The following is excerpted with permission from The God Problem: How a Godless Cosmos Creates (Prometheus Books, 2012).
Imagine this. You are a twelve-year-old in a godforsaken steel town that once helped suture the Great Lakes to the Atlantic coast of North America and Europe. A city that, for you, is a desert-a wasteland without other minds that welcome you. Buffalo, New York.
Your bar mitzvah is coming up. (Congratulations-you are Jewish for a day.) And you are avoiding a huge confession. One that will utterly change your life. A confession about one of the biggest superstars of human history. God.
You are not a popular kid. In fact, other kids either ignore you or try with all their might to keep you from getting anywhere near their backyard play sessions, their baseball diamonds, their clubs, and their parties. When they do pay attention to you, it's to take aim. They kick soccer balls in your face. They grab your hat and play toss with it over your head while you run back and forth trying to yank it out of the heights above your reach. Or they pry your textbooks from your arms and throw them on a lawn covered with dog droppings.
No one your age wants you in Buffalo, New York.
But at the age of ten you discover a clique that does welcome you. Why? It's a clique of dead men. And dead men have no choice. The two heroes you glue yourself to, two heroes not in a position to object if you tag along and join them in their games, are Galileo and Anton van Leeuwenhoek. These are men who shuffled off this mortal coil roughly three hundred years ago. But they put you on a quest, a mission, an adventure that will last you a lifetime.
Your task? To pursue the truth at any price, including the price of your life. To find things right under your nose, things that you, your parents, and all the kids who shun you take for granted. To look at these everyday things as if you've never seen them before. To look for hidden assumptions and to overturn them. To look for really big questions then to zero in on them. Even if the answers will not arrive in your lifetime.
Why do this? Because your dead companions have lured you into science. And the first two rules of science are:
1. The truth at any price including the price of your life.
2. Look at things right under your nose as if you've never seen them before, then proceed from there.
What's more, in science the next big question can be more important than the next big answer. New questions can produce new scientific leaps. They can tiddlywink new flips of insight and understanding. Big ones. Paradigm shifts.
New questions can even show the people who've rejected you how to think in whole new ways. And that is your mission. Finding the questions that will produce the next big perception shift. Finding the unseen vantage points that will allow others to radically reperceive.
So how does God get into the picture? Remember, you are twelve. Your bar mitzvah is coming up. Your dad is going to throw a party for all the kids you know-for all the kids who humiliate you at Public School 64. And this time you are invited. Yes, your bar mitzvah is the very first time that you will be allowed to attend a celebration with your peers. And it gets better. The center of attention will be, guess who? You.
But something is rumbling through your mind. Something you refuse to register. Something that could cancel your bar mitzvah. You've read the arguments that Bertrand Russell has made about God. These arguments hit home with you. God, in Russell's opinion, is a silly idea. If it took a God to create a universe, then a thing as complex and as powerful as a God would need a creator, too. And who or what created God?
In other words, the notion of a God doesn't make sense. And it doesn't appeal to your emotions, either. So the confession that you are dodging is this: You are about to become a stone-cold atheist. But if you admit that to yourself right now, you will blow your bar mitzvah.
The result? The question of whether there is a God stays safely hidden in your subconscious. You never put it in words, even to yourself. But that's just the beginning.
The party happens-a bowling party. It isn't what you expected. The other kids show up. But they do what they've always done. They ignore you. You are left out even at your own shindig. Thank God the dead guys of science still welcome you. But the heap of presents is extraordinary.
Then it's confession time. There is no God. You are as certain of that as you are that a bus slamming into you and your bicycle at thirty miles per hour at the corner of Colvin Avenue and Amherst Street could do you serious damage. And if there were a deity hanging around in the skies, what kind of God could he be? A monster, a pervert, and a serial killer? A demented and addicted murderer of plants, animals, and entire species? A torturer and slayer of creatures made in his own image, a mass murderer of human beings?
You've read the Bible from cover to cover, and one story in particular bothers you. The story of Job. Job is a good man, a man whom God has made successful and rich. And a man who believes profoundly in his maker. But God is sitting around heaven one Saturday afternoon with the Accuser-God's chief prosecutor: a combination of security chief, head of Earth's domestic spy agency, and district attorney. There is no Super Bowl and no TV. So what do two very macho guys, two guys on a power trip, do when they are forced to amuse themselves? They compete over who can do the best job of guessing the future. They make bets. (Why we humans and the gods that we imagine get a kick out of testing our prediction powers — and competing over them — is a subject for another time.)
