Above Us Only Sky

I may be wrong about this, but I think there is a theological issue that, when we consider the whole sweep of human history, troubled a far higher proportion of the human population from far earlier and for far longer than any single other question. It’s not a question we ask today.

It’s not ‘does God exist?’ – there have always been people who haven’t believed in the gods, but until extremely recently, the vast majority of people have taken it completely for granted that there was at least one god around at some point. It’s not ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ – if you believe in more than one god, it’s because those gods are warring; if you believe in one god it’s because that god wills it; if you don’t believe in gods, it’s a foolish question.

I don’t know this for certain, because we have to look back a long way to see when it was first asked – we have to rely on interpretations of Neolithic art (at least twelve thousand years old), we have to depend on reconstructions of the Copper Age (seven thousand years ago), we have to look at paleolinguistics, the study of how ancient languages spread and developed. It was an idea that it seems was carved into stone seven thousand years before the Ten Commandments were. We know it was a question that was still being seriously considered by at least one major culture until about five hundred years ago. The symbolism survives today, in both Western and Eastern religious belief.

The ultimate theological question is: ‘Where does the Sun go at night?’.

The answer that so many civilisations agreed for so long was: ‘The Sun is driven by one of the gods, and at night it goes under the Earth to fight a battle. There is at least some risk that the god will lose this battle, and so the Sun may not rise tomorrow’. It’s something the human race understood was a cast iron fact before they knew how to cast iron. It survived as the working model twenty-five times longer than the four hundred years we’ve understood the Earth goes around the Sun. It was understood to be the literal truth, not some metaphor or piece of symbolism.

This idea spread with ancient man across the Middle East, India, into Europe. It was a belief – in some form – held simultaneously in Scandinavia, Indonesia and pre-Columbian America. From the late Stone Age, well into the Iron Age, surviving into late Roman, Aztec and, in vestigal form, modern Hindu and Christian belief there was consensus. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, there’s a very exciting sequence where Gilgamesh finds the tunnel the Sun goes down into at night and races along it, with the setting Sun barrelling after him like that giant rock at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

This was a religious outlook held for far longer and by a far higher proportion of the human race then living than has ever believed ‘there is only one god’, ‘the god I worship created the universe’ or ‘God’s a paragon of virtue’. It’s a religious belief that can rightfully be said to have been ‘universal’, in the parochial sense human beings use the word. For thousands of years, it appears that all human beings believed it.

The vestiges of this belief still pervade our language, our image of God and to some extent our thought. One of the ways we can see how pervasive the idea was is that it survives in our languages. There are many processes by which languages diverge, but we can see one in action when we ask why Americans call cars ‘automobiles’ and lifts ‘elevators’ … it’s because those are things invented after the split with Britain, so they came up with their own words. Paleolinguistics looks at the similarities and differences between languages and can be used (with due caution) to infer when things are invented – we can see by collating what different languages call them, for example, that ‘wheel’ far predates ‘spokes’, that ‘equine’ predates ‘saddle’ and far predates ‘stirrups’. Some scholars believe we can pinpoint when different types of sword and spear were invented by looking at what different peoples called them. There are some words that are truly ancient – the words for ‘I’, ‘two’ and so on. 

Seven thousand years ago, in what we now call the Proto-Indo-European culture of the Middle East, the God that pulled the Sun through the sky was called something like Dyeusphaeter. It’s a name older than the Sanskrit language, which later rendered it as Dyaus Pita. It’s the origin of the names Jupiter and Zeus, and many other Sun gods in many other cultures – Dyaus of early Indian mythology, Ahura Mazda in Persia (the first monotheistic God), Astwatz, Dispater. In German it was Deiwos, that became Tiwaz – which is where we get the word ‘Tuesday’. The Latin word ‘deus’ – which is the ancestor of the English word ‘deity’ – derives from it, but this isn’t some word English borrowed from Latin, it massively predates that, so that two almost completely unrelated languages, Welsh and Persian, have similar words for God: ‘Duw’ and ‘Deva’. The first half of the name became the English word ‘divine’ (and possibly ‘day’, although that’s disputed), and ‘Phaeter’ became ‘father’, so modern English would render the name as ‘day-father’, which is sometimes personified as ‘Father Sky’.

Many of the gods people worship today share memes with Dyeusphaeter. One of the trendiest religions in first century Rome was the cult of Sol Invictus, ‘the undefeated Sun’, and the main feast day was to celebrate the end of winter, which was also the birthday of the God – December 25th (he was born of a virgin). Sol Invictus had a golden crown, a halo, and it’s possible to track the early Christian iconography and writings as they starting those elements into their own beliefs. It’s not because of Sol Invictus that Christians go to church on Sunday – that was taken from another rival cult, that of Mithras (and the day of the sabbath was the source of much dispute among Christians until the Council of Laodicea in 364).

