It Takes a Whole Lot of Faith to Be an Atheist

hacat-culture-cells-light-micrograph-dr-torsten-wittmann

Dear Will:

Apparently, however-many billions of years ago, some sort of singular event, currently unexplained by our understanding of astrophysics, caused the universe to begin expanding rapidly. The exact cause no one really knows. But that this Big Bang happened is not really in dispute. Emanating from this “singularity,” eventually clumps of matter took their places in the cosmos, including one orb that settled, fortuitously, in rotation around our sun, close enough to keep us warm but not so close (or so far away) to make the place uninhabitable. Not that there was anything there to inhabit it, mind you, but it was a start.

From there the random good fortune continued. Atoms became molecules, hydrogen and oxygen somehow began combining to form H2O, essential for the formation of life. How did it happen? Natural forces combined with a whole lot of luck, apparently.

By chance (millions and millions of years later, perhaps) single-cell organisms appeared(!), and completely on their own, they began combining or splitting, or splitting and combining—in any case, they began spontaneously forming more complex organisms. I’ll skip over the boring parts here, but through more natural forces and random bits of randomness eventually we went from protozoa to pollywogs to people, with millions of variations of plants and creatures also forming, cell by cell, along the way. Each iteration and permutation came about by accident, it seems, with the best mutations sticking around and the not-so-great ones never really getting a foothold. And now, billions of years later, you have, by pure chance really, the redwoods and the bougainvillea, the guppy and the humpback whale, cheetahs and gazelles and the blue-footed booby, not to mention the dodo and the diplodocus, the earthworm and the bark beetle, and whatever is the latest craziness they have going on over there on Galapagos Island. Oh, and the duckbilled platypus. Can’t forget the platypus.

That detour from pollywog to person could not have been very straightforward. Think of all of the random wrong turns and dead-ends we must have headed down before we could ever arrive at, say, Mike Trout or Misty Copeland. For instance, it would have been theoretically possible—perhaps even easier from a purely developmental standpoint—to randomly generate one eye rather than two. No question. But two is better, so fortunately for us it all worked out. Solely dependent on natural forces and infinite randomness, we also ended up with two feet loaded with all kinds of handy metatarsals. We’ve got eight yards of intestines (two kinds!), a pancreas and a spleen, and only one fairly useless gall bladder. And hemoglobin! Somehow the randomizer even came up with hemoglobin, usually in just the right proportion to everything else. Not bad considering that it all had to happen more or less by chance.

But that’s really only half the story. In order for all of that serendipity to work out for you (including the hemoglobin), you’re going to need to end up eventually with two versions of homo sapiens, with mostly the same parts but several totally different ones, also developed by random chance, but also with such marvelous complementarity that combined in just the right way you can churn out others just like them on an almost annual basis. That’s two different but complementary models, simultaneously produced following synchronized, billion-year development. Preposterous? Perhaps. But given enough time and random good fortune it could happen. Because apparently it did.

I must emphasize here that I’m no astrophysicist, geneticist or nuclear biologist, so some might (rightly) quibble with how I laid things out here. I’m quick to admit that I may have been overly reductive, perhaps misrepresenting or oversimplifying the basic theory in some of the particulars. But I believe this is the gist of what we are supposed to believe about how we got here today: Start with an untriggered event in the cosmos, wait around through billions of years and quadrillions of random microbiological mutations and eventually you’ll find yourself reading this letter from me.

Or you can believe in God.

Or, to be more precise, you can believe in God and just about all of that other stuff as well. In the singularity. In the combining of molecules and the natural selection of species. In the self-evident reality of evolutionary principles and the age of the ever-expanding universe. The choice is not between science or God, it’s between a belief in the power and inevitability of chaotic happenstance, on the one hand, or a belief in a Creator helping to steer toward a desired outcome, on the other. You may believe that everything you see (and your ability to see it) is the result of billions and billions of unplanned, spontaneous deviations, or you can believe that God had a hand in it. But be honest: Which of those requires a greater leap of faith?

To see what I mean, you may wish to try this simple experiment. Go down to your nearest maternity ward and find your way to the side of a mother with her newborn. Look at that exhausted, joyful woman, more beautiful in that moment than perhaps she has ever been in her life. Look at how she stares at her little one. Now look at the babe—its tiny knuckled fingers, the fleshy excess on the palm that gives the thumb its perfect movement, the wrinkled ears, the nib of a nose, the round, wondering, miraculous eyes. Look how it suckles, still nurtured and sustained by its life-giving mother. Now listen to the voice inside your own head.

Which phrase comes most readily to mind: “Wow, that was lucky,” or “Oh, my God”?

PW

[NOTE: Several people have objected to my original characterization of the evolution of genders, which, given my lack of credentials, should surprise no one. Subsequently, I have updated this post in an effort to reduce that apparent misrepresentation. To truly understand prevailing evolutionary theory, however, I urge you to turn to a more reputable and better informed source than I.]

 

Photo: Hacat Culture Cells, Light Micrograph by Dr Torsten Wittmann

3 thoughts on “It Takes a Whole Lot of Faith to Be an Atheist

  1. Bob Tucker

    Peter: One of your best! You are an incredible writer and a wonderful soul. We miss you and your terrific wife very much.

  2. VM

    2 points about this argument:
    1- science isn’t about believing there are millions of little random accidents that happened to end up in creating life . It’s about studying the forces that are observed which make the world the way it is. The location of the earth in relation to the sun is not random. It’s governed by a set of forces including gravity and related to the individual masses of the sun and earth which puts it precisely there. It’s not random that we have two eyes, there are a set of forces in nature that work together to push life in a certain direction. Even the mutations that happen in DNA to allow these changes aren’t spontaneous, they are the result of the force of radiation on those molecules. We don’t understand all the forces, but science is about exploring those forces. Science is not about listing all the random, spontaneous changes that were necessary to make our world the way it is.
    2- statistics are observations of the past, to make predictions of the future. It’s not accurate to say that the likelihood of the world being the way it is, is so low, that it takes a leap of faith to believe it. I’ll illustrate this with a thought experiment. Take a 6 sided die. Roll it a billion times and record the series of numbers. Now calculate the likelihood that you rolled that exact series of numbers. That number is extremely low. Does that low probability change the fact that it happened? No. It just shows how unlikely it is to happen again in the same exact way. If you did the experiment again, would you get the same series of numbers? Probably not, but you would get another series of numbers that are equally unlikely. Similarly, if we redid existence starting from the Big Bang and followed it for the same amount of time, would it end up exactly the same? Probably not, but the forces of physics and nature would probably produce another result that would appear equally unlikely.

    3- I guess I have a third point that I didn’t predict when I started this. If God created the world in a way that there was proof of his existence, there wouldn’t be any need for faith. Faith is an essential element in a relationship with God for most religions that I’m aware of. If the low likelihood of life producing a baby in the arms of the mother was proof that God existed, then there wouldn’t be a need for faith.

  3. I love your “Letters to Will”  You are so good at writing. I love your mind.  Thanks for sharing.  love you!Annette W California Arcadia Mission626-215-2211 cell

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