God, the expanding universe, and dark energy

J asks:

1.  Could you convert the rate of expansion of the universe in everyday terms?  As an automotive engineer, I am very comfortable with units of ft or miles per second squared

2.  How much energy from God is infused into the universe every second in order to maintain the space energy density.

When I initially set out to answer J’s questions, I was just going to write a line or two giving the numerical answer for each one. But what fun is that? Instead, I decided to take you all down the rabbit hole with me, and get into the details of each of these questions. But if you just want to skip ahead to the answers, they’re highlighted at the end of each discussion.

Here we go…

1. First, a bit of context. In 1929, American astronomer Edwin Hubble presented evidence that galaxies are rushing away from one another, and that the speed with which they are rushing away is proportional to their redshift. This is interpreted to mean that the further away galaxies are, the faster they appear to be moving away, and this was the first physical evidence that our universe was not static and eternal, but dynamic and finite in time. The average rate at which galaxies are moving away from each other — called the Hubble constant — is a reasonable measure of the expansion rate of the universe, so we’ll use that to answer J’s question. The Hubble constant is about 70 km/s per megaparsec of space.

Now, I could just throw that number at you and convert the units to something more relatable and be done with it, but why do that when we have an opportunity to go into some nifty astronomical stuff? For instance, did you know astronomers don’t use light-years in their work? Light-years are used more for relating astronomical stuff to the general public. Instead, astronomers use parsecs, where one parsec equals 3.26 light-years. It may seem arbitrary, but there’s a sensible reason astronomers use this seemingly weird unit for distance. The answer lies in the definition of the word ‘parsec,’ which comes from ‘parallax’ and ‘arcsecond.’ Parallax is the apparent shifting of something in the foreground with respect to a very distant background. You can observe parallax by holding out your thumb and then observing it shift relative to stuff further away as you close one eye and then the other. This happens because your eyes are separated by a short distance. If you were able to adjust the distance between your eyes, you would notice more parallax the further apart you moved your eyes.


Based on the same principle, we observe parallax of nearby stars relative to much further stars as the Earth orbits around the Sun. When the Earth is on one side of the Sun, we can observe a nearby star relative to a particular background of stars. Six months later, when the Earth is on the other side of the Sun, we observe the same star relative to a different background of stars. This is rather useful in terms of measuring distances, because the further away something is, the less parallax you observe. And that leads to the definition of parsec: a parsec is the distance at which you would observe exactly 1 arcsecond of parallax as the Earth goes around the Sun.


And now I’ve introduced another term that needs to be explained. An arcsecond is a unit of angular size. When we look at objects and assess how large they are, we aren’t actually measuring linear sizes, but rather how big of an angle they subtend. The Moon in the sky, for instance, subtends a half a degree of ‘arc.’ That’s its size as far as our eyes and brains can measure it. If we have some idea of how far away it is, then our brains can translate that to a linear size. (Angular size + knowledge of distance + a bit of cogitation = “Wow, half a degree of arc and that thing is 240,000 miles away? It must be big!”) So then, what’s an arcsecond? Well, one degree of arc is divided up into 60 arcminutes, and each arcminute is divided up into 60 arcseconds. So, an arcsecond is 1/3600th of a degree, which seems awfully small until you realize that the smallest angle we can measure in astronomy is about one thousandth of that.

Let’s return to J’s question. We know the Hubble constant is about 70 km/s per megaparsec of space. Mega means million, so for every million parsecs of distance away from the Milky Way, space is observed to be expanding at a rate of 70 km/s. In more relatable terms, that translates to about 157,000 mph per 3.26 million light-years of space. More distant galaxies are seen to move faster simply because of their distance. I have my students do a little experiment to help visualize this. Take a thick rubber band, cut it and lay it out flat, and then draw some dots on it: one dot in the middle to represent the Milky Way, and then dots on the other side at various distances to represent other galaxies. As you stretch out the rubber band, the “rate” at which the other dots move from the MW dot depends on how far away they are, and the more distant ones do indeed expand faster than the closer ones.