Traditional images of the Christian God and Jesus himself owe a lot to Father Sky. Day-father was the God of the day, clearly one of the most important and powerful (although by no means the only god or the most powerful), and was associated with all the benefits the Sun brings. But half the time, at night, he wasn’t there. And in many places in the world the days were much shorter in the winter and longer in the summer. This was profoundly troubling – how could the influence of such a self-evidently powerful God ebb and flow like that?

Instinctively, now, we know that it’s always day somewhere on Earth. We’re so used to seeing, say, live TV pictures from the other side of the planet and if it’s night where we are, it’s day there. I don’t think we need empirical evidence of that, as such, it’s almost instinctive. Just something we know. We must all have acquired the information, but at such an early age it essentially counts as innate. We also know that it’s not ‘the Sun on the other side of the world’, as such, that’s how it appears from Earth. We orbit the Sun, not vice versa. Were people really so stupid in the olden days that they couldn’t work any of that out? We all know that everyone used to think the world is flat. We’re all wrong, as it happens. We all know that the Catholic church were dumb and so blinded by ignorance that they refused to believe the Earth went round the Sun even when Galileo heroically confronted them with science and declared otherwise. Coming to understand why we’re wrong about that, too, why it’s almost exactly the opposite, is pretty exciting and I’m sure I’ll talk about that at some point.

So here’s an interesting question: when did the human race discover that the Sun was simply on the other side of the world at night? And more to the point, when was that discovery widely accepted? That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. I think, bottom line, the person who deduces it first is Hipparchus, in around 135BC. I can’t even begin to work out when it was generally known, or intuitive. Clearly, some remnants of Solar Chariot religions survived beyond that, and clearly earlier astronomical theories dispense with the idea of the Sun crashing into the sea or slotting into a tunnel every night. I can’t answer the question ‘when was the latest someone could suggest a god moves the Sun across the sky without everyone just laughing at them?’. In the West … well … here’s Bill O’Reilly, United States of America, 2011, and he’s not saying exactly the same thing … but he’s not saying something that’s all that different, either. Whether he knows it or not, he believes in Dyeusphaeter’s Solar Chariot, via Aristotle, via the Catholic Church. 

Before we get too smug, none of us have quite escaped the myth. There’s a famous science fiction story that has a character on the Moon, looking at the Earth wistfully noting ‘just to think, it’s Spring back on Earth right now’. It takes most people at least a few moments to see the problem with that sentence – it’s an astronaut literally viewing the whole world, but unable to escape the old, limited worldview.

We know where the Sun goes at night. It’s settled law, now. There will be people who say it doesn’t count as a theological question. But understanding that it was a theological question – for at least three, possibly five, times longer than we’ve had any Christian theology – is important to bear in mind. It’s easy to dismiss the Solar Chariot as primitive superstition borne from ignorance, and to say that it doesn’t need to be studied in any great depth … well, yes. But isn’t that what the Courtier’s Reply says about modern theology? I admire the people who came up with the story of the Sun Chariot. They were trying to explain the world, and their explanation made sense of the empirical evidence. They were extrapolating what they knew and saw. These were not stupid people, they were extremely smart people tackling huge, huge problem. It’s amazing they even worked out where they might begin to try answering. I don’t hesitate to call them wrong, I don’t take the view that they were right in their own way, but they were wrong for the right reasons. They were thinking in what we’d arrogantly call a ‘modern’ way – looking at the evidence. They were wrong.

I admire the people who dismantled the Sun Chariot more. They had the courage to continue asking the questions, and to ask new and reframed questions. It took many thousands of years, but we got to what we now see is inarguably ‘the right answer’. We know that the answer operates on a scale far larger and far smaller than the human, but which human beings could readily understand by observing and deducing a few common, simple processes. That, ultimately, the answer was actually rather straightforward.

And it’s an answer you can use. It leads to further discoveries, to practical inventions. Frankly, the heavens are much more enticing without divine traffic whizzing around like space debris. And we’ve been there now, sent up our own space chariots. We use them every day to see around the world, and to explore a universe that’s a far larger, richer, grander, older and stranger place than the old religions had us believe.

Both groups of thinkers shared the same impulse: they wanted an explanation. Modern theology often seems abstract to the point of distraction, about things completely beyond the human capacity to understand, not just beyond science, but beyond the limits of human thought. ‘Life’ and ‘the divine purpose’ and ‘the greater good’ are so big and seem so confusing and inherently paradoxical that it’s impossible even to expect we might ever understand them. But we have to understand right from the outset that theologians in the past told us the same things about disease, harvests and the weather – equally vast, immensely important parts of our experience (and also all things attributed, for most of human history, solely to the capricious nature of the gods).

