What about all this other "stuff"?

More and more I feel myself becoming one of those people to whom God’s existence is obvious (I’ll explain how that happened in another post). This has led me to spend quite a bit of time thinking about how I could have spent all of my life up until recently thinking it was so obvious that God *didn’t* exist.

I’ve managed to boil it down to a few broad categories of issues that made it seem obvious to me that the godless worldview was the most accurate description of life and the universe. Most of them are fairly uninteresting to me now since I see clearly what I was missing. But there is one that continues to be an intriguing question for me, and that I think is a big issue for many atheists and agnostics. A very inarticulate summary of the issue is this: “Why is there so much stuff that has nothing to do with us?”

galaxy What about all this other "stuff"?The Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that humans are a large part of why God created the universe, and thousands of years ago I can see how that wouldn’t be hard to believe. But now that we have carbon dating and the Hubble telescope it’s hard not to be struck by the sheer quantity of life and matter that exists and has existed that has nothing to do with humans. This beautiful photo is of the Andromeda galaxy which is packed with billions of stars and is so far away from us that its light takes 2 million years to get to us. Even here on earth there was flourishing life tens of millions of years before humans came along.

The order and balance and elegance of the universe, to me, seems like something that was intended by a Great Engineer. Yet perfect order and balance usually go hand-in-hand with efficiency. And when you think of all this “stuff” that’s been going on for billions of years and continues to go on today that has (seemingly) absolutely nothing to do with us, it seems rather inefficient. (I suppose there’s no doctrine that says God can’t be inefficient if he wants to, but it doesn’t strike me as a quality the Perfect Being would have.)

If humans are a main reason that God created the universe, why bother having billions upon billions of other stars and planets floating around out there, the vast majority of which we’ll never know anything about? Why bother with trilobites and archaeocyaths and all the other now-extinct Cambrian life? Why not just create the earth, plop some humans on it and leave it at that?

I have my own theory about this (as does my husband, who has issued a standing invitation to all stars, nebulae and quasars to meet him on Jeopardy), but since so many of my commentors are great apologists, I want to hear your thoughts first.

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Enter the Conversation...

23 Responses to “What about all this other "stuff"?”
  1. Jim McCullough says:

    Just an observation: one of the things that makes The Lord of the Rings such a wonderful read, and so real a world, is all the glimpses we get of an immense and deep backstory before/behind what is currently happening. And part of the grandness of the adventure is how the hobbits take little steps out of their own little world and are caught up in the “story of the whole thing.” And even a completely imaginary middle earth can make our hearts soar and sing. But we–are real.

  2. melanie b says:

    Ooh, I like what Jim said. For me the best answers to questions like this often come from poetry rather than prose (guess that’s why I have a B.A. and an M.A. in Literature, huh?) and Tolkien is high poetry.

    I was going to cite C. S. Lewis in the penultimate scene of Perelandra, the second book in his science fiction trilogy. It’s a very long passage, but here are some excerpts that capture the flavor:
    Each grain is at the centre. The Dust is at the centre. The Worlds are at the centre. The beasts are at the centre. The ancient peoples are there. The race that sinned is there….

    Where Maleldil [God] is, there is the centre. He is in every place. Not some of Him in one place and some in another, but in each place the whole Maleldil [God], even in the smallness beyond thought. There is no way out of the centre save into the Bent Will [Satan] which casts itself into the Nowhere….

    Each thing was made for Him. He is the centre. Because we are with Him, each of us is at the centre. It is not as in a city of the Darkened World where they say that each must live for all. In His city all things are made for each. When He died in the Wounded World He died not for men, but for each man. If each man had been the only man made, He would have done no less. Each thing, from the single grain of Dust to the strongest eldil [archangel], is the end and the final cause of all creationa dn the mirror in which the beam of His brightness comes to rest and so returns to Him….

    He has no need of anything that is made. An eldil [archangel] is not more needful to Him than a grain of the Dust: a peopled world no more needful than a world that is empty: but all needless alike, and what all add to Him is nothing….

    All that is made seems planless to the darkened mind because there are more plans than it looked for…. There seems no plan because it is all plan: there seems no centre because it is all centre.

    Note, Lewis refers to God and Satan by pseudonyms, perhaps in part so his readers will not bring to the reading a prejudice against a Judeo-Christian world view. I’ve translated the terms the way I understand them.

