Stretching Gods

Tony Pasquarello

Imagine, if you will, that Poseidon actually existed, and that you could befriend him and take him to any point in space-time you wished. Suppose that you showed him, up-close and personal, the Asian tsunami of 2004 in all its raw power. And then you asked him, not “Did you do this?,” which would suggest an interest in assessing moral responsibility for the incalculable suffering, which is not the issue here. Rather, you want to know if Poseidon could have done this, given the immense scope of the disaster. Was he able?

If he answers honestly—and how could a god do otherwise?—he would probably protest with an indignant “Heavens no! Look, I could brew a few squalls in the Aegean; maybe even some heavy swells in the Dardanelles. But something this big is way beyond my pay grade.”

In a similar vein, suppose that Ra were real and the same conditions obtained. This case is a bit more difficult; you want to be sure that Ra has an accurate sense of scale and relative dimensions. So you begin by showing him really big things: the Pyramids, the Alps, the Himalayas, the continents, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And then, still from space, you exhibit our solar system. You begin with Earth and finally concentrate on his reputed specialty—the Sun. And when you are certain that he appreciates just how gigantic it really is, you ask “Did you, either in your barge or on your head or shoulder, or in any other way, transport this Sun across Earth’s sky every twenty-four hours?”

Ra might well laugh uncontrollably at the absurdity of the question. “None of the gods I know—not even all of them together—could do what you describe. Maybe I was seen carrying my prize-winning pumpkin from the fair at Thebes and that’s how the rumor got started. But, toting around this enormous thing you call the ‘Sun,’ well, how such nonsense ever got into my job description, I’ll never know.”

Man created gods—of that we are certain. But how? When? And why? Here’s a commonsense, convincing scenario involving primitive humans, their primitive preconceptions, and … a lightning strike. A nearby bolt that demolished a tree or killed an animal or tribesperson had to have been a shattering moment. That jagged spear made of pure, blinding light—what could some primitive hunter have likened it to in his own experience, except his own crude wooden spear? Some unseen super-being must have thrown the super-spear!

Two crucial elements impacted the reasoning of early humans. One of them is the fact and importance of dreaming. Here was a kind of alternate reality, clearly related to the standard reality (if they could figure out which was which), but with so many striking differences. Most telling—just a few days ago, you buried your friend, Og, following his tragic encounter with a saber-tooth. Yet last night there was Og, hale and hearty, hunting with you. So, Og must still exist somehow, somewhere. Ergo, another sort of domain, perhaps beyond the sky or under the earth. And another sort of existence, visible but intangible; perhaps “spiritual.” Given that dreaming may well have been the key factor in shaping our fuzzy notions of “spirit,” it is somewhat surprising to recognize that the phenomenon and its connections to early man have been so little explored.

Another influential item in early humans’ reasoning was the analogical habit that likened every event to those events caused by human agency. Humans do things. They act; they are causal agents. So thunderbolts, thunderclaps, storms, floods, and their good-weather opposites are caused by—sent by—human-like (humanoid) beings. Since the phenomena they cause are beyond human capability, and since those causes are unseen, they must be super-beings, living above the sky (for the most part) or somehow inside the Earth. The suggestion, then, is that a catastrophic thunderbolt was the seminal event in the birth of a god: initially, an individual, personal, singular god. A tiny, scrawny, one-trick god. Perhaps it is a premature birth. For the entire content of any referential term for this being, whether or not given a proper name, is only “humanoid super-being who hurls thunderbolts.” That’s all “god” means at that point. Innumerable random events have to occur in a favorable manner or this newly hatched god must be adjudged to be stillborn.

It is likely that the first crucial juncture in the evolution of this god will come when our hunter returns to his “family” and relates his adventure. Is he a mesmerizing storyteller? Are they in a receptive, believing mood? Do others corroborate his tale? If all goes well, the new god gains a little weight—greater credibility and stability—and becomes a family god, leaving the purely subjective, personal realm. In the same way, with each juncture fraught with a hundred hypotheticals, the family god may become the cave, the clan, the tribal … god.

Incidentally, at this embryonic stage in the development of a deity, there is nothing properly called “religion.” That will begin when the desire to communicate with, appease or placate, praise or worship the new god results in standardized rules followed by most of the group.

The next critical hurdle for our infant deity will occur when his tribe first encounters the folks who live over the hill. That tribe may or may not have its own god or gods. Those gods may be genuinely different, or merely have different names but be functionally the same. Their “thunderclap god” may eventually merge with our “thunderbolt god.” Or not. Perhaps most important of all is whether initial contacts are friendly or aggressive; whether tribes merge gradually or battle for decades. History shows that the victorious god is almost always the god of the victorious army. As only one of a multitude of fascinating cases, witness the uneasy truce represented by the hybrid god of some Caribbean lands: an imposed, “civilized,” Christian deity barely concealing the sinister grin of a voodoo god.

