How tall is God?

By Gene Miller, December 2014

Belief in a Seven-Days-of-Creation God or any other fabulation about beginnings is simply post-Paleolithic ooga-booga.

Aged six or seven, I came home one Saturday morning from Hebrew school (read: jail) with some tiny seed of atheist insurrection sprouting in me (a seed that would grow to a mighty oak over time). Our teacher was a fevered religious fabulist who seemed happiest telling Old Testament stories that featured the word “begat,” as if to prove the fecundity of the biblical generations, and rooting out, with a patented victory shriek, our pocketed, lint-edged slabs of pink bubble gum salvaged from the packets of baseball cards we addictively purchased at the candy store, thus installing early the idea that sin was in our pants.

“How tall is God?” I asked my parents, both engaged at home in policing the pages of the New York Times for anti-worker sentiment.

“How tall is God?”

“Eighty-eight feet,” said my father, who, I now realize, years later, had a quick wit and a droll sense of humour underappreciated by his one and only kid. His answer was enough to put off religious skepticism for the weekend as I worked out the particulars of an 88-foot-tall, Charlton Heston-like God walloping a 13-foot-tall, 8-ton Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Still operating, at 71, with the same refractory and quizzical mind, I’ve been reading with interest about Fermi’s Paradox. It begins by observing that in our Milky Way galaxy alone, the number of Earth-like planets must approach one billion and, logically if not provably, 100,000 intelligent civilizations must exist.

Asks Fermi: “Where is everybody?”

Two ideas frame the Fermi Paradox. The first is this “argument by scale”—that there are an estimated 200 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way and 70 sextillion in the now telescopically visible universe and an even larger total number of orbiting planets—so, the sheer numerical odds favour a great number of living planets and civilizations in our galaxy and the estimated two hundred million galaxies beyond. 

The second is a terrifying companion theorem called the “mediocrity principle” which states that Earth is not special, but merely a typical planet, subject to the same natural laws, possibilities, dumb luck and happy chances as any other world in the Great Out There.

For those of us raised not on scientific objectivity but on a sense of existential self- importance—personal and planetary—this is dispiriting. The “mediocrity principle” leaves us with the feeling that some essential human conceit has been discarded, tossed away like a candy wrapper. We’re left flattened by the news of our non-specialness and reminded, depressingly, of just how mechanical and ordinary the whole cosmic enterprise is, and how belief in a Seven-Days-of-Creation God or any other fabulation about beginnings is simply post-Paleolithic ooga-booga, or Original Fiction, if you wish at least to praise our early imaginations and tale-telling skills.

Those willing to give ground on the religious creation myth may still argue that religion has been humanity’s chalice of moral instruction. But I learned all my good manners from my mom, and she was a hard-core non-believer. Absent a lightning bolt in the next five seconds, or a tempest of disbelieving laughter from my ex-wives, I stand here as proof that one can live a virtuous, if a slightly morally elastic, life without any subscription to religious faith.

And consider the possibility that the “mediocrity principle” may also be the highest form of self-emancipation. With remarkable intuition and understanding, the authors of all creation stories get something stunningly right: not a First Dude, but Creation itself—the essential liberation of matter in the moment of origination that we name the Big Bang. How can we doubt that the release of that much energy and the formation of the still-expanding universe could be anything but a vast, creative act, its energetic signature written into everything, forever? Novelty, variety, creativity and possibility are fundamental expressions of the release of all that energy. Everything around us proves it, as all those tedious, world-of-wonder nature documentaries with bad production values (“bug shows,” a friend calls them) have been trying for years to demonstrate. Our own consciousness and our questing nature are themselves a demonstration that material existence is creative, open-ended and surprising. 

We ourselves are made out of energy, and our great mission is to fully understand the energetic and still unknown cosmos, a quest that takes form both as scientific appetite and deep spiritual yearning. After all, we just want to get closer to the source—a Big Bang for some, a Big Guy for others. Maybe we created religious origin stories simply to allow us to cushion the raw shock of consciousness.

I’m sympathetic. The Big Bang idea can cause brain damage. How can all the “stuff” in the universe—stars, planets and the room in between—come from an initial atom-sized source, as scientists theorize? And if the universe is still expanding, it must be expanding into more space, or more something; so does the space the universe is expanding into pre-exist? And what’s at the farthest reach of it...a stop sign? 

None of this Citizen of the Universe maundering, though, restrains the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy from putting the God argument in terms any fourth-grader seeking a rendezvous with the Almighty could follow:

“The cosmological argument uses a general pattern of argumentation that makes an inference from certain alleged facts about the cosmos to the existence of a unique being, generally identified with or referred to as God. Among these initial facts are that certain beings or events are causally dependent or contingent, that the universe (as the totality of contingent things) is contingent, that the Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact possibly has an explanation, or that the universe came into being. From these facts philosophers infer deductively, inductively, or abductively by inference to the best explanation that a first or sustaining cause, a necessary being, an unmoved mover, or a personal being (God) exists that caused and/or sustains the universe.”

See you for prayer next Sunday at the Church of the Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact.

A June 2014 report states that NASA is planning to send astronauts one million miles into space to assemble the world’s most powerful telescope in the hunt for “alien” life. (I would prefer the hunt for “more” life.) The telescope will allow astronomers to discover around 60 new planets and provide information on the levels of oxygen and other gases that might indicate potential life. A NASA spokesman adds: “We are looking at 2030 because that’s how long these projects take.”

The “mediocrity principle” may ruin the idea of Earth’s singularity, but it doesn’t make life itself and the search for life on other planets any less of a thrill ride. Oh, and fellas, take all the time you need to get ready. The universe is growing everywhere, but it isn’t going anywhere.

Defining “thrill ride” in a different way is The Leftovers, a tv show whose premise is that in an instant, two percent of the world’s population literally vanishes in a presumed Rapture-like event. I know: You’re wondering, as I do, who gets to choose the disappear-ees. In my script, the event would take all the climate deniers and the cockroach who chokes my inbox with “Russian Dating” emails—leaving the remaining 98 percent of us free, until the end of time itself, to sip lattes and swap home renovation horror stories.

But don’t abandon your religious faith on my account, and don’t for a moment imagine that the Good Book has lost its power to keep our feet firmly on the Path of Righteousness. The October 12 Akron, Ohio Beacon Journal reports:

“Depending whom you ask, one of two things is happening at the big Cuyahoga Falls church run by legendary television evangelist Ernest Angley. Either the Devil himself has infiltrated the church, and Angley, who is a prophet of God, has been working tirelessly to fight him off; or Angley’s church is a dangerous cult where pregnant women are encouraged to have abortions, childless men are encouraged to have vasectomies and Angley—who preaches vehemently against the “sin” of homosexuality—is himself a gay man who personally examines the genitals of the male parishioners before and after their surgeries. They also say he turns a blind eye to sexual abuse by other members of his church…

“In response to swirling accusations that he is a homosexual who has abused both his associates and members of the congregation, Angley, 93, had this to say to a large Sunday gathering: ‘I’m not a homosexual. God wouldn’t use a homosexual like he uses me. He calls me his prophet, and indeed I am. But you can’t stop the people’s lies.’”

The people’s lies…an old, old problem (insert world-weary sigh here, and cue the organ—if the organist, in an act of genital self-preservation, hasn’t lit out for the hills). It would appear that Angley is the living embodiment of what I learned at six: Sin is in our pants. Which raises this important question: Along with signs of intelligent life, will astronomers discover bubble gum on other planets?

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently co-writing 50 by 20 with Rob Abbott. The two are also about to launch—a companion website dedicated to championing exceptional North American sustainability initiatives and accomplishments.