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ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

Does the universe make atheists, or do atheists gravitate to the universe?

Asked by ANef_is_Enuf (23293 points ) January 6th, 2012

I’m going only on my personal experience, but it seems that many or most atheists have a passion for space and understanding the universe, and generally an overall interest in various areas of science.
Do you think that an interest or passion for understanding the cosmos is more likely to inspire a person to abandon their religious or spiritual faith? Or do you think that without religion or spiritual belief, people will gravitate toward something else that is “greater than us?”

I would love to hear some personal stories, but any opinions are welcome.

Personally, I was 5 when I decided that I wanted to be an astronaut. I used to lie on the picnic table in the back yard and memorize the constellations, but I never felt a connection to that and my lack of belief in a deity. It just seems to be such a common theme among a group of people that, as a whole, technically only share one belief (or lack thereof), that I wonder if there is a connection, for some.

I do not mean to suggest that a passion for space is something exclusive to unbelievers, or vice versa. I am simply interested in hearing about how it may or may not relate to atheism.

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22 Answers

JilltheTooth's avatar

Theist here, always been fascinated by space. One of my friends is a Catholic priest. Before he got his calling he was pursuing a degree in astrophysics at a major university. I think he went on to finish that degree after seminary. I personally think the sense of wonder about what’s “out there” has more to do with curiosity than belief systems. Awe and wonder are manifested in all sorts of different ways.

digitalimpression's avatar

This sort of falls in line with a bible verse I know.

Deuteronomy 4:19

And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven.

It stands to reason that if this verse is true then yes. The obsession with studying the universe could lead someone away from religion.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

@JilltheTooth I agree. I actually intended to include something about that in the original question, but I forgot.
I do not mean to suggest that this fascination or passion is exclusive to atheists. I just think it is frequently found to be a common factor among atheists.

I think I have time, gonna throw it in.

syz's avatar

I would guess that “those that have a passion for space and understanding the universe” tend to have questioning minds, an intellectual curiosity, and are more flexible in their willingness to accept new ideas. Religion doesn’t tend to reward or even encourage questioning.

digitalimpression's avatar

@syz A common lament. I believe, however, that God knew we would be just smart enough to think we had it all figured out when we started studying the universe.

JilltheTooth's avatar

@syz : Very few religions limit the quality of learning, and many many non-atheists are not religious. I have some devout friends that are fascinated by the workings of all things because they believe that God gave them the intelligence and free will to discover and explain. “Religion” or “theistic belief” are not synonymous terms for “ignorant” or “uncurious”. Oh, dear, I’m afraid this will go the way of all the others, so rather than get snarky and angry I will endeavor, with a modicum of grace, to bow out now. Sorry, Neff.

digitalimpression's avatar

@JilltheTooth You said, very eloquently, what I couldn’t put into words. It is a common assumption (or so it seems) that religious people are ignorant, refuse to learn, or are simply close minded to science and exploration. Clearly not so.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

@digitalimpression and @JilltheTooth again, that is not what I meant to imply with this question, nor is that how I feel. Just to be clear.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

Frankly, if it were as simple as “religion and learning don’t go hand in hand,” I wouldn’t even be asking this question.

Charles's avatar

Atheists strive to find better explanations for nature and events in the universe than “God did it”.

Most theists are either:
A) A victim of their parents’ and community’s brainwashing or
B) “Born Again” and “found Jesus” as an psychological survival mechanism alternative to suicide due to prison, drugs, alcoholism, depression, etc.
Very few people who believe in a god fall out of one of these categories.

So, in strictest sense, the universe makes atheists because atheists come from their parents who are part of the universe.

syz's avatar

Please note, I did not say that anyone who is theist is stupid. What I attempted to say is that various religions, as a whole, do not promote the sort of environment that leads to scientific investigation, in my opinion.

Religion asks for blind faith, yes? To set aside any issues with plausibility? To accept, without question, the teachings of whatever faith you subscribe to? Isn’t that the antithesis of scientific investigation?

