I work near the top of one of the tallest buildings in Boston, next to a wall of westward-facing windows. I have seen a positively unfair number of breathtaking sunsets through those windows. Sunsets to drive a landscape painter to break his brushes over his knee, renounce his profession, and take up drinking. No one, ever, has lived a righteous enough life to deserve to witness sunsets like these.
I’ve just now read an article about a white dwarf star that explodes every twenty years or so, within the atmosphere of a red giant. It draws in material from the red giant, until it builds up enough mass to go nova again. What’s more, “The most recent eruption of RS Oph,” the article says, “which sits 5,000 light-years away toward constellation Ophiuchi, made it visible to the unaided eye from Earth on Feb. 12.” The “most recent eruption,” that is, being one that happened five thousand years ago, literally an unimaginable distance from our own little planet. And last month, you could look up and see it in the sky.
I’m a pretty ecumenical guy. I usually understand the human need for religion, and even respect it as a tool for self-understanding. If I could’ve swallowed a handful of peyote and spent a week in the woods alone with my soul when I was nineteen in order to make the passage into adulthood, it would’ve been way preferable to the rather slower and more painful path I ended up on. We atheists don’t get the vision quests (nor, for that matter, do we Episcopalians).
What we atheists do get, though, is the pleasure of experiencing the world as it is. To look at a sunset, or a star going nova right there in the night sky, and have to believe that it was made, that there’s a mind like people have, in quality if not scope, behind it all, strikes me as criminally parochial. Like I said, I usually respect religion. Not when I’m looking at a sunset, though.
Gods make the world tiny. I would hate to live in such a tiny world.