The mystery of religious belief that we’re special

Back when most current religions were in their infancy, we thought we were the center of the universe. We had no idea what stars and planets really were, and in some cases, didn’t even realize the world was round. And that world? It was only a few thousand years old.

Now we know that we are one of trillions of planets, surrounding billions of stars in millions of galaxies. We know that the planet is billions of years old, dinosaurs ruled the planet for about 200 million years, and humans have only been around for a few hundred thousand.

So among the many questions I often ponder is how rational, intelligent people who still believe in these religions interpret this? Why did God create such an amazingly expansive universe and then stick us way out in the suburbs of some minor galaxy? Why did he wait trillions of years before creating the earth if it is where his chosen people were to live? Why did he allow dinosaurs to roam for the vast majority of the time on the earth before getting around to creating us in his own image?

Oh, I know that believers will find a way to rationalize this in the same way they can believe in some of the Bible 100% but 0% in the parts they don’t like, picking and choosing “ultimate truths” like options on a Chinese menu. Time means nothing to God; where he placed us is irrelevant, and so on. So why even create all this extra stuff to begin with?

I mean, if I wanted to play The Sims and create people, I could make an area for them all to live easily enough. Why would I then waste time creating 99.99999999999999999999999% space that these people will never use?

Often religious people will call atheists self-centered for not believing, but I have often wondered about someone who thinks that we are special in a universe that is vast and has existed for billions of years — how is that not self-centered?

The ability of people whose intellects I admire to rationalize all of this — well, that’s the biggest mystery of all.

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6 thoughts on “The mystery of religious belief that we’re special

  1. Yeah. But as far as we know, so far, we’re still pretty special. We’re the smartest thing in creation – as far we know. Hey, we were smart enough to make up God. (Actually lots of gods, but the currently religious people don’t like to talk about that.)

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      • You do realize that meeting a bunch of other alien civilizations at about our current level of development would be strong evidence for intelligent design. For in a universe 13 billion years old, the odds that a large number of civilizations all just happened develop within a few thousand years of each other are so low that one would have to argue that something had created them all at once.

        Lacking a belief in a creator (even if it’s not God), there’s no scientific way to believe in the universes of Star Trek and Star Wars, where you see human beings mingling with all sorts of aliens that are more-or-less compatible with us. If we found another intelligence at all, it would most likely be billions of years old (and hence either incomprehensible or uninteresting). If there were an interstellar civilization, then it would have filled the galaxy long ago, and we would not be here. That’s the statistical argument, and there is no way around it.

        I’m sure you’ve heard all about the Fermi Paradox, but this site has an unusually, ah, colorful, description of it. If you say you believe there’s intelligent life out there, I wonder what argument you use to justify that belief. (Other than faith.) http://waitbutwhy.com/2014/05/fermi-paradox.html Yes, the article cites a few “arguments” to try and rescue the situation. (E.g. we’re in a galactic zoo) but there isn’t a single one that passes Occam’s Razor.

        Of course those arguments really just boil down to why there isn’t any other intelligent life in the Milky Way. They don’t apply to other galaxies. A very recent study from Penn State suggests that other galaxies don’t have interstellar civilizations either. http://science.psu.edu/news-and-events/2015-news/Wright4-2015

        We’re not just alone in the galaxy–it looks like we might even be alone in the universe.

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  2. Interesting, although I obviously disagree with some of your premise, one area that you may not see coming is the answer to why the time and vastness of space is required for us to be here now.

    The Big Bang started it all. It took quite some time for the initial phase, the one where it was so hot that material particles did not exist. The next couple of phases were also vast, long periods of extreme heat, and the various forces where settling into their functions. The first galaxys are forming about 11 Billion years ago, yet most of these stars do not have yet the necessary heavy elements for our kind of life to form yet. Really, only for the last 7 billion years has there been a long enough procession of Super Nova’s to generate enough heavy elements for life to begin the process.

    Also, in addition to all this time, we also need all this vast space. Partly so that the radiation and high energies to not cook the first attempts of life creation, but also this weird thing where the formations of super galactic structures is possible. It may seem unlikely that the vastness of space was necessary for the development of life on earth, but that is exactly the case.

    So for me, a rational Religious believer, I find the vast space and time issue to be one of assurity that the here and now is precisely when I was meant to be. Every time I hear of a total solar eclipse, this reaffirms that mankind was meant to have this small window of now for our time on this earth. So yes, we are special, we were meant for this place and this time. This belief does not preclude the reign of the Dinosaurs, nor invalidate the realization that we are on a small blue dot, in an inconsequential corner of an arm of a normal spiral galaxy, rather it makes me wonder the words of the Psalmist “What is man that You are mindful of him?”

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  3. Christianity, at least, doesn’t really require a belief that human beings are special. There are very strong themes arguing the opposite. That people are nothing more than dust. That people are inadequate. That it’s incomprehensible why God would be interested in us at all, and so we should be very humble and very grateful. Those themes are easily adapted to the universe that science observes.

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  4. In mystical traditions that I have encountered, us being special is a metaphor for having the ability to override our more animal impulses….we can choose ethics over expediency and decide not to do something our baser sides would rather do out of consideration for others, scaring the horses, etc. etc. Of course the cost for this choice-making ability is that we are now something more than just an animal and can no longer really just live full time in nature (the garden) without any clothes on, picking fruit from any tree as long as there is no snake decorating it and acting like a poo-flinging macaque, unless we are on a vacation or some sort of team building exercise or a “find yourself by getting back to nature” retreat of some sort, and even then, we’re probably still texting and sending selfies of the experience to all our friends. 😛

    That our little planet is far from the kind of interesting action the universe can dish out is probably good for life- we’re not really likely to crash into another star any time soon or anything like that which could be less than optimal for the long term continuation of life. Putting your little Sim planet project here actually would make sense in that context- it’s a pretty friendly place for it as planets go, and you’re less likely to have your whole scenario wiped out by a black hole or marauding reptiles from planet Blorgazon Q or anything, in case they are out there and decide that humans taste like chicken. I will not speculate on the spiritual status of the marauding reptiles of Blorgazon.

    Jesus said it was okay to order off the biblical a la carte menu in a parable about putting new wine in old wineskins or bottles and vice versa- basically, you ended up with spilled or bad wine and broken containers. But Calvin and others decided that’s not what he really meant and so you have the frequent and common occurrence of a wrecked party with less than tasty wine tossed everywhere in a lot of modern American religion. 😉

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