If you are told “God made it that way”, and to question that statement is to question belief, why would you look for answers to the universe? A gross oversimplification, sure, but having been raised as a southern Baptist, I can tell you that “why?” and “how?” were not well received whenever I tried to question the lack of logic in things that I was taught through the church.

@digitalimpression “I believe, however, that God knew we would be just smart enough to think we had it all figured out when we started studying the universe.”

What does that even mean?

Blackberry's avatar

Disregarding certain religious people, and instead focusing on theists, deists, agnostics and atheists, I think anyone can be fascinated by the universe. It seems totally plausible to research the beautiful vastness of the universe in all its complexity and come to the conclusion that something must have created it. I can’t come to that conclusion, but I understand how one would.

But people that are too enveloped in religion don’t have that questioning spark in them due to their authoritative and oppressive upbringing. Not the moderates, but the “gays aren’t natural” religious people.

digitalimpression's avatar

@Charles
A) What? That’s insane. Some of the least christian people I know came from religious households. Human beings are smart enough when they reach an adult age to choose their own path. I, at least, give us (mankind) that much credit.

B) What does that even mean?

@syz
It means don’t assume the world is flat based on the observable evidence of the day. God probably knew we would say the world was flat. He further (probably) knew that we would laugh at our former selves increasing the power of our technology and scientific method and then claim other things. It’s dangerous to assume that we have all the answers, “worshiping” our methodology.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I always liked astronomy…I’d say even before I became an atheist…I don’t think an interest in the universe belongs to believers or non-believers…

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

Since I never mentioned religion or theism, I’m assuming these responses mean that no one else has noticed that a particular fascination or passion for astronomy among atheists, when compared to any other group of people?
I think it is quite easy to understand why certain religious groups may not want to delve into science to answer certain questions, as they believe these questions have been answered by their holy texts.

Again, I am not suggesting that an interest in the universe is exclusive to atheists, or that atheists are smarter than theists or deists.
I am simply only asking about atheism. It is my experience that if you pull together a group of atheists, it is highly likely that the majority of those people will have a particular passion for space when compared to a random grouping of people from the general public who are not necessarily atheists. No one else has made a similar observation? I find that shocking.
I would think, with an overwhelming majority of the members of the NAS being nonbelievers, it should be no surprise that there appears to be a link between science and atheism. It seems easy enough to assume that atheists are simply looking to answer the questions that religion does not answer for them. “If god didn’t put it there, how did it get there, how did I get here?” Questions that inspire curiosity in most people.

I’m looking for cause and effect. Because, my personal story is that I fell in love with the universe long before an existence without god(s) was even a possibility in my little mind. So, to say that I fell in love with the universe because I was looking for answers that religion did not give me does not seem to be accurate. Could it be that I found reality to be more fascinating than Sunday school? Well, that’s possible. That is why I was hoping for personal stories. It seems feasible that this fascination could either spark unbelief or on the contrary, it could provide answers to the questions that unbelief leaves unanswered.

Yes, I am absolutely aware that one does not have to be an atheist to find the universe endlessly fascinating. I am simply asking where those two subjects collide, and what the potential cause and effect relationship may be.

So, to simplify:
Are you an atheist?
Do you have a passion for astronomy?
Did you fall in love with the sky before or after you concluded that god does not exist, and what do you think the relationship between the two is for you, personally?

syz's avatar

@digitalimpression And that is exactly the sort of circuitous, illogical argument that makes me walk away from “religious” discussions.

wundayatta's avatar

There was one thing that sort of bothered me about being an atheist and that is that I didn’t know where transcendental or mystical experiences fit. Did you have to believe in something in order to be able to have mystical experiences?

I’d read Carlos Castaneda and Herman Hesse and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I had many friends who had had LSD trips and experiences with other hallucinogenic materials. I knew, somehow, that those experiences would be very bad for me, so I never took them. Turned out I was probably right about that.

So I craved these kinds of things—this kind of feeling of oneness and I kind of believed that because I didn’t believe in a God or in the mystical, these things would never be available to me.

