Earlier this week, there was a question on University Challenge* that brought an analogy to my mind. The question was along the lines of “What is 100,000 light years across, 1,000 light years thick, contains over 200 billion stars and until the early part of the last century was considered to be the entire Universe?”
The answer, of course, was our own Milky Way galaxy. What a shift in perception when astronomers saw, with advances in both knowledge and observational technology, that the faint fuzzy patches of light we can see between the stars were actually other galaxies… billions of them, each containing hundreds of billions of stars!
The analogy that for some reason I came up with was that of a microbe, in a falling raindrop, suddenly realising (yes, this is a microbe with unusually developed reasoning skills) that the raindrop wasn’t all of existence, but rather just one in a rainstorm. If you scale it, this analogy probably doesn’t hold water (ha!) but it created a vivid picture for me.
The basic science, and the analogy, are both lost on most priests of course, which is why I have long given up trying to debate with them. If some scientists still have religious beliefs (and there are some – the Vatican after all has an observatory all of its own) then, although I disagree with their conclusions I can still have some kind of discussion with them. We at least have some common ground in our world views, even if we draw radically different conclusions. The run of the mill peddler of bronze-age mythology however, is a different matter. I suppose I should be thankful that preachers typically have such a limited understanding (or even knowledge) of all that’s been discovered in the past few hundred years. To most people with an education and an open mind, it makes them so much less persuasive. I became an atheist at the age of about thirteen, when I weighed what I was learning at confirmation classes with what I was learning at school. The two could not be reconciled, and I marvel to this day at the way the clergy have so failed to accommodate scientific advances into their teaching. They could have made their mumbo jumbo so much more difficult to discount but thankfully, for whatever reason, they have not.
My only internal struggle is with atheism versus agnosticism. I sometimes feel that it is just as arrogant to proclaim that there is no Supreme Being as to proclaim that there is. However, it is the opposite of arrogance to allow that – if there is a higher power responsible for all that we see about us – there is no way for us to know its nature, or for it to care about our humble existence. Allowing there to be a God, of which we can know nothing, seems to me quite harmless in that it does not allow anyone to dress up in robes and tell everyone else what that being wants them to do or think. To Richard Dawkins, such indecision is moral cowardice, but although there is much that I agree with him about I’m not sure I go with him on that.
* TV quiz show based on the US College Bowl. Both series have been around for decades.