And so, the new god gingerly makes his way in an ever-expanding world, acquiring new adherents and new properties (in the minds of those adherents). Mountains and large bodies of water will impede a deity’s, as well as an explorer’s, progress. Trans-oceanic and trans-cultural leaps will be difficult. Through normal processes of attrition, assimilation, and competition, over centuries of interaction between cultures at various levels of development, the natural tendency will be a decrease in the number of deities. While it may be fair to say that there were thousands of gods, it is surely not the case that, in the early twenty-first century, there are thousands of gods.

Then, just about four hundred years ago, after 99.9 percent of humanity’s existence on Earth, a re-vivified science started down a spectacular pathway leading to the incredible expansion of the known universe. And the differences between it and former “widenings” were so shattering that they could, quite justly, be termed differences in kind, not merely degree. Opposite directions took researchers, simultaneously, on a quest for the unimaginably small and the inconceivably large.

Stunning discoveries on the microscopic level vexed thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially theistic apologists. Why had the deity made all these tiny bits that no human being had ever before seen and that could not be seen without using special devices? Were they there, unseen, for all those thousands of years? If so, why? For theism, even more damaging was the virtual zoo of sub-microscopic particles. Consider only those bizarre neutrinos—all near-googol of them!—whizzing about the universe on their meaningless meanderings, without ever contacting anything. How do they fit into a creationist scheme that emphasizes anthropocentric values and priorities?

As devastating for theism as are the arguments from the realm of the vanishingly small—and I certainly believe them to be convincing and conclusive—they generally cannot have the same impact as considerations based on the new cosmology. “Size matters” is a slogan that follows from elementary human psychology. That’s why gods are always conceived as large in stature. Imagine a three-inch humanoid god; almost a contradiction in terms. You would tower over the god when kneeling in worship! A tiny god could be grabbed, locked in a cigar box, or … squashed. The gods encountered in film and TV (remember the original Star Trek episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?”) are usually in the 30–100 ft. range: big enough for shock and awe, but still visible as a unitary whole. Big gods have big jobs to do. And the jobs kept getting bigger as the area to be lorded over widened; adherents tried to stretch their poor deities to cover it.

But “big” is, of course, relative. Relative to the average human height; relative to the average concept of the world at the times the various gods were imagined into being. (Of course, in all ages, there were a few exceptional individuals who knew better and were closer to the truth.)

What was the pre-scientific world like? A flat expanse of earth and water perhaps a few hundred miles square; a solid sky, just above the mountaintops; two impressive lighting fixtures and twinkling celestial décor (sun, moon, stars). Oversized gods, who often lived on mountain tops, could easily attach the solar and lunar discs to the firmament (like hanging laundry on a clothesline), then nudge them on their merry way.

Modern science obliterated that world forever, with a series of shattering discoveries, each one more traumatic than the last. And this is where size really mattered: the true size of the astronomical objects themselves: the enormous distances, the various temporal spans, and, perhaps most disorienting of all, the sheer quantity of heavenly objects. We were battered by a barrage of zeros that the brain had never before confronted and could not wrap its hemispheres around. Those ungodly numbers!

First came the Earth, so much more than a few pastures, deserts, hills, and fishing holes. No, it was really a vast globe, about 25,000 miles in circumference and five billion years old. Then the Sun, about 93,000,000 miles away and some 1,300,000 times bigger than Earth. There was a difference that really mattered—perhaps even more significant than the contentious issue of what circled what. Nevertheless, the facts about the size, substance, and distance of the sun made ludicrous the notion that any humanoid, super-human, or even all humans jointly could have “made” it. Not even Superman can make a sun.

But that was only the first assault. What was to follow was even more crippling, more convulsive. Earth was not the only planet; there were seven or eight others. Earth was not the biggest, fastest, or closest to the sun, nor in any sense, central. Nor was it the only planet with a moon; our solar system boasts about thirty others. Not to mention the uncountable comets, asteroids, meteors, meteorites, and plain old rocks. At about the same period, science recognized, given the finite speed of light, that absolutely nothing can ever be seen as it is but only as it was. Was this quirk in the dynamics of perception the Almighty’s feeble attempt at humor?

The transition from the primitive conception of a cozy Earth to the awareness of the globe’s true dimensions, and thence to the entire solar system—this would have been more than enough to demolish religions that are essentially geocentric and anthropocentric, as virtually all are. But the ensuing developments involved discoveries theretofore inconceivable. The initial shock was the realization that Earth and its entire solar system were insignificant specks in an insignificant outer swirl of a Milky Way galaxy that contained a trillion or so stars like our own sun. The last enlargement, for the present, was the leap to the universe as a whole and its population of a trillion galaxies.