A better way to get an idea of how fast the universe is expanding is to think of scale instead of proper distances. The scale is a rough guide to the distances between galaxies, which grows as the universe expands, but we don’t attach any units to it. Instead, we think about how long it takes the scale to double or triple or increase by a factor of 100 or whatever. Billions of years ago, when the universe was small in scale, it was doubling in scale very rapidly, but as the scale got much larger, it took longer and longer to double. The last time the universe doubled in scale, it took about 7 billion years. The next doubling will take much longer. Incidentally, this is the basis for reconciling a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 with a very old universe, as shown here. This is complicated a bit by the observation that the universe is accelerating in its expansion, and this leads to J’s next question.

Summary: The universe is expanding at a rate of about 157,000 mph per 3.26 million light-years of space.

2. Astrophysicists have proposed the existence of some mysterious, unseen form of energy in the universe to account for the speeding up of its expansion. They call this energy “dark energy,” and it has the peculiar property that its space density stays constant. Density is the amount of something per volume, so this means the amount of dark energy per volume of space never changes, even though the amount of space in the universe is increasing every moment. Think about how weird that is. That means the extra dark energy needed to keep the dark energy per volume constant as the universe expands has to come from somewhere. But where? I recently lectured about this to a group of Christians who were keen on science, and explained that this is consistent with scripture in which we are told that God sustains the universe (Heb 1:3, Col 1:17). When J heard this, he wanted to know how much energy per second God is injecting into the universe to maintain the constant dark energy density. So, let’s try to figure it out.

Even though dark energy is the dominant “stuff” of the universe, it’s extremely rarefied. It makes up 68% of the total of everything that’s in the universe, and yet its energy density is a paltry 10-9 joules for every cubic meter of space. The reason dark energy dominates the universe in spite of its low energy density is that space is HUGE — there’s an astronomical amount of cubic meters in space, so that paltry energy adds up to something big over large distances.

It turns out, we can’t answer J’s question directly, since we don’t know the total size of the universe. The universe could be finitely huge or infinitely huge; we simply don’t know. But we can estimate the amount of extra energy needed per second per megaparsec of space and use that to estimate how much extra energy is needed for the amount of the universe we can observe.

Remember that the Hubble constant, 70 km/s per megaparsec, tells us the rate of expansion. So, let’s first imagine a cubic chunk of space that’s a million parsecs on each side. Converting to more convenient units, this cosmic cube is 3.09 x 1022 meters on each side. This chunk of space is expanding at a rate of 70 km/s, which is 70,000 meters every second; this means every second, the chunk of space is gaining (3.09 x 1022 m + 70,000 m)3 – (3.09 x 1022 m)3, or 2 x 1050 cubic meters, in volume. If the space density of dark energy is 10-9 joules for every cubic meter, then each cubic megaparsec chunk of space is gaining an extra 2 x 1041 joules per second.

Let’s put that in relatable terms. One joule per second is known as a watt, a common household unit of power that you probably recognize from lightbulbs. So, let’s think of the extra energy injected into space every second in terms of watts. The Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona has three reactors with a total power output of about 4,000 megawatts. If we take 2 x 1041 watts and divide by that, we get 5 x 1031 nuclear power plants-worth of power for each of these million-parsec chunks of space. That’s a 5 with 31 zeroes after it. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Well, consider that the size of the observable universe is much larger than this hypothetical chunk of space, about 30 gigaparsecs in any direction, which means that that the total amount of energy per second added to the observable universe is equivalent to 1045 nuclear power plants. To complicate things a bit, this is the momentary increase in energy per second of the observable universe, since the universe is expanding every moment. And, oddly, this is kind of wimpy when you consider that the theoretical prediction for the space density of dark energy is about 30 orders of magnitude higher than what’s been measured, a mismatch that so far no one knows how to resolve.

Summary: The amount of energy that’s currently added to the observable universe per second to maintain a constant space density of dark energy is the equivalent output of 5 x 1045 nuclear power plants. That’s a billion-trillion-trillion-trillion nuclear plants.

I know I skipped over some stuff that probably has you scratching your head, like the idea that some mysterious form of unseen energy is pouring into our universe every second from who-knows-where and that God has something to do with it. This dark side of the universe, which includes another substance called dark matter, is a fascinating topic that, believe it or not, relates to Christian scripture. If this interests you, stay tuned. I’m in the process of writing a booklet on the topic, and plan to host an online seminar through my publisher sometime in the next year.

