Awe: Which Has More, Science or Christianity?

You may be surprised to learn that not everyone is convinced by the arguments of New Atheism’s Four Horsemen. I certainly was surprised.

In one negative review of Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great, the author said:

Hitchens claims that, “As in all cases, the findings of science are far more awe-inspiring than the rantings of the godly.”

Is he serious? I doubt that even Hitchens would find re-runs of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos “far more awe-inspiring” than Michelangelo’s vision of God creating man.

And can this author be serious? He’s saying that the awe from science is dwarfed by that from religion?

Science in Palestine

Here’s a brief caricature of what I imagine “awe” meant in the Old Testament. Imagine a Jew and a non-Jew meet 3000 years ago in Palestine. They’re comparing gods.

Jew: And strong! Let me tell you how strong Yahweh is. See that rock over there? The one as big as a house?

Not-a-Jew: Okay.

Jew: Yahweh could pick it up and throw it just like you’d throw a pebble.

NJ: Wow!

Jew: Yeah, and that mountain over there? He could pick it up and move it across the valley without even trying.

NJ: Impressive.

Jew: And did I tell you that he created everything? And I mean everything! This was thousands of years ago—he formed all the land from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia; from Egypt to Greece. He created the sun and moon. Rainbows, earthquakes—everything!

NJ: I didn’t know that …

Jew: Yeah, so don’t mess with us ’cause he’s on our side.

Yahweh was like a superhero—stronger than Hercules, with better generalship than Alexander, and wiser than Solomon. The Jews needed a big brother to help with all their difficulties with neighboring tribes and countries. It’s nice to have a superhero on your side when there are bullies around (who each have their own superhero protectors).

The imagination of a primitive desert tribe 3000 years ago wasn’t that broad, and that superhero concept of God was about as much as they could imagine.

… vs. science today

Compare that with what modern science has given us in the past couple of hundred years. Let’s ignore the advances that make our lives much more bearable (vaccines, antibiotics, anesthesia, energy, transportation, engineering, etc.) and focus on the cerebral stuff. The mind-expanding stuff. Things like the age of the earth and the universe, the huge distances between stars and galaxies, or the amount of energy stars produce.

Try this experiment: on a clear night, go look at the stars. Now extend your arm and spread your fingers. The nail of your little finger covers one million galaxies. In each galaxy are on average 100 billion stars. This gives a good perspective on the tiny space our earth occupies in the universe.

Or look at the small scale and consider the complexity of a cell. If you think evolution is counterintuitive, consider quantum physics–quantum entanglement, for example.

And notice the irony in the author’s “I doubt that even Hitchens would find re-runs of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos ‘far more awe-inspiring’ than Michelangelo’s vision of God creating man.” Yes, the Sistine Chapel fresco is marvelous, but it was created by a man! Can he be saying that a work of a man trumps nature’s marvels?

The author lists other great works inspired by religion: “Giotto, Bach and Handel, Chartres and St. Peter’s.” Art, music, and architecture—here again, these are all made by humans.

Who, exactly, do you give praise to?

I can’t resist an aside on the topic of what God does vs. what people do. You’ve probably seen the iconic woman who survived the big disaster (hurricane Katrina’s rampage through New Orleans, for example) and is now back on her feet. “Thank you Jesus!” she says. “I lost everything, but now I have clothes and an apartment and a job.”

She seems to forget that Jesus didn’t lift a finger to give her those things—she’s doing well thanks to other people. Her thanks should be aimed at the combination of government aid and charitable donations that helped her out. And while we’re talking about Jesus, he was the guy who brought the disaster in the first place. What she should have said was “Thank you America! And Jesus, we need to talk …”

Of course, this doesn’t address the “Does God exist?” question. Maybe God does exist, and he produced the amazing things we see in nature. But it’s through science that we see these awe-inspiring things, not through the Bible. This marvelous universe is not at all what the early Jews, living on their small Mesopotamian disk of a world with the sun rotating around it, imagined it to be.

The awe we get from religion can’t compare to the awe we get from science.

If God had wanted us to believe in him,
he would have existed.
— Linda Smith

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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About Bob Seidensticker