I think it’s an awkward fact for theology that, as far as I can see, a lot of theological issues have been conclusively solved, but all of them were solved outside the field. I don’t see this changing – one of the vibrant issues across a number of academic disciplines, including theology, is the very broad area of ‘consciousness’. I very strongly suspect we’ll see key breakthroughs in my lifetime, a real shift of understanding about what constitutes awareness, consciousness, intelligence, how these things can originate, how to define them and so on – but these breakthroughs will almost certainly come from the computer science departments, from the evolutionary biologists. It’s hard to see how they might even come from a theology department.

As Bertrand Russell put it, ‘Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know’. Whenever we find ourselves concluding that a question is just too large to ever answer, I think it’s instructive to remind ourselves that we solved the biggest problem of them all: where the Sun’s hiding at night.

Counting to Nothing

The exact definition of atheism is one that’s hotly-debated in philosophical circles. The everyday meaning, roughly: ‘an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God’ is simple enough, as is the slight clarification ‘or any of the gods’, and its corollary, ‘y’know or all of that stuff, like devils, angels, prayers, the afterlife, miracles and so on’.

But traditionally there’s been a problem which boils down to whether atheism is holding the belief ‘there is no God’ or not holding the belief ‘there is a God’. I think it’s easy to see there’s (a) little practical difference, and (b) quite an important one philosophically. It essentially comes down to who has the onus to justify their position, and the upshot is an endless cycle of ‘you need to prove God exists / no you need to prove God doesn’t exist’.

Part of the point of being an atheist is that you really don’t think this sort of thing is worth bothering with. But, if pressed, most atheists would say they hold the belief ‘there is no God’, rather than not holding the position there is one. Atheists who do talk about their atheism are fond of saying things like ‘Off is not a TV channel’ or ‘abstinence is not a sex position’, ‘people who don’t live in Manchester aren’t Amancunian’. It seems faintly ridiculous to suggest that someone who is not interested in Cricket ‘has not-interest’ in things like spin bowling, the West Indies, Wisden or the state of the pitch at Lords.

If atheism is framed as ‘not holding the belief “there is a God”’, that assumes the default state of the human race to be ‘religious’. It’s no coincidence that theists often accuse atheism of being a ‘religious belief’, or that ‘it takes more faith to be an atheist’, or say things like ‘the vast majority of the human race is religious’. If someone told a vegetarian that they were carnivorous, because No Meat is a type of animal, you would probably think that someone should be sectioned, but ‘atheism is a religious belief’ is a respectable argument in theistic circles.

It would be handy strategically for theist philosophers if atheism was ‘holding the position there is no God’, as it essentially makes the argument a Home game for them, not an Away one. Atheists, by that definition, have opted out of theism and they’re the ones who have to justify their position, and they’d have to do it starting out by explaining their notions of God and why they’re rejecting them.

The dark secret of theology is that it can’t do the job most people think it’s there for.

I’d always assumed a lot of theology was about looking for signs of God, like God was a Higgs-Boson or something like that. Modern theology actually has very little new to say or do concerning ‘proof God exists’ (or disproving it). And the reason is simple: within moments of starting a study of theology, it’s made clear it’s impossible to use logic to prove God exists.

We can demonstrate this in one sentence. Ahem. ‘There is, by definition, no way for us to distinguish God from a being capable of deceiving all other beings into believing it is God’. Whatever the miracle, demonstration of power, revelation, artefact or argument presented, however kind or wise ‘He’ was, we could never be sure that ‘God’ was the real deal. He wouldn’t need to be God, he would just need to be able to make us think he’s God. Even if ‘real God’ showed up with a host of angels, bellowed ‘IMPOSTER!’ and sent Jesus in to kick the false God in His nuts, then … well, what’s to say this new arrival isn’t just another imposter?

‘Fooling every human being’, presumably, would require a lot less power than ‘being God’. We’re easily fooled, after all. The overwhelming probability is that any given ‘God’ is not God. And, happily, that’s exactly what religions teach – the central proposition of most religions is that while every other one is the work of smooth conmen in it for the bling and pussy, this religion is the one, real deal. Not every human being holds the idea ‘gods exist’, but every single person holds the position ‘not all claims made about gods are true’. Indeed, if you’re looking for a ‘universal human religious belief’, then the only ones we know for certain have existed in every society are ‘sorry, not buying it’ and ‘I’m being dragged along under protest’. As the motto goes, every Christian’s an atheist when it comes to all the other gods. The early Christians in Rome were prosecuted for atheism, as they did not honour the city gods.

There have been lots of attempts at proofs, some better than others, but even the scholar responsible for the most extensive and influential attempts to come up with something compelling, Thomas Aquinas, concedes ‘to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible’. It’s not that we haven’t found compelling logical proof God exists, Aquinas says, there simply can’t be a compelling logical proof independent of faith. And, of course, if you have faith, you’ve already answered the question you’re meant to be exploring. It explains why Aquinas’ proofs are seen as eloquent and persuasive to existing believers, but weirdly lacking to everyone else.

