Yes, Inability to Do Math Results in Being Deeply Religious

Yes, Deeply Religious Persons Are Comparably Weaker At Doing Math

Yes, Deeply Religious Persons Are Comparably Weaker At Doing Math

A lot of deeply religious people, content to live in a compact, human-centered universe, are able to do so largely in proportion to their inability to do math

Of course, they can add and subtract, maybe even still do some algebra, but they are woefully lacking in the tools necessary to understand the numbers that describe the cosmos.

As a result, they can’t begin to grasp the mind-boggling immensity of the universe and what that implies for the ancient god myths. It is a sad manifestation of what John Allen Paulos wrote about in his enlightening book, Innumeracy

Innumeracy is the mathematical equivalent of illiteracy and, although many people joke about their own inability to do math, it actually has real, adverse effects on the ability to understand the universe in a rational manner.

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Religious people are weak at math

It has less to do with the ability to do long division than it has to do with the ability to understand the scale and logical relationships.

A more practical consequence is that those who are unable to judge or even think about, numerical relationships may find themselves more easily fooled by misinformation or deceived by charlatans. Like televangelists. 

If one has no mental tools for the validation of claims, then one is likely to believe in some really stupid shit. 

A lot of ancient beliefs envision a small, intimate universe, one which extended only from some very toasty underground real estate to someplace above the clouds but below the canopy of stars. 

Some even thought the stars could be reached with a tall enough tower. Some thought that it was possible to fly too close to the sun. Some thought it was turtles all the way down. 

But everyone thought the universe centered around us and was, more or less, set up just for us. That is how men, unequipped with the knowledge and technology now available to us, thought the universe worked 3,000 years ago. 

I think that dispelling that myth requires only a gentle lesson about the size of the universe, requiring nothing more than a calculator and a sense of awe. 

Millions and Billions

First, a simple lesson in scale. A million is the smallest increment on the cosmic yardstick. And a million, to us, is really a lot! 

To illustrate, let's look at a million of something. Something easy to understand. Like seconds. 1,000,000 (one million) seconds = 11 days, 13 hours, 46 min, and 40 sec. 

Let's call it 11.5 days for convenience. 1,000,000,000 (one billion) seconds = 11, 500 days or 31.5 years! One billion seconds ago, Jimmy Swaggart was telling people that the Bible was the greatest science book ever written. 

And banging prostitutes in Louisiana motels

But I digress. Anyway, on to…

The Size of the Universe!

Let’s look at our nearest star, the sun, as a big yellow beach ball three feet in diameter. We will start all our measurements from there. 

If the sun were a beach ball sitting on the goal line at Sun Devil Stadium, the earth would be a tiny round piece of pea gravel 93 yards away (93 million miles). 

Mars would be a little orange bead almost 400 feet away in the seats behind the goal post (142 million miles). Jupiter would be a baseball just over one quarter-mile away (484 million miles). 

Saturn would be a tennis ball about on half-mile away (888 million miles). Pluto, smaller than our moon, would be a pinhead almost two and a half miles away (3.67 billion miles). 

BTW, to drive out to Pluto at 60 miles per hour would take you 6,975 years. After that, things start getting bigger in a hurry. 

The nearest star, Alpha Centauri at a distance of 4.3 light-years, would be a slightly smaller beach ball, in Sydney, Australia, 12,440 miles away. 

Driving time at 60 miles per hour: 47.6 million years. If one year were one second long, it would still take you a year and a half to drive there. 

The nearest spiral galaxy, the lovely Andromeda, is a mere two million light-years away. Like our galaxy, the Milky Way, Andromeda is approximately 100,000 light-years in diameter and contains over 200 billion stars. 

If the Milky Way were a house, Andromeda would be another house four football fields away. If you were driving at one million miles an hour, it would take you six million years to drive across our galaxy 120 million years to get to the outskirts of Andromeda. 

The Milky Way is one of about 20 galaxies in our local cluster which, in turn, is part of the local supercluster that contains thousands of galaxies. 

The farthest observed galaxy would be another house 2,000 miles away. Driving at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second or 11 million times the speed limit, it would take you over 12 billion years to get there. 

If the sun were a grain of sand, the stars in our galaxy would fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. If our galaxy were a grain of sand, the galaxies would fill several Olympic-size swimming pools. 

From Where We Sit

From where we sit, we can see well over 100 billion galaxies beyond our own. On average, they each have over 100 billion stars and other stuff. 

And that is just the stuff we can see from here. I don’t see any reason to think that everything suddenly stops just past that galaxy. 

So, as you can see, the universe is, in scientific terms, freakin’ huuuge! I think that a lot of the adamantly religious have an institutionally mandated and studiously maintained level of ignorance regarding not just the size of the universe, but also our relative importance in it. 

I personally do not find myself diminished by it; I find it the most fascinating thing imaginable. Perspective Isaac Asimov put things in perspective in the title of his sci-fi novel The Stars Like Dust

Even looking around in our local neighborhood, the stars are, in some places, so numerous they look like haze. 

Bertrand Russell, in his book Why I Am Not A Christian, says (and I am paraphrasing) that our inflated sense of self-importance and placement in the universe can best be cured with a little astronomy. 

But I think P.W. Atkins, in a remarkable little book called, ironically, Creation Revisited, opened up a whole new perspective when he called the universe “a local outcropping of matter.” 

That is the kind of scale and perspective that shows the ancient god-myths for what they truly are: local outcroppings of lunacy.

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Rick Wingrove is head of Beltway Atheists, Inc. and Virginia State Director of American Atheists.

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