It was the summer before I went off to college, and one night I was collecting my sister and bringing her home. Night had fallen. Maybe she had been visiting a friend. We were in a playground, ambling along. I think she may have stopped to do something because I remember being on my own next to the monkey bars.

I looked up. It was an amazingly clear night—something that doesn’t happen in the Pioneer Valley any more. You could see every single damn star in the sky—clear as if through a telescope! I fell down on my back to look up. I felt like I was falling into the Milky Way. So many stars! Millions and millions! Billions and billions, as Sagan would later say. Gazillions, as I think of it now.

As I was falling into the stars, I had this idea that all the stars were people, and all the people were the same—all together in the sky—no separation. That feeling of oneness that all the gurus talk about. It was my first mystical experience!

Nowadays, I prefer to think of it as a spiritual experience, and I in fact, that specific experience is my definition of spiritual. Spiritual means experiencing the oneness of things. It means, further, understanding how all things are connected to each other, and how they all affect everything else.

Ever since that night, I have felt that I could have that experience any time I wanted to. It is right there if I ask for it. I have never asked for it, though. I have had other kinds of experiences of oneness in other ways, too. Mostly through music making and dance. Sometimes it happens in other circumstances—I am usually somewhat wary of it because it makes me feel quite vulnerable, emotionally. So I keep my distance.

Honestly, I think it has nothing to do with the universe making people into anything, ideologically speaking. It’s really the other way around. We, humans, are responsible for our own ideas. We are responsible for our ideas of the universe. These ideas play a huge role in how we see things. How we conceive of things.

The truth is that we create our own conceptions of reality, and that is indistinguishable from creating our own reality. We can say that we create our own universes. Atheists, because they are not burdened down with anthropocentric notions of the universe, can take this understanding of the role of perception in the creation of reality seriously whereas for people who believe in a God outside of them, the notion is preposterous.

Atheists, I think, can truly understand the notion of oneness, because we can have a conceptual understanding that connects everything to everything. If you have an entity that is outside the universe, then it is separate from it, and oneness is not possible. Ironic, I think, since Christians are always trying to sell the idea of oneness with God. They might believe this is possible, but their stories and symbols create a notion of separation, not integration.

They say God is within us, but the very act of saying that actually tells the story that God is separate. Or maybe that’s what they really believe. I don’t honestly understand it.

All I know is that the universe tells me what it is not with words but with being. When I really want to understand it, I do not separate myself from it, but I allow myself to feel my part in the wholeness. When I lose this sense of separation from the universe, my perception is the only reality I am aware of and the only reality I can know. There is no longer any “out there.” It is all in here. My perception is reality. It is the universe. Atheism is a perceptual stance that provides the conditions under which the universe becomes.

digitalimpression's avatar

@syz Perhaps you, and the two people who agree with you, just don’t understand it. That doesn’t mean it is circuitous and illogical. Nor does that statement add anything to the discussion. @wundayatta at least put the effort into an actual argument, rather than just a useless, ignorant insult. Way to go debate team.

Charles's avatar

“Human beings are smart enough when they reach an adult age to choose their own path. I, at least, give us (mankind) that much credit.”

I don’t give us that much credit. If humans made their own decisions and weren’t brainwashed, then Pakistan wouldn’t be predominantly Muslim, India predominantly Hindu, the US predominantly Christian, etc.

mazingerz88's avatar

@digitalimpression In your response to @syz you mentioned it’s dangerous to assume we know all the answers. Isn’t religion doing exactly that?

To answer the question, my opinion is that the universe out there is likely to inspire people to become either one. A believer or a non-believer. More likely a believer.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Do you think that an interest or passion for understanding the cosmos is more likely to inspire a person to abandon their religious or spiritual faith? Or do you think that without religion or spiritual belief, people will gravitate toward something else that is “greater than us?” No, an interest in the cosmos would not cause one to abandon their religion, and certainly not cause one to abandon their relationship with that Father, but confirm it if anything. With out a belief that there is something greater than man, man will look for something more, unless he is arrogant enough to think mankind is the s*** and is the only and most intelligent thing in the universe.

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