Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category

Pale Blue Dot

In Atheism, Uncategorized on June 12, 2012 at 8:55 am

I’m on vacation this week – somewhere off the coast of Florida on a cruise ship, maybe in Nassau, maybe in Orlando when you read this. But I didn’t want to let you down, so I wrote this a few days earlier, and instructed WordPress to publish it in my absence.

Here’s a photograph taken by one of our astronauts – I’m not sure exactly who – but it was taken with a hand held camera, for God’s sake! This version has been digitally restored – the original is faded and scratched. It’s absolutely beautiful.

I was just a kid living in Dayton, Ohio when the Apollo space missions were taking place – so I think I’m in this photograph. Ohio would be under that cloud that appears to have formed over the Great Lakes, top and center of the picture. Dayton would represent an area about as big as the period at the end of this sentence. The greater Dayton area comprising around a quarter of a million people at that time – well, I’d be the equivalent to a proton or electron in this picture.

Viking 2 was circling the planet of Mars in 1975. It turned back to take a picture of Earth – mind you Mars is the closest planet to Earth, yet far enough away that travelling there is still the stuff of science fiction. Here’s the photo that NASA released, the first to be taken from a position further than our moon.

I can’t find a photo of the Earth from the vantage point of Jupiter, but here’s a great computer generated photo from NASA of what Jupiter and the Earth might look like side by side. Again, awe-inspiring.

In 1990, Voyager 1, which had been launched in 1977, reached the edge of our solar system – our solar system, mind you, not our galaxy, not our quadrant. At the request of Carl Sagan, NASA ordered Voyager to turn around and take a photograph of the planets of our solar system. Here’s the amazing photo of Earth it took, from the vantage point of just beyond Pluto. Now notice, for one thing, how I have to provide a much larger photo this time to see anything at all.

Focus on the brownish band on the right third of the photo, half way down – you’ll see a pale blue dot. That’s us. If you’re measuring in pixels, NASA says it’s 1/12th of a pixel. Maybe you have a fairly nice, flat-screen TV, with 1080 HD capability. Magnify your screen by about 11 times, and the Earth would occupy just one pixel on your now gigantic TV screen.

Here’s what Carl Sagan had to say about this photo:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

When I was a believer, I thought that heaven was at the center of the universe, perhaps a planet or star around which everything else in the universe revolved. If Earth is a speck of dust on a grainy photo from the perspective of Pluto, what would be its significance from the center of the universe? My brother has often postulated that, if God exists, might Earth be the ant farm he made for his 4th grade science project, now forgotten and abandoned in the back of his closet?

Compare this to the Aristotelian conception of the universe, which would have been the model accepted by the writers of the New Testament.

Notice that Earth is not a speck at all; instead, it is the largest object in the picture, situated at the center, dominating every other celestial body.

Is it any wonder that, the more we are able to see and perceive, the less sure we are of God’s existence? When we find out that the church was wrong about the simple, physical facts of the universe, the less trusting we are that it has a fix on the much more complex spiritual and metaphysical answers as well.

Finally, if you really want to get some perspective, look at some photos of how Earth measures up in galactic terms here. Please don’t tell me you see the majesty of God in these photographs; if anything, these pictures reveal how ridiculous our religious ideas are – not only are we not the hot topic of the universe, our cumulative human experience doesn’t account for a single tick on the celestial time clock of the universe.

Religion for Atheists

In Atheism on May 1, 2012 at 10:05 pm

You don’t have to be an atheist to be a secularist; you don’t have to be an idiot to be a Christian. Feel free to mix and match. This is one of the main ideas I hope to get across.

Unfortunately, a short survey of the literature available on the topic of secularism might not lead you to that conclusion. I’m thinking specifically about the recent best-selling books authored by the “New Atheists”, a group of writers who, since the events of 9-11, have been increasingly critical of and hostile towards the ideas of Islam and Christianity alike. I’m sure you’ve heard of one or more of them – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris are the most famous, but there are others writing along the same lines. All are secularists. If you’ve read anything they’ve written or seen any of their lectures, you already love them or hate them – and therein lies the problem.

The late Mr. Hitchen’s followers loved his trademark condescending patter, his snarky retorts, his ability to decimate his debate opponents; I have to admit that -while I disagree with many of his views on politics, religion, the wars in Iraq and Iran, to name a few – I too miss him. But it was exactly those qualities that put off most Christian Americans; you can’t start a debate by calling someone a blithering idiot, and then expect them to come over to your point of view. Mr. Dawkins also seems to have the attitude that no one with an IQ over 70 could possibly believe in a Creator.

This more-intellectual-than-thou demeanor allows the local pastor and the big-time television evangelist alike to write off everything that secular humanists have to say – if Christians are idiots, secularists are the Antichrist.  It discourages discussion and makes it nearly impossible to find areas in government or society as a whole that we can agree on. As a result, the goal of encouraging a rational approach to society and government is not achieved.

Fortunately, there are some Christians out there who are willing to embrace America’s Enlightenment heritage as eagerly as its Christian one. Writers like Karl Giberson are beginning to explore how Christians might believe in science without losing their faith. Robert Wright, a Southern Baptist, has written an amazing book, The Evolution of God, which looks at our religious beliefs in the light of evolutionary psychology – all the while maintaining his faith.

Furthermore, some secularists are also beginning to concede that rationalism doesn’t soothe all of the many ills of our society, and that religion may have a place after all. Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, delves into some of the positives of religious faith in his lecture, Religion for Atheists.  Take the time to listen to what he has to say – he’s as eloquent and entertaining a speaker as he is a writer.


Perhaps the in-your-face approach of Hitchens and Dawkins works in Europe, but I think de Botton’s approach is much more likely to work in America. If we can convince the faithful first off that we respect them – that we don’t think they’re idiots – then we might have some place to start.

What do you think? Do you love both Virgil and the Virgin? Camus as well as Christmas carols? Share your ideas by leaving a comment.