Cathedral of Suns: A Humanist Sermon

In my encounters with religious proselytizers, I have occasionally been told that atheism robs the world of the sense of awe and wonder, that my lack of belief in a god who miraculously created us all must mean that my life is lacking in the intangible qualities that makes it worth living. I have been told, as well, that I reject the possibility of a god too great for me to understand. This is my reply to those claims.

There is a famous photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of a region called M16, also known as the Eagle Nebula, that lies 7,000 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Serpens. It is more colloquially called the “Pillars of Creation“. The Hubble image depicts three tall, twisted, intricately shaped clouds of gas and dust, like columns of smoke rising from a campfire. At the tips of each of these columns are dozens of tiny fingerlike protrusions, very small by comparison, easily overlooked among the eerie beauty of the entire scene. It is only when you understand what you are really looking at that the scale of this image becomes apparent. Those minuscule protrusions are new stars being born. Each of them is far larger than our entire solar system. The Eagle Nebula is a stellar nursery, where new suns are coalescing from interstellar clouds of molecular hydrogen – a place where the attractive pull of gravity causes the denser clouds to collapse on themselves, becoming denser and hotter until their cores reach the multimillion-degree temperatures required to ignite nuclear fusion, synthesizing hydrogen into helium. The outward pressure of the energy released by this reaction counterbalances the inward pull of gravity, causing the new star to enter a stable state in which it can shine for millions of years, until its fuel is exhausted.

But even the Eagle Nebula is only a very small part of our own galaxy. On a clear, dark night far from the lights of civilization, you can see the Milky Way itself, a faint, misty band of light that arches across the night sky. But again, the sight only attains its full degree of awe when you understand what you are looking at. Using parallax and luminosity measurements, we have mapped the Milky Way, our own galaxy, and found it to be a barred spiral of a hundred billion suns, so large it takes light a hundred thousand years to cross from one end to the other. Our solar system is on the outer edge of the galaxy, embedded in one of its rotating spiral arms. When you see that faint band of light, you are looking inward, toward the center of the galaxy, where the light from millions and millions of stars blurs together into a glittering cloud. If certain hypotheses in astrobiology are correct, some of those distant stars may harbor advanced civilizations of their own, fellow travelers in this vast and uncharted cosmos that we have yet to discover.

But our gazes have ventured even beyond the Milky Way itself. We have realized that some of the fuzzy patches in the night sky are not stars or nebulae, but other galaxies, magnificent island universes spread out like jewels against the ocean of universal dark. But our universe is not a peaceful place. Through our telescopes, we see cosmic catastrophes on a scale too vast to comprehend. In some of these distant galaxies, we see supernovae – the cataclysmic deaths of stars, explosions so bright that they briefly outshine the entire galaxy in which they occur. At the center of many galaxies, we see cosmic monsters, massive black holes with the mass of millions of suns that devour streams of matter and send out intense jets of radio and X-ray energy. We see galaxies themselves collide, their gravitational tides tearing each other apart. And on rare occasions, we have seen explosions even more enormous than supernovae, called gamma-ray bursts, some of which are so bright that they briefly outshine the entire rest of the visible universe. Gamma-ray bursts inevitably occur at cosmological distances, billions of light-years from Earth, and their exact cause is still unknown. Perhaps most incredibly of all, when we read the light from these galaxies, we see that every single one of them, save for a few in our local cosmic neighborhood, is shifted towards the red, indicating that they are hurtling away from us. They are receding from us, and we from them, as space itself expands.

We have mapped the distribution of galaxies on the largest scales and found that it is not entirely random. Viewed from outside, our universe would resemble a foam of soap bubbles, with structures called “great walls” – vast sheets made up of thousands and thousands of galaxies – wrapped around even more enormous voids. One of the most famous large-scale surveys of galaxy distribution revealed a figure astronomers named the “Stickman” – a supercluster of galaxies spread across the northern sky, 500 million light-years wide, in a shape that vaguely resembles a stick-figure drawing of a human being.

