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Prometheus, Dark Matter, and Atheism

By Ben Love ~

I’ve been an atheist for only a short time compared to how long I spent crawling in the bowels of Christianity, and thus, echoes of my former biblical thoughts still tend to resonate within my brain from time to time. That’s why, when I woke up this morning, I was thinking about the story in Genesis, chapter 2, where God instructs Adam to keep away from the Tree of Knowledge. The text actually refers to it as “the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” which might therefore be interpreted as “knowledge of right and wrong,” or perhaps even “knowledge of reality.” God informs Adam that eating from this tree will cause his death. This, however, strictly speaking, is not true, for Adam and Eve both lived for a very long time after eating from this tree. Christians will say that God was speaking of “spiritual death,” but they are adding to the context that which is not there.

In any case, the implication here, it seems to me, is that ignorance is bliss and knowledge is deadly.   

I pushed this story out of my mind and got out of bed. But as I went about my day, it kept returning to my mind. And the more I thought about this particular biblical story (the foundation upon which Christian theology constructs the entire sin/redemption doctrine of Jesus), the more I felt so relieved to no longer be a part of that flawed religion.

To wit, I suppose one could define the term atheism in a variety of ways, but I think it could be best described as acommitment to knowledge. This is because the underlying inference pervading all aspects of Christianity (and indeed most if notall human religions) seems to be that it’s un-healthy and even offensive to God to seek knowledge. It is better, Christianity tells us, to believe in a truth rather than to know a truth. To that end, there seems to be a concerted yet subtle (or, in some cases, not so subtle) effort, especially within Christianity, to steer people away from knowledge and keep them bound to the restrictions of faith. I speak not only from personal experience on this matter but also from a position of having listened closely to the stories of others. There is in Christianity an undeniable attitude—be it spoken or unspoken, depending upon which church the pulpit is to be found—that God absolutely does not want his followers seeking, acquiring, or using knowledge to make decisions. Instead, we are told that God wants his followers to trust in him, seek him, follow his lead, and keep faith even in the most trying of circumstances, even when doing so puts the believer at odds with what he knows in his heart to be right.

This is one of the primary reasons I ultimately came to reject Christianity. It’s not just that I’m a man obsessed with acquiring and understanding knowledge (although there is no doubt that my obsession with knowledge drives much of what I do in life), it’s that there is no rational reason why anyone should suspect that a Creator—whatever that may mean—would want his creations kept in ignorance. It just doesn’t compute. Asking me to believe in such a Creator, as well as to love, serve, worship, and obey such a Creator, is the same, to me, as saying the following:

God gave you this amazingly stunning brain, and it’s capable of much more than you could ever imagine. But God doesn’t want you to use it. Oh no. In fact, using it not only bothers God, it actually offends him. Yes, that’s right, it’s a sin. High-er knowledge is wicked, because the more you know, the less you’re going to want God.

I have actually had Christians say this to me. The more knowledge you have, it was said, the more you’ll learn to rely on yourself and thus be led away from the true God. My question is this: why should that be? If the knowledge in question is correct, and if God is real, then he must be the author of that knowledge, since he is, by implication, the author of everything. Reality, then, in which all knowledge is housed, is the specific design of God, the Creator. How then could any one aspect of that reality, the knowledge of which I might gain, lead me away from the Creator? If God is the author of reality, then there should be nothing about it I could discover that would keep me from him.

What’s really being said here, I think, is that even the most faithful of Christians recognizes in deep his heart that knowledge of reality sheds damning light on theistic beliefs. The more one knows, the more one comes to understand that all theistic assertions about God are erroneous. Thus, knowledge beckons us away from God because knowledge beckons us toward the real truth, that there is no God, or at least there’s no God as the Christian religion declares him to be. Knowledge, then, is viewed as the enemy of faith not be-cause it leads the faithful astray but rather because it leads them out of the bondage of faith. That’s what this religious aversion to knowledge is really all about.

