Three summers ago, I was staying in a caravan, a long way from the nearest city. It was usually pitch black at night. I had given my word that I would not smoke inside, so at 1 AM I stepped outside for a cigarette. After a few minutes of standing in the darkness, I realized that I could see my hand quite clearly, something I’d notice I could not do on previous nights. So, I looked up, expecting to see the glow of the full moon.
But the moon was no where in sight. Instead, there was a long, glowing cloud directly overhead. The Romans called it the Via Lactea — the road of milk. Today, we call it the Milky Way.
For those who missed the lesson in school that day, the basic facts are these. Remembering that one light year is equivalent to six trillion miles, our galaxy has a total diameter of somewhere around one hundred thousand light years. Our sun is located toward the edge of one of the galaxy’s spiral arms, about 26,000 light years out from the central bulge of the galaxy. It takes 200 to 250 million years for the sun to complete one orbit of the central bulge. Surrounding the galaxy, above and below the disk in a spherical halo, there are approximately two hundred globular clusters, which make contain up to a million stars each. The Milky Way itself contains two hundred billion stars, give or take.
These numbers are essential to understanding what a galaxy is, but when contemplating them, some part of the human mind protests that it cannot be so. Yet an examination of the evidence brings you to the conclusion that it is. And if you take that conclusion out on a clear, dark night and look up, you might see something that will change your life.
This is what a galaxy looks like from the inside, from the suburbs of our sun. Through binoculars, for every star you can see with your naked eye, you can see a hundred around it, all suspended in a gray-blue mist. But through a modest telescope, if you wait for your eyes to adjust to the dark, and get the focus just right, you will see that mist for what it really is: more stars. Like dust, fading into what tastes like infinity.
But you’ve got to have the knowledge. Seeing is only half of it. That night, three years ago, I knew a small part of what’s out there: the kinds of things, the scale of things, the age of things, the violence and destruction, appalling energy, hopeless gravity, and the despair of distance.
But I feel safe, because I know that my world is protected by the very distance that others fear. It’s like the universe screams in your face, “Do you know what I am? How grand I am? How old I am? Can you even comprehend what I am? What are you, compared to me?” And when you know enough science, you can just smile up at the universe and reply, “Dude, I am you.”
When I looked at the galaxy that night, I knew the faintest twinkle of starlight was a real connection between my comprehending eye, along a narrow beam of light, to the surface of another sun. The photons my eyes detect, the light I see, the energy with which my nerves interact, came from that star. I thought I could never touch it, yet something from it crosses the void and touches me. I might never have known.
My eyes saw only a tiny point of light, but my mind saw so much more. I see the invisible bursts of gamma radiation from giant stars converted into pure energy by their own mass, the flashes that flashed from the far side of the universe long before Earth had even formed. I can see the invisible microwave glow of the background radiation leftover from the Big Bang. I see stars drifting aimlessly, at hundreds of kilometers per second, and the spacetime curving around them.
I can even see millions of years into the future. That blue twinkle will blow up one day, sterilizing any nearby solar systems in an apocalypse that makes the wrath of human gods seem pitiful by comparison. Yet it was from such destruction that I was formed. Stars must die so that I can live.
I stepped out of a supernova. And so did you.
In light of this unarguable fact, this hard-earned knowledge, this partial but informative truth, what place then in the 21st century and beyond for the magical claims of organized religion?
The first religions were primitive by any definition. For reasons of limited population, communication, and plain old geography, they never grew to be anything other than a local concern. But religions mutate in time and grow in sophistication, as each generation of holy men learn what works and what doesn’t, what makes people obedient and what causes rebellion, what ideas people can easily escape and which will haunt them until they have to pray just to stop the nagging fear.
When populations grew, due to the slow but steady growth of knowledge, as if confronted by a bumper harvest, the religions went into an arms race with each other. From gods of wind and thunder and sea, the threats, incentives, and claims of power escalate until every dominant organized religion has a god that is all-powerful, all-loving, all-seeing, and words like infinity and eternity are deployed cheaply, while all other words are open to abuse until they mean exactly what the religions want them to mean.
