In the Gregorian Calendar, today is February 29, a Leap Day. It only comes once every four years.
You’ll never believe what it tells us about God!
OK, so I just wanted to write a click-bait title for once. Of course February 29 doesn’t prove there’s no God. But I think it does show something interesting about the methods apologists try and use to establish the existence of a god. Plus it’s just an unusual day that needs commemorating.
An untidy calendar
Apologists talk about how wonderfully ordered the universe is, and how uniquely Earth is positioned within it and suitable for life. This is supposed to be evidence for an intelligent designer.
And yet, this calendar could have been made so much neater. It’s positively untidy. According to NASA, our year is 365.2422 days long. To try and keep the months aligned with the seasons, we insert leap days: One 29 February every four years. Unless the year is divisible by 100, in which case there should definitely not be a leap day. Unless of course the year is divisible by 400, in which case of course there should be a leap day.
Doesn’t this just sound complicated? It gets worse, though. Historically, months were based on cycles of the moon. These cycles are roughly 29.5 days each - so there are more than 12 in a year. We’ve chosen to make our year exactly twelve months, but this means not every month is the same length, and they don’t match the lunar cycle.
Surely we could have a world, not too different from ours, in which a year is exactly 360 days and the moon cycled through its phases exactly 12 times? This would mean every month was exactly 30 days long, and the moon would always be new at the start of the month, and full at the end of the 15th. Wouldn’t that be so much more orderly?
Here’s the thing: If our world was like that, I’m sure some apologist somewhere would be claiming it was positive proof that their particular god existed. And most of the rest of us would be looking at that apologist a little oddly, because we would be so used to days, months, and years all lining up nicely that we wouldn’t realise there were other possibilities.
My problem with this is the one-sided nature of the apologist stunt: If something that is considered “unusual” exists, it can be taken as evidence of a designer. But the absence of that something unusual can never be taken as evidence that the designer doesn’t exist. This basically ends up counting the hits and not the misses.
A world designed for solar eclipses?
Continuing on with the moon, we have solar eclipses because the sun and moon are similar apparent sizes in our sky, meaning that at some times the moon is in the right place to block the sun. Eric Metaxas gets down to business in the ever-reliable Fox News and asks Are solar eclipses proof of God?
It’s almost as though what we will marvel at was artfully arranged specifically for our benefit.
I found the precision necessary for all of this unbelievable. The more I thought about it, the more I knew that there was no way this could be a mere coincidence. It seemed almost planned. In fact, it seemed utterly planned, as all things of such precision must be.
So can the sun’s and moon’s diameters - and distances from Earth - be merely coincidentally matched up this perfectly? Everything about it makes that seem ridiculous.
Three thousand years ago a man in Israel wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” That man didn’t have a telescope or a Brittanica, but he saw something many of us today still do not see. He saw a God behind it all. It may be true that seeing a Grand Designer behind these breath-taking events requires what we call a leap of faith; but it may also be true that seeing mere coincidence behind them requires an even greater leap of faith. In my mind, much greater.
I think he gives away his bias at the end of the second paragraph I quoted. In his worldview, there really doesn’t seem to be any role for coincidence.
The reality is that improbable things happen every day. Each and every one of us is a spectacularly improbable combination of genes and upbringing, and there will never be anyone exactly like us. Similarly, it’s probable that most planets have something unusual about them, though it’s unlikely that they’ll have the same unusual things as our Earth does.
Metaxas has decided that the improbable things that do happen are really important and evidence of a designer - but completely ignores the many other improbable things that in a slightly different world would have been used to prove a designer.
It’s not hard to imagine a world in which there are no solar eclipses. If there are religious observers on that world, it seems unlikely that they would take the absence of solar eclipses as evidence that there is no intelligent designer. There will probably be some other coincidence, some other specific property of their world that they point to as proof of a designer. Maybe they have 5 moons, and under very rare circumstances all 5 line up (Heinlein imagined something similar for a colony on Ganymede in Farmer in the Sky - though it turns out that, at least in the Jupiter system, that line up isn’t possible).
This seems like another example of counting the hits and not the misses.
Prophecies of Israel
This doesn’t just apply to evidences from the natural world, but also to evidences drawn from Bible prophecy. As a former Christadelphian, I am at this point contractually obliged to mention the establishment of the state of Israel. I’ve written about it before. Several times, in fact.
For many Christadelphians, the existence of Israel is the go to argument for the existence of God. It was in fact predicted by the founder of the denomination, though many of the details he predicted proved wrong. And they claim that it was an incredibly improbable event, so could only have happened with their God in control.
However, imagine that for some reason the state of Israel were wiped out - tomorrow, next week, next year (which also seems like an unlikely event to me). Some Christadelphians might have their faith shaken, but I imagine most would figure out ways to keep believing anyway.
Similarly, Christadelphians talk about how unlikely it was that the Jewish people survived as a race and returned to the land (ignoring the role that those very prophecies had in it). But if, hypothetically, the Jewish people had either been destroyed or assimilated five hundred years ago, would Christadelphians take that as evidence that God wasn’t in control? I don’t think so. Instead, they would have a different interpretation of those prophecies, with other, different events which were considered equally improbable. I don’t think this is a far-fetched scenario, because we already know that they have interpretations for other nations in Bible prophecies that no longer exist.
How is it fair to count the hits and not the misses?
There are more serious arguments than the ones I’ve given - this was more meant to be a fun post than a “serious” one. It’s usually talked about as “fine tuning” - either very specific details of the laws of our universe, or of the position and characteristics of our Earth. I think those arguments have problems too, but I won’t go into them here. Though I did stumble across this post when looking for more information about Eric Mataxas, and it says a lot of what I would say about fine tuning.
The important thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter how orderly our current world seems, or how unusual some of its characteristics are. We can almost always imagine a world that is more orderly or more unusual (like my tongue-in-cheek suggested world without the need for leap days). Similarly, we can imagine a world with very different characteristics, but characteristics that are equally unusual. And we can also imagine a world that is slightly less unusual, but just as supportive of life.
I think in identifying those few unusual characteristics, the apologist’s work has just started - and they don’t realise it. Of all the possible options, why has the designer chosen to work in that particular way?
And there are usually answers given to these questions: The designer has an aesthetic sense. Or it has a purpose for its creation. Or it wants to send a message to its creation. But the answers are a bit ad hoc - different people look at the same supposedly designed world and justify it in different ways. The apologist must defend all the many oddities of our particular world as either specifically chosen by the designer or somehow left in their natural state.
Consider again Metaxas’ example: solar eclipses. We have a natural explanation for this. Over-simplifying: the moon was formed from the Earth a certain size after a massive collision, and the actions of gravity over the past few billion years have put the moon on its current orbit at its current distance away from Earth (it wasn’t the same distance away when it was first formed). Metaxas thinks that that natural explanation is too improbable.
But what is the alternative? That a universe designer left their universe to evolve for a while, then stepped in to tweak the details of one moon revolving around one planet revolving around one sun to send a specific message to the intelligent life evolving on that planet? Couldn’t said designer have made their message a bit clearer while they were at it? Tidied up other bits of Earth? Given us a better calendar? Our natural explanation doesn’t have to worry about any of that.
Our need for leap days certainly doesn’t disprove the existence of a designer. But I think it does raise questions about how far arguments about an ordered world can take apologists.
Happy birthday, Frederic!