Essay: Ya’ Know What?

My morning means coffee. As I listen to the Keurig groan to push water through that little plastic cup, I ponder the cosmos. Then, I’m off to my room where, with the help of Lappy the laptop, I investigate the inworld of cyberspace and contemplate the secrets of the vast physical universe. I wouldn’t want to have some cosmic detail wrong.

I sit at my desk and prowl through blogs and respond to comments before flipping to Facebook. After typing a few comments, and some likes or loves, I click to email. And behold: there is the prompt for this week’s essay.

Galileo was put on trial and spent the last years of his life in prison for suggesting that the earth revolved around the sun. We think we have a pretty good idea of how the universe works now, but what if we don’t? What if we’re wrong? What if…??

(Good grief!)

Galileo was on house arrest and ordered to deny the heliocentric heresy, which he did before recanting his denial. The sun-center working of the solar system had been around, but the question for him was whether he agreed with it. This was during the reign of Pope Urban the 8th and when the phrase, don’t piss off the pope became popular. It was bad for Galileo. It was worse for others. In the 400 years since, there has been no Urban the 9th.

The rest of the prompt is figuring out the universe and what if we are (or I am) wrong. The universe is one of my favorite topics and being wrong is something with which I am quite familiar. Just ask my wife or kids. The last part asks, what if?

I like to quote phrases that make me feel smart when they affirm what I have supposed. This phrase is credited to Zen:

‘If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.’

Galileo and Pope Urban lived under the same sun and stars within the same solar system. One was right, and one was powerful. But another phrase is might makes right. It did in this case, but not in the long run.

The universe did whatever it did without the help or knowledge of either man. To navigate by celestial means, one assumes that the sun, moon, stars, and planets move across the sky. To the observer, that is what appears to happen, but things are not as they appear.

If we’re wrong, nothing changes. For now, we know what we know, and we look for more answers or corrections.

In time, we’ll correct our errors. Learning is endless, and science has gaps everywhere. Even if we had the cosmos accurately mapped out and understood all the chaos, the potential for more knowledge exceeds the spatial vastness of the universe itself.

And as for the we part; some of ‘we’ think the earth is flat, some of ‘we’ believe some of us are alien creatures; some of ‘we’ deny lunar landings. Too many ‘we’ think Hubble telescope scenes and Voyager photos are fake. Far too many of ‘we’ think science is nonsense, and that it was all created by one supreme deity. Regardless of the signs and clear evidence, some of us will always go the wrong way.

What if is the wrong question. Let’s try what if not? Consider some possibilities.

First, try to imagine this world without science. It is easier to envision a world without humans or any intelligent life. Now, with a twist of the cranium, imagine what John Lennon suggested.

Imagine a world without religion. It’s easier than it was to extract science and learning from history. We’ll always have both, but now we can ask the what if question.

For over 65 years, no one asked me to explain the universe or how it came to be. People were willing to explain it to me in terms of what they thought. Then, a few years ago, about the time I started mumbling the word atheist with personal pronouns, I was suddenly cast into the academic role of Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson all rolled into one. I was charged with explaining not only how the universe works, but how it came to be. I was also challenged to explain the source of all life on earth, the details of evolution, and to fill-in any scientific gaps. Perhaps the inquisitors thought I would be enlightened.

I not only don’t have all the answers to such questions, I don’t need to have them. Nor do you. None of the seven billion people alive today, nor any of the 100-billion who have ever lived had all the answers or needed to know them.

If the question is what if we are wrong; the answer is of course we are. We do not have all the right answers and that is exactly what all the excitement should be about. Are we willing to learn? It’s why we are here: to always wonder. As Galileo said,

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

***Bill Reynolds***

As you wander, look both ways.
Remember to look up.
Mind the gaps. As you learn, fill in where you can.

A Test for Atheists



The Pew Research Center, in the 2014 Religious Landscape Study, asked self-identified atheists how often they shared their views on gods and religion with religious people.