As I’ve been thinking about these matters, I continue to be reminded of my favorite story from all Greek mythology, the story of Prometheus, the semi-god who committed the unthinkable by giving fire to humanity. The basic nucleus of that myth, as far as I’ve always understood it, is that Zeus and the other gods did not want humans to have advanced knowledge. Prometheus, who was not a god on Zeus’s level but rather was a Titan (and the brother of Atlas), stole fire from Mt. Olympus and gave it to the humans. To me, “fire,” which always brings light to darkness, is in this instance an allegorical personification of advanced or even forbidden knowledge; the idea here once again being that the deities want humanity steeped in ignorance, or “kept in the dark.” Prometheus obviously disagreed with that policy and risked the wrath of Zeus by committing this act of disobedience.

Zeus’s anger was indeed dreadful. As a punishment for giving fire to humanity, Prometheus was chained to a rock on a mountainside where each day an eagle came to devour his liver. Because Prometheus was immortal, however, the liver regenerated anew each day so that the eagle could re-turn to eat it over and over again, unto infinity. That, to me, seems like a pretty harsh sentence.

There are many interesting things one could take away from this story, but for me the main point is this decision on behalf of the gods to keep humans under control by limiting their abilities, or, if you prefer, limiting their knowledge. To me, this perfectly mirrors that aforesaid attitude found in Christianity, that knowledge is wicked and in opposition to what God wants for us, that God wants us kept in the dark.

I am an atheist because I will not be kept in the dark. I will be my own Prometheus, if need be. Indeed, that is my commitment to myself and to others. And if it turns out that I’m wrong and the Christian God is real and it actually washideously offensive for me to pursue knowledge, I will stand tall on Judgment Day and tell God or Zeus or whoever it is that knowing was indeed better than believing, that having the knowledge of reality was worth whatever punishment I must now endure. And… if I do get chained to some rock, metaphorically or otherwise, I’ll consider the intrusive eagle who feeds on my liver to be an old friend of mine.

Moreover, if I was going to worship a character from the ancient world, it would not be Jesus. While I still appreciate many aspects of his message as presented in the Bible, it nevertheless seems to me that Jesus intended for humans to remain in the bondage of religious faith. After all, when he said we shall “know the truth” and that “the truth will set us free,” he wasn’t referring to knowledge, nor was he referring to reason, logic, rationalism, or anything having to do with the scientific method. No, he was referring to his version of the truth, that his “Father” was the God of the Universe. The text makes this perfectly clear.

Prometheus, on the other hand, of whom I know much less in comparison to Jesus, is nonetheless someone I would prefer to base my life on (only if I had to, you understand—despite my remarks here I do remain vehemently opposed to any form of religion; I’m therefore speaking putatively). But if someone from the mythological past is to be revered, let it be the character who faced an eternal punishment to bring humans advanced knowledge, not the character who faced three days of punishment for their hypothetical sins.

“Sins are real,” says the Christian. “Not hypothetical.”

And when you ask how they can prove this, they might say, “Well, I know that God is real, so everything he said is the truth. Thus, there is such a thing as sin.” When you ask how they know their God is real, some Christians might say, “Because I know demons are real.”

I’ve always found this to be an absurd answer. Even if some sort of evil entity like a “demon” is real, how does that indisputably prove that their version of God exists? More-over, supposing that the existence of something like an “evil spirit” demands the existence of the Christian God is, to me, the same as saying, “I have cancer so that must mean I will win the lottery.” The existence of something on the left does not automatically suggest the existence of something on the right.           

But Christians, it seems, will hear none of this. Spirits, such as angels and demons, are real, according to them, be-cause the Bible says they are real. Those of us who decline to subscribe to the Bible might contend otherwise while also acknowledging that there very well could be metaphysical realities beyond what science can currently tell us—things which, when placed into a projected religious context, might be interpreted as “angels“ and/or “demons.” (It should be noted, however, that acknowledging the possibilities of me-taphysical phenomena we don’t yet understand is miles still apart from assigning hypothetical yet definitive meaning to those phenomena which we thereafter use to verify our own religious beliefs. Some Christians, though not all, are guilty of this. I submit that even those believers with the strongest of faiths should refrain from this kind of behavior as it only opens their motives to question, a result that does not help their assertions that a belief in God is well-founded.)