Here's how your twelve-year-old mind recalls the tale. The Accuser bets God that humans only believe in the Deity-in-Chief so long as he delivers the goods. God, the divine attorney implies, suckers humans into belief by paying them off, by putting them on the payroll. Cancel the flow of bribes, says the quibbling public prosecutor of the heavens, make life miserable enough for the greatest believer, and even the most pious human will turn on God and curse his very name. You're on, says God. I'll take that bet.
To prove his point, God puts Job in the crosshairs of a demonstration project. Wealth, in these biblical times, is based on the number of four-legged animals you own. And because God has been generous to Job, his flocks of animals are abundant — seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, a thousand oxen, and five hundred "she-asses" to be precise. So God kills the sheep, the camels, the oxen, and the asses. He wipes out Job's savings. He turns Job from a rich man to a poor man overnight.
Does this make Job turn on God? Not a bit. Strip Job of his fortune and he still swears his belief in his creator. So God takes the demonstration a step further. God has been good to Job in the fertility department, and Job and his wife have ten kids — three daughters and a whopping seven sons. So God kills the children. All ten of them. Does Job curse God? Not one bit. He hangs on tight to his belief.
God takes things even further. He takes aim at the one thing Job has left, his body. He turns Job's very skin into a torture chamber. He gives Job boils whose pains produce an infinite hell minute by minute and second by second. Job sits in a pile of ashes and covers himself with them, trying to stop the agony. But does Job say screw you to the big guy in the sky? Does he curse God? Not one bit. He prays to God, he begs for God's aid, and he sticks to God through thick and thin.
The bet is over. God wins. Then God, who is praised for his compassion but should be condemned for his mean streak, gives Job ten new children and a slew of new sheep.
In other words, God is a mass murderer. He has no compunctions about killing Job's children. And he acts as if a new family will make amends for the kids whose lives he has snuffed. Why does God kill so casually? In this case, just to win a bet. What's worse, God makes mass murder ordinary. He makes massacre an everyday reality. How? When you and I were born, only one thing was certain about the rest of our lives: that you and I would someday die. Just as billions of humans and over a trillion, trillion, trillion microorganisms, animals, and plants have died before us. Yes, God kills creatures by the trillions of trillions of trillions. In fact, trillions of trillions of trillions is an undercount.
A God who slaughters is no God at all. Or if he is, he is a God who has to be opposed. He is a God whose cruelty cannot be allowed to continue. He is a God who must be stopped.
Or, to put it in the words of the mid-twentieth-century American poet Archibald MacLeish, "If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God." If God is all powerful, if God is omnipotent, then his brutality is outrageous. And if God is not the creator and the controller of violence, then God is not omnipotent. He is not all powerful. He is not God.
Your bar mitzvah takes place on your birthday, so you are now a grown-up thirteen. And you've finally confessed your atheism. But you see the dilemma of deity — the problem of Job, the problem of good and evil — in terms of another biblical story, the tale of Jacob. Jacob wants to climb to the heavens and palaver with God, to negotiate with him face to face. God plays this scene as if he were Al Pacino in The Godfather. He has a thug, an angel, guarding the ladder to heaven. You imagine this as a ladder about eight feet high leading to a heaven that hovers over the earth at roughly the height of a low-hanging tree house. When Jacob reaches the foot of the tree house ladder, the holy bouncer refuses to let him touch even the first rung. Jacob objects. Strenuously. The two — Jacob and the angel — get into a nasty fight, wrestling their biceps off. Jacob loses.
As you see it, it's your job to do what Jacob failed to accomplish. It's your job to toss the bouncer aside as if he were a crumpled candy wrapper. It's your job to climb that ladder, to barge into God's living room, to grab the little sucker by the collar of his robe, and to tell him that either he shape up or we humans will have to take over. Why? Because it's your job to do something we still have not learned how to do — to stop the massacre, to stop the new Holocausts and the new Rwanda's. To stop death in its tracks. To stop the vicious little bastard we call God.
The first rule of science is the truth at any price including the price of your life. That rule also applies to morality. You have to stop torture, pain, and death even if doing so endangers you. Which means if mass murder is taking place, you and I have to stop it. Even if we risk losing our lives.
