A program of the Center for Inquiry
Theists are sort of desperate. Back in the old days, believing in a creator was pretty much automatic. But today in an age where science has removed the need for supernatural explanations for our existence and religion is in overall popular decline here and abroad, believers in the supernatural are trying to come up with technical reasons why folks should believe in magical entities. Among these propositions is that the very cosmos is “fine-tuned” for the presence of intelligent life. Another minor but pertinent thesis is also based on extraterrestrial events, such as the existence of eclipses. One such solar eclipse will sweep across the United States on August 21 for the first time since 1979. The conceit is that it is too much to expect people to accept that the extreme beauty of total eclipses, which can occur only at those particular times that the Moon is precisely the right distance between the Earth and the Sun equals exactly the apparent diameter of the latter, is a mere coincidence. After all, surely the precision of the spacing cannot be anything other than a sign to us—his creations—from God that he is the real and awesome true creator of our solar system.
And/or, an eclipse crossing a particular nation is not merely a sign of his reality but is a divine message—and perhaps a warning—to the sinful inhabitants of that land, even though these things are way long prescheduled.
It’s all a bunch of hooey. Here’s why.
In an actual example of when worlds collide, the Moon was formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago very probably