By Dave Cortesi
This article was originally published at The Atheist’s Way. It is reposted here with permission.
Had I been born in another time and place, there are gods I could have believed in. In ancient Greece, I’m sure I would have been a devotee of the great Athena, and gone often to the beautiful temple on the Acropolis to worship.
Had I been born in India before 1800, I probably would have prayed often to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of wit and wisdom. Born to a Native American tribe before the coming of the whites, I’d have felt close affiliation with Coyote, the trickster and storyteller.
But as it happened, I had the great good fortune to be born in a Western culture after the Enlightenment, and that placed a lower limit on the size of my God.
The Enlightenment was a great sea change in the way people thought about themselves and the world. I hold that it really began with the geologists. People have been looking at rocks, and digging mines for gold and coal, forever, but the first people who really studied, and drew, and measured the shape of the land and thought about how it could have come to be—the first real geologists—worked around 1800, plus or minus 50 years.
What the geologists did was to show, based on careful measurement of things like the rate at which a stream could erode a slope, that the Earth simply had to be very old, millions of years at least.
Understand that before this time, nobody anywhere had a clue how old the Earth was. The only numeric estimate anyone even attempted was when Bishop Ussher around 1650 added up the ages of every person mentioned in the Bible. From that he worked out that the date of creation must have been the 27th of October, 4004 BC. That’s when God made the Garden of Eden, and so forth. Based on his careful examination of the Bible, the Earth was a little under 6000 years old.
People paid attention to this because they pretty much accepted the Bible as factual history. Some people today still do; in fact my parents thought so when I was growing up. I don’t remember ever discussing it with them, but they would probably have thought Bishop Ussher’s estimate had something going for it, despite their both holding BA degrees.
The geologists of the 1800s destroyed that idea—not by arguing, but by taking measurements of the real world. And their evidence-based picture of millions of years of history for the Earth just blew the minds of educated people of the day. Suddenly the Earth had a huge past, vastly deeper than anything in recorded human history.
The geologists worked back and forth with the paleontologists, who also got started in the 1800s. Of course, people had collected fossils for centuries. It was common for rich people to have collections of fossils along with other “curiosities.” But it was in the 1800s that people began to study fossils in a professional way: measuring, drawing, and comparing them; putting them together in sequences; publishing and sharing information between various universities and museums.
This is tedious, painstaking work, comparing bone shapes and measuring. But the paleontologists soon worked out that fossils had to be the remains of living things that were now extinct, yet related to species alive today. They began to put together a rough tree of life, in which most of the species that ever lived are long gone.
The paleontologists traded data with the geologists to get the relative ages of different animals. Based on the rock strata that the geologists had dated, they could date fossils found in the strata. Then they could date new strata by the fossils found in them, and back and forth.
The Book of Earth’s History
Together, the two sciences produced a picture of a vast ancient history of the Earth. Today we know the Earth is 4.5 billion years old—that’s 4, 5, and 8 zeros. Imagine that the history of the Earth is a fat book with 450 pages, with 10 million years on each page. In that book, the entire recorded history of humankind—from the first clay tablets from ancient Sumer, about 4000 BC, to right now—all human history occupies the last word of the last sentence on the last page of that book. There are 449 pages of history with no people. On the last page, Homo sapiens, our species, gets one short paragraph—we’ve been around a million years, a tenth of a page of this book—and the last word of that last paragraph is “Civilization.”
There was one more key piece to the Enlightenment: Astronomy. In the late 1700s people learned how to make decent telescopes and started really looking into the sky, again taking careful measurements and sharing what they saw. It was William Herschel who around 1800 first proved by measurement the distance to a few other stars, and showed that our solar system was moving through space among the stars.
Before this, as with the age of the Earth, nobody had a clue about the nature of the starry sky. The best guess, based on common sense and some Bible passages, was that the sky was a fixed, hollow shell called the “firmament.” The stars were thought to be little lights on the inner surface of this solid shell. Or maybe they were pinholes, and the light of heaven was shining in through them. Until the 1600s, everybody just assumed that the Earth was the exact center of the universe, and that everything rotated around it under the shell of the firmament.