But the nonexistence of god and the cruelty of the cosmos is not the really big revelation. It is not the insight that leads you to a massive challenge for science — and to a massive challenge for you and me. The crucial bolt of lightning that hits you is this. You are still thirteen. A mere ten weeks after your bar mitzvah and your confession of atheism, the Jewish High Holidays arrive. Your parents believe in God so deeply that they literally try to outdo God's bouncer — they wrestle you into a car to take you to Temple Beth El on Richmond Avenue. Why? Because High Holiday services are the most important services in the Jewish year. But when it's time to leave the car, you refuse. So your mom and dad literally grab you by the ankles and try to drag you from their blue, four-door Frazer while you hold on to the rear right doorframe for all you're worth. Or at least that's the way you remember it.
What's more, by then you've been in science for a whopping 23 percent of your life. Since the age of ten. So you've read a considerable amount of anthropology. And every tribe you've ever read about agrees with your parents. Every tribe believes that there is some sort of god, some sort of supernatural power. Yes, the gods of each of these strange clans scattered across the face of the earth and sprinkled through history have been different — gods who create, gods who keep things running, gods who destroy, gods with faces on the fronts and backs of their heads, gods with a third eye, gods who hold lightning bolts in their hands, gods who hold fistfuls of snakes, dog goddesses, gods of civilization, gods of music, Earth goddesses, gods and goddesses of death, goddesses of light, monkey gods, emperor gods, gods of jade, gods who handle heaven's paperwork, gods who file reports on your behavior, gods with elephant trunks, goddesses with eight arms, gods with the heads of jackals, goddesses with the heads of cats, and gods with the heads of hawks. Nearly every tribe and nearly every human being has gods. Belief in gods is all over the place. It's universal. It squeaks and squoozes from every pore of humanity.
So if there are no gods in the sky, on the mountaintops, or in rivers, rocks, and underworlds, where are they? The second rule of science tells you to look at things right under your nose as if you've never seen them before, then to proceed from there. The most obvious thing right under your nose turns out not to be under your nose at all. It turns out to be behind your nose. The gods are in our imaginations. The gods are in our emotions and in our passions. The gods are in our hearts and minds.
But take God out of the skies, put him in the minds, guts, and gonads of human beings, and you're left with a massive question. How does a Godless cosmos pull off the tricks that every genesis myth tries to grasp? Back to your café table in the nothing before the birth of the universe. If you believe the big bang theory — and the story of what the big bang theory means for you and me is about to come — then once upon a time there was a nothing. From that no thing came the first some thing, the big bang. And it wasn't just any something. It wasn't just an undifferentiated mass like a black hole. It was a speed rush of time and space that had within it the seeds of an entire universe. The seeds of atoms, suns, planets, and galactic superclusters. The seeds of algae, cabbages, flamingos, termites, and trees. The seeds of you and me.
That's a colossal act of creativity, a stupendous act of genesis and invention. How did it happen? Why did it happen? If there is no creator, no engineer, no omniscient and omnipotent consciousness presiding over the start of everything, no sleazy little bastard in the sky making bets with his buddy the public prosecutor, then how did this rush of time and space come to be? How did the universe create something so unlikely, something so surprising, something that broke every previous rule? Something that made brand new rules of its own? How did the cosmos create time and space? And why?
But there's more. In the first 10-12 seconds of this cosmos's existence, as you and I saw from our café table at the beginning of the universe, the space-time sheet popped forth the very first things — quarks. Then it showered protons and neutrons. But that was just the opening act. The cosmos shaped the flickers and flits of photons and electrons. It crafted the lumpy nanoballs called atoms, the giant sweepings of dust and gas called galaxies, the massive clench and screaming crunch of stars. The cosmos birthed giant ropes of molecules able to seduce each other into dances beyond the dreams of human choreographers into the most peculiar molecule dance of them all, life.
How in the world did the cosmos pull this off?
How does a godless cosmos make a heaven and an earth? How does she make crocodiles, crusaders, continents, and Milky Ways? How does a godless cosmos cough up insight and emotion? How does it burp forth you and me?
becomes the quest of a lifetime for you. It's the quest you will begin in 1956. It's the mission that you will pursue for over half a century. It's the question whose answer can change the way that hundreds of millions of others see. It's the question that can help us utterly reperceive.
How does the cosmos create?
That's not just any question, it's THE question.
It's the God Problem.
Teaser image by NASA/Hubble Telescope Team, courtesy of Creative Commons license.