Those latter two discoveries obsoleted the use of “miles” as a unit of measurement for astronomical spans and ushered in the “light-year,” equal to about six trillion miles. (That’s twelve zeros.) Virtually all quantitative propositions of the new cosmology summon a slew of cyphers, threatening to careen off the page like a tornado in a tire shop. Just a few: stars in the universe, one septillion (that’s twenty-four zeros). Diameter of the universe in miles, sixty sextillion (twenty-two zeros). Atoms in the universe, ten followed by eighty zeros! You get the gist. Talking modern astronomy entails astonishing flurries of zeros; call them the “astro-naughts.”

In describing a god as doing this or that, hurling thunderbolts, growing or being stretched … we are, obviously, not being literal. But I do find “stretching” a useful, colorful, and easily grasped figure of speech. Everyone understands the metaphorical uses of pulling or stretching something to try to cover or fit something else. And the affiliated idea of being stretched beyond limits, as in “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Anything, including concepts, will break if overextended. Think of that as the stretch that makes the concept crack.

Moreover, it seems natural to cast many of the raging debates (and others less serious) in the “stretch” vernacular. Can “person” be stretched to cover zygotes? “Thinking” to computers? “Marriage” to cover same-sex unions? “Sport” to poker, chess, or spelling bees? Listen for the near-audible conceptual straining and buckling when first someone demands the right to marry a dog, horse, or PC.

When we speak of God, a god, anyone, or anything, we actually are referencing a bundle of qualities or characteristics. For the original god proposed earlier, the package initially contains a single quality—“hurls lightning spears.” At the other extreme, the current package for “God” encompasses the standard “omni” grouping—omnipotent, etc., etc. Thus, any question about a god is a question about “god-concepts.” The central point raised is whether certain concepts are still viable—whether they still make sense—after a significant cultural or scientific change. So, asking whether a certain god survives, say, a trans-oceanic shift, or whether that god can be stretched to fit a new domain or discovery, is, in fact, asking whether certain concepts still make sense.

The central thesis of this article is that traditional religions and their corresponding deities cannot be stretched to accommodate contemporary scientific cosmology. They cannot be modified or modernized that far without abandoning concepts and principles essential to their very nature. One and all, they are mired in the soils in which they were born, saddled with the burden of concepts long since obsolete.

It should be noted that this article has utilized only established science, without reference to more problematic scenarios such as dark matter, dark energy, additional dimensions (curled up or not), or parallel universes (infinite or not). If any or all of these were proven factual, even so much the worse for religion, since they would represent additions to an already crowded cosmic ontology. For a god fixated on human sin and salvation, it will be hard to explain why he would create a galaxy far, far away that was born, flourished, and died long before humanity appears on this planet. It will be harder still to explain infinite alternative versions of such a galaxy. That same principle applies to the matter of alien, intelligent life; it’s just more to account for. Incidentally, I believe that the reality of intelligent extraterrestrials would raise new and insuperable problems for our supposed deity; problems of fairness, evangelism, salvation, and so on and on.

Several years ago, one of the more extreme of the local evangelicals published a (very costly) half-page credo in the local paper, setting out the “foundational issues” of Christianity. This was primary: “Christianity teaches that the God of Genesis 1–11, indeed the God of the Bible, Yahweh Elohim, is the (1) creator of all the materials, processes, and forces in the cosmos, i.e., everything; …”

Did you catch the stretch? Yahweh created everything. One of the tribal gods of the ancient Israelites is supposed to have purposively made about one thousand billion galaxies. That sounds like the absurdities of the opening paragraphs. Consequently, we close with the same sort of thought experiment: Suppose that Yahweh, an actual super-being, were carefully instructed in the complexities of modern cosmology until he really comprehended the mind-boggling numbers and distances. Then we pop the question: Honestly now, did you make, shape, create, or form—either by willing or fashioning with your hands or in any other way—all these galaxies?

Yahweh’s response would undoubtedly be something like “Me? Yahweh? No way! Look, I once managed to ignite a dried-out bush. And I did a pretty fine job of carving some stone tablets—sorry, I can’t show them to you; they were broken a long time ago. I guess my best work was the landscaping of this small garden near Jerusalem; just a couple of acres, but it was really idyllic. Okay, it did have a minor reptile problem, but nothing to worry about. As for making zillions of galaxies and stars and those countless globs of rock, why would I do that? Why would any sane mind do, or want to do, such a thing?”

Good question. Why, indeed?

Tony Pasquarello

Tony Pasquarello, emeritus philosophy professor, the Ohio State University- Mansfield, has authored forty key articles in American Atheist, Free Inquiry, and Skeptical Inquirer, as well as a quasi-autobiographical book, The Altar Boy Chronicles. He created and endowed the OSU Brahms Fund, which provides music student scholarships and awards and perpetuates classical music from the Romantic period.

Traditional religions and their deities cannot be stretched to accommodate contemporary scientific cosmology.

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