Tuesday, July 17, 2012

An Atheist's Bible

The great trouble with atheism is that it is, by definition, a lack of belief. Individual atheists may believe a great number of things, but the one thing that binds them together as a group is a lack of belief in God. The problem in trying to unite such a group lies in the fact that human beings, on the whole, are much better at rallying around positive beliefs than they are in coalescing around the absence of belief.

Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams have done a wonderful job of trying to fill that void, to provide those who do not believe in God with what you might call a scientific theology--a set of common beliefs for atheists to rally around. Their book, The View from the Center of the Universe, is truly fascinating and, more importantly for me, provides lots of food for the Mormon thought that swirls around in my brain.

Abrams and Primack (AP) begin by noting both the virtues and the potential shortcomings of religion and science: "Traditional cultures' cosmologies were not factually correct, but they offered guidance about how to live with a sense of belonging in the world. Modern scientific cosmology says nothing about human beings or how we should live. It aims to provide scientific accuracy, not meaning. This book seeks to connect these two different understandings of cosmology by offering a science-based explanation of our human place in the universe" (16). Essentially, they are seeking to create a new, factually accurate explanation of how we got here and, based on that knowledge, guidelines for how we should live. AP are trying to create a new religion for atheists--and this is their Bible. (Incidentally, if for no other reason, this is a worthwhile read because it prompts all sorts of questions about how one might go about intentionally creating a religion from scratch--it's fascinating to watch them try to work through religion systematically.) I'm also grateful that they're frank about the fact that science--like religion--requires faith: "a theory is like a house: you can rarely find its problems and limitations--or its promising secret passageways--unless you're willing to move in with all your furniture" (180). In other words, belief precedes the aha! moment of confirmation, in science and religion; first you believe, THEN you find the secret passageway.

The book is filled with insights and new perspectives, but I'll cut to their three most important (and most interesting) findings, all of which emphasize humanity's unique place in the universe:


  1. "Human beings are made of the rarest material in the universe: stardust. Except for hydrogen, which makes up about a tenth of your weight, the rest of your body is stardust" (89). This should not, honestly, be all that surprising--but it's worth pondering. Heavy atoms (everything other than hydrogen) are formed by nuclear fusion at the center of stars and then dispersed throughout the universe when dying stars explode. Our bodies--our entire earth!--is a collection of stardust. If nothing else, it gives a more literal meaning to God's query of Job regarding the creation: "Where was thou when I laid the foundations of the earth . . . when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (38:7) Or how about Moses' prophecy that "there shall come a Star out of Jacob" (Num. 24:17)? At the beginning of creation, every bit of our bodies were--quite literally--being formed within those morning stars. Just how special are we, how rare is it to have enough stardust clumped together in one place for life to be possible? AP explain that we "live in an unusually dense region of the universe. Out on our Galaxy's disk where the sun orbits, the density is about a million times the cosmic average. In the solar system it is about a billion billion times the cosmic average. On Earth, the densest planet in the solar system, the density is a trillion times higher still!" (182) So our planet is one in a million times a billion times a billion times a trillion. That's a LOT of zeroes. Of course, while science can tell us just how unlikely our stardust bodies are, and can explain how stardust was formed, it's still not very good at explaining the why questions traditionally handled by religions: "What could have caused these differences in density? The old Big Bang theory was silent on this question." The primum mobile or "first mover," is still a source of scientific mystery. 
  2. If we are central because our bodies are made out of the rarest material in the universe, AP suggest that we are also living at a midpoint in terms of cosmic and terrestrial time. Basically, we are living in a unique period, late enough that stardust has been able to clump together and make intelligent life possible but also early enough that our ever-expanding universe is still small enough that we can observe all of the other galaxies and other phenomena of our universe. In another few billion years (after the universe has roughly doubled its present age and way more than doubled in size), "space, where with our telescopes we can see hundreds of billions of galaxies, will look very different to our distant descendants; few galaxies will be visible then from any point of view in the universe" (117). Or here's another, more grounded (earth-based) model: "it took Earth almost the entire 4.5 billion years of its existence to produce our kind of intelligent life. Since the sun will become a red giant star in another six billion years, that marks the end of Earth as a habitat for our kind of biology. If so, we intelligent creatures have appeared at approximately the midpoint of Earth's lifetime" (130). Modern scripture teaches that Jesus Christ "came in the meridian of time, in the flesh," and I suspect that most people understand that doctrine either in terms of recorded, historical time or in terms of a 7,000 year timeline from creation to final judgment (D&C 20:26). But AP suggest that we are currently living in--and that Jesus Christ also lived in--the meridian of COSMIC and TERRESTRIAL time, offering a different way (potentially) in which to think about scriptural verses describing stars falling from heaven at the end of (cosmic? terrestrial?) time. 
  3. If we are at the midpoint of cosmic time and made of the rarest stuff in the universe, we are also at the center of the universe in terms of size: "The size of a human being is at the center of all possible sizes in the universe" (156). The smallest measurable distance, the Planck length, is 10 to the -33 centimeters; the largest size we can see is about 10 to the 28 centimeters, "which is the distance to our cosmic horizon" (159). Human beings, on the order of 10 to the 2 centimeters, are exactly in the center of that range, midway between the largest and smallest sizes. A neat way of visualizing this is to imagein "a single cell on the tip of your finger. That cell is as tiny compared to you as you are compared to Planet Earth. A single atom in that cell is as tiny compared to you as you are compared to the sun" (177). Our Goldilocks-just right size is fortuitous, because "creatures much smaller than we are could not have sufficient complexity for our kind of intelligence, because they would not be made of a large enough number of atoms. But intelligent creatures could not be much larger than we are, either, because the speed of nerve impulses--and ultimately the speed of light--becomes a serious internal limitation" (174). 
AP write with the intent of replacing religion with science, but the more I learn about the unique place we occupy in the universe the more I am constrained, with Alma, to testify that "all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator" (Alma 30:44). 

My perfectly sized clump of animated stardust, the rarest material in the universe, did not arrive at this central moment in cosmic and terrestrial time by accident. I am here, and so are you, because God's work--and his glory--is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:39). 






And, as a special treat for those of you who slogged to the end, here's a promo video AP did for their book.

1 comment:

Jo Jo said...

It took me a while to get to this article, but it's wonderful. i love knowing that I'm a clump of star dust. I'll have to use this when I begin seminary this month.