Misconception #6: Science Takes the Beauty Out of the Universe

Published on Monday, May 10, 2010 By jetchison

Science for the De-Converted – Part VI


When having honest discussions with Christians, I’ve heard many times that they feel the universe is a more beautiful place because God is in it. What we deem as beautiful is often a result of what we’ve been conditioned to think is beautiful. When we were children, we were given these messages by our parents and society at large. We often classify things that contradict these pre-packaged signals as “less beautiful.”


A challenge for each of us is to transcend these messages and see beauty in new ways.

John Keats first accused Isaac Newton of destroying the beauty of the rainbow by explaining it. Perhaps the poet preferred to think the rainbow was something magical. Richard Dawkins deftly explored all the reasons why Keats was wrong in his book “Unweaving the Rainbow.”


Even if a godless universe were less beautiful, that is no argument whatsoever for the existence of god unless you can proof that beauty = truth. And we’re back to Keats again.



The Truth: You can see beauty in the universe if you look honestly and selflessly upon it.


The idea that a godless universe is less beautiful is, of course, entirely subjective. It also contradicts my own experience. When I was a Christian I would look at the clouds, mountains, the stars, etc. and find them profoundly beautiful. I would think about God, and how he created all of it just for us.


But after becoming an atheist, and learning the truth about the formation of the universe, I look at the clouds, mountains, stars, etc. and still found them profoundly beautiful. In fact, I’m more in awe now than I was then, because now I realize it all happened by chance. We are each made of seven billion billion billion atoms that are all 14 billion years old, which have each been a part of countless other entities and have been temporarily organized to form me.


As Carl Sagan puts it, “We are a way for the cosmos to perceive itself.” This does not imply that the universe willfully created us, but simply states that the universe produced us, and we have a will. These are humbling and awesome words. I find the truth to always be more beautiful than anything else. Not a day goes by when I don’t find myself in awe of the universe around me.


The Truth: Many of the virtues that people ascribe to God can be accurately ascribed to the universe.


The Beautiful UniverseThe universe is everywhere, it is everything, it produced you, and you will return to it after you die. It is (for all practical purposes from our perspective) eternal. The universe is in control. The universe is great. So it might help you see the beauty in it if you look at it in these terms.


I’m not suggesting we worship the universe. After all, it doesn’t care about us and isn’t looking out for our best interest. That lack of care might be why some people see a godless universe as less beautiful. But it is also precisely why I see our existence as completely precious and something to be treated respectfully.

In that I find beauty.


The Truth: You don’t have to be a scientist to learn about the universe.


Contrary to what one might call good sense, I obtained a college degree in English. Even without any formal scientific education, I have come to understand and appreciate the basic fundamentals of science. Science can be very intimidating, but there are so many great books written for the non-scientist, that no one should feel excluded from learning about the universe. It’s just not that hard.


In my opinion, to observe the universe honestly and curiously is one of the most worthwhile activities we can embark upon.


Conclusion


Hopefully this series of articles has helped burgeoning non-theists to eschew the misconceptions about science they may have received while under the tutelage of a religion. There are undoubtedly more.


My stance toward science may seem defensive, but I also do not think science is the solution to everything. Science is not going to solve all the world’s problems. However, if you cling to an idea that science clearly contradicts, my hope is that after reading these articles, you might realign your thinking so that scientific concepts are given greater weight than anything else that contradicts it.


It is also vitally important to realize that religious leaders are aware that the religious community is shrinking in large part due to religion’s wholly unscientific world view. So many of the messages you’ve received—while they may have been delivered sincerely—were a result of a base fear of truth. Organized religion’s aversion to science is strikingly similar to how oppressive regimes block or twist the news and information from the outside world. They fear that truth will influence people away from their ideas and edicts, and weaken their regime.


On that point, they are correct. The truth will weaken their regime. So the truth should not be feared.



Discussion

  1. Allen Cohn says:

    Two points in agreement:

    1) Concerning the topic/first sentence, even if the universe would somehow be more beautiful *if* there was a god, that does not mean there *is* a god. Think of it by analogy: if one is falling out of an airplane, it would be very convenient if one had on a parachute. But the convenience does not make it true. You either have a parachute or you don’t. Similarly there either is a god or not.

    2) Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I, like Jim, find the universe plenty beautiful without an imaginary friend.

  2. Kate says:

    Just a note, I am a Christian. I have absolutely no problem with science and beauty. To me understanding how intricate this universe is and discovering facts such as how precisely aligned things are in order for us to exist on this planet reminds me of the beauty, the majesty and the complexity of this creation. So I would never argue that science takes the beauty out of the universe. Similarly I do not shrink away from scientific evidence or the truth. Neither do any of the Christians I know or churches I am associated with. Religion and Science are not necessarily in conflict as much as they continue to be made out to be. Science has not proved religion wrong. Yet you seem to believe it has.