Creatio ex logos


Dave writes:

Sarah, I appreciate your ministry and read your testimony. I came to God initially as a searcher and made a leap of faith from what seemed to me logical eclecticism i.e. all religions lead to or at least can lead to God. The only conflict with that belief is the Bible! I accepted Christ by “coming through the gate” of John 10. I since have come through the Cross as a major sinner – yuch, but praise the Lord for His forgiveness. I love Him much more now – through the Cross. So, moving on to my question: Panentheism- what do you know or think about it. I do not believe in “Process Theology ” which Panentheism (not pantheism) is associated with (ex. Whitehead). Why I entertain Panentheism is that I have trouble with “creatio ex nihilo” as being Biblical (and obviously does not fit into the 1st Law of thermodynamics). I would much prefer orthodoxy to state “creatio ex logos”. I do not believe God made creation from absolutely nothing. I believe it is from His Word… His breath… ex logos is substantial not nothing. God created the universe from His own substance – by speaking. Our own words are not “out of thin air” but have a source of energy behind their creation… it is a source of energy that is both “imminent (our breath, sound vibrations and physical shaping of words with our mouths) and “transcendent” (our mind and thoughts). There is obviously much more to this topic, and it is not without it problematic issues, but what do you think – about Panentheism – biblically and scientifically?” P.S. Pantheism also seems to fit nicely into the Kalam cosmological argument and it counter argument (God vs Nothing as the first cause).

In order to understand the true meaning of creatio ex nihilo, it will be helpful for us to revisit Aristotle, who described four different types of causes to answer the “why” of things; that is, he came up with reasons for why there would be any sort of change or movement. In the case of the universe, we can consider two of those causes: a material cause and an efficient cause. A material cause is something that is determined by the material of the thing being changed or moved. For instance, paper would be the material cause of a book. An efficient cause, on the other hand, is external to whatever it is that’s being changed or moved and is the agent of that change or movement. For instance, the efficient cause of a book would be a writer. Creatio ex nihilo, the idea that God created the universe from nothing, means that: a) God is the efficient cause of the universe; and b) there is no material cause of the universe.

From a theological point of view, creatio ex nihilo stands in opposition to the idea that God established the universe by making it from eternally existing matter (a material cause). Traditional Christian theology rejects the latter. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, who has written deeply on this topic, points to Augustine who says that God, as the ultimate Being, “did not work as a human craftsman does, making one thing out of something else as his mind directs…. [his] Word alone created [heaven and earth]” [John 1:1-5]. This is supported by the distinction between the Hebrew words for “create” and “make” in Genesis. The word for make, asah, means to refashion from previously existing material, and it is used to describe the emergence of structure in the universe following its creation, things like the galaxy, stars, planets, and so on. The word for create, bara, refers to something that is an utterly new creation. Bara appears only three times in Genesis: once for the creation of the universe, once for the creation of the nephesh, or animal soul, and once for the creation of the human spirit, the neshama.

What all of this suggests is that creatio ex nihilo is synonymous with creatio ex logos. The universe was an entirely new creation, not something that was made out of pre-existing stuff. Now, while I’m not aware of any reason that the physical conservation laws must apply to the creation of the universe, I think you’re right that it violates some sense of conservation to have a universe appear out of absolute nothing. So, while creatio ex nihilo rejects the idea of eternally existing matter from which God shapes the universe, it does embrace the idea that God’s Word is the something from which the universe was created. This is entirely consistent with what’s been observed in physics.

How to make science great again


It’s incredible that in the wake of financial crises and populist movements around the world anyone would wonder whether a glitzy awards gala and lavish prizes would help improve the public’s view of science, yet that is one proposal to boost the public’s opinion in the wake of floundering financial support.

Bruce Y. Lee, who comments on science issues for Forbes magazine, observes a decline in science in the U.S., largely due to diminishing funding and brain drain, and says that to reverse it, “our society’s views of science have to change.” It’s true that reversal isn’t going to happen without public support, but I doubt the public is going to buy his proposal to reverse it, which is to lavishly fete scientists:

One way to do this is to give real scientists more celebrity treatment through awards shows, television, movies, advertisements and other means. Again, real scientists and not actors playing scientists. Seem a little far-fetched? Think that scientists can’t handle the spotlight and do anything besides science? Well, you only have to look in our country’s history to find numerous scientists playing more prominent and leadership roles in society. Moreover, after this year’s presidential election, anything seems possible.

