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Atheism of Astronomy: A Reply to Critics

SINCE "The Atheism of Astronomy" was published many letters of comment and criticism have reached the Truth Seeker. Some of these were printed in the paper, and I am extremely grateful to Editor Smith, as well as to the various contributions who have helped to widen the scope of the discussion.


Some of the letters which have reached me privately express a deep interest in the subject of astronomy. Some are very illuminating on the behavior patterns of mankind--and some very religious. One, from an exotic female, I am told, can only be construed as a burning love letter, proposing that I accept Jesus, through her. I had no idea that a simple work of mine, defending "gross'' materialism and a godless universe, should have caused such a "spiritual" awakening and religious fervor in one of my readers. Others, as pathetic as this, seem more interested in the salvation of my soul than the facts I discussed. Still another, hopeless of my future, has already consigned me to regions close to the core of the earth. Communications like these have been conveniently filed in the wastebasket for future consideration.


Rabbi Ahron Opher, of the Hebrew Tabernacle, Washington Heights, New York City, who wrote me concerning "The Atheism of Astronomy," calls attention to the theories of "Keppler," "Genes," and "Ettington" as likely to refute its arguments. The way these learned doctors of Judaism toss the names of scientific men about. (and misspell them) is enough to make a freshman groan.


Rabbis of today get their wisdom from the ancient Jews, whose knowledge of the world was below that of the not very over-bright Egyptians. Says the historian Buckle: "Science properly so called, the Egyptians had none; and as to their wisdom, it was considerable enough to distinguish them from the barbarous nations like the old Hebrews, but it was inferior to that of the Greeks, and it was of course immeasurably below that of modern Europe."


Kosher knowledge today is canned ignorance from the past.


I propose here to consider some of the more recent issues raised by several of my critics. Among these is the question as to whether or not there are likely to be other worlds inhabited like the earth.


One writer argues that since millions of stars can be seen merely as tiny points of light, there may be planets, unseen through the telescope, circling about them. He is entitled to his "may". We know enough, however, of our planets close at hand, the peculiarity of their origin, and their requirements for the sustentation of life, to accept a conclusion other than that planetary existence is a minor occurrence, and that life, as we know it here, is as nothing at all in the stellar depths. Those who believe in a "well-populated" universe will have to "populate" billions upon billions of "white hot" stars.


Some find it difficult to believe that life is a rare occurrence in the universe and that the earth is probably the only inhabited planet of our system. It is their contention that such a "unique" situation is counter to the "expectancy" one would look for among so many worlds. They seem to think that physical and chemical forces, operative everywhere, must necessarily bring into existence things very much alike through to the universe, and that we should always find duplications. This is definitely not so.


One does not have to look far into space to confirm this. Nature can be as sparing and restricted in some of its activities as lavish in others. There are many "rare" occurences in nature. Such as the evolution of a Darwin or a Shakespeare out of so much human scum. Since our earth began there has been only one age of Reptiles. The dinosaur was "unique" among all forms of life. Among the multitudinous species of plants and flowers, "Dionaea muscipula," a distinctive type, is found only in one tiny corner of the globe. The kangaroo is a native of Australia -- and nowhere else.


The manatee is restricted to a few tropical waters, the gorilla to small areas in Africa. The rarity of planets and the scarcity of life in space are in no way startling to one who takes a long range view of things. It is a view which is definitely warranted by the findings of astronomy, which show that what happens at one point in space does not have to be duplicated elsewhere. The sun is an exceptional star, and its planets are an exceptional "birth."


As to the question, Whence comes intelligence?, it will be found answered in any good text-book on organic evolution. Intelligence, both in the race and in the individual, gradually develops with the brain and the nervous system. It is a physiological activity which manifests itself in a large part of the biological world, including man. It is not a mysterious subject at all, except to those who like to indulge in a "tyranny of words." And it is readily comprehensible, I believe, to any individual who is not too deeply absorbed in contemplating Plymouth Rock and in asking why, if matter really thinks, rocks cannot "acquire knowledge?


Psychology, true to its ancient heritage, is still dominated by a vast amount of Hottentot ignorance. Psychologists of the mystic school still talk of the mind as a ghost. What cannot be picked up and weighed on a butcher's scale must be a "spirit". They cannot seem to grasp that a motion of matter in the skull, or a vibration in the nerveganglia of the brain cannot be taken out of one's head and tossed on scales. They are as obsessed with a belief in spirit possession as the "benighted" savage, who, seeing a watch for the first time, concludes there is a ghost inside. The savage sees a "spirit" in the watch case, the mystic sees a "spirit" in his head.


