The Road to Rationalism part 5.1

On why it is frankly ludicrous to think we're God's (or gods', if you prefer) special creatures.

So we saw in R2R part 5 that at the lowest estimate, the Universe contains 100 billion galaxies, each of which may contain approximately 100 million stars. It is estimated that between 20 and 60% (a wide margin of error, I know, indicative of just how little we really know about the rest of the Universe) of Sun-like stars could have rocky planets (like ours) orbiting around them. In order to support any kind of complex life that we are able to recognise as such, a planet must have liquid water all year round, though not necessarily at the surface.

We have absolutely no idea how many earth-like planets there are in our own galaxy, let alone the rest of the Universe, but again the lowest estimates come in at around 10 to 30 billion, in the whole Universe.

We do know however, that there is an abundance of simple organic compounds like amino acids and sugars etc, - the fundamental building blocks of life - as they have been found many times in meteorites.

One of the objections that creationists like to raise against the idea of life spontaneously arising is the sheer (they say) improbability of it. "There simply must be a prime mover" they say, a God to breath life into the 'primordial soup' - the thick stew of organic compounds dissolved in the liquid water of an early volcanic Earth.

Now, it may well be that it is an extremely improbable event for life to spontaneously arise, but given the ease with which the organic compounds necessary for life have 'spontaneously' arisen, I would say that life, if not intelligent life, is probably a quite widespread phenomenon.

But lets throw the ID'ers a little sop, shall we? Lets just say that life has only arisen once, in all the 13 or more billion years of the Universe's existence, in all the vast volume of space, in all those worlds that were born and have subsequently been destroyed, only this planet, our home world, was somehow capable of spawning life.

How much improbability do the ID'ers need? If the number of habitable planets in the Universe is estimated to be at least 10 billion, that would mean the odds of life arising spontaneously (we know this has happened at least once, obviously, or we would not be here talking about it) on just one of them are 10 billion to 1 against, at the lowest available estimate.

Just to put this amount of improbability into perspective, in the UK, the chances of winning the lottery jackpot are around 14 million to one against. An individual's chance of being hit by lightning is around 600,000 to one against.

So we can say, with a great deal of confidence, that the idea of life spontaneously arising is significantly more probable than the idea of some all powerful, all intelligent being -somehow able to exist before the Universe began (maybe even outside the Universe, as some theologians, in their more fantastical states, are wont to suggest) creating everything, tinkering around for some 8 billion years before making our sun, waiting another billion years for the earth to cool down a bit and get a really healthy dose of organic compounds, then, just at the right moment, FLASH! goes the divine fire, a little bacterium sputters into existence, divides, its progeny divide, and so on many more times, some of its descendants mutate, and off goes the process of natural selection leading over the course of more than 3 billion years to us.

So god twiddles his thumbs a bit, waits a while, as life develops. Different types of bacteria evolve, then, sometime around 2 billion years ago, some of them learn the trick of co-operating with one another. Single celled organisms evolve, and branch into what will later become the animal, plant and fungus kingdoms. Time passes - rather a serious amount of it - life develops, adapting to its changing environment; succesful organisms live and pass on their genes to the next generation, unsuccesful ones die and do not.

99% of all the species that have ever evolved became extinct - a very wasteful god he is if we must believe that his hand was guiding evolution inexorably toward us.

Finally, about 5 to 7 million years ago, the first human like-apes appeared in the African savannah.

About 100,000 years ago, Homo sapiens - the thinking man - evolved, and spread around the world, populating almost every habitable corner of it and displacing the earlier hominids, driving them to extinction.

About 10000 years ago this creature developed agriculture and began, in certain areas, to settle into large communities with specialists.

About 6000 years ago god decided to act, and 'revealed' himself to a nomadic desert tribe, telling them that they were his 'chosen people' who He had made in His own image, bestowing upon them dominion over all the animals and plants in the world, not to mention the right to slaughter other tribes (the fact that they had other gods was of course merely incidental), taking their land and their women for themselves.

Now, I see a little inconsistency here, I don't know whether your may have spotted it too... but god is supposed to be all-powerful, and of course all loving. He was supposed to have made (as it was 'revealed') the whole of Creation in a little less than a week, but we now know that it took at least 8 billion years just to get around to fixing up the sun. It seems then that this god is no more than a tinkerer, setting up the initial variables then sitting back and doing nothing for billions of years, then playing around a bit, making life, and eventually us, just so that he could then lie to us about what he did.

More likely of course, is that there is no god, no prime mover, no undesigned designer to bring the Universe into existence. Citing a god just creates an infinite regress, because he had to come from somewhere - who designed the designer? People who claim that they believe in god because the 'spontaneous' existence of the Universe is so improbable miss the glaringly obvious point that the 'spontaneous' existence of an omniscient or omnipotent god is vastly more improbable!

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The Road to Rationalism part 5

On why it is a little bit silly to think we're God's (or gods', if you prefer) special creatures.

