I came across a blog post in which the writer gushes about the beauty of the world and its profound effect on her. She concludes that it must be hard work to be an atheist because atheists have to actively deny the god whose existence is revealed by all of this gosh-darned wonderfulness. This isn’t a new argument. Psalm 19 says it this way: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” The blog post, however, tried to be very down to earth, focusing on insects and plants and the loveliness of the writer’s immediate surroundings. Above all, the piece lauded the writer’s emotional reaction to all of that as proof of God’s existence.
(The argument that the universe is a such a complex, remarkable machine that it could only have been designed by a gigantic intelligence—i.e., God—is known as the Argument from Design. I think we should call this minimized and highly subjective and emotional version of that argument the Argument from Gosh Darn Wonderfulness.)
It should go without saying that your emotional reaction to the universe is not data about the universe. It’s not a measurement of what’s outside you. It doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of the universe; it only tells us something about you. This should go without saying, but apparently it does need to be said. Unfortunately, emotional reactions are commonly regarded as a meaningful way to measure reality. The deliberate confusion of subjective impressions and objective data is the basis of bestselling books, not to mention successful political campaigns and religions with hundreds of millions of adherents.
So let’s pretend that your emotional reaction to the beauty of nature really does point to the existence of something powerful and supernatural behind the material reality surrounding you. That’s not a new idea, either. Primitive peoples have been imbuing nature with spirits of all sorts for ages. Perhaps that began even before our ancestors were recognizably human. Why do you conclude that the supernatural power you think you sense is the god you learned about as a child and not one of those spirits your primitive ancestors believed in? Perhaps you’re sensing the presence of the ancient Greek gods, or gods more ancient than those, or other supernatural beings none of our ancestors knew about. The possibilities are not limited to the god you were taught to believe in. Rather, the possibilities are literally limitless; the human imagination, as manifested in the creation of a multitude of religions, has only scratched the surface of supernatural silliness. Make up your own gods! They will serve to explain that feeling of something more than the material universe just as well as the single god the Jews, Christians, and Moslems worship.
But let’s pretend that the magical something behind reality can only be the god you’ve been indoctrinated to believe in. The pagan gods and primitive animism are foolish, and only your monotheistic god makes sense (because we’re pretending, after all).
Let’s look at this beautiful world that fills you with an awareness of a wonderful, astonishing, beautiful intelligence behind it. This lovely world is filled with fluffy clouds and chirping birds and hyperactive squirrels and placid, chewing rabbits—I mean, bunnies—and rustling leaves and dappled shade and butterflies and a blue sky above. Oooh! It’s like a Disney cartoon!
Am I being flip? No, I’m being snide. Do you think this represents only a superficial parody of the theist’s view of the gosh-darned wonderfulness of nature? No. It’s the theist’s view that’s superficial and silly. Look beneath the surface of the cartoon, and you see a horror show.
Those playful squirrels eat baby birds alive when they get the chance. The cute bunnies are likely to be torn to pieces by cats, dogs, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and hawks. Cats are killed by dogs, dogs by coyotes, and on an on. And that’s just at the level visible to the human eye. At a small level, the same is happening in the insect world. Beneath that, the same is true in the microscopic world. Nature red in tooth and claw, indeed. Behind the cartoon lies a constant struggle to eat but not get eaten. Horrible, agonizing death surrounds you.
The god that could create this and allow it to continue would be a monster. The cartoon version of reality may fill you with spiritual feelings. The reality behind it makes me glad that I don’t believe in—let alone worship—your evil god.
But let’s look up. Never mind the awfulness below. Instead, consider the beauty of the heavens. Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, “I can see how it might be possible for a man to look down upon the earth and be an atheist, but I cannot conceive how a man could look up into the heavens and say there is no God.” I suspect that quote is apocryphal, but let’s assume it’s genuine.
Look up on a dark, clear night, and what do you see? Wonder, unless you’re dead inside. Indeed, the universe is far more beautiful and wonderful and amazing than we can see with our human eyes. Astronomy is constantly revealing new astonishments. Perhaps the wonder of all of this makes you praise God. It makes me praise the science and the scientists that reveal it to us.
If this astounding universe was created by a supernatural being of immense power and intelligence, then he put unbridgeable distances between civilizations. We are almost certain that other civilizations exist across the universe, many of them far more advanced than ours. What beautiful thoughts, enlightenment, art, and science have they produced? We’ll almost certainly never know. If God existed, he would be a cosmic father who produces innumerable beautiful, loving children and then locks each one of them away in a soundproofed room.
And more than that. The beautiful stars have a finite lifetime, and therefore every civilization in the universe is doomed to destruction. Not only will the wonders each civilization produces never be communicated to the rest of the universe; at some point, those wonders themselves will be destroyed and cease to exist entirely.
The blog post I referred to in the beginning said that, faced with such beauty, it must be hard to be an atheist. It requires effort to deny the immense and beautiful mind behind the beauties of nature. In a sense, it’s true that atheism involves effort. The atheist understands that nature is mindless and that we make our own goodness and beauty. There is no invisible daddy in the sky directing everything and rewarding and punishing us. Being a grownup is demanding, and we accept that role.
It takes an effort to be a theist, too. It requires deliberate blindness to revere a being who would be a monster if he existed. It requires remarkable mental gymnastics to cope with the contradictions and logical absurdities inherent in that belief. And it requires looking only at the surface of the world, and only at part of that surface, so that you can continue to believe that nature is just so gosh darn wonderful.