    I hope that makes sense.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I’ll begin my response with a quote: “It was surely a Catholic instinct that caused Christian generations to cut their name in stone, building huge cathedrals that, with their immense prodigality, mock modern man’s obsession with utility…”

    I find that the idea of God as a great watchmaker or engineer is intriguing but too constricting. Thinking of God in such a manner ties his design to utility in a way that seems intelligent to modern man, but is not necessarily what God had in mind. Instead of some great engineer, perhaps God is instead some sort of great romance author or filmaker who allows the world to see his “director’s cut” with all it’s dead end scenes and somewhat odd plot contrivances.

  4. Mike J says:

    I am really looking forward to your later post explaining why God seems obvious to you now and explaining what was missing for you before.

    Meanwhile I have a comment of God being efficient. He’s not. He doesn’t need to be. If you have infinite time, material, and power, efficiency is not needed and possibly not desired.

    And if you look at the natural world, you don’t see efficiency. Did you know that your body will go through a billion B cells, killing all but one, just to get one that makes the right kind of antibody? Some viruses will make millions of copies that are defective, just to get one that survives. Nope. Efficiency is not always popular in the natural world. It’s a desired attribute of limited beings, with limited time, and resources.

  5. lyrl says:

    If God exists, he seems to like having a universe that runs by itself, that does not require routine supernatural maintenance work. Considering the unlikelihood of humanity occurring randomly, perhaps the universe needed to be so large so that humans would be created in such an entirely self-enclosed system.

    Or perhaps humanity is only one part of God’s plan for the universe. Or other explanations suggested by other posters. To me, the “inefficiency” of the universe is not a hurdle to God’s existence.

  6. Robert says:

    There are hints in the scriptures that this is not the only world with which God is concerned. For all we know, the universe is filled with billions of inhabited worlds and billions of separate (or inter-related) creations. CS Lewis thought along those lines.

  7. Bekah says:

    All of these answers are excellent! To me, though, it proclaims the magnitude of the Lord.

    I am also open to the possibility that we are not the only plan. Some day, we’ll know.

  8. Jennifer says:

    “We are stardust, we are golden,
    We are billion year old carbon,
    And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

    We are stardust, we are golden,
    We are billion year old carbon,
    And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

    CSN&Y

    Inefficient? Inefficient? Come now—perhaps our mind is terribly inefficent in coping with Supreme Efficiency…

    :)

    (PS Jen, I’m back on blogspot, for the time being! The ability mysteriously reappeared. Now if I could just get back on atari games…)

  9. Elisabeth says:

    I agree with Bekah, I think Psalm 19 helps me to see: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

    With the amazing size of the universe, He is showing us his greatness.

  10. Jennifer F. says:

    Jennifer’s back! Sweeeet!

    Great answers, everyone. Really excellent.

  11. ELC says:

    I think one of the weaknesses of many strands of atheism is that they are logical. By which I mean merely logical. I’m not sure there is a strictly logical answer to the question(s) you pose. Nor do I see why there should be; I think it is a weakness in thought to expect a logical answer to every question posed just because it is posed.

    If we think of God as an artist, indeed the aboriginal Artist, then we can compare the questions you related to asking an artist (loosely speaking) why he chose one color over another in a painting; one word over another in a poem; on movement over another in a dance. To such questions, no logical answers exist. But that doesn’t mean that good and reasonable answers to them don’t or can’t exist. They would be likely to employ terms like “feeling” and “impression” and “intuition”. If such answers do not satisfy, the weakness indicated does not necessarily lie in the answer or answerer. :-)

  12. catholic-turned-atheist says:

    The heavens may declare the glory of God but they also destroy the credibility of the Bible. Any honest reading of the Bible says that the sun revolves around a flat earth that was created about 4000 B.C. That’s the way man saw it 2000 to 3000 years ago and that’s the way man wrote it 2000 to 3000 years ago. So if there is a God who created the universe He certainly didn’t write the Bible.

    I can understand how those of us who were brought up to revere the Bible as the word of God would have a hard time letting go. But I cannot understand how an intelligent, well-educated adult like Jen who was never conditioned to even believe in God let alone Sacred Scripture could now believe that this collection of ancient Jewish tribal folklore has God as its author. Does she understand that that’s the belief that she is buying into if she becomes Catholic?

  13. Anonymous says:

    (I’m commenting on the post above.)