This is cargo cult thinking. Celebrity is the result of public interest, not the cause of it. Celebrity isn’t what makes people love entertainment, it’s the ability of entertainers to connect with audiences in a deeply personal way that makes people love the medium and those who create it. It’s no different with science.

The moderately good news is that according to surveys by the National Science Board and the Pew Foundation, Americans remain generally positive about the benefits of science. The bad news is that: a) trust in and support for science is gradually declining; and b) while Americans are generally supportive of government investment in research, they are overwhelmingly disinclined to support increases in funding. I don’t know the exact reason for the latter, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that, given record government and personal debt and no pressing scientific issues on which Americans are united, most of the public doesn’t see science funding as a high priority. As for the former, I think a lot of this has to do with Americans feeling increasingly disconnected from the enterprise of science.

I’ve been studying and working in science for twenty years, and my experience during that time is that Americans are almost uniformly fascinated by science. People are just naturally inclined to be interested by the natural world, and more so as discoveries increasingly reveal what a complex and strange world we inhabit. It’s no surprise, then, that at least since the early 20th century the general public in the U.S. has been happy to confer celebrity status on the best-known and most personable scientists, including the original rock-star-scientist himself, Albert Einstein, as well people like Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Hawking. These scientists captured the public’s imagination, not just because of their endearing personal quirks, but because they had a passion for popularizing science and making it seem accessible, relevant, and personal to the average person.

So, why is science, as Lee observed, in a state of decline in the U.S.? A lot can be said about this, but I’ll see if I can distill it a bit. For most of the history of science, funding has come from wealthy private donors and monarchs. While private donation remains an important source of funding, the vast majority now comes from the federal government. Government funding of science in the U.S. is a relatively new thing that had a modest beginning about a hundred years ago and really got going during the Eisenhower era with the military-industrial complex. Since then, there have been temporary peaks in funding during times of great political interest in science — world war, food crises, the space race, etc. — which led to gluts in science infrastructure, including more scientists, which then require ongoing investment to continue. However, it was naive to expect that science funding would’ve steadily increased indefinitely into the future. With a declining economy, few pressing social issues to galvanize the public about supporting science, and a gradual erosion of trust, there’s not much reason to be optimistic about the future of funding.

I want to go back to the idea of ostentatiously celebrating scientists to bolster public support for science and explain something that many in the upper echelons of science seem not to understand. There was already a deep reservoir of appreciation and admiration for science and scientists that was built up over hundreds of years of dedicated work and relatively recent attempts by scientists to connect with the public through popularization. We already had science celebrities like Einstein, Sagan, and Hawking who made the average person feel connected to science in a personal way. So, what happened? What happened is that much of that celebrity and public goodwill was squandered over the last several decades by over-politicization, ideologizing, and corruption of science. If Lee and others have any interest in generating public support for science, they need to address and reverse these things.

As far as I can see, the most pressing PR problems for science are:

  1. The politicization of science
  2. The use of science as ideological weaponry
  3. Corruption in science
  4. The over-sensationalizing and misreporting of science by the popular media
  5. The dumbing down of education

1. When the average person is told that, in spite of his concerns and reasonable skepticism, he must alter his lifestyle because of something he’s not allowed to question without being labeled a science denier, he feels disconnected from science. This started when certain scientists and their supporters began using language like, “the debate is over” and “there is a consensus” to shut down discussion. This is bad. It has to stop.

2. When the average person is told that science is hostile to his most cherished beliefs, he feels disconnected from science. This began at least as far back as Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s infamous “bulldog,” who deliberately misused the theory of evolution to undermine Christian belief by claiming that evolution had rendered God superfluous. This has unfortunately continued not only in biology, but in physics, as well with Stephen Hawking trading in his admirable career as a physicist and popularizer of science in order to become an anti-religious amateur philosopher. This isn’t to say scientists shouldn’t have their own opinions about the philosophical meaning of their work, but they should certainly be circumspect about using their work as a way to attack the dominant belief system of the people who fund it.

3. This one isn’t entirely the fault of scientists. The collapse of government funding bubbles has created a hyper-competitive environment that not only promotes the propagation of honest errors, but provides perverse incentives to cheat. This taints all of science, and creates an image problem with the public. Nobody wants to subsidize errors and fraud, after all. Ironically, logic dictates that the best way to deal with this is to eliminate government funding.