That night, under the Milky Way, I who experienced it cannot call the experience a religious experience, for I know it was not religious in any way. I was thinking about facts and physics, trying to visualize what is, not what would I would like there to be. There’s no word for such experiences that come through scientific and not mystical revelation.
The reason for that is that every time someone has such a “mindgasm,” religion steals it simply by saying, “Ah, you had a religious experience.” And spiritualists will pull the same shit. And both camps get angry when an atheist like me tells you that I only ever had these experiences after rejecting everything supernatural. But I do admit, that after such experiences, the moments when reality hits me like a winning lottery ticket, I often think about religion.
And how lucky I am that I am not religious.
You want to learn something about God? Okay. This is one galaxy. If God exists, God made this. Look at it. Face it. Accept it. Adjust to it, because this is the truth, and it’s probably not going to change very much. This is how God works. God would probably want you to look at it, to learn about it, to try to understand it. But if you can’t look, if you won’t even try to understand, what does that say about your religion? As Bishop Lancelot Andrews once said, “The nearer the church, the further from God.”
Maybe you need to run: away from the mosque, away from the church, away from the priests and the imams, away from the books, to have any chance of finding God.
Squeeze a fraction of a galaxy into your mind, and then you’ll have a better idea of what you’re looking for. To even partially comprehend the scale of a single galaxy is to almost disappear. And when you remember all the other galaxies, you shrink one hundred billion times smaller still.
But then you remember what you are. The same facts that made you feel so insignificant, also tell you how you got here. It’s like you become more real. Or maybe the universe becomes more real. You suddenly fit. You suddenly belong. You do not have to bow down. You do not have to look away. In such moments, all you have to do is remember to keep breathing.
The body of a newborn baby is as old as the cosmos. The form is new and unique, but the materials are 13.7 billion years old, processed by nuclear fusion in stars, fashioned by electromagnetism. Cold words for amazing processes. And that baby was you; is you. You’re amazing. Not only alive, but with a mind. What fool would exchange this for every winning lottery ticket ever drawn?
When I compare what scientific knowledge has done for me, and what religion tried to do to me, I sometimes literally shiver. Religions tell children they might go to Hell and they must believe, while science tells children they came from the stars and presents reasoning they can believe. I’ve told plenty of young kids about stars and atoms and galaxies and the Big Bang and I have never seen fear in their eyes. Only amazement and curiosity. They want more.
Why do kids swim in it and adults drown in it? What happens to reality between our youngest years and adulthood? Could it be that someone promised us something so beautiful that our universe seems dull, empty, even frightening by comparison? It might still be made by a creator of some kind, but religion has made it look ugly. Religion paints everything not of itself as unholy and sinful while it beautifies and dignifies its errors, lies, and bigotry like a pig wearing the finest robes.
In its efforts to stop us facing reality, religion has become the reality we cannot face. Look at what religion has made us do, to ourselves and to each other. Religion stole our love and our loyalty and gave it to a book, to a telepathic father that tells his children that love means kneeling before him. Now I’m not a parent, but I say that those kids are going to turn out messed up. It cannot be healthy, for a child or a species.
We were told, long ago and for a long time, that there was only the Earth, that we were the center of everything. That turned out to be wrong. We still haven’t fully adjusted. We’re still in shock. The universe is not what we expected it to be. It’s not what they told us it would be. This cosmic understanding is all new to us, but there’s nothing to fear. We’re still special, we’re still blessed, and there might yet be a Heaven. But it isn’t going to be perfect and we’re going to have to build it ourselves.
If I have something that can be called a soul that needed saving, then science saved it…from religion.
Some people find it really very depressing that the universe can only support life for another thirty billion years.
Thirty. Billion. Years. Are you fucking kidding me?