    Ahh, the withering wit of the atheist. “People who were brought up to believe in the Bible would have a hard time letting go.” Yes, substitute a natural, undercutting reason for belief in the inerrancy of the book, and by doing so set up a nice little straw man to stroke your own intellectual pride and self-importance…

    Disagree with me? Think I’m reading in motives where they don’t exist? Turnabout is fair play, after all.

    Remember, Copernicus stayed a priest even after his discovery of heliocentrism. Science’s glory is to progress to greater knowledge. If we are to look at past expressions of any form of knowledge, we’ll be able invalidate the whole. Remember, it was not to long ago that people were proclaiming the superiority of the caucasian european to all other races, and using “science” to back it up. Remember, it was not long ago that scientists of repute lauded the Piltdown man as authentic. Lay off your criticism, and show your newfound belief system is more than just an axe to grind.

  14. Darwin says:

    Catholic-Turned-Atheist,

    It’s one thing for people raised in a bronze age hovel to appreciate the Iliad, but for a well educated modern person raised to be ignorant of all great culture… Well, it’s shocking.

    If any honest reading of the Bible posits a flat Earth with a sun that revolves around it, then St. Augustine living from 345-430 AD was already a “modernist” who discarded the “plain meaning” of the Bible for “modern science.”

    However, returning to reality, not only did Augustine consider the idea of a flat Earth silly, and believe that the earth was created long before 4000 BC, but it wasn’t even considered controversial and surprising that he did.

    Judaism and Hellenistic science (which included an understanding of the spherical Earth) had already reconciled their differences by 200BC, at which time Judaism was a hot, expanding religion in the Mediterranian world, with many Hellenized converts.

    It wasn’t till the historicism of the early enlightenment that folks like Bishop Usher (an Anglican bishop if memory serves) started trying to use the Bible to calculate the age of the Earth.

  15. catholic-turned-atheist says:

    Anonymous wrote:

    Yes, substitute a natural, undercutting reason for belief in the inerrancy of the book, and by doing so set up a nice little straw man to stroke your own intellectual pride and self-importance…

    ????? I’ve never understood — even when I was Catholic — why atheists are always accused of pride. I don’t get it. And self-importance? Anon, you’re the one who believes that you are made in the image of God. You’re the one who believes that you have an immortal soul. You’re the one who believes that the God who created the whole universe cares about little itty-bitty you.

    Lay off your criticism, and show your newfound belief system is more than just an axe to grind.

    Against whom or what? You think I like being an atheist? You think I like the idea that my loved ones are gone forever and that eventually I will be, too? I came across this site because I googled “reluctant atheist.” I stayed because I am intrigued by the fact that Jen and I are on the same path only going in opposite directions.

    Darwin wrote:

    … not only did Augustine consider the idea of a flat Earth silly, and believe that the earth was created long before 4000 BC, but it wasn’t even considered controversial and surprising that he did.

    But the Old Testament was written about 800 years before Augustine was born. And Genesis was based on oral tradition that was hundreds of years old before it was written down. Even the New Testament was finished 250 years before he was born.

    It wasn’t till the historicism of the early enlightenment that folks like Bishop Usher (an Anglican bishop if memory serves) started trying to use the Bible to calculate the age of the Earth.

    This is the year 5767 in the Hebrew calendar. 5767 years from what? From the date of Creation.

  16. Jennifer F. says:

    Catholic-turned-atheist -

    I cannot understand how an intelligent, well-educated adult like Jen who was never conditioned to even believe in God let alone Sacred Scripture could now believe that this collection of ancient Jewish tribal folklore has God as its author.

    I know where you’re coming from. I used to listen in on my college roommate’s Bible studies and think (or sometimes say), “You have GOT to be kidding me.”

    But, first of all, the Catechism specifically says that the creation story is symbolic: “Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work’, concluded by the ‘rest’ of the seventh day.” (CCC 337)

    Around the same time I started looking into Christianity I developed a fascination with oral story-telling traditions. I think it’s really neat how certain stories that are even thousands of years old can be passed down from one person to another (e.g. the stories Tudor Parfitt recounts in his fascinating book Journey to the Vanished City). When you think about it, though, you just can’t pass along great scientific detail without literacy. Imagine trying to recall your college physics class if you were never able to read anything or write anything down. So societies with low (or nonexistent) literacy rates rely heavily on symbolism to get the big picture across. And these are some of the takeaways we’re supposed to have from the creation story (from the Catechism):

    - Nothing exists that does not owe its existence to God the Creator.
    - Each creature possesses its own particular goodness and perfection.
    - God wills the interdependence of creatures.
    - Man is the summit of the Creator’s work.
    - There is a solidarity among all creatures arising from the fact that all have the same Creator.
    - Etc.