4. This one annoys scientists to no end. The media have a bad habit of grabbing hold of a mildly interesting scientific result and blowing it wildly out of proportion, mostly to get clicks and more ad revenue, but sometimes to reinforce an anti-religion bias. A recent example of this was the ludicrously over-sensationalized headline that physicists had disproved the big bang and a beginning to the universe.

I contacted a physicist whose results had been given this media treatment, and, contrary to how the reporter had spun the article, he expressed confusion and frustration over how his work had been misrepresented to serve an anti-religion narrative. This is why I won’t talk to the popular media about my work anymore unless the journalist is a credentialed scientist and the journal has an established track record of scientific accuracy. But other scientists keep falling for it, because they’re far too trusting of the media.

Again, when the average person is told that science is hostile to his most cherished beliefs, he feels disconnected from science. Furthermore, the average person, though he may not have advanced training in science, also has a sense of when he’s being sold a bill of goods. Frustrated, he may not realize it’s the pop media that can’t be trusted, and he just tosses everything out as untrustworthy. This won’t stop until scientists start refusing to feed the madness and hold the media accountable.

5. Schools are failing to teach children not only essential skills and knowledge of facts, but how to think critically. Most young people can recite at least the most basic scientific facts — for instance, they know that the Earth goes around the Sun — but given my experience, most of them have no idea how science works. The Pew survey results likewise indicate that both scientists and average Americans hold a negative view of STEM education at the K-12 level. Until this changes, it’s unreasonable to expect that science will not continue to decline in this country.

Unless something significant changes, I’m skeptical that the decline in government funding will be reversed. Personally, I would prefer some version of private support — I think it encourages better research and accountability — but, whatever your preference, it’s extremely doubtful that we can reverse this trend by trying to manufacture a culture of celebrity around scientists. Rather, I think we should deal with the core issues of science’s PR problem, and make Americans once again feel connected to the enterprise of science. Then, maybe, we can make science in America great again.

Tone-policing and the need for rhetoric


As some of you have noticed, I’ve adopted a policy of dealing harshly with some commenters both here and on social media. Understandably, this makes some of you who are less experienced in debating uncomfortable: I’ve had a few readers interpret my responses as “reflexive” and “defensive,” and suggest I take a more gentle approach. This is what we refer to in the biz as “tone-policing,” and I’ll explain to you why it’s misguided at best.

As I recently pointed out to a reader who was uncomfortable with my rhetorical approach, it’s neither reflexive nor defensive, it’s a deliberate policy of using harsh appeals to emotion to deal with people who can only be reached this way. Christians who have never done any practical ministry of their own tend to hold the naïve opinion that atheists are honest truth-seekers who just haven’t yet found the truth because of bad luck. If that were the case, then my responses would indeed be needlessly harsh, and gentle reason would be the right approach. However, the assumption of honest truth-seeking is often wrong. Yes, there are honest truth-seeking atheists, and I’ll willingly engage them in civil dialogue; however, experience has sadly shown that such people are in the minority in blog comments and on social media. I’ve engaged in countless debates on serious topics for the last fifteen years, and in that time have become skilled at recognizing when people are not arguing in good faith, but rather are using deceptive techniques to lead people astray, to delude themselves, or to just stir the pot for their own amusement. Others are simply unable to argue on the facts and evidence, because they are driven almost entirely by emotion. It’s a waste of time to attempt to engage any of these people using gentle reason; they will only respond to appeals to emotions, which often necessitates being harsh and caustic.

It’s unfortunate, because I don’t particularly like rhetoric or being harsh. I would much prefer to engage in civil dialectic, but as Aristotle pointed out thousands of years ago, there is a certain type of person who is immune to anything but appeals to emotion. Trying to use gentle reason with such a person is about as effective as trying to explain something in Korean to someone who only understands French.

Now, as to the discomfort some of you feel when you see me responding to critics with harsh rhetoric, it would be instructive to go back to scripture and examine the way in which Jesus and Paul responded to deceivers and manipulators. As some of my friends are fond of pointing out, Jesus was not above overturning tables when it was called for. Western Christians in particular seem to have forgotten this, and have instead become fixated on niceness at all costs. For those of you who insist that niceness is the only way to persuade people of the truth, consider that if this were true, mainline churches in the West wouldn’t be hemorrhaging members. I encourage you to study Paul’s commentaries in the original Greek—he uses language that is far harsher and saltier than anything you will ever likely see from me. And it’s worth considering that Church growth was explosive during times when Christians were far more likely to be harsh defenders of the truth than Ned Flandersesque disciples of niceness.

