As a skeptical, irreligious person I must admit that in many ways I am defined by my uncertainty with respect to the consequential and contentious issues. Does God exist? I don’t think so, but I’m not certain. Is there absolute morality? I’d like to think so, but I’m not certain. What are the exact processes of evolution? I understand a great deal about the evolutionary processes that take place, but I’m not certain. How did the universe come into being? Perhaps the physical universe had no beginning and will have no end, but I’m not certain. Is there good and evil? I’m inclined to think this is a humanly contrived dichotomy, but I’m not certain. Does life have meaning? I hope so, but I’m not certain. Can I trust my own thoughts? I believe so, but I’m not certain. By examining the evidence and attempting to evaluate it objectively I have come to a number of conclusions with respect to these consequential and contentious issues, but these are founded on probability, not certainty.
Throughout history religion has served as a means to posit certainty. Psychologically humans are pattern seekers, we observe the world and attempt to construct a framework with which we can assign meaning to what we see and experience within it. When we see the shape of a rabbit on the surface of the Moon it is not because there is actually a rabbit on the Moon it is because of pareidolia, the perception of significance in randomness. Religion is utilized in much the same way, as a framework with which humans can project significance on a universe that appears random. Similarly science serves as a framework for us to try and understand the universe, however religion and science differ on the matter of certainty. Within science even well-documented, widely observed, extensively researched scientific theories, such as gravitation or evolution, that are considered facts are not considered to be absolutely certain. Science is about probability, not certainty.
Within religion humans can find the certainty that science is not willing to offer them. All major religions offer absolute truth primarily through prophetic revelations and sacred texts. When you wonder why you are here, how you got here, and what you should do religion extends an invitation, an invitation to partake in the truth only it can provide. This is an aspect of religion that I find to be both disquieting and objectionable. Religious truths are always questionable, either on historical, scientific, or philosophical grounds, and claims of absolute certainty are a farce to support fideism. Faith is the antithesis of the scientific method and religious certainty can only be maintained through faith. Atheism is not based on the certainty of God’s nonexistence, that would be fideism, but on the improbability of God’s existence based on the evidence. Although I understand why so many need to find solace in religious truths, faith, and a belief in God I myself cannot on evidential and objective grounds. I’m just not certain.
On multiple occasions I have heard the bacterial flagellum (pictured above) used as evidence of irreducible complexity in biology, an argument often used by promoters of intelligent design. After examining this diagram it is not difficult to imagine why promoters of ID would claim it as evidence. The bacterial flagellum is a complex and rigidly organized appendage that superficially appears to be an intricately planned machine rather than an accidental biological structure. And if such an intricate thing looks too complex to be reduced or to have evolved from simpler forms, what other explanation remains except design? However, as with most arguments for intelligent design, evoking irreducible complexity is a fallacious action based on naive conceptions of biology and evolution.
Bacterial organisms have existed on Earth for the past 4 billion years, a very long time for evolutionary processes to be taking place, and have adapted to live in virtually every conceivable environment. Populations of bacteria grow exponentially, with billions of generations produced in a relatively brief period of time, allowing natural selection to have a very strong influence. Evolutionary biologists have theorized that large populations of organisms are more readily influenced by natural selection and that prokaryotes, bacteria and archaea, more readily exchange genes amongst each other. Therefore a large population of prokaryotes evolving over a vast period of time would predictably possess very intricate and complex biological structures. The bacterial flagellum is no surprise or dilemma for evolutionary biologists, in fact it is expected.
Utilization of the bacterial flagellum, or any other so-called irreducibly complex biological structure, as evidence of design is itself an evidence, evidence of a clear misunderstanding of biology and ignorance of evolutionary processes. Anyone who would challenge the modern theory of evolution with intelligent design either does not understand the widely accepted, peer reviewed science they are challenging or has been blinded by their religious convictions. After all ID is a religious view, not a scientific theory, supported almost exclusively by Christians, not scientists. Irreducible complexity is just one in a long line of fallacies promoted by the ID camp that poses no serious challenge to legitimate science.
Intelligent design and its supposed evidences are intellectually dangerous because they provide the public a falsified view of biology and evolution and the religious an erroneous vindication in denying the prevailing views of science. None of the discoveries in the fields of evolutionary biology, genetics, paleontology, etc have done anything except substantiate the accidental, impersonal, material processes of evolution as the best explanation for the origin and development of life. Irreducible complexity is a product of scientific illiteracy and religious conviction, not good science, and denying the true origins of astounding, beautifully complex biological structures like the bacterial flagellum only diminishes those astounding and beautiful qualities.