    This doesn’t seem that crazy to me.

  17. Anonymous says:

    ????? I’ve never understood — even when I was Catholic — why atheists are always accused of pride. I don’t get it. And self-importance? Anon, you’re the one who believes that you are made in the image of God. You’re the one who believes that you have an immortal soul. You’re the one who believes that the God who created the whole universe cares about little itty-bitty you.

    And, indeed, I can see how from your side of the divide this seems like a travesty, an articulation of pure ego from a person gone mad, but I urge you to consider your own position. You may come to the conclusion that life has no meaning if there is no God. And that is good, as it shows you have intellectual rigor and hoensty. But if that is true, then it follows that your cogitations and their articulations have no more meaning than the wind rustling through the trees. I take this from Lewis’ “Is Theology Poetry” and also an argument that uses similar reasoning: http://ravingatheist.com/archives/2006/07/more_than_matter.php

    That in mind, it definitely is a form of pride for you to argue against any proposition as one of the grounding axioms of your belief-set is a proof against all proofs. How can a creature who recognizes the meaninglessness of the very substance of their being even think that what they say makes any difference or has any meaning in any context whatsoever? Can the mere movement of the axons in your mind produce meaning? No? Then why act like they do…

    You think I like being an atheist?

    There is a joylessness to it, as I well know. When I was coming over to theism (and eventually to religion thereafter) one of the pricinple things that motivated me was a desire for a truth that wasn’t so dismal. This may seem to undercut the pure rationality of my choice, but pure rationality, just like other ‘goods’ becomes a false idol when not in servitude of God. The higher cannot stand without the lower, your emotions will make up a percentage of your reasoning whether you like it or not. In the end, I factored in that certainty, clarity of moral vision, and belief in doing things for objective good rather than mere advantage created health, organized personality, and were explanatorily fecund enough to satisfy my intellect.

  18. Mike J says:

    > If humans are a main reason that God created the universe, why bother having billions upon billions of other stars and planets floating around out there, the vast majority of which we’ll never know anything about? Why bother with trilobites and archaeocyaths and all the other now-extinct Cambrian life? Why not just create the earth, plop some humans on it and leave it at that? <

    Don’t know why I missed this passage earlier. The big problem with it is: Who said humans were the main reason God created the universe? I mean Holy Smokes! Talk about egocentric! Do ya think maybe, just maybe, we’re being a tad bit arrogant there?

  19. Jennifer F. says:

    Who said humans were the main reason God created the universe?

    I said *a* main reason. That seems to be what Genesis is trying to convey, so I was questioning that.

  20. Linda M says:

    Answers to Jen’s question about extra stuff and catholic turned athiest can be found at the Reasons to Believe website. Dr. Hugh Ross and his team provide fantastic information for those of us who cannot will ourselves to believe what our reason rejects. Dr. Ross has been a great help to me since I became a Christian 4 yrs ago (at 43!). I spent most of my life thinking Christians were idiots. Now I know better. Start here: http://www.reasons.org/resources/apologetics/hugh_ross_testimony.shtml

  21. Tara Sz. says:

    Hi Jen -

    With Lent starting tomorrow, I’m reminded of a string of what has to be my favorite posts in all of Et Tu?: Lent 2007. You were sick, pregnant, and not yet fully Catholic, although I think your heart came home long before Easter 2007. These are such great testimonies, I love them all. I’m so excited to go through and re-read them. Don’t be surprised if you get some comments on a few of these two-year-old gems. Thank you for sharing your journey, then and now.

    xoxo

  22. Leah says:

    I think it isn't quite accurate to say that man was a reason for God's creation… or anything else created, for that matter. The creator is the reason for the creation. Yes, man was created in God's image. But what does that mean? I think the answer to that is not that we "look" like God. I think what makes us like God is our ability to create and enjoy the beauty of what we've created. Sure, animals can build themselves shelters, like nests or webs, but they don't particularly enjoy them beyond the protection they provide. You'll never see a spider basking in the beauty of it's own web, though a human being can. God created all things because He wanted to. Because- somewhat like a human-He wanted to make something beautiful to enjoy. It's just a bonus that He loves humans with the love of a father and placed us above other created things because He chose to bless us with the ability to be like Him.

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