Defending truth is uncomfortable business. If my responses to certain people make you uncomfortable and you notice a lot of flak flying around, that’s a good indicator that I’m right over the target. Rejoice, because this is an opportunity for the truth–even just a little bit–to find its way in.

“There is no God” is a positive statement

You’ve probably encountered atheists who say, “There is no God” and then insist that the burden of proof is on you, the believer, to prove it wrong since you’re the one claiming that God exists.

That’s not how it works.

Atheists frequently confuse “positive” (philosophy) with “affirmative” (grammar), which is why they think “There is no God” isn’t a positive statement. That’s how they try to push the burden of proof to the God-believer after they make their claim.

“There is no God” is a negative statement in the grammatical sense, but the opposite of this — grammatically — is not a positive statement, but rather an affirmative statement. An affirmative statement in grammar is a statement that asserts the truth of something. Its opposite is a negative statement, which asserts falsity. For instance, “George Washington was the first President of the United States” is an affirmative statement, while “Benjamin Franklin was not a President of the United States” is a negative one. They are, however, both positive statements in the philosophical sense.

A positive statement in philosophy is a statement that is (at least ostensibly) based in fact and is subject to empirical testing. Some examples of positive statements:

“The average donut contains 500 calories.”

“There is no eighth continent.”

“Dinosaurs once existed on Earth.”

“The Earth is flat.”

Note that the statement doesn’t have to be affirmative or even true to be a positive statement, it just has to be based in fact and subject to testing. For instance, “There is no eighth continent” is a positive statement, because it makes a factual claim that is subject to testing. If a person were to make such a claim, he would then be obligated to show evidence of its truth. Satellite images of the Earth’s surface clearly showing only seven continents would suffice. “The Earth is flat” is a positive statement — it’s ostensibly based on fact and it’s subject to testing — even though it’s demonstrably false.

Positive statements that assert the non-existence of something are notoriously difficult to prove, which is why people don’t often make them, at least not seriously. While few people would contest the statement, “There are no rainbow-farting unicorns,” it’s actually difficult to prove, since you would have to have knowledge of everything everywhere on Earth to do so. This is why savvier atheists don’t fall into the trap of stating that there is no God. They will instead say that God’s existence is doubtful, laughable, risible, etc., which they know are much more supportable statements than God doesn’t exist.

“There is no God” is a positive statement. Whoever makes such a claim therefore has the burden of proof. If anyone denies this, he doesn’t understand the difference between positive and affirmative statements — or he thinks you don’t know the difference. If you find yourself with an argumentative atheist making this statement, point out his error and give him the opportunity to either retract it or to supply the proof.

Fire Back: Where the Readers Respond

In which we discuss the specific ‘scientific’ reason for my conversion to Christianity.

LC writes:

Thank you for making the story of your conversion to Christianity public.  I am a Christian apologist who is using your story as a discussion point in a meetup I am holding.  One of the atheists that is attending is asking what specific scientific reasons (not philosophical or theological) you found most compelling in your conversion.  The article mentions your work on deuterium abundances as well as your amazement that the universe is comprehensible.  Do you have any other scientific reasons that I could share with the group that you find compelling?

My conversion was a two-step process that took place over many years. I first went from atheism to theism, and then after a few years, I went from theism to Christianity. The former was completely unexpected; the latter was a very deliberate process.

You will have to explain to your atheist attendee that you cannot separate science from philosophy, so there was no ‘purely scientific’ reason for my conversion. What specifically led me to believe in God was the idea best expressed by Einstein when he said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.”

Through my research in cosmology, I got an overwhelming sense of a universe that is so rational that it’s as though it wanted to be understood. I had a specific question I was trying to answer with my research — how much of the universe is comprised of ordinary matter* — and it shocked me when I realized not only how answerable the question was, but that there was no reason it had to be this way. How is it even possible to have a rational universe without some kind of rational cause? I realized that by far the best explanation for the existence of the universe is that it was caused by a personal, rational, transcendent being of some kind. At that time, I called this personal cause “God,” but didn’t have any specific religious beliefs beyond God as the Creator.