Beyond even this, we have seen the very first light in the universe. We have studied the sky in microwave light and glimpsed the afterglow of the Big Bang – a diffuse bath of energy that pervades the entire cosmos, the fading remnants of the initial white-hot fireball, now cooled to about three degrees above absolute zero by time and expansion. We have found tiny temperature variations in this cosmic microwave background radiation – fluctuations of millionths of a degree, observed by a satellite named WMAP that even now orbits at the second Lagrangian point, almost a million miles from Earth, in the darkness of space. These almost imperceptible temperature ripples date back to the instant of origin; they represent spots of slightly increased or decreased density, tiny departures from uniformity at the very beginning, that seeded all the future formation of stars and galaxies. They are the blueprint for the universe as it exists now, 13.7 billion years later.

The point of all this is that, by following the scientific method, we have discovered a cosmos far vaster, more intricate, more magnificent, more awe-inspiring, and to which we are more deeply and fundamentally connected than any poet or theologian of antiquity ever dreamed of. All the elements in our bodies heavier than hydrogen – the carbon of our cells, the oxygen we breathe, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones – were synthesized from lighter nuclei in the cores of massive stars and blown into space when those stars died, becoming dispersed throughout the cosmos and enriching nebulae that formed the next generation of stars, including the one out of which our solar system formed about five billion years ago. When you look into the night sky, you are viewing the place where you came from. We are all, quite literally, stardust, heirs to a lineage that dates back to the Big Bang itself. Even the greatest thinkers of the prescientific era never conceived of something so amazing. Even they never imagined a universe as grand and majestic as the one we now know we actually live in.

Then I turn to the Book of Genesis, and what do I read? I read that God made the Earth, his green footstool, with loving care and painstaking effort and attention to fine details during the first three days of creation, before anything else existed. Then, and only then, on the fourth day, he creates the entire rest of the universe – everything I have just described, all the majesty, all the immensity – as background, as scenery, as a tossed-off afterthought, for no reason other than to serve as signs and portents to the inhabitants of the Earth.

In fact, it’s not just the Bible – it’s all religions. All of them reflect the prideful fantasy that human beings are central to the workings of the universe. None of them ever anticipated all the incredible things we have discovered. When theists tell me that I am putting God in too narrow a box, I reply that their belief does not give him nearly enough credit.

These religions myopically imagine that this pale blue dot, this green atom, this place that is an infinitesimal speck inside an infinitesimal speck when compared to the unimaginably awesome vastness of the cosmos, is not just a place of interest to the creator of it all, not even just the most important place, but the very reason for the creation to exist at all and the only thing in it that has any real meaning or interest to God. We look out into the sky and see crashing galaxies and exploding stars and black holes that consume suns, and religion says that the death of a single man or the formation of a small fiefdom thousands of years ago is the most important thing that ever happened in the history of the universe. We witness planet-sized storm systems in the atmospheres of gas giants, explosions visible across the whole of the known universe, and ultradense, collapsed remnants of suns called neutron stars, so dense a teaspoonful of their matter would weigh millions of tons and rotating hundreds of times per second – and religion tells us that a minor shift to the course of one waterway on our planet, or the collapse of one ancient city’s mud-brick walls, is a great miracle. Can an atheist be blamed for thinking that this theology reflects nothing but the arrogant anthropocentrism of the humans who came up with it? Can we be blamed for thinking that it is so small because its creators were small?

Though I do not believe there actually is a deity who created all this, if there was one, I would expect that he would be large enough to fit the creation. Part of the reason I am an atheist is that, based on the facts I observe, I have tried to reason my way to a conclusion about what a god who made the universe would look like, and the answer I keep getting is not in accord with what any current religion says. And though I would freely accept that I was wrong if I could see evidence otherwise, such as a clear communication from God, I have received nothing like that.

In any case, lacking theistic belief does not in any way impair an atheist’s ability to feel awe and wonder, or to recognize that there are things far greater than us. If anything, I believe this cathedral of suns, infinitely vaster and more majestic than anything made by hands, produces a sense of awe and wonder so far surpassing the imaginings of religion that it clearly shows all of them to be untrue. The cramped and antiquated imaginations of human beings do not compare to the true glory and grandeur of the cosmos as it really is.

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