I’ve said before—too many times, by now, for me to go back in my blog archive and find references—that I’m an atheist. This is not because I hate religion, or religious people, or the thought of God watching over me. And not because I think I’m smarter than believers or see more deeply into the mechanism of the universe than they do.
Instead, I feel my lack of something. I lack the gene that grants one the mental apparatus to tune into whatever vibration, wavelength, or dimension from which the presence of an almighty spirit might speak or make him/her/itself known. I’ve never heard a whisper. As a very young person, when I was giving religion—in the form of the Presbyterian church—a chance to reach me, I tried to pray. I tried to pose questions and receive answers. But nothing I ever heard or sensed fell outside of what I know to be my imagination or the workings of my own subconscious mind—and I have a very active and productive subconscious.1
I also do have an amateur’s appreciation for the size and scale of the universe in which we live. We inhabit a bubble of spacetime filled with a hundred billion galaxies, each one composed of a hundred billion stars, and each star system enjoying a complexity approaching that of the humble star and planetary system we call home.2 I have a hard time believing that a single conscious mind could have created this cosmos in all its complexity—let alone what we now imagine to be all the multiverses that continually branch out of the probabilities surrounding each meaningful event occurring within one universe. Nor can I believe that such a mind manages it all on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis, so that it marks the fall of a single sparrow.3
At root then, I have a hard time believing in an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful god who stands outside of space and time, yet who created the universe as a place inside space and time, manages it in detail, both large scale and small, and still cares about and guides the destiny of each and every sentient being within its sphere. For one thing, I don’t believe in superlatives, ultimates, and finalities, and an omnipotent god to rule over all this must have those attributes.
Infinity—whether in space, time, power, mass, density, or any other characteristic—does not exist anywhere in the universe. It is a product of the human mind and an extension of human mathematics. Infinity is a tent peg in the far distance beyond the highest number you can care to count, just as the concept of zero, nothingness, is a tent peg right under your feet, at the start of the range of positive numbers and negative numbers alike. Our mathematics also allows any whole number to be divided into an infinity of fractions. Our mathematics further allows us to add and multiply infinities—when the simple concept of “more than you can possibly count” just won’t do.
But nowhere do we find such immensity in the world around us. The speed of light is given as an absolute, a limit, a “they shall not pass,” and yet it remains finite, measurable, and comprehensible: 299,792,458 meters per second, or 186,282 miles per second. We casually speak of the density of a black hole—or the monoparticle out of which the mass of our whole universe exploded in the Big Bang—as being “infinite,” but that’s just sloppy thinking. The mass of the collapsed star, or our universe, is finite and calculable within certain limits, and so the mass of the singularity or the monoparticle can be understood as finite—always allowing for the amount of matter that was blown off as energy and lost to the system during the event of either stellar collapse or Big Bang. Similarly, the age and spatial dimensions of the universe itself are finite and ultimately calculable.4
Even at the level of quantum mechanics, which chops the stuff of matter and energy pretty fine, we do not expect—our mathematics do not imply—an infinite division, like the fractions we can pull out of a whole number. A long time after the Greeks declared atoms to be the smallest things in nature and indivisible, we learned they actually weren’t, because they are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Then we learned that the protons and neutrons themselves were made of three quarks each in different flavors, and that quarks are only a few examples from a whole echelon of computed particles. We now suspect that those quarks and other particles are—at least according to one theory—bits of cosmic string that vibrate at different frequencies in a set of dimensions measured beyond the x, y, and z that we call normal space. We may eventually find levels below this. But nothing in our philosophy projects an infinite series of ever-tinier turtle backs supporting the smallest bits of matter.
So, I have trouble conceiving of, believing in, or acknowledging the existence of an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, infinite mind that stands outside space and time. A local god whom the ancient Hebrews worshipped and called “Yahweh”—or Tetragrammaton, standing for the “four letters” of his unspoken name—who held guardianship over a particular range of mountains and valleys in the Middle East and maintained an interest in and covenant with a particular group of people living there … perhaps. That was back when the Earth as such was all anyone knew of existence, and the stars were just pinpricks in the fabric of the sky. But one sole keeper who maintains interest in humans and all other living creatures on all the possible planets and takes responsibility for every star in the night sky … no.
This does not, however, mean that I am not prepared to learn about, believe in, and credit the existence of other intelligences, superior beings, or angels. However, by “angels” I do not mean those spiritual essences created by this all-knowing, etc. god as servants to bring messages to and render judgment upon earthly humans. I’m not talking about the seraphic agents of a higher power, but simply advanced individuals of whatever classification who may walk among us and display superior powers for any number of reasons. They may be from the future, or from another planet, or another dimension. They may be agents of a separate and currently secret society, or a sect of intergalactic do-gooders, or the keepers of a separate reality. Or they may be scientists sent here to study us who have tender hearts and who try to help out.
I have never seen an angel, an interdimensional being, an extraterrestrial, or a time traveler. But since they do not violate my distrust of infinities of knowledge, sight, and power, I am not naturally inclined to dismiss them. Such beings might arrive in metaphysical conveyances, cloak themselves in mysterious fashion, and use technologies and power sources that on this planet pass for miraculous and magical. I would actually expect them to do that. After all, Clarke’s Third Law states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”5 And I know that our own science and understanding are not yet complete.
I am not a disbeliever in things I cannot see or touch or have not yet experienced. I know that the universe is big and unexpected, and much of what we understand about it has only come to light in the last hundred years or so 6 and is still subject to much revision. My comfort with this level of uncertainty—indeed, my faith that we will finally understand what’s going on—is that now and for perhaps the last 400 years7 those of us in the Western tradition have been learning about our world and our universe through observation and analysis, rather than through superstition and ritual.
1. See Working with the Subconscious from September 30, 2012.
2. All of this, of course, is accurate plus or minus a few orders of magnitude. No one has actually counted the galaxies or inventoried each one’s stars.
3. See Matthew 10:26-33. I understand that Matthew is telling people to have no fear, because the Father is watching over each of us and cares for each of us. I’m just saying it’s a task that passes my understanding.
4. Of course, measuring the width and breadth of the universe presents us with a problem, because to look far enough in any direction is also to see back in time. The edge of the universe is also, in our telescopes, its beginning. As Audrey Hepburn said in the movie Always, “Time is funny stuff. Space has its points, too.”
5. Arthur C. Clarke—perhaps best known for the book and screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey, among much other great science fiction—was likely a believer in angels or astronomical agents himself. His first two laws are: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong” and “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” Here was a man who could see beyond the limits of the everyday.
6. I’m taking this time reference from the fact that astronomer Edwin Hubble showed in 1923 that all the “spiral nebulae” we thought lay inside our own galaxy, the Milky Way, were actually other galaxies lying far outside it. That was a first step in putting the universe in perspective. Half a dozen years later he showed that those galaxies were moving away and the universe is expanding. Those are pretty big steps for the science of star study that goes back to Mesopotamia.
7. Here I’m talking about the Scientific Revolution and the work of 17th-century scientists like Copernicus and Kepler, Newton and Leibniz, Galileo and Van Leeuwenhoek, and a hundred others who began looking with their own eyes, seeing with their full intellect, experimenting using their best imagination, and recording and comparing the results for others to inspect.