    So, I agree that there is a misconception that science takes the beauty out of the universe. But I must thoroughly disagree with your opinion that organised religion is an oppresive regime that fears the truth. Perhaps some people do, but every true Christian I know does not. And nothing in the Bible says for us to be against or to curtail science. It tells us to seek the truth. So far the truth continues to be that science cannot disprove the existence of God and that there is still evidence for the truth of Christianity. Yes, neither party can empirically prove things either way but science never states “proofs” it states plausible, researched, backed up “theories” and puts its faith in them. You can do the same thing with faith in God.

    • B says:

      I’m wondering if you took the time to read the entire series, or just hopped on to this bit and tried to disprove a point that wasn’t made here. Jim addresses your complaint about science being unable to prove that your god doesn’t exist (a patently absurd claim, since proving the negative is not the aim of science -if it were, I might ask you to prove that I don’t have an invisible, intangible and silent elephant in my room. Since you clearly can’t disprove it, I can claim that I do.), as well as why theories are not matters of faith; perhaps you should check them out before commenting here, since your argument was deconstructed before it was even made.

      Also, there is no evidence for the truth of Christianity. There is no evidence for the existence of a god or gods of any kind, much less the petty, cruel, misogynistic tribal warrior god of Bronze Age Middle Eastern goat herders with no understanding of the natural world.

      And one last point, just as a matter of logic. You say that “Perhaps some people [regard organized religion as an oppressive regime that fears the truth], but every true Christian I know does not.” Look up the No True Scotsman fallacy, because you have just committed it.

    • Jim Etchison says:

      Hi Kate, thanks for your comments. I agree that not all Christians shrink away from science, and I’m glad you don’t. The articles were meant to combat general misconceptions. Like anything, not everyone holds those misconceptions. However, you seem to have been handed a few other misconceptions that stuck. First, you should not consider science’s inability to disprove God’s existence as a support to your faith. Second, you exemplify the misconception about the word “theory” and the misconception that they require faith to believe.

      Faith and evidence are not compatible. If there is evidence, faith is not possible, because faith is belief without evidence.

      • Kate says:

        Hi.

        Faith actually isn’t incompatible with evidence. It isn’t about an entirely baseless belief, it is acknowledging the evidence for that belief, that can’t prove that belief, and then putting faith in that belief. Richard Dawkins and other contemporaries might like to define faith as belief without evidence but that is not how I believe.

        I don’t believe in Christianity without evidence. I believe because of the historical evidence surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ particularly the fact that 1) the gospel biographies and letters to churches reflect eyewitness testimony and were written within the lifetime of witnesses of the event, quite soon after the events, meaning that ther was not enough time for them to have been developed via legend 2) the harmony amongst the gospels on essential facts which lends them historical credibility 3) the huge number of copies of these historical documents which preserves their accuracy with 99% of the New Testament free of meaningful discrepancies and no major Christian doctrine in doubt 4) greater historical documentation for Jesus than any other religious founders and many other secular leader along with credible evidence for the events of his life outside of Christian texts, many written by opponents 5) no archaeological discoveries disproving biblical references and findings supporting the credibility of authors 6) evidence that the crucifixion could not have been hoax 7) evidence that the empty tomb is a historical reality 7) evidence for post-resurrection appearances of Jesus as the central proclamation of the church from the beginning 8) other circumstantial facts pointing towards the resurrection including that the disciples were in a unique position to know if it was true and would not have died for something they knew was a lie, that skeptics such as Paul and James were converted and died for their faith, that within weeks of the crucifixion thousands of Jews were convinced that Christ was the Son of God, that the early sacraments of communion and baptism affirmed Jesus’ resurrection and deity, and the emergence of a strong Christian church in the face of brutal Roman persecution.

        There is plenty of other evidence. None of it can prove what i believe. I still take a leap of faith. But I base it on proven facts- yes you can still try and get around them if you want to, yes you can still find excuses (which is why faith is needed) but there is evidence and my faith is based on such evidence. The two are not incompatible. Also, I don’t use science’s inability to disprove God as the basis of my faith, it is one of millions of other facts that contribute to a strong case for the existence of God from which I then base my faith.