At the risk of appearing lazy, I thought I would posit a question this week rather than post my normal musings and ramblings:
If it could be empirically proven that the physical universe as we know it arose ex materia, out of some preexistent matter, rather than ex nihilo, out of nothing, how/why would this effect your personal theology (if it would at all)?
Obviously this question is hypothetical, since as of now nothing is empirically known about the very early universe before the Big Bang, and is primarily directed towards those who hold to a personal theology, although as an irreligious person I find this question to be both interesting and consequential. I ask it because I have often heard the concept of creation ex nihilo used as a foundation of faith and am curious to hear how faith would be affected if this concept was no longer a viable option. Any and all responses would be greatly appreciated.
Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost between two spiral arms in the outskirts of a galaxy, tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. – Carl Sagan
The existence of extraterrestrial life is no longer a matter of plausibility, it is a matter of probability. As science discovers more and more about abiogenesis, the processes by which biological life arises from inorganic matter, it has become very clear that in the proper conditions for life can exist on planets other than the Earth. Considering there are over 170 billion galaxies and approximately 300 sextillion stars in the observable universe it is highly probable that there are millions if not billions of extrasolar planets with habitable conditions, some of which could harbor life. A great deal of extraterrestrial life forms may be microscopic but some may be macroscopic and of these some may be equally as intelligent as human beings.
Let’s assume that intelligent life does exist on a planet somewhere in the universe. While this is an extraordinary and staggering notion in and of itself it is also a consequential notion in a theological sense. These intelligent beings would have arisen in a wholly disparate environment along a wholly disparate evolutionary path resulting in a unique, alien culture. Let’s also assume that this alien culture developed religion. For those who believe that religion is a purely cultural phenomenon the religious traditions of an extraterrestrial intelligence would most likely be utterly unique in comparison with our own, if they existed at all. For people of faith who believe in a singular, intelligent deity it follows that this deity designed all cognitive beings throughout the universe, so the religion of an alien culture should at least partially reflect their divine design.
From a religious viewpoint the notion of extraterrestrial intelligence is particularly problematic and raises a great number of questions. Would these beings be similar to us at all physiologically, psychologically, sociologically? If there are other intelligences in the universe other than humanity, what does it truly mean to be created in the image of God? Would these intelligent beings be stained by original sin and therefore in need of a system of atonement? Why were extraterrestrial intelligences not mentioned in the scriptures of the world’s major religions? If an intelligent designer indeed created extraterrestrial beings of equal (or perhaps greater) intelligence, what would this say about humanity’s supposedly unique and central position in the great chain of being?
Theologically such questions can be potentially problematic but, from a scientific standpoint, it would not be at all problematic to postulate that an alien culture may not even contain religion as we know it. Religion may very well be a conditional rather than intrinsic component of culture, and there are no scientific grounds to believe extraterrestrial beings would be intrinsically religious. If intelligent life does exist somewhere else in the universe then religious revelation has yet to disclose anything about it. It seems somewhat disingenuous that the divine allowed us to believe ourselves to be so singularly consequential in the universe if this is not truly the case.
All three Abrahamic religions have characterized God with a number of various epithets. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have variously described God as a father, a shepherd, a rock, a provider, a warrior, a judge, a comforter, a creator, and a friend. One divine classification that I find compelling is God as ruler. In the Old Testament God desired to be Israel’s exclusive leader, the head of a pure theocracy. Paul stated in his epistle to the Romans that every human government in history was established by God, making God the authority over all authorities. One of Allah’s 99 Names in the Qur’an is Al-Malik, the King, the one to whom both men and angels must prostrate themselves.
If it is accepted that God is omnipotent, as it is by the vast majority of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, then it must be concluded that he has ultimate dominion over the physical universe. If it accepted that God has a plan for the universe and for humanity then it must be concluded, as Paul stated, that all earthly authorities rise and fall by the will of God but are subject to his all-encompassing authority. If it is accepted that God is personally involved in human affairs and intercedes in them then it must be concluded that he is at least partially responsible for guiding the path of both historical and current events.
God characterized as the King of kings and Lord of lords seems a monocratic and oppressive force. Muslims in the past and present have been quite comfortable with the notion that their wills and lives are not independent, but submitted to divine power. Jews and Christians, especially American Evangelicals, on the other hand wish to retain a certain amount of autonomy, and many feel squeamish categorizing God as an ultimate, undivided authority figure. But how can the God of the Abrahamic religions be viewed as anything but totalitarian? If you contend an omnipotent, omniscience, omnipresent God, the first cause of all natural processes, how can humanity be anything but the impotent subjects of a kingly deity?