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

This I Believe

Dear Will:

Do you ever listen to NPR? Over the last several months they have been running this series of commentaries from both the famous and the not-so-famous entitled “This I Believe.” It is a brief opportunity for someone to get a little personal about whatever. I figured that since NPR is unlikely to want to put me on the air, I would foist myself on you instead. You know, just like I do every month.

Here’s what I believe:

  • I believe in that magical feeling you get around a newborn baby.
  • I believe in blue jeans any time you can get away with them.
  • I believe in warm cinnamon rolls and really, really cold milk.
  • I believe the USA basketball team was robbed in the finals of the ’72 Olympics.
  • I believe in the sound of the ocean as the sun is going down.
  • I believe in lots and lots of laughter.
  • I believe in the UCLA Bruins. (Not really. I just desperately want to believe.)
  • I believe in decorating your office with your children’s artwork.
  • I believe in the sight of a mom, snuggled up with a child, reading a book out loud.
  • I believe in quiet Sundays at home.
  • I believe in occasionally having breakfast for dinner.
  • I believe in the power of really good writing.
  • I believe in occasionally letting the kids stay up late—and more than occasionally getting them to bed early.
  • I believe in the awe-inspiring National Parks.
  • I believe in laptop computers.
  • I believe in the smell of fresh cut grass.
  • I believe in peaceful music.
  • I believe in regularly setting aside your own needs to take care of somebody else’s.
  • I believe that I have no idea how the world and all its wonders were created but that for sure it didn’t happen by chance.
  • I believe that everyone should try really hard to be nice.
  • I believe in the power of prayer.
  • I believe that God knows me personally and will help my in life when I ask . . . and when I’m ready.
  • I believe in prophets and scripture and promptings of the Holy Spirit.
  • I believe in Jesus Christ.

I also believe that I have spent enough time telling you what I believe. Now it’s your turn. What do you believe?

PW

Footprints All Around Us

Dear Will:

I recently took my kids to the San Diego Zoo.  What a crazy collection of creatures that place has!  Once you stop gawking at the lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), there are all these other critters running around that you never heard of or imagined.  I keep expecting them to erect a Dr. Seuss wing one of these times.  There was even this one thing that seemed to have come straight out of the bar scene in Star Wars.  Goofy little body.  Ugly, throw-away-the-mold face.  A name you couldn’t pronounce.  From a place you never heard of.  Unbelievable.  Fascinating.  Marvelous.

Some can wander through a place like that and see Charles Darwin all around them.  Not me.  Everywhere I turn I see the handiwork of God.  Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have the faintest notion how to make an Okapi or a Lemur.  For all I know you’ve got to go through millions of years of modifications to get it just so.  But if you try to tell me that a gazelle or a Macaw or even a warthog happened by chance, I say “No way.”  (Well, maybe the warthog.)

Likewise, I am fascinated by how the human body is able to repair itself.  If I cut my finger today, within moments the body goes to work on repairs; within hours there is visible evidence that healing is underway; and within days it is as if nothing even happened.  Amazing.  Wonderful.  Miraculous.  And definitely not happenstance.

One does not have to go very far or work very hard to see evidence of a loving God: in the leaf of a tree, in a billowy cloud, or in a snow-capped mountain peak; in a bug that skitters or a hawk that soars; in the shape of the human ear, the back of your own hand, the ripple of muscle, a giggle, a sigh, a smile.  Everything we see or touch or hear or taste allows us to feel God’s presence if we will attune ourselves to Him.  If the world is, indeed, His footstool (Isaiah 66:1), is it really all that surprising that we should see his footprints all around us?

That great Book of Mormon prophet Alma (son of Alma) put it this way: “. . . [All] things denote there is a God;  yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44).

He didn’t specifically mention the Okapi, mind you, but I’m pretty sure that, had he  seen one, he would have agreed with me and cast a grateful eye toward heaven.

I close with the words of the poet:

GLORY be to God for dappled things—  
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;  
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; 
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;  
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim. 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;  
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)  
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; 
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                  Praise him.  

“Pied Beauty,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

PW