        And @ B, hopefully some of the stuff I wrote here shows why I believe in God. I don’t think the invisible elephant in your room has these facts towards their existence. I did read the other posts. I was making my point not to try and disprove a point that wasn’t there but to make a statement against the point that WAS written which was that organised religion is an oppressive regime that denies the truth. As for your “No true Scotsman fallacy” I don’t refer to “true” as some abstract concept I have come up with in order to argue against the points when faced with a counterexample but rather I am basing my assertion on the Bible which directs us to seek the truth not shy away from it. Oppresive regimes do not follow the Bible or live accordingly, they are shying away from the truth of the Bible and how it tells us to act and because of that they are not truly following Christ and have not put their trust in him or truly believe. Based on that I say that every true Christian I know, and every true Christian in general should not be shying away from the truth.

        regards

  3. I taught physics for 37 years before retiring. For many of those years I used films from Paul Hewitt, author of Conceptual Physics. Hewitt wanted physics to be accessible to every student. In one of his films and in places in his book, he addressed that idea that understanding takes something away from nature. He strongly disagreed and said that a person who understands science sees more on a walk in the woods that a person who is ignorant of science. As an example, a yellow leaf falls from a tree. All the ignorant person sees is a leaf falling. The person who understands science sees a leaf of a different color due to a change in pigment, reflecting a different set of wavelengths, fluttering through the air because it is slightly buoyed by the air and the pressure variations cause it to move somewhat irregularly, as gravity pulls it to the ground.

    Understanding science puts more meaning in life.

  4. Charlie Farnum says:

    First off, thanks for writing this series. I don’t think it’s going to convert (or deconvert) anyone, but it may well be helpful to the “deconverted”. The misconceptions are certainly rampant in our society. I once said (in a Christian setting) that I would never vote for a presidential candidate who thought the earth was 6,000 years old. Someone said “Why not?”, and it was difficult to give a serious and patient answer (instead of laughing – or crying. I really like your article on #5, “Scientists are arrogant.”).

    But I’m a bit disappointed in the generalizations made of “religion.” Early on you state “People of every stripe tend to generalize about other groups.” An interesting generalization :-) and I will confess that I, too, am guilty. But “Mainline” Protestant denominations, as the term is generally used in the religious world (American Baptist, United Methodist, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, etc) all agree, in their printed teaching, that these six misconceptions are, indeed, misconceptions. These misconceptions are very common in the Fundamentalist world, less so (but still common) in the non-fundamentalist but “Evangelical” world, and extant in the “Mainline” world, but they are not universally taught by the church, and there are plenty of Christians (probably a minority; at the moment, most Christians are not Westerners) who have a scientific world view. The (very few) Buddhists and Muslims I know certainly have a scientific world view.

    There are plenty of “religious” people who understand that the universe is very old indeed, that the theory of evolution is far more reliable than a magic book when describing our past, etc. I think some of your generalizations about religion and religious folk are as unfair as the manipulative generalizations about science and scientists made by some segments (at some times, most segments) of the religious community.

    Regarding “faith” as meaning “believing what you know ain’t so,” let me share one more misconception commonly promulgated by the Fundamentalists: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That is what Hebrews 11 says, but not all Christians believe that the Bible speaks with one voice. Certainly, in most of the New Testament, the word “faith” means either “believe” or “trust,” and it doesn’t mean a blind or foolish trust. Faith between persons is not necessarily blind, but it’s not usually based on scientific evidence. I am certain that modern physics describes bridges well enough to build safe bridges. But it’s faith in the people who built it – combined with this certainty in science – that gives me the courage to drive over the thing. That faith is not scientific proof – indeed, bridges sometimes fall down through errors of the designers/builders – but it’s certainly not blind. There are plenty of people who believe in the existence of God, and God’s goodness, because of their own (subjective, non-repeatable, possibly faulty) experience and their trust in the testimony and experience of others.

    /charlie
    (a person who has been paid to do science – therefore a scientist? – and who currently works as a pastor in a university setting.)

    • Jim Etchison says:

      Charlie, thanks for the kinds words. I appreciate them.

      I stand by my statement that all humans generalize other groups. Due to the length requirements of the article, I didn’t have the time to delve into why this is true. We do it because it’s genetic. A few hundred thousand years of tribal living embedded the tribal mentality into our brains. People from my tribe are good–people from other tribes are suspect. This genetic notion plays itself out in today’s world in the forms of racism, social hierarchies, and even cliques.

      I hope I didn’t paint using too broad of strokes. I did not intend to imply that all Christian groups adhere to these misconceptions, as I’m sure that not all of them do. I was simply reacting to the arguments I’ve seen from the most vocal Christians. If, as you say, Mainline Christians do not hold to these misconceptions, then they are not the Christians I’m talking about. I wish you had pointed out specific times that I lumped all Christians into a generalized heap–I would be happy to clarify the language I used if I did.

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