The spirit mongers can no more comprehend the mechanistic character of the brain and its material functioning than they can comprehend the implications of materialism in their broader aspects. Life, they think, must be a dreary, meaningless affair without a recognition of "spirit." Being muddled on the one hand, they are sure to be muddled on the other. They are as quickly disturbed over a godless universe as a ghostless brain.


One critic marvels how a materialist, facing the "dismal" picture I have drawn, should "so shuffle the faculties of his mind" as to preserve his "poise" and "equanimity." I have seen, perhaps, a fair share of the grim side of life. But I see no reason why any man, unless his nerves are shattered or he faces some unbearable afffiction, should jump off a dock or turn on the gas. No one need become panic stricken merely because there is no paternal intelligence in the sky. Life can be made an interesting adventure in solving human problems and mastering the art of living. That art consists, in part, of cultivating one's intelligence and helping others to rise from the slough of ignorance and superstition.


If any one should be dejected and disheartened by the evils of the world, it is he who, having accepted belief in a guiding "intelligence," is compelled to witness the cruel behavior and callous indifference of his "Heavenly Father." It is the Christian who, praying to be relieved from an excruciating cancer, gets nothing in return but a celestial slap in the face, who should feel his despondency most. It is the theist, not the atheist, who should be tempted to slit his own throat. That is something our pedagogical theists and blackboard "psychologists" will never understand.


Certainly nothing I have put into words could offer a more "melancholy" picture of things as they are than that presented in the mass hysteria caused by our recent "invasion" by monsters from Mars. The radio broadcasters simply over-estimated, as I have done myself too often, the average intelligence of the race. It was the "spiritually-minded," who are said to derive "poise" and "equanimity" from their convictions, who were most easily demoralized, and who fled to their churches like flocks of frightened geese. If had they known more about Mars and less about "spiritual" matters, they would have probably enjoyed the radio entertainment.


Those who talk of: the dreariness and drabness of existence for the materialist, deceive themselves. Such jargon as that we must search for understanding in the depths of infinite reality" belongs to the age of priests. The materialist can be, and generally is, the highest cultivator of the finer things of life. He is better able to appreciate the cultural and esthetic values of life precisely because his eyes are open and he can think more clearly. In the fine arts and, in science, in music and drama, he generally excels. Lucretius, the greatest of didactic poets, was a materialist. So, too, was Holbach, whose home, indeed, was "one of the chief social centers of culture in Europe." Haeckel, who believed in neither God nor immortality, was an artist of high rank, whose hundreds of drawings of marine life in color would have made him famous independent of his accomplishments in the biological field. Buchner, whose "Force and Matter" rocked the religious world took time off from scientific pursuits to write exquisite verse. Vogt so lived that he, was "a brilliant man, of exceptional culture" whose "standard of conduct was rigorous'' and "humanitarian zeal intense." It was the teaching of Diderot, says Bury, "that man's energies should be devoted to making the earth pleasant." Girard, the philanthropist, put this into practice by founding a university and giving away millions to the poor. In brief, the zest for life and the cultivation of character will not be dulled because, of the discovery that there is no one in the clouds interested in our welfare.


Those who look for a moral crack-up under materialism, or for an era of gloom, should turn again to the pages of history. Under "spiritual" influences men became morbid, sour, and cruel. And it was precisely the most "spiritual" ages which contributed most to the destruction of man's happiness. Buckle, writing of the Scotch Kirk and its influence, says:
"Cheerfulness, especially when it rose to laughter, was to be guarded against. . . . Smiling, provided it stopped short of laughter, might occasionally be allowed; still, being a carnal pastime, it was a sin to smile on Sunday. Even on weekdays, those who were most imbued with religious principles hardly ever smiled, but sighed, groaned and wept.... A Christian had no business with love or sympathy. He had his own soul to attend to, and that was enough for him. Let him look to himself. On Sunday, in particular, he must never think of benefiting others and the Scotch clergy did not hesitate to teach the people that on that day it was sinful to save a vessel in distress, and that it was a proof of religion to leave ship and crew to perish."


Of what significance, therefore, are fulminations against materialism? The plea that we acknowledge a "spirit" within and accept an "intelligence" in the clouds is Sunday school prattle. Man has progressed morally, and grown culturally, in proportion as he has abandoned these ideas. The closer we stick to matter the more we understand the workings of the universe. Culture has been advanced by ditching the ghosts.


What has "spirituality" to offer? The age of "spirituality" and ghost worship marks the most degrading and bloody period of man's existence. Those who sought culture in the "depths of infinite reality" by glorifying "spirit" and degrading matter usually ended up by burning one another at the stake. It was a sordid age, when pious scoundrelism prevailed and fanaticism ran amuck. No tragedy has equaled the dark ages of religion, when "spirituality" triumphed and materialism was crushed.


These things will never come again if men learn to think.

Friends and Colleagues