Saturday, May 1, 2010

This place is far scarier than I thought

I've been watching a lot of nature and science documentaries lately, being reminded forcibly of all those little-kid wonders about life: how huge the universe is, how huge the Earth is, how huge even a foothill is compared to a human, what an incomprehensibly bizarre phenomenon organic life is, yet how amazingly obvious—even inevitable—it seems. I've also been thinking a lot about how life, for most life forms, ends really quite badly: either you starve, or you die of disease, or you're eaten alive, mercilessly, pitilessly, torn apart by horrible teeth. That thought started to ferment a lot when I heard someone in one of these documentaries say something like

Right now, across Africa, thousands of wildebeest are dying a terrible, cruel death in the jaws of predators.

No way. Thousands? I know that the herds number in the millions, but come on, how many predators are there? I checked it out: tens of thousands of lions live in Africa now, and it is estimated that well into the hundreds of thousands lived there just 50 years ago. If I just think about a hundred thousand lions, then all the other predators that live nearby: hyenas, cheetahs, crocodiles, hunting dogs, birds of prey, I am overwhelmed by the sheer numbers. There are millions upon millions of animals in the world right now, every one of them doomed to die horribly. Scale that up by thinking back, how many breeding seasons would that be for most mammals? That many years. Mammals took over from the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Dinosaurs occupied all the ecological niches now held by mammals, and they lasted 130 million years. Archosaurs were there for 130 million years before the dinosaurs. Jesus. Just counting land and sky animals big enough for us to care about, it's painful to contemplate.

If I could train a thousand squirrels to lie nose-to-tail in a long line, I could walk from one end of that line to the other in about three minutes and 47 seconds. If I could train a million, the walk would take a bit longer: 63 hours seven minutes. In other words, almost three solid days, day-and-night walking, no stopping. Land and sky animals big enough for me to notice that they can suffer have been around for over 300 million years. That's two full years and two months of walking, non-stop. Every one of those squirrels you just walked by died in pain and suffering. But that's nothing. For every single one of them, there are millions upon millions of other creatures living at the same time, dying just as cruelly. Oof. Human suffering, the really nasty stuff we experience at each others' hands, is literally brand-new.

I've heard people complain that there's too much suffering in the world, but I think that perhaps I've never really thought about the suffering, never really tried to grasp how much there really is. There's an awful lot. I can see vividly now why people would say that all the suffering in the world proves that there is no god. I can see that anyone claiming to be in charge would have a lot of explaining to do.

I think I just took another big step toward being an atheist. Yahweh just now appeared to me in a vision as a wizened old dude herding camels in the desert and trying to impress his buddies around the campfire.

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