“All This For Us?” The Arrogance of Human- Centered Faith


Atheism
“You atheists are so arrogant.”

This is one of the most common criticisms leveled against atheists. Many believers see the atheist assertion that there almost certainly is no God as unspeakably arrogant.

The usual comeback is to point out the arrogance of faith: the arrogance, among other things, of thinking that “I really don’t think there’s any evidence for this” is trumped by “My heart tells me this is so.” But, today, I want to talk about a different kind of religious arrogance.

I’m talking about the arrogance of the human-centered universe.

I’m talking about the arrogance of believing that the universe was created by a loving god for the purpose of creating human beings with souls who could love him, obey him, and go to his heaven.

And I’m not even just talking about creationism, either. I’m talking about reasonably science-friendly religion that still sees humankind as the centerpiece of God’s plan.

Solar system
As many writers before me have pointed out, the history of science is the history of humankind receding from the spotlight and into the wings. Copernicus and Galileo showed us that the earth was not the center of the universe: we revolve around the sun, not the other way around. We then learned that our sun wasn’t the center of the universe, either: it was only one of many billions of stars in our galaxy. And in this century, we found out that not even our galaxy was the center of the universe: it was only one of billions and billions of galaxies, in a universe so enormous it staggers the imagination and the ability of writers to express it.

Tree of life
Even here on Earth — here on this puny, puny rock whizzing around one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies — we’re not center stage. The twin demons of paleontology and evolution have disabused us of that notion. The theory of evolution has kicked humankind off the lofty Pinnacle of Creation platform, and put us in our rightful place as just one twig on the very bushy bush of life. Yes, we’re a twig with a startling ability to shape our environment — but even that doesn’t make us unique. Coral, earthworms, all those plants spewing out oxygen into the atmosphere… all have dramatic impacts on the physical world around them.

Coelacanth
And when it comes to human hubris, paleontology just laughs in our face. “You think you’re special?” it scoffs. “You genus- come- lately, with your pathetic two and a half million year pedigree? Come back when you’ve survived for as long as the coelacanth or the cockroach, and we’ll talk.” In the history of life on this planet, the human species is a blip on the radar. We might survive as long as ferns and fir trees, alligators and algae… but we might also go the way of the triceratops and the Irish elk. If the history of life on Earth were the history of all music, the history of human life would be “Who Let The Dogs Out?”

Okay. Let’s sum up for a moment. The universe, post- Big Bang, is roughly 14 billion years old. It consists of billions and billions of galaxies, separated by vast expanses of empty space. Each of those galaxies consists of billions and billions of stars, also separated by vast expanses of empty space. Some of those stars have big hunks of rock orbiting them. And about four and a half billion years ago, in one of those galaxies, around one of those stars, one of those big hunks of rock happened to have a chemical process take place on it that resulted in structures that were able to replicate themselves. Over the eons, the self-replicating structures proliferated into an uncountable variety of different forms. And a mere two and a half million years ago, one of those millions of forms emerged in something resembling its present state… and in pretty much its present state a ridiculously paltry 200,000 years ago.

God Creates Adam Sistine Chapel
Many examples of which have come up with the ridiculously arrogant proposition that they are at the center of it all, the reason for all of it to happen.

To be fair, the human-centered view of the universe wasn’t always ridiculous. It wasn’t ridiculous, say, 5,000 years ago, before Galileo and Darwin and Hubble. It wasn’t ridiculous when — as far as we knew — humans had always been around, and the sun and moon and stars all revolved around us. We didn’t have any reason to think otherwise.

But now we do.

And now we have to let go.

Galaxies
If you’re not a hard-line creationist, if you accept the sciences of astronomy and paleontology and evolution, then you have to accept this simple fact: we are not the center of the universe. We are not the center of anything, except our own lives and history. We are a dust speck on an eyelash on a flea in the vastness of space; we are an eyeblink on that flea in the vastness of time. To think that all of the mind-boggling hugeness of space and time was created just so that flea could blink its eye… that’s one of the most arrogant beliefs I can imagine.

Comments

  1. Eclectic says

    Woo hoo! I don’t think this will attract quite as much attention as “atheists and anger”, but this is also a point I care about a lot.
    Now, thanks to our departed friend Douglas, I’m quite aware of the risks of the Total Perspective Vortex, but it’s quite true that our true position in the universe is best conveyed by a children’s song.

    There’s a speck on the fleck on the wing on the flea on the hair on the wart on the tail on the frog on the bump on the branch on the log in the hole in the bottom of the sea.

  2. says

    This is one of the things that I seem to cover a lot, this anthropocentrism that permeates a lot of people’s assumptions, and particularly religious assumptions about the meaning of life and the nature of humanity and God.
    All I ask is a little humility. We are a moment. We are a blink in the universe. Here and gone in an instant, and forgotten just as quickly. The lack of humility that people have for their existence is staggering. It leads to so many fallacious assumptions.

