stuff and just couldn’t stop until all this?
I’ve long joked that, once we get ourselves out beyond Pluto (the planet), we’ll find a huge spherical backdrop that pretends to be the universe. The solar system is real, but the universe is a movie.
[The extended joke, the Pioneer anomaly: When those two spacecraft reached the backdrop, they were replaced with radio transmitters that faked their signal. Problem is that they got the Doppler shift just a tiny bit wrong, hence the anomaly. They’ve recently resolved the issue, so the joke doesn’t work anymore. Or it just means the transmitters faking the signal got it exactly right!]
On a more serious note, I’ve written about the apparently high odds that we’re living in a simulated virtual reality. If that were true, it’s possible the universe we see is a fake generated by the simulation.
It’s not at all unreasonable to consider that such a simulation might ask the question: If an intelligent species with a certain set of characteristics covers a planet, what will they do?
In fact, if you wanted to study the behavior of an intelligent species, why would you bother to create a vast universe? You wouldn’t. You’d just create a reality that looks like it exists in such.
But a simulated reality probably isn’t what these creationists had in mind. Unless god is an experimental scientist testing an idea.
Which is actually what a lot of religions suggest. Even a belief in reincarnation posits life as a test. Fail, and you come back as something lesser. Succeed, and you come back as something better.
For Christians, Heaven and Hell are the pass-fail marks on a life lived. In general, religions have this in common: the idea that how you live your life matters, that life matters.
Atheists suggest we should move on from what they consider superstition and into a science-based framework. I’m not sure humankind is ready for that; I’m not sure we’ll ever be ready for that.
(Secularism doesn’t seem to be doing much for us currently, and humanism really hasn’t caught on.)
Medicine was once also filled with superstition and guesswork. But we recognized its value to society and updated it to align with our growing knowledge about how the world actually works.
Perhaps that’s what we should be doing with religion.
Not rejecting it, but updating it.
There are modern views of god, and I’ve long espoused the idea that spirituality and science are Yin and Yang of the complete picture.
Humans religions are small because people are small. We create small, often petty, gods. Perhaps what we really need to reach for is a larger modern, more inclusive, one.