In the Beginning Was…Gas?

Once belief in God goes, there is no end to the nonsense found to take His place.

   “In the beginning was the word and the word was hydrogen gas.” Harlow Shapley, Astronomer 

Two of the looniest thinkers who ever existed—until, that is, Professor Shapley came along—were a pair of 18th-century Frenchmen named Jean-Jacques Rousseau and M. de Voltaire. Now, we mustn’t blame France for the sheer nuttiness of their ideas. Did she not also give us Montaigne and Pascal? 

Posterity is another matter, of course, having canonized their memory since practically the day they died, which was within two months of each other in the year 1778. However, not everyone has been taken in by the ruse. Dr. Johnson, for instance, in weighing the proportion of iniquity between the two, determined that it was comparable to that of a flea versus a louse.  

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As regards what they wrote, examples of idiocy abound. Here are two which may prove lapidary. “Man is born free,” declared Rousseau, “but everywhere he is in chains.” Pretty silly, right? Yet many have seized upon it as a rare sunburst. Or this from Voltaire: “If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent Him.” Perfectly fatuous, to be sure. Yet there are those who find it shrewd and profound. 

And suppose we stay with that last line for a little while longer. See where it takes us. To begin with, it is flat-out false. Transparently so. For if there were no God, which Monsieur Voltaire takes as a given, there wouldn’t be anything at all, much less any sort of need to invent Him. Even the famous Voltaire would not be but for the God whose existence he denies. So much for the parasitic nature of disbelief. Yes, but don’t you see how wonderfully clever it all sounds? How frequently Voltaire would feast on his own cleverness, too, never mind how hollow and cheap the meal.  

One does not need to be a Scripture scholar, incidentally, to see through the sophistry. Even a child knows there is a God—that Someone, the Supreme Someone—must be in charge. The world did not make itself. Once introduced to the great theophany of Exodus 3, the child will certainly delight in learning His name, which burst suddenly upon Moses from within that burning bush. I AM WHO AM, thundered the voice of God. After that, of course, everything is downhill, a mere footnote.

The real question is when the child begins to ask: What is this God who is? Who really is God? It is the question Thomas Aquinas put to the grown-ups when he was a child: “What is God?” Years later, having thought long and deeply about the matter, he would argue that when we call God, “He who is,” we speak more truly than we know, certainly with greater precision than merely calling Him God.

So God, then, is that very being who cannot not be, indeed, whose very essence it is to be. Such a lot of nonsense we would disabuse ourselves of if only we were to speak and think like St. Thomas! Unlike the fellow from California, for example, for whom God was nothing more than “the electromagnetic field surrounding the earth out of which everything is composed.” That was the former head of the “Amalgamated Flying Saucer Clubs of America,” by the way, whose location in Yucca Valley somehow does not surprise. Nor does it surprise if, owning a flying saucer himself, he saw it as part of the same electromagnetic field which, in his mind, apparently formed God Himself.

Or this nugget from a 17 year old who, shortly after matriculating at Harvard, pronounced God as nothing more than “a psychological phenomenon.” Concerning whom, she added helpfully, “It doesn’t make any difference whether or not God exists because the effect of belief on people’s minds is the same.”  

Maybe the two of them ought to get together since, like flying saucers, a belief in God hardly depends on whether one or the other in fact does exist. 

And then there is this priceless piece of reductionism from a young woman living in Miami who equates God with every good deed done by anyone who ever lived. “The willingness of people to share,” she says, “their ability to love one another, to work for the common good, to sacrifice for one another, that is God.” God exists, in other words, only to the extent that you or I do something good for each other. So, when we don’t do good, will it then follow that we’re not subject to His judgment since He no longer exists? Isn’t that a useful and convenient criterion for letting the wicked off the hook!  

Forget the 101 other examples of kookery one could cite; let us end with the one adorning the top of this essay. It seems it wasn’t enough for poor Professor Shapley to demonstrate, while staring into a telescope, that the size of the Milky Way was larger than anyone had previously thought, that being the great achievement of his life.

Evidently, he also needed to look into the New Testament to see how shortsighted the author of the Fourth Gospel was in telling us, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” How could St. John have gotten it so completely wrong? Yes, of course, it’s all about the hydrogen gas. A truth for which one doesn’t even need a telescope to confirm.

“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship him,” writes C.S. Lewis, “than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.” But, of course, the effort to do so goes on and on, unresisting imbecility being what it is, as the good Dr. Johnson would say. And while the God-shaped hole in the human heart can only be filled by God, men will perversely persist in finding substitutes as cheap and spurious as the ones offered above.

Once belief in God goes, there is no end to the nonsense found to take His place.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

tagged as: Atheism Creation

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