Essay:You and the Universe (or The Unafraid Skeptic)

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Human religion has a storied and frequently blood-(or, in other contexts, gin-)soaked history.[1] Innumerable religious worldviews have predominated at one time or another in one place or another, each culture imputing to the universe some form of agency and projecting its own particular idiosyncrasies onto that agency, and each accordingly having its own peculiar prohibitions, injunctions, fears and taboos. Perhaps the most tenacious and universal of these taboos, attested everywhere from the Psalms[2] to the historical waves of Islamic conquest[3][4] and conversion by the sword to the numerous Catholic Inquisitions to the micro-theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and into the theocracies with which we are familiar today[5][6], is the hatred and even fear of the full unbeliever - not the heretic, nor the apostate, nor necessarily even the follower of a different religion[7], but the individual without religion at all. Religions, each in their own respective social, historical and cultural contexts, universally imbue their god with the agency of prevailing orthodoxy - and a man who sees little place in his life for that god is apt, or so the thinking goes, to see even less place for the orthodoxy.[8]

It is with this fear and all that it implies in mind that each faith gives birth to its own unique disciplines of defending or advancing itself - to its own forms of apologetics. This is a metadiscipline - covering philosophy, theology, science and more - unique to religion; scientific practice has no need for philosophical defense of the things it can prove, and rejects the apologetic framework. Depending on the particular religion performing it and the context in which it is being performed, it may be polemical or conciliatory, offensive or defensive, constructive or deconstructive, attempting proof by construction or contradiction, directed inward or outward. But just as all faiths have their fear of the unbeliever in common, as all faiths have apologetics in common, so does every manifestation of apologetics draw in common from a pool of essentially related arguments. Polemical apologetics against heretics, apostates and atheists/naturalists/materialists/skeptics (who are lumped together for convenience) are common. I aim here to deal particularly with these last.

In his debate with Bill Nye in February 2014, Ken Ham managed to neatly encapsulate what are perhaps the most grating of all apologetic arguments aimed at proving his particular religion by contradiction. There was nothing particularly original to him about it; he echoed the presuppositionalist line which attempts to dodge the need for any sort of evidence for God's existence by smuggling it in as an axiom - as the axiom at that, claiming that any argument not grounded in it as wholly invalid. He endeavored to prove his broader position (his worldview, since he seemed to be so fond of that word) by contradiction. This he failed to do, as he has failed to do before and continues to fail to do in his apologetic efforts. His attempt at proof by contradictionWikipedia's W.svg fizzled out as an argument from ignorance or incredulity: he insisted he must be right because without God, we wouldn't know "where morality comes from"[9] or "where the laws of logic come from"[10] or "where the laws of nature [come] from"[11][12]. He describes, as apologists have done with varying degrees of coherence (compare C.S. Lewis or G.K. ChestertonWikipedia's W.svg to Andrew Schlafly and the other folks at Conservapedia), the existential dread that he believes inheres in human life if God is not presupposed; if, as fundamentalists frequently claim with obvious horror but which Bertrand Russell noted was the only way "the soul's habitation henceforth [can be] be safely built,"[13] that "we're alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense."[14] I agree with some of these claims. I cannot agree with their synthesis, the existential terror that Camus summarized as the "unreasonable silence of the world."[15] I believe that a personal god with unique interest in our species out of tens of thousands, on our planet out of trillions, is laughable hubris. I believe that the notion that a personal god might go yet further, and formulate A Plan For All Of Us, each of us out of billions now living and tens of billions that have ever lived, is preposterous. But I am not bothered by the prospect of a godless universe, and I do not believe that any human should be. So I say this:

I am a skeptic, and I am not afraid.

I am a skeptic, and I am not afraid because I find the universe with a plan - where we have logic and reason to comprehend what happens to us, but no agency in its denouement - scarier than one without a plan. I am a skeptic, and I am not afraid because the naturalistic universe, without a plan, is freeing. I am a skeptic, and I am not afraid because I find it wondrous that the universe imposes no meaning on us - every sapient being, everywhere in the universe, finds its own unique meaning in its own unique way. I am a skeptic, and I am not afraid because I find it beautiful that out of an uncountably infinite number of ways in which the universe might have developed, we lucked into a universe where the Grand Canyon,[16] the aurora borealis[17] and Tsingy de Bemaraha[18] can occur naturally. I am a skeptic, and I am not afraid because I find it inspiring that life everywhere displays such glorious, unbounded creativity in its eternal effort to survive. I am a skeptic, and I am not afraid because I think that the fact that we only have the artistic beauty, the justice, the morality, the knowledge, the love of life that we build, in our short and cosmically unimportant lives, for ourselves and each other, is sublime.

To believe naturalism is to believe that the things we see in the universe are here because the natural ordering of the universe manifested. To believe creation is to believe that the things we see are here because the natural ordering of the universe was violated. Isn't it so much cooler that all the wonders of the universe appeared because the universe did exactly what it's supposed to? And isn't that a hell of a ride to be along for?


  1. I didn't know where else to stick this, so I'll just throw it right here: two literary acknowledgements pertinent to this essay are necessary. The first is to the late, great Christopher Hitchens, for both his erudite style generally and the specific stylistic touches of his chapter A Short Digression on the Pig: Or Why Heaven Hates Ham. For the title of this essay I acknowledge George Orwell, via You and the Atom Bomb.
  2. Psalm 14:1-3, KJV - "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one."
  3. In Iran:[1]
  4. And Egypt: [2]
  6. Sura 9:73-74 treats apostasy; the Qur'an itself does not appear to treat atheism per se, so the Islamic position on atheists must be inferred from the clear hostility evident in law and scholarship.
  7. People of the BookWikipedia's W.svg
  8. Orson Scott Card discusses this idea and its social implications in rather more detail in Speaker for the Dead. Read it if you haven't already.
  9. Ham seems to have never heard of the categorical imperative, the Golden Rule, natural law or evolutionary ethics.
  10. There are only three "laws of logic", from which the whole of the rest of argumentation proceeds: Identity, that a thing is itself; excluded middle, that a proposition must be true or false; and non-contradiction, that a thing and its opposite are mutually exclusive. These are basic properties of the universe we inhabit, which exists whether or not one assumes the existence of the God of Ken Ham.
  11. This is obviously an open question in science: why these laws of physics, and these fundamental constants, instead of any of the other possibilities? That open questions exist in science has no bearing on its empirically obvious benefits or the fact that it has beaten faith to the punch on every empirical question posed by the world around us.
  12. at 31:40-32:00
  13. Entropy and Heat Death at [3]
  14. Despite the appearance, these quotes are emphatically not from the same source or piece. See [4] for this one.
  15. In The Absurd Man.