Now, a century later, Herschel could prove by measurement that some stars were at distances we could calculate, and those distances were huge, billions of kilometers. And the new telescopes also revealed millions more stars than people had ever been able to see with the naked eye. The universe suddenly went from cozy and comprehensible to inconceivably huge, and not only were we not at the center of it, but our Sun was just another star floating through emptiness like one snowflake in a blizzard.
The Book of Universal History
Today we know that the observable universe, the part we can see, is about 14 billion years old. Remember the book of the history of the Earth, 450 pages, 10 million years to a page? The book of the history of the universe is 1370 pages long. In the first two-thirds of it, although it tells of millions of galaxies containing billions of stars each, our solar system just doesn’t exist: no Sun, no planets. Around page 900, a cloud of gas at one corner of one average galaxy condenses under its own gravity to make a star. Around page 925, that star starts to shine and planets have condensed around it—including one that is at the right distance for water to be liquid most of the time.
Now riffle the pages to the end, page 1370: there we are. Homo sapiens is the last paragraph, and all of recorded history, Greeks and Romans and the Middle Ages and kings and queens and wars and all: the last word on the last page of this fat tome.
When thinking people began to grasp this vision of deep time and huge space, full of stars and animals and beauty and complexity but no people—a wonderful universe just perking along fine without us—it kicked off changes of mind and heart that created the civilization we live in.
Even today with all our education it is sometimes easy to forget the almost inconceivable grandeur of a universe that we know to be 93 billion light-years across.
The Enlightenment still happens again and again in the minds of individuals, each time one person starts to get it, as I started to get it when I was around eleven or twelve. When it sinks in, two things have to change in your head.
The first is a change in the way you think about people. You realize that people, including yourself, are just not that important in the big picture. You come to feel, first, some humility, and second some perspective, and finally more patience with your fellow man. We’re all just beginners. The bees and the ants have had millions of years to work out the right way to live as a community, and we’ve done better than they in just a few millennia—and we humans are just babies; we are only starting out. We have done amazing, wonderful things—we’ve learned so much in just a few centuries—but that’s no time at all. We talk as if we are at the end of history and our society is the climax of wonderfulness. But in fact history has only just started. What we do today is going to seem tiny compared to what our descendants do.
The Too-Small God
One other thing must change: your conception of what a God must be. If the universe has a creator, a prime mover as Aristotle said, that thing, whatever it might be, has to be larger and older than the universe. Older than 14 billion years, and in some sense larger than its 93 billion light-year diameter.
I frankly have no idea of what the nature of such a thing, such a being, would be. What could it be like, a thing older and bigger than the universe? I’ll tell you this: even as a boy of eleven or twelve, I knew for certain that the God I was being told about in Sunday School, the Bible God, was nowhere near big enough.
Compared to the vastness of space and time, the Bible God is a trivial thing. It is a being that feels jealousy and rage; a being that could without a qualm drown millions of living things that it had made, because they disappointed it; a being that would knock down the tower of Babel and confuse people’s minds because it didn’t want them to learn anything; a being that took sides between one tribe and another; a being that couldn’t figure out how to be merciful until his son committed suicide in front of him to change his mind. (That’s what the New Testament message comes down to, if you think it through.)
I was not able to put these thoughts in fine words then, but I knew that the God I was being told about could not possibly be the creator of the universe that science showed me. So what do you call a book that tells you a dramatic story that cannot possibly be true? You call it a fantasy. I was familiar with fantasies; I read lots of them. It was obvious that the Bible was just another fantasy novel, and the God of Christianity was a made-up fictional character. Out of respect for my parents I went to church every Sunday until I left home, but there was no time that I believed in what I heard.
And since then, I have never heard or read any description of a God that matches up to the size and scale of this magnificent universe. And I’ve never seen an explanation how a God who did match up to that scale and size could have the slightest interest in being worshipped, or indeed could have the slightest concern about what I thought about it or anything else.