Note that this is not a God of the gaps argument or an argument from incredulity, which is how atheists often try to spin it. It’s simply the most rational explanation, and I had no choice but to accept it on that basis. If you want to understand this explanation in greater depth, William Lane Craig has some good articles and videos on the philosophical argument that the cause of the universe has to be a personal being.

It was that realization that took me from atheism to theism. What took me from theism to Christianity was mostly Gerald Schroeder’s book, The Science of God, which I highly recommend. After reading the first four chapters in particular, I reasoned that the odds of Genesis not being divinely inspired were so low as to be effectively impossible. Once I realized that Genesis was, contra the odds, rather scientifically accurate for a thousands year-old document, I began investigating the rest of the Bible and specifically the evidence for the gospels. I came to the conclusion that the best explanation, given the evidence, is that the gospels were true, so I accepted Jesus on that basis.

* One of these days I’m going to write a post about the details of the research project and how it ultimately led to my conversion.

How (not) to argue with atheists

As a scientist who is Christian, I often get requests to help other Christians in their arguments with atheist friends and relatives. These requests are usually borne of desperation, because Christians often don’t know how to respond to scientific objections to Christian belief. However, enlisting the help of someone like me is almost always doomed to failure in these cases, and I’ll explain why.

Years ago, when I was a freshly-converted Christian, I got into a protracted argument with a militant atheist who was a retired engineer. For months, we went back and forth about the scientific validity of Genesis, about the reasonableness of miracles, about the historical evidence for Jesus. To my frustration, it went absolutely nowhere. I finally realized he wasn’t merely devoid of belief, as he claimed, but was deeply invested in the idea of the Bible being false. He’d read countless books purporting to debunk Christianity, which struck me as a bit odd for someone who insisted he simply lacked belief. He also got noticeably angry when talking about God, which, as I would gradually realize over many arguments, was a big tell. After months of arguing, I discovered the reason for his anger. His father and grandfather were bad men who had treated him very harshly when he was a young boy, and both died when he was still young. He recalled asking his Christian mother if his father and grandfather were going to heaven or hell. When she told him they were going to heaven and closed off all further discussion, he became angry and resentful. He never forgave God for failing to administer justice to his bad father and grandfather, and an atheist was born.

Many atheists have had similarly bad childhood experiences with religion, and became atheists when they were young. This is because children have a highly tuned sense of justice, and without a wise adult to help them put pain and disappointment into perspective, it can turn into anger and resentment toward God. Anything that is perceived as an injustice on the part of God — a failure to act on their behalf in a time of distress, a failure to punish someone for wrongdoing, or the failure to prevent a parent from abandoning them — is paid back with anger and denial. The scientific arguments against God are just cover for the anger, to give it an air of intellectualism.

The reason logical arguments don’t work against militant atheists is that you can’t logic someone out of an emotional belief.

My engineer acquaintance expressed his anger with God by actively rejecting anything to do with God and trying to convince others to do the same. That was the reason for the books debunking the Bible, the scientific arguments against God, and so on, in spite of his professed “mere lack of belief.” And that was the reason my rational arguments in favor of God and the Bible were ineffective with this man.

However, this is not true of all atheists. I was an atheist for many years, and my lack of belief wasn’t rooted in pain and anger, but in arrogance that was founded on childhood experiences. Growing up in a secular country with atheist parents, what little I observed of Christianity was from a great distance, it was extremely limited, and it was filtered through an adolescent mind. It left me thinking Christianity was silly and for the weak-minded. It took some maturing to humble my attitude, but mostly I came to believe in God by being exposed to evidence that Christianity was intellectually deep and consistent with what I observed in the world around me.

To be effective in an argument with an atheist, you have to first discern what forms the basis of his disbelief. Is it a casual sort of atheism that’s based on lack of convincing evidence? If so, present him with evidence. Is it an arrogant atheism based on preconceived but false ideas? If so, knock down the false ideas. If it’s an angry atheism based on a deep-rooted emotional experience, then you will not be able to convince him through even the most rational arguments and powerful evidence. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do with an angry atheist.

One of my colleagues is a converted Christian who says that in his angry atheist days, his favorite thing to do when arguing with Christians was to knock them off balance. He knew he couldn’t dissuade them from their beliefs with his arguments, so instead he’d try to get them to doubt just a little, knowing it would be a growing source of consternation to them. Christians can take a page from his book and likewise knock atheists off balance.

