The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why I Don't Believe Part 2 - In the Beginning

While disagreement over belief in God may represent the signature difference between Atheism and Religion, the far more substantive difference lies in the methodology by which we seek understanding. The Atheist's relentless quest for understanding is unfettered by tradition, by crumbling parchments and ancient wisdom and codes of ethics. The Atheist is unconstrained by the past. Free to work towards understanding using all of the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years of human development. The Atheist is free to incorporate information from anywhere and everywhere, from ancient religous texts to the latest advances in cutting edge science. The Atheist is free to seek truth wherever it presents itself. As a result, the Atheist is uniquely free to discard outmoded or obsolete ideas which serve no useful purpose. And free to embrace those ideas that reflect an evolving understanding of the Universe.

As a result, Atheist is infinitely adaptable. The only true requriement is that the adherent seek understanding in all things. The Atheist recognizes and embraces the fact thta every one of us has a unique history, a unique culture, a unique path, unique needs and a unique mind. The Atheist recognizes and embraces the fact that understanding itself often depends on the perspective of the viewer. Acknowledging the reality that morality cannot always be reduced to simple questions of right and wrong.

Unconcerned with offending tradition, the Atheist is free to seek to undertanding in any way possible even from those with whom they disagree. The Atheist is flexible, open to new ideas, new ways of thinking, new information. Willing to accept disagreement and criticism and open to the possibility that their understanding may be flawed and need adjustment.

Religious understanding, in contrast, is forever bound to a specific place, a specific time and a specific cultural worldview. Fettered to the specific sets of creeds, views, ideologies and understandings set down in one specific set of sacred texts, most of which were recorded thousands of years ago. Religious understanding must always be filtered through the truths set down in these sacred writings. Contradictory information gleaned from either personal experience or scientific understanding must be either rejected as false or contorted in such a way that it can be marginalized. Religious understanding is ultimately based on conformity with ancient ideals and is therefore hopelessly constrained by history, by tradition, by the past.

Religious understanding views the future with hostility and views new knowledge and new understandings not as progress, but as a threat. Religious understandings are almost always mutually exclusive, explicitly rejecting not only contradictory truths uncovered by science, but the understandings discovered by other faiths. Religious understanding is tainted with the fear that time and greater secular understanding will render it obsolete. As a result, Religious understanding is incredibly hostile to disagreement and criticism. It tends to be incredibly inflexible and dogmatic, slow to change and slow to adapt to even obvious new truths.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Religion's stubborn inability to deal with new understandings about the size, scale and age of the Universe.

Far from a literal creation in which an invisible deity speaks and the world magically springs into being, our Universe and our World are the products of billions of years of evolutionary progress nd change. And the reality of that process, the real story of how our world came to be is far more marvelous than the ancient fables of Creation passed down by ancient man. Approximately 13.7 billion years ago, floating within the seemingly infinite void there existed a quantum singularity. A point in space where all the matter and energy in what we now call the Universe was compressed into a tiny seething mass of incomprehensible heat and density. This Great Singularity was something akin to a black hole. A region of space where gravity and the other fundamental forces of physics and were so strong that all of matter and energy in the Universe could be compressed into this infinitesimally tiny space. If you find this hard to contemplate, consider that the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Galaxy contains something on the order of 3.6 million times the mass of our Sun in a region approximately the size of our planet.

What created this Great Singularity? Was it merely a natural occurrence within the Bulk of some great multiverse? Was it a conscious act of creation by some mind-bogglingly advanced civilization? To that question there is not, and can never be, any answer. Atheism cannot and should not even attempt to formulate an answer to that question. It is utterly impossible to look back beyond the veil to the time before. Indeed, the Atheist can readily concede that it is possible, though improbable, that the Great Singularity that encompassed the Great All of our existence may have been an act of conscious authorship. Such a question is simply beyond answering. And ultimately, as we will discuss in detail later, even if the Great Singularity was in fact an act of conscious authorship, the being that created such a maelstrom is so far beyond our plane of existence that it is utterly ludicrous to believe that such a being would either know or care about our insignificant galaxy, our average star, our tiny world or our species infintesimally brief existence.