Theology hasn’t been able to budge from this position. Alvin Plantinga, one of the most renowned living theologians, concedes this when he says,

“I should make clear first that I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God. In this regard belief in God is like belief in other minds, or belief in the past. Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis, John Calvin’s term for an inborn inclination to form beliefs about God in a wide variety of circumstances.”

So, with no evidence even possible for gods, atheism’s right?

Theist philosophers have this one covered. Plantinga adds:

“But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars … Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.”

Plantinga’s a renowned Christian theologian, he’s dedicated his life to this, he’s emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, not some internet commentator schmuck, so I’ll take him at face value, and assume that it’s a good analogy for atheism.

One problem for Plantinga is that we can answer his question about stars.

At one level, he’s right. We encounter practical problems, to put it mildly, if we try to work out if there are an odd or even number of stars. The concept of ‘the number of stars’ is problematic. It assumes that it’s clear what a star is (that there are no judgement calls to be made about whether, say, a neutron star is a star, or whether a star that’s forming counts). Critically, the speed of light limits the available information. Even if we had some pressing need to count all the stars to work out if there were an odd or even number of them, we simply can’t acquire the evidence. This limit to our information also throws up the familiar problem that what we look at in the night’s sky is not the state of the universe ‘now’. It’s scientifically illiterate to imagine we could just take a snapshot of the universe and count the dots.

However … we can agree that however we’re defining terms, there are a finite number of stars, and the number of stars is a whole number. We can agree that any whole number is either odd or even. We can agree that the number of stars is, therefore, either an odd or even number. There’s a ‘right answer’ to the question.

We have, as far as I’m aware, no particular reason to think that there’s some law of physics governing whether there was an odd or even number of stars. There might be. Imagine the universe was and remained perfectly symmetrical. There would be, basically, two identical sets of stars. If one popped into existence on one side, another would on the opposite side. There would, by definition, be an even number of stars. As things stand, though, to the best of my knowledge, nothing like that is at work.

The universe is vast. Stars form and they die. So we can say with confidence that given the vastness of the universe, even in the time it takes to ask the question ‘are there an odd or even number of stars?’, the answer will alternate from ‘odd’ to ‘even’ many times – millions or billions of times, in fact. Plantinga doesn’t actually say ‘in the universe’, but even if he’s just talking about how many stars are in our Milky Way galaxy, the answer will change by the time you get to the end of the question.

Let’s say what Plantinga meant to ask is ‘are there an odd or even number of observable stars in the night’s sky?’. The answer is, to Magnitude 10, with 99.9% confidence, there are 626,883 stars, so ‘odd’.

So far, so pedantic. Many theologians would just sneer at the over-literalistic answers there and say it was evidence of ‘scientism’ an arrogant belief that science can reach all the answers merely by counting and measuring. I hope so, as this would be really handy for my argument.

As a thought experiment, imagine we lived in a universe where everyone was utterly confident there were only five stars. Now try answering Plantinga’s question. ‘Do we have good evidence for the proposition that there are an odd number or even number of stars?’


Plantinga’s argument boils down to ‘sometimes it’s difficult to count stuff’, that’s all. And if, as he says, it’s an analogy for the existence of God, all he’s saying is that it’s difficult to count the number of gods.

So, let’s use the same reasoning.

We can agree that however we’re defining terms, there are a finite number of gods, and the number of gods is a whole number. There’s a ‘right answer’ to the question ‘how many gods are there?’, the issue is simply that they’re difficult to count.

Except, by Plantinga’s own logic, it’s not difficult at all. Even if we confine ourselves to the ludicrously narrow definition of science preferred by some philosophers as ‘the study of things that can be measured’, counting falls squarely in the remit of ‘science’. As noted, logically, we can never count above zero proven gods. The empirical measurement of proven gods concurs.

Inspired by Plantinga, we could ask whether the evidence points to there being an odd or even number of gods. Is doing so really more glib than asking any other question about gods? In fact, it’s more useful than most – if there are an even number of gods, that would at least rule out monotheism and the Trinity, which wouldn’t be a bad day’s work. As it happens, zero is an even number [two multiplied by zero = zero].

So, here’s the clever bit. Plantinga – if his analogy is a good one – believes this to be a counting game, he believes that there are a fixed number of gods, and he understands that there’s no way to demonstrate by counting that there are more than zero gods. Both Plantinga and the atheist have taken measurement and logic as far as it is possible to take them, and agree they’ve reached ‘zero’ using that method, the result that atheist expected. So it’s clearly only Plantinga who needs to appeal further than this. The atheist can stop there. An atheist may also have faith, but certainly doesn’t need it. The atheist may be wrong, of course, but it’s plainly Plantinga, and not the atheist, who needs to justify his position.