Nine percent said they did so at least weekly. Two-thirds said they seldom or never discuss their religious views with religious people. That may be changing as secularism becomes more acceptable. On line, these discussions often take the form of Q&A sessions.

Here are eleven sample questions that I promised to blog about. I Bogarted the questions from a variety of internet sources, but the responses are mine.

Why don’t you believe in a god? This is a difficult one to answer without appearing rude or offensive. The bottom-line, and most simple answer is that there’s no proof.

Are you really an atheist? Kind of insulting, but easy to answer. Atheists should not be drawn in by the temptation to be sarcastic. Leave out really from the question, or be young enough to excuse, and the answer is there.Test4

Are you absolutely sure there is not (are no) a god (gods)? The problem here is that the subject has now changed from belief to certainty. Absolute certainty of anything normally requires abundant proof of some sort – often, repeatable and testable evidence. My honest answer is no. I wonder what percentage of believers are absolutely sure of what they say they believe.

What happens when we die? Why would anyone ask this of an atheist? But again, easy for me to answer. I don’t know.

However, I still love this song. It’s fun and uplifting. Hear it Here (The Spirit In the Sky). Norm is something of a one-hit-wonder, but he wrote and sang a good one way back then. Interesting side note: while this is clearly a Christian song, Norman Greenbaum, to this day (age 73), is an observant Jew.

What if you’re wrong? That depends. Wrong about there being supernatural beings? Is that any different than being wrong about which religion, or which god is real or true? Again, I have no idea.

Without a god, where do you get your morality? First, I have some morality. Second, the same place you get yours. Morality comes from learning and being human. How often are immoral atrocities committed in the name of a god? Where do those offenders get their morality?

How does life have any meaning without a god? My life has meaning just as yours does. Mine may have more meaning to me than someone who believes they will be in Heaven or Paradise. I believe that this world is all there is for us (right here and now). As for the universe, it is the same but we only have access this part of it: Earth.

What about the love and appreciation of nature and art? We love nature as much as any believers, maybe more than some. I love art, read and write about it, and consider myself an artist. While atheists may not see nature as the work of a creator or supreme being, they have the same, if not more, appreciation of nature than believers do.

Where did the universe come from? This is where I might begin to lose it. Seriously? Do I have to explain the origin of the universe simply because I don’t believe there is a god to have created it? I don’t need to know and neither do you. Read Carl Sagan or something, then pick one of the theories. I was not there when it happened, no matter what my grandchildren think.



What about miracles? Have you ever noticed how the number of miracles has reduced as methods to record them has increased? I don’t think there are supernatural beings out there to bring about miracles. Unexplained things have always happened and perhaps science never will explain everything. At times in the past, believers decided that unexplainable events were witchcraft, or from the devil, and not miracles from a good deity or spirit.

Four Gods to believe in
Four Gods to believe in

Why do you hate God? Do you hate Santa Claus? Or Krishna? Or Thor? Zeus, Jupiter, and Saturn are all gods. If you don’t believe in them, is it because you hate them? I’ve known believers who were angry with their god. I always thought that was awesome. Being angry with an omnipotent being has to be special. I guess their god wasn’t doing a good job.


I admit that face-to-face, such questioning events are rare, especially following someone’s commitment to atheism. But they happen and I think they are fair enough.

Test8Personally, I don’t see why people shouldn’t discuss religion and atheism (or agnosticism or humanism, or any such subject), if they want. I realize two problems come into play. Human emotion and the need to defend turf, opinions, friends, or in some cases, a god.

Criticizing religion in general, or any religion specifically, is taboo. Oddly, that taboo is not applied equally to lack of religion or atheism. While insults and criticism may fly, I’ll wager that no atheist has marked someone for death because they criticized, or drew a picture of, anyone.

I hope that we can find ways to exchange ideas, discuss beliefs, and venture into better understanding of our diverse and complex world. I once had a man tell me this, “I don’t even know anyone who is not Christian.” How sad.