Religious belief requires a healthy dose of narcissism

That’s kind of an awkward sounding title right? Maybe a little abrasive? The notion that being religious implies a certain level of narcissism seems incredibly counter-intuitive too. Aren’t most religions about doing good, caring for others, and putting faith in some incarnation of God over yourself? In theory, and at face value, yes. Does this trickle into all facets and arguments? No.

There is at least one ‘default’/backup argument for religious belief that is basically predicated upon an incredibly inflated sense of ‘self’-importance. A friend recently said to me “the odds of humanity existing are just so low. Things had to go in exactly the right way for human life to evolve. It’s such a crazy unlikely event, that it just seems reasonable that there’s a God or something involved in all of it.” Now my friend is a super cool guy, and ironically for the counter-argument I made, a former statistics major at the University of California (which, despite being a public University, boasts more Nobel laureates than the vaunted, private, Stanford.) Functionally, he claims that the incredibly low probability of life evolving as it has, in an independent way at least,  suggests that there must be something else tipping the scale. In the end, that’s really just a flouting of the law of super large numbers. (As an example, 99:1 odds suggest that if you do something 100 times, you’ll have one result occur 99 times, and the other event occur 1 time. While the likelihood is incredibly low, that doesn’t make it impossible that if you only do the activity once, you end up with that 1 in 100 result.) What’s even more relevant than the pure mathematical challenge that the argument faces is the Law’s authors explanation that we tend to put more cognitive weight on the few instance of unlikely events, rather than the massive majority of likely events, such that we end up searching for reasoning when chaos and chance are reason enough.

Now, when I countered with this math-based argument, my friend’s response was “but man, even if there’s life, is it human life?” That’s where my notion coalesced. What’s so special about human life? Are we not 90%+ genetically similar to all animal life on this planet? Humans are 40-50% genetically the same as cabbage! This notion that our (human) life is particularly valuable/important is definitely narcissism. I won’t deny that I feel important. My Mum told me I was special, and I am incredibly aware of the many wonderful opportunities that I have, but from a cosmic perspective, amI/are humans even remotely significant? Is ANY life on earth cosmically significant? Before you answer that question, let’s add some much-needed perspective, because even though we talk about the universe being big, I bet you don’t have a good understanding of how it’s truly unfathomable scale.

There are believed to be 100 billion (100 000 million for European readers) human-inhabitable planets in our galaxy the Milky Way. That’s right, there are approximately 14 times as many inhabitable planets in our galaxy as there are people on the planet Earth right now. Take a moment to register that this isn’t the total number of planets, just the number of inhabitable planets. As an incredibly uneducated comparison, assume that most solar systems mimic ours in terms of proportion of livable vs. unliveable planets. That’s 800 billion. In the galaxy. That’s the equivalent of the combined market cap of Apple (587bn) and Facebook (197 bn).

Now, expand that to the universe and we’re looking at 50 sextillion inhabitable planets. (this is an Australian journal and specifies that it uses the American sextillion, so 50 * 10^21, instead of the European sextillion 10^36.) With a similar extrapolation, that implies about 400 * 10 ^ 21 planets in the universe. 4 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 planets! (This article suggests there are 100 * 10 ^ 21 planets in the universe, and given that Fermi estimation suggests order of magnitude is more important than actual values, I’ll give myself a very small pat on the back for getting close.) These numbers are way outside of our concept of understanding, but suggest the Earth probably isn’t the unique cradle of life in the universe. (And that’s just considering the ‘space’ factor; we haven’t talked about time. A video I watched recently but unfortunately can’t seem to find right now, discusses the notion that intelligent life on other planets may not necessarily exist at the same time as intelligent life on earth. Perhaps it has come and gone on one planet, or has not yet arrived on another.)

Before succumbing to the admittedly comforting logic that we’re so unique, something has to at least have pushed all the pieces into place, we really should ask ourselves a few questions. When looking at the scale of the universe, are humans really that special? If there is a God, why make that many planets but only populate one?

The math suggests that given a large enough number of planets, humans were bound to show up on one of them. There is no reason to believe that our existence is so special/rare as to only be possible by God’s hand, and it is only our narcissistic self-importance as individuals and as a species that lets us make that argument.

This isn’t an attack on religion or religious beliefs, but from where I’m sitting, it sure feels like borderline ignorance to lean on an argument with such little evidence to support it (and I stand behind the distinction that an argument is based on some kind of evidence while statements without evidence are personal opinions.) What’s more, my challenge most certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility that life is unique and the result of divine involvement. What it does mean is that regardless of what reality ends up being, the aforementioned statement is so improbable that after contemplation it is no more than an incredibly unreasonable opinion.


About johnaroberts

Educational backgrounds Philosophy, Economics, and Business, which I use to build and dissect perspectives about the world around me. Not really an expert in anything, just trying to question everything, to see past the imposed constructs we live in. I want to push people out of their comfort zone, to make people think and hopefully see something more grand than what's immediately around us.
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