However, some Christians have been known to contend that the existence of hypothetical entities like angels and demons can be inferred by watching their supposed effect on human beings, much like we might observe that wind, which cannot be seen, has a visual effect on leaves, blowing them about at will. This, at first glance, seems to be a con-vincing argument. After all, it’s natural and even reasonable to assume that, as in the case of wind, there could be forces we have not yet been able to detect or quantify, forces that perhaps have some sort of effect on the world or the people therein, forces which leave a visual calling card as wind does with leaves. And yet a few things must be remembered here. First of all, to say the wind is invisible is a misnomer. Sure, it goes undetected by our eyes, but it does not go undetected by the instruments built to measure it. Use of the five senses (referred to as empiricism) must and does provide room for that which is observable through artificial help, the same way an astronomer might theorize the existence of a planet he can’t yet see by extrapolating from data suggesting that a nearby yet unknown object is having a visible, measurable effect on another object. Or take dark matter, for instance, the existence of which still falls slightly into the theoretical category but nevertheless is strongly inferred by the effect it has the other matter around it. No one can see dark matter. No one can say with 100% certainty that it is there. But the evidence, which has been proven to be dependable, strongly suggests that indeed it is there. And that’s all science really is, drawing conclusions based on what the evidence says. No one has ever seen an atom, after all; but there is so much evidence to definitively imply the existence of atoms that to not believe in their existence is just as absurd as believing in the Easter Bunny
Knowledge of reality sheds damning light on theistic beliefs
But that’s not what these Christians are doing with the existence of things like angels and demons and a spiritual realm where these entities live and wage war and interact. What they are doing is taking phenomena that, most of the time, already has a natural explanation and then stripping the phenomena of that natural explanation, whereupon they then add their ownsupernatural explanation which, oddly enough, ends up corroborating religious beliefs they already had. In other words, they’re coming to the phenomena with a pre-established prejudice on the matter, ignoring what proven science is saying about the phenomena, and then backpedaling with the data, using it to corroborate that pre-established prejudice. For instance, a young boy might be beset with some sort of neurological illness. The precedent is such that this illness is well-documented in the medical field, to say nothing of the observed and widely recognized agreement that Medicine B cures this illness 99 times out of 100. But a Christian might observe the boy’s symptoms and then cry “demonic possession!” If so, they have brought a worldview to the situation that was never needed, one that’s unequivocally riddled with unknowable contingencies and unprovable particulars. The Christian says the boy needs an exorcism. The doctors say the boy simply needs a treatment of Medicine B. I would ask anyone with a reasonable mind, which is the more likely conclusion: that 1) the boy suffers from a documented illness that has a foundation of evidence in the scientific/medical fields, or 2) the boy suffers from the molestation of an invisible, unprovable, and religiously affiliated entity?

“But I can see the demon’s effect on this boy,” says the Christian. “Just like with wind, I can see the demon having a marked, observable effect. This proves demons are real.”

Hmm, but you believed in demons before you saw the boy’s symptoms. Can you really say you’ve not brought your own prejudice to the situation? Moreover, the wind can be empirically measured, but how do you quantify the actions of some demon? What’s the protocol for documenting what demons are typically known to do, and how could you document these things without first being certain that demons exist in the first place?

“But… but what about the wind?” the Christians objects. “Someone had to document its effect, too.”

Ah, yes, but the documented effect is what was used to conclude the existence of wind after the factwe didn’t come to the situation and say, “We would like to demonstrate that invisible movements of air exist, therefore, let us start with those leaves over there.” The now-known existence of wind was the result of studying the effect. The supposed existence of demons is not a result of studying symptoms; the believer believes in demons already. Besides, no one anywhere who has studied a human brain has ever concluded that demonic possession is real. No, the existence of demons (and angels) is bias an individual brings to the situation. And whatever that is, it’s certainly not science.

Sure, you cannot see an angel and you cannot see dark matter. But the latter is postulated on the basis of impartial evidence, the former is the result a pre-established belief in the unknown.

I cannot help but feel that all of the preceding points are beyond obvious. But you can’t lead a horse to water.