Regardless of how the Great Singularity came to be, regardless of whether it was simply a natural occurrence or an act of conscious authorship and creation, we know and can readily describe what happened next. Approximately 13.7 billion years ago the forces holding the singularity together became unbalanced and the Great Singularity exploded in a cataclysmic firestorm of creation. The dimensions and scale of this detonation are quite literally beyond anything humans can truly grasp, a maelstrom of destruction that literally created the fabric of space and time. Imagine literally everything, all of the mass and energy that has ever existed compressed into something the size of an atom exploding outward at once.

After a few hundred thousand years of cooling, as the heat of that explosion diminished from trillions of degrees down to hundreds of billions of degrees and finally down to a few million degrees. Gradually the Universe became cool enough for Hydrogen atoms to form and from that point, gravity became the dominant force in the formation of our Universe. Denser regions of space coalesced together under the influence of gravity into ever denser regions of space, finally forming structures that would seem familiar to us today. Galaxies, stars, black holes, even primordial gas giants like Jupiter.

As stars attained sufficient mass and sufficient gravity, they became hotter and denser until the stars began a process we know as nuclear fusion where Hydrogen is fused to Helium. As these stars continued to burn through their nuclear fuel, they gradually used up their stock of Hydrogen and began fusing Helium together into all of the elements we know today, Carbon, Oxygen, Silicon, Neon, etc. Once these primordial stars had fused elements up to Iron, they reached a point where they could no longer generate any more energy through nuclear fusion. At that point, the gravity pulling the stellar material inward could no longer be held back by the heat generated through nuclear fusion and these ancient stars become unstable, exploding in a Supernova, and seeding the surrounding space with the first generations of all of the heavy elements we know today.

Every single atom of your body heavier than Hydrogen was forged in the heart of a star that died billions of years ago. The Iron in the core of our planet was cast by death throes of a long extinct star. Every single atom of Oxygen you breathe or in the Water you drink was formed in the heart of star that died hundreds of light years away billions of years ago.

We owe the entirety of our existence to the laws of physics which governed the formation of our Universe. As these primordial stars seeded the Universe with heavy elements, gravity once again, caused this material to coalesce into new stars. Now, seeded with heavy elements like Silicon, Carbon and Oxygen, gravity was able to make not only stars, but also small rocky planetoids. And approximately 4.5 billion years ago, one of these rocky planetoids formed in the accretion disc of a star that is very familiar to us. From its initial state as a smoldering mass of rock and iron, this planetoid gradually cooled, allowing the water and oxygen intermixed with its primordial materials to outgas forming an atmosphere. As that atmosphere cooled from its hot gaseous state, it too began to coalesce and under the ever-present influence of gravity, began to fall as rain on the molten surface. As that molton surface gradually cooled under the torrential rains, it became solid, and as it became solid, oceans of liquid water formed on its surface. The rainstorm that filled the oceans of this planetoid likely lasted for millions of years, finally leaving this small celestial body as a swelteringly hot, steamy waterworld.

This planetoid, our planet Earth, was formed not from the hand of some invisible deity, but by the natural physical properties of the Universe. The properties of gravity, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, formed our brilliant blue world out of the remnants of dead stars and together, those properties led to something even more remarkable than a marvelous blue jewel orbiting a brilliant glowing ball of plasma – Life.

While we do not know the mechanics behind the creation of the Great Singularity, we understand quite well the mechanics of what happened afterwards. We understand the maelstrom of fire and light followed by the slow creation of Hydrogen, the eventual domination of local gravity, the formation of stars and the formation of the heavier elements within stars. Those events do not illustrate the hand of some intelligent being, they illustrate the grace and beauty of time and space and the physical properties of nature operating on unimaginable timescales. With our advanced optics, we can look up into the night sky and literally SEE the way the Universe was billions and billions of years ago. We can actually look at and understand the evolution of our Universe simply by looking at ever more distant objects. We can even re-create on a small scale, the tremendous energies and particles unleashed during the Big Bang. We can see the evolution of our own creation and it is beautiful.

It is not that the Atheist cannot abide the idea of God, but the Great All, this beautiful planet, the magnificent cosmos, the elegance and grace of the interaction of time, space and matter and the physical laws that govern those interactions are cheapened by the idea that everything was simply created by some supra-advanced space being. The reality of our creation, the reality of the birth of our sun, the reality of the birth of our planet, the reality of the origins of the atoms that make up our world and the reality of life’s first tentative steps on this wonderful planet of ours far are more meaningful and powerful precisely because it is not an act of authorship. It is that lack of authorship that makes our existence that much more precious.

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