  3. says

    That was a great post, and it reminded me heavily of Carl Sagan. Two of the greatest pieces of perspective-giving I’ve come across were both of his creation: the “Pale Blue Dot” thing, and the first few pages of “The Dragons of Eden”, in which he condenses the history of the universe into one year. The first humans appear at around 10:30PM on December 31st.
    Sadly, even detatching oneself from religion doesn’t guarantee a break from anthropocentrism. I continually have to remind people of the welfare needs of the animals with whom we share the planet – which is so often overlooked.

  4. says

    I remember the one thing that I thought once I realized that Christianity was wrong. Not, I feel like God abandoned me. Not, my life feels so empty. Not even, I hate all those people who lied to me my entire life (although I was a bit pissed)!
    I thought, “Wait, so I wasn’t chosen by God before the creation of the universe to be his child, to fulfill his divine purpose here on earth, and then to spend an eternity with him in heaven? I feel so… mortal.”
    Try telling me that Atheism is arrogant – I will laugh in your face.

  5. Nancy says

    Greta, Please come talk to my family,since they WON’T talk to me any longer. (I can’t wait to see their reaction to my new photoshopped creation hanging in my living room; Penn Jillette’s “This I Believe” essay.)
    My Mother……whom relentlessly urged us as we grew up to use “common sense” when making a decision has now latched on to the following; “Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to.”
    WTF………that’s what I call a “flip-flop” of egregious proportions. (Little does she know, that as a teenager, I had GREAT faith in each joint that I rolled.)
    In the past, I have emailed them Carl Sagan’s amazing “Pale Blue Dot” video. They said “It’s nice, but what does it prove?” I responded, “It proves that you are an egotistical fuck if you truly believe that you are God’s special little creation in such a expansive cosmos.”
    Damn, I love my family….LOL…even if they have abandoned science and reason.

  6. VorJack says

    When people ask me about “spirituality,” these are the kinds of things I think of. If we accept the layman’s definition of spirituality as “belief in something larger than the self,” then this post and PZ’s post on imagination and science are part of “atheist spirituality.” The recognition that the universe is a vast and alien place, and the recognition that we are not the point of it all, are vital.

  7. Bill says

    Really great post. But that is also one of the reasons,if not THE reason
    that so many people NEED to believe in religion. They can’t live with the truth.

  8. says

    To think that all of the mind-boggling hugeness of space and time was created just so that flea could blink its eye… that’s one of the most arrogant beliefs I can imagine.

    Yet this is explicitly asserted in the Creation Museum planetarium show: after showing a fairly accurate depiction of the size of space (zooming out to show the filaments of clusters of galaxies that make up the large-scale structure of the universe), they came right out and said that we’re the reason God made all that.
    Like Eclectric, I was reminded of nothing so much as Zaphod in the Total Perspective Vortex. Except that I didn’t get to eat the fairy cake after the show.

  9. Duncan Brown says

    Teilhard Du Chardin was a Jesuit and a paleontologist. the book he co-authored with the Indian saint and philospher Sri Aurobindo, ‘The Future Evolution’ blew atheism out of the universe of rational and empirical
    thinking.

  10. says

    That is also the counter argument the religious make when justifying their faith. They point to everything around, space included, and say “how can you look at that and not believe in god?
    Meh.
    I look at something like the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image and say “…the next to the last conclusion I’d come up with is that some diety created it all and the last conclusion I’d come up with is that it was all created just for me and the fellow believers of my sect.”
    Make sure to click on the linked picture for the full sized version, it is awesome at full size.

  11. Donna Gore says

    Religion is the most self-centered activity humans ever invented. Nearly every religion says:
    Our god is the REAL god!
    Our religion is the TRUE religion!
    WE are special, WE are god’s chosen people!
    WE get to bypass the laws of nature and live FOREVER!
    But all those who disagree with us are DOOMED.
    What could possibly be more self-centered than that?
    Not to mention all of the shallow assholes who believe things like, “God was looking out for me this morning, I had all the green lights on the way to work!”

  12. says

    Even in its non-literal readings, the Bible encourages the kind of arrogant anthropocentrism Greta describes so well here. Genesis 1:14 explains that God created the stars to serve as signs for the inhabitants of Earth, a message that’s not altered if you don’t take the text as a literal recounting of creation. Matthew 5:35 says the Earth is God’s “footstool”, which carries the strong implication that our planet is a place that he is specially concerned with. Revelation 6 says that, on judgment day, the stars will fall to earth and the heavens will be rolled up like a scroll – as if the cosmos had no further reason to exist once humanity’s story is complete.
    It’s not hard to see why people of a bygone, pre-scientific age would assume that they were at the center of everything. They didn’t know any better, after all. Their ignorance is forgivable. But today, now that we know the real truth, it’s arrogant to cling to superstitious and primitive myths that treat humankind as the axis of the universe. It’s a symptom of small imaginations that can’t conceive of important things happening that do not involve them.

  13. terrence says

    Listen Greta, you don’t know everything. Some scientists think the human species may be MORE than 200,000 years old. And I consider that scientific PROOF of what I know in my heart to be true, that the history of human life is not “Who Let the Dogs Out?” but rather, Sinatra.

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