atomic bomb science god of nature religion
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Is nature God?

It is a profoundly materialist question that, perhaps unintuitively, leads to a convincing, down-to-earth explanation for why most human beings fervently believe in the existence of all-powerful, supernatural beings.

atomic bomb science god of nature religion
Iconic “mushroom cloud” towers 20,000 feet above Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945, after the second atomic bomb in history destroyed much of the city. At the moment it exploded, many in the city believed that God was ending the world. (Ur Cameras, Flikr, Public Domain)

We believe in supernatural imaginings not because they are confirmable in the real world but because we either innocently don’t know any better or purposefully choose not to know what is indeed knowable.

If you try and imagine yourself as a pre-history human ignorant of all the fundamental questions of existence that science has irrefutably answered in the last seven centuries or so, you can easily imagine, say, a Neanderthal’s natural sense of awe and fear and wonder at something even so common as thunder — and an urgent need to explain it.

Indeed, evolutionary psychologists tell us that one of humankind’s most telltale features is a psychological need — a demand, even — for certainty, along with a grand capacity for imaginary invention to supply it. When we fail to understand something, we invent an explanation, any explanation that might conceivably fit, to ease our anxieties. A murderous epidemic, for example, if unexplainable, could easily have been imagined by ignorant primitives in the distant past to be the result of deities angry with them for some reason, not due to incomprehensible earth-bound causes.

In fact, we far-more-sophisticated-and-knowledgeable humans alive today are still doing the exact same thing. For example, even many ostensibly well-informed Christians in contemporary America believe the current coronavirus pandemic was sent by God to punish us for our sins — as many assume “He” did previously for HIV (because of its supposed link to homosexuality), allowance of abortion and free love, to name a few apparently divinely punishable offenses.

atomic bomb science god of nature religion
Late Canadian astrophysicist Hubert Reeves. (Rama, Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0)

So, maybe we’re not such an advanced species after all.

When ancient pro-humans were fearing God, therefore, what they were fearing was arguably the mysterious, awesome power of nature itself, not some invisible “divine” force, since the science of weather had yet to be invented to convincingly explain it.

This satisfying idea of nature-as-God-but-not-really was the core philosophy of the late Canadian astrophysicist and science popularizer Hubert Reeves, who is credited with saying:

“Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature, unaware that this Nature he’s destroying is the God he’s worshipping.”

I have never read a more cogent summary of human wrongheadedness. This self-delusion is the essence of environmentalism, except that the “God” that drives people to casually destroy the environment is one of greed, not goodness. The God of goodness allows them to ignore what they do to the environment because God would not allow it in the first place, of course, if it were not good or necessary.

Reeves, who died this year and is the former director since 1965 of Canada’s Research at Centre national de la recherche scientifique (National Center of Scientific Research), retiring in 1999, believed when the cosmos exploded into being some 15 billion years ago much about today could have been predicted: atoms, molecules, ocean and life forms.

He quoted physicist Freeman Dyson, who once wrote that “in some part of itself, the universe knew that mankind would appear,” according an article on Reeves in The Canadian Encylopedia online.

Of course, theists will endlessly contend that if that were true, it was “God” who ordered it to be true, not nature.

And therein remains the divide between materialists and theists, but only the former has substantive, realistically falsifiable explanations for their beliefs.

Renowned as a “5-foot, 4-inch intellectual giant” and a leading global expert on the “Big Bang Theory,” Reeves viewed science as transcendent for human understanding. He wrote that, “science challenges the way we think about the meaning of life” because it “will help us make moral decisions by enriching the context in which philosophical questions are framed.” He also published a serious book in 2012 with a whimsical name, The Universe Explained to My Grandchildren.

But he also had a twinge of postmodernist caution in that he believed that since scientific theory and philosophy were trapped in human language and culture, we are necessarily limited in our abilities to understand our own existences.

At heart, though, Reeveswas a materialist, a scientist, who posited, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia, “How can we pretend not to know what we know?”

Still knowledge comes with a price.

Reeves pointed out that the profound modern insights into the universe’s infinitely complex structure and processes might not have emerged had not the Allies been compelled to develop an atomic bomb during World War II.

Maybe we are an insane species.

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— Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” in praise of “Holy Smoke”

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...