As I have already said, ad nauseum, in earlier R2R posts, all of the World's religions have stories of creation associated with them. I haven't read many of them, but no doubt ther're many charmingly spun tales of gods doing great deeds or accidentally finding all of creation whilst cleaning out their belly buttons, or even taking almost a whole week to do it (resting on the seventh day, and leaving a great deal of speculation as to what He did on the eighth, as Hitchens wryly noted).

Lovely stories, great to tell the kids, but lets not take them too seriously, shall we?

After all, now that we know so much about how all this 'creation' we see around us came to be like it is now, we need hardly believe that a book telling us that the whole of creation is considerably less than 10000 years old is actually literally true, right?

A recent estimate (by the CIA, no less!) puts the number of followers of the three monotheisms at 55.5% of the total world population. How many of these people take their version of the Genesis story literally is difficult to know, but I would put a fair bit of money on it being a significant majority.

This character, Yahweh, was a very regional god. He had no knowledge of, or showed no interest in, the rest of the world outside the desert domain of his 'chosen people' (its really the other way around, he was their chosen god) but none of this really matters, because in actual fact, its just a story, just like all the other creation stories - it didn't happen.

With the huge weight of scientific evidence bearing down on the thin tissue of lies that we all know these stories to be, most leading theologians, at least mainstream christian ones such as archbishops and popes, accept that this story, like so many others in the Bible, is just allegory. "Of course we know now that the Earth wasn't created on Sunday 23rd October 4004 BC, thats just an old story. Nobody believes in a white-haired, bearded old chap sitting on a thunder cloud any more. Ho-ho!" they may say, whilst simultaneously giving their minions in less literate countries a free license to teach their flock that, actually, its 100% true what it says in the Bible.

So if god (or gods) created the Universe, his/their role has been pushed further and further back in time, after all, god(s) can't be younger than the Universe!

Astronomers and Cosmologists tell us that the Universe is at least 13 billion years old. They know this because in the early 20th century they devised a way to calculate the actual distance between stars, as opposed to the relative distance between them, which had been calculated some time earlier. Later, radio-astronomers were able to detect a much wider range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation than the narow band we are able to see with our own eyes, allowing us to 'see' further back in time, and farther away, than ever before. The farthest (and thus oldest) object yet detected is more than 13 billion light years away, which means that the radiation detected was emitted at least 13 billion years ago. That is a length of time of which it is impossible for us to conceive; suffice to say that it is a very, very, very long time indeed, and certainly just a wee bit longer than Bishop Ussher's 6000 or so years since god made everything.

13 billion light years is also a quite phenomenal distance. We know that light travels at a shade over 186,000 miles per second, which is pretty damn fast. Can you posibly imagine how far away something is if it takes light 13 billion years to travel the distance?

Estimates for the number of galaxies the Universe contains vary wildly, as we simply don't have enough information to give a reliable number, but the lowest accepted estimate is more than 100 billion. I know, its another impossible number, and they get bigger, but I'd just like for you to share with me for a moment the vastness and complexity of this Universe, and how our increasing scientifically obtained knowledge has pushed back the boundaries of our creation stories by many orders of magnitude.

Our own galaxy is considered to be a fairly normal sized one, and contains approximately 100 million stars. Just try to think, though it may be impossible as your mind becomes numb at the prospect, of 100 million stars each in 100 billion galaxies. My mind just turns to jelly when I try to think about that number.

Remember, then, that our Sun is a perfectly unremarkable little yellow star, about half way through a lifetime of some 10 billion years. We know this because astrophysicists have calculated how quickly different types of star use up their fuel, and since we know the mass of the sun, we know how much fuel it has burned and has remaining to it.

So at least 8 billion years passed before our own lovely little sun and our solar system were formed from the debris of an exploding star. We know this because we have calculated how much energy it takes to produce the elements heavier than iron that we have here on Earth, and only a supernova can produce such massive amounts of energy. We have also observed the aftermaths of supernovae with our telescopes, and have seen how new stars and thus planets are born.

About 4.5 billion years ago, our planet was fully formed, and began to cool. The oldest rocks we have so far found, and reliably dated, are more than 3 billion years old.

I'm not going to go through the story of life and evolution as I want to talk about all that in a separate post, but we know that our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for a mere 100,000 years. Yahweh was conceived of merely 6000 years ago.

The mainstream, you may say 'enlightened' (though I wouldn't) theologians of Christendom accept that all this scientific evidence is irrefutable, and though we may quibble over absolute dates (to a margin of thousands with human prehistory; tens of thousands to millions with the dates at which prehistoric species branched; tens of millions with the age of the Earth; hundreds of millions with the ages of stars etc) the fact cannot be ignored that the pentateuchal/biblical/koranic age of the universe is not just slightly wrong, but incredibly, ridiculously, laughably wrong.

We can forgive the story's writers, because they lived in a time of the most appalling ignorance. What excuse do we have today?

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