Most angry atheists like to assume a stance of intellectual superiority over Christians, so you can use that to knock them off balance. Present them with this list of Christians who are in science and tech and note how many of them are also Nobel laureates. Present them with this collection of quotes about God and religion by great scientific minds (not all of them Christian). The reaction will be to wave their hands and say that it just goes to show it’s possible to be smart and believe stupid things, but that’s okay. You will have planted the seed of doubt, and it will grow.

There are other ways to knock atheists off balance, but it requires some skill in rhetoric. Rhetoric is an argument that appeals to the emotions rather than to the intellect, and with most people it has far greater power to convince than rational arguments. This is why so much of politics and advertising is based on rhetoric. So, don’t bother with rational arguments when dealing with an angry atheist — rhetoric is what you should use. If you want to master it, start with Aristotle.

Remember, always respond to atheists in a way that addresses the real problem:

  • respond to lack of evidence with evidence
  • respond to false notions with truth
  • respond to anger and superiority by knocking off balance and with rhetoric, and let God take care of the rest.


Weekly Psalm 19: The Heart of Cygnus

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — the heart of Cygnus.


Also known as IC 1318 or the Sadr region, this nebula lies at the heart of Cygnus the Swan, a summer constellation in the Northern hemisphere. IC 1318 is an emission nebula, ionized by the radiation from a nearby hot star.

The bright star on the left is Deneb (Alpha Cygni) and the bright star on the right is Sadr (Gamma Cygni), neither of which are actually part of the nebula, but lie partway between Earth and IC 1318. These stars are clearly visible to the naked eye, but the emission nebula is too faint to be seen without long exposures on a telescope.

The pink patches are ionized hydrogen gas, and the dark streaks are dust-infused gas blocking visible light from view.

Image credit:Bill Mark.

Backyard Astronomy: August 2016


Here are some fun astronomical events you and your family can enjoy in the month of August. All you need is an inexpensive telescope or binoculars for most of these events, but some of them are viewable with the naked eye.

August 12-13: Perseids Meteor Shower. Meteor showers occur when the Earth moves through a cloud of debris left behind by a comet. The Perseids are debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. As meteor showers go, this one is top-notch, producing many bright streaks and up to 60 meteors per hour at its peak. The shower runs every year from July 17th to August 24th, but will peak on the night of the 12th and the early morning of the 13th. Look in the direction of the constellation Perseus after midnight for your best chance.

August 16: Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation. Mercury will be at its greatest apparent distance (~27 degrees) from the Sun in the sky. It can be a little tricky to observe tiny Mercury as it follows the setting Sun on the Western horizon. The closer you are to the equator, the higher Mercury will be in the sky before it descends, and the easier it will be to see it.

August 27: Conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. You don’t want to miss this one. A conjunction occurs when two or more planets appear to overlap or come very close together in the sky. (Remember, in terms of their physical separations, these planets are still very far away from each other.) This conjunction will take place just after sunset, when Jupiter and Venus will appear less than a tenth of a degree away of each other on the sky. That’s super-close!

Weekly Psalm 19: Bode and the Cigar

Here is your weekly reminder of Psalm 19 — the galaxy pair, M81 and M82.


This galaxy pair is part of the M81 group, a collection of 34 galaxies that are all gravitationally bound to each other. These two galaxies (click the image to enlarge it) are particularly strongly attracted to each other, which has triggered some extreme activity in both.

The spiral galaxy on the left is M81, and is also referred to as Bode’s Galaxy, after J.E. Bode, who discovered it in the 18th century. Bode’s Galaxy has an active black hole in its center weighing in at 70 million times the mass of the Sun. The gigantic black hole is feeding on gaseous material that has spiraled down to the center of the galaxy, which causes it to shine very brightly. The galaxy on the right is M82, and is sometimes called the Cigar Galaxy because of its cigar-like shape, which is due to its gravitational interaction with M81. This interaction has triggered massive star formation in M82.

The galaxy pair appears in the Ursa Major constellation, and is relatively nearby at 12 million light-years away, making it a favorite of both professional and amateur astronomers. The M81 Group is a neighbor to the Local Group, which contains the Milky Way, and the two groups are part of the much larger Virgo Supercluster of galaxies.

Image credit:Anttler.