Human society is awash in a flood of nonsense. From astrology to ESP to corporate propaganda to organized religion, a host of superstition and pseudoscience demands our attention, and the only way to tell truth apart from falsehood is with a finely honed and rigorously applied set of tools for skeptical and critical thinking. If we are not to be deceived, we must be able to acknowledge the primacy of reason, perceive cause and effect, recognize biases, detect common logical fallacies, understand statistics, grasp the difference between deduction and induction and comprehend the provisional nature of the latter, know how the scientific method works and how to set up and control an experiment, and more.
Unfortunately, critical thinking is not something innate – it is a skill that needs to be learned. If there is anything we human beings are good at, anything that comes naturally to us without having been taught, it is deceiving ourselves. We believe what we want to be true and deny or rationalize away evidence we would prefer not to see – and we can be very clever at inventing rationalizations. Too often, we arrive at our conclusions first, for less than logical reasons, and then go out seeking evidence and arguments to support them. When we do things in this order, it is small wonder that we almost always find exactly what we were searching for.
This is not another lamentation of the folly of theism. Atheists are not inherently immune to irrational ways of thinking any more than theists are; I have known some who have fervently believed utterly ridiculous things. I am not saying that atheism is an irrational position – on the contrary, I obviously believe it is eminently correct and reasonable. But the most rational position in the world means little if it is not arrived at for rational reasons.
Being vigilant against unreason emanating from the external world is difficult enough, but being on guard against illogic in one’s own thinking seems a nearly impossible task. Once we reach a conclusion, how are we to know our reasoning was not guided by preconception? Is there any way we can be certain we are not deceiving ourselves?
There is no magic solution to this problem, but one way is to regularly challenge our beliefs, to reexamine them constantly in the light of new evidence. But it is not enough to start with the already established conclusion and see if it still holds up – that makes it far too easy to fall into the trap of whatever preconceptions guided you to that conclusion in the first place. A more effective technique is, to use a cliched phrase, to “think outside the box”. Consider honestly the possibility that you might be wrong, accept the opposing viewpoint for the sake of argument, and then ask yourself: Does the evidence make more sense from this perspective? Is the world I live in the one I would expect to see if this hypothesis is true, or is this the world I would expect under its negation?
As an atheist, I too must face this possibility. What if I am wrong? What if there really is a deity somewhere out there?
I cannot discount this possibility out of hand. Granted, I have never seen any supernatural event occur, and the regularity of natural law gives me strong reason to believe none ever have or will, but that is an inductive argument, and induction by its nature can never give absolute proof. Even if a proposition has always held true within the realm of our experience, we are never justified in concluding with complete certainty that the same will always be true at all places and all times.
However, given that there is a bare possibility I could be wrong, the question arises – what next? That possibility alone offers no guide to finding out what the truth actually is. Assuming one of the religions in this world is correct, how would I find that out? Where would I begin my search? Without any a priori judgment as to which religion is correct – which is, after all, what I am presumably trying to determine – it seems the only thing to do would be to select and examine them randomly, but this is clearly unsatisfactory. Even if one of the religions in this world was the true one, I would probably never find it by this method. As “The Cosmic Shell Game” argues, there are so many religions on this planet that one lifetime would not be enough to examine all or even most of them in any acceptable level of detail.
Nevertheless, of the ones I have studied so far, my preliminary conclusion is that they are all incorrect; I have examined them and found them wanting. Most religions championed by people were obviously invented by people, and the tenets of their belief betray their origins. Their gods are just like human beings, only slightly larger. They become angry and then forgive, they show jealousy and favoritism, they can be surprised, disgusted, grieved or dismayed, they bear grudges and love those who stroke their egos, and they are capable of both tremendous good and terrible evil. The way most religions reflect the prejudices of their creators is all too obvious: what these people imagine to be a window through which they can see God is in truth a mirror held up to their own faces. We human beings are the contingent result of millions of years of evolution, our emotions arising from neurotransmitters secreted by our glands, our behavior influenced by primitive impulses of territoriality, kinship, pleasure and aggression, and our brain shaped and conditioned by countless thousands of chance events during our species’ history – and we have the temerity to believe that God would think and act just like us?
These anthropomorphic belief systems can be safely discounted. In fact, I would confidently say that all the religions propounded by human beings so far throughout our species’ history are most likely false. I have not examined each and every one of them in exhaustive detail, but as one belief system after another falls before skeptical scrutiny, as supernaturalism fails test after test, there comes a point when we are justified in forming an inductive generalization. Until and unless better evidence for one belief system turns up, we are within our rights to consider them all untrue.
But just because the religions created by humans are false, it does not logically follow that there is no deity at all. What if there is something out there, something that no one has discovered yet, something we have all overlooked simply because it is too vast and too unlike us? Beyond the savagery and the madness, beyond the fervent hopes and hot-headed delusions, beyond the pretenses and the postures – beyond the human-created religions that are above all else too small, viewing this world, this dust speck, this pale blue dot – or even one small local region of it – as the all-important stage on which the cosmic drama is played out, while the entire inconceivable vastness of the rest of the universe is simply a backdrop – beyond all this, could there be a much greater god? Could there be an entity “whose dreams are constellations”, as Robert Ingersoll put it, and whose individual flashing neurons are suns? When we look into the night sky, could we be viewing the latticework of thought on a scale beyond our comprehension? Could the entire universe be merely a fleeting idea in the mind of a being so vast we could not recognize it for what it is any more than an ant could recognize a skyscraper as the product of design?
This is the god of the cosmic microwave background radiation, of the universal expansion, of the vast star-forming nebulae and the cataclysmic explosions of stellar death, of the great walls of galaxies and the even more enormous voids. If cosmologists ever find a god, it will be this one, not the tiny god of Moses who thought that parting a miniscule amount of water on an insignificant planet so a single tribe could pass unhindered was a great miracle – that god is a child making sandcastles on the beach. This god, if it exists, would be large enough to fit the universe.
This god would very likely be a deist’s god. Certainly it has not taken much interest in the affairs of humanity up until now. Probably it is not even aware we exist – not aware that on a planet in one tiny corner of an undistinguished spiral galaxy, the atoms it created have linked themselves up into complex self-replicating collections of molecules that laugh, sleep, dream, ponder, fear, and mourn. It is unaware that these beings sculpted of stardust look up into the night sky and wonder, unaware that they send their fervent prayers and entreaties into space and lie awake at night wondering if they are alone.
And why should it be aware of us, after all? Many human conceits are based on the belief that we are special – that there is something about consciousness that is different from the workings of the rest of the universe. But as this site has endeavored to show elsewhere, there is no good evidence that this is the case – no reason to believe that our minds, marvelous though they are, cannot be explained in terms of the properties of matter. Life, then, would simply be an unusually complex arrangement of matter in a very small and circumscribed region – unique, no doubt, but hardly something that stands out against the magnificent vastness of the universe. When you step over a puddle of water after a rainfall, do you make it a point to observe every detail of the rainbow patterns formed by an oil slick on its surface? Just so would this much greater god overlook us.
As should be clear by now, this is a god unlike any major religions have yet conceived of. This is not the god of the Old Testament who was so interested in the Earth that he created it with loving care and effort during the first three days of Genesis, while the entire rest of the universe – awesome collisions and explosions, space and time twisting and warping, stars burning and dying like flares with the energy of galaxies, massive black holes, pulsars like lighthouses, vast and intricately sculpted nebulae light-years across, a cosmos of a hundred billion galaxies each containing a hundred billion stars – was created on the fourth day, as an afterthought, for no reason other than to serve as signs and portents for the residents of the aforementioned Earth.
Nor is this the god of the New Testament, who arranged for the most important event in the entire history of the universe to take place, not written into the stars where anyone could see it, but on a single tiny planet during a primitive and superstitious age of its history. This event took the form of a single man who lived for several years in a small and isolated region of that planet, taught proverbs identical to those independently invented by dozens of earlier teachers and religions, performed tricks no different than those claimed by many conjurers and charlatans of the day, and then disappeared leaving no trace, other than a few hazy memories and anonymous writings, that the event had ever happened at all.
Nor, indeed, is this the god of Muhammad, who had a universe of music to choose from – the harmonies of worlds and stars moving in their orbits, the notes played by superstrings vibrating in eleven dimensions, the sound waves from the Big Bang echoing through the primordial plasma, the ripples of gravity moving through space, and the static hiss of the cosmic microwave background – and decided, out of all these, that the pattern of sounds that best captured the beauty and meaning of his message was a language spoken by a single tribe of tiny and primitive carbon-based beings on an obscure planet, an extremely narrow range of sounds produced by moving air past a set of vibrating cords of flesh.
All of these gods are far too small. All of these gods share the same defect: they reflect the arrogance of their human creators, so consumed by notions of their own importance that they could sincerely believe that this single planet, this infinitesimal speck in a universe of billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars, was 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. This view demeans the cosmos by reducing its infinite majesty to a mere backdrop, and we should look upon it with the same amusement with which we would view the pretensions of a bacterium who believed that the particular dust mote upon which it lived was the most important place in creation, while the entire rest of the Earth was simply created by the god of bacteria as a space in which that dust mote could exist.
To these theists I say thus: Your god is too human, your religion too small. Your god did not create you in his image, but rather you created him in yours. We now know of a world immeasurably vaster and more awe-inspiring than that known to the ancient people who invented your religion, and yet you still continue to believe in that religion. Were it true that the only reason for the creation of the cosmos was as a stage for the interplay of man and God, I would have expected something much more resembling the ancient cosmologies: a stationary Earth at the center of it all, orbited by sun and planets moving along nested crystalline spheres, surrounded by a shell of fixed stars. But science has dethroned those pretensions, and revealed the inconceivably greater grandeur of the universe in which we live. The only remaining question is why the deities associated with those old anthropocentric cosmologies have not withered as well – why, as the universe has expanded beyond the ability of human beings to envision, our gods have not grown to match, but have remained as small as they ever were.
Simply put, the universe is too large and humans too small to accept any longer the claim that it was all made for our benefit. If we set aside this conceit and instead try to imagine, as best as possible and with as little bias as we can, what type of entity might have created this reality, I believe we are led inevitably to the sort of greater god posited by this essay – a truly transcendent being, utterly unlike humans, existing on a scale and in a way we can neither imagine nor comprehend; a being that reflects the terrifying vastness, the fantastic and unearthly beauty, and the mathematical precision and elegance of the cosmos in which we find ourselves.
While it is hardly my goal to create an entire new theology, such a system raises some very interesting issues. For example, what this god would do if it found out about us is a subject worth wondering about. What would it think of the intricacy of the bodies we have evolved? Would it help us, would it remain at a distance and study us, or would it brush us into nothingness with a thought? How would such a being react to learning what we have done with ourselves?
Even were this much greater god to discover humanity, it would not become the god of theism. The idea that such a being would descend on this tiny planet, mostly watching silently but occasionally doling out miracles at random to a privileged few, is ludicrous. The idea that it would create an afterlife, in the traditional Heaven-and-Hell sense, is similarly absurd – again, a reflection of the anthropocentric fantasy that humanity is the deity’s personal puppet show. If this being decided to aid us, I am certain it would not be in bits and pieces, not one piece at a time and another centuries later, all building up to a final denouement, but in one all-encompassing flash – lifting us up instantaneously, perhaps changing us into something very different. There is no good reason for the waiting and the clumsy plodding of prophecy claimed by so many religions, and a rational being would either do it all at once or not at all.
The most important question, of course, is why this being would choose to create a universe. Certainly it was not out of a desire for companionship – a being such as I have described could never be lonely. Likewise, it would be infinitely above such petty vanities as the desire for worship or flattery. Indeed, the existence of life probably had nothing to do with it, but was an unintended byproduct. After all, this universe was hardly set up to be especially friendly to life; warm blue oases such as our Earth are rare beyond all description. The overwhelming majority of space, 99.99% and more, is either cold black vacuum or seething furnace.
Ultimately, the true reason may not be something we can discover. It is irrelevant to our own purpose, in any case. We are here now, and our lives are whatever we make of them. Whether we are the product of a cosmic clockmaker who wound up the gears and stepped back makes no difference to this. We live with each other on this planet, and the responsibility and the accountability are both ours; and this is so even if we will not have to answer to this deity for our behavior. If it does not know or care in the least what we do, if it is concerned with the Earth no more than the distant galaxies are, that is all the more reason for us to care.
I am not saying I believe in the being outlined in this essay; I do not. The disadvantage of a god that is too vast for us to recognize is that we cannot recognize it. It is difficult even to imagine what would count as evidence for the existence of such a being, and in the absence of such evidence, logically we must go with the simpler explanation. I acknowledge the possibility that a greater god exists, but possibility is not the same as proof, and until truly convincing evidence turns up, I will and must remain an atheist.
Still, I wonder; it is only human to do so. I do not believe there is a god to be found in the dust of an ancient book, in a crackling shred of papyrus, or in the voice of a preacher reading words transmitted through the ages, originally penned by men long dead. These things contain humanity, to be sure, the fervent hopes and dreams of generations long since passed on, but no divinity. But is there a creator written of in the greater testament of nature? Is a cosmic architect to be found in the sunset on the waves, in the silences before dawn and the spaces where light fills in the gaps between tree branches, or in the pinwheel spirals of galaxies glowing against the dark? Is the mathematical elegance of the laws of the cosmos witness to a Mind that stands behind it all?
While I do not regard this as likely, the mere possibility always remains. Could I as an atheist be wrong? Yes, but then again, so could any of us, both believers and nonbelievers. No human is infallible. Some theists I have known would do well to acknowledge this possibility; a little humility goes a long way. Ultimately, if it turns out that I was wrong, I will at least be able to say in my defense that I was honestly wrong; I took up a position not because I wanted it to be true, because I desired to follow the crowd, or because I was taught it as a child, but because the arguments in its favor appeared stronger to me than any other. If I am called to account one day, I am confident I will have nothing to make excuses for. Perhaps I am mistaken, and a greater god does exist. Perhaps reason has led me to the wrong conclusion. But nevertheless, I must rely on reason, because it is the only method that enables anyone to select one conclusion over any other. Legend claims a theist once said this, but for an atheist, the sentiment is equally appropriate: Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise.
 “There may be for aught I know, somewhere in the unknown shoreless vast, some being whose dreams are constellations and within whose thought the infinite exists. About this being, if such an one exists, I have nothing to say.” –Robert Green Ingersoll, “Some Mistakes of Moses”, 1879. See http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/robert_ingersoll/some_mistakes_of_moses.html.
 It should also be noted that, for the vast majority of humanity’s history, almost none of this magnificently enormous universe was even visible to the inhabitants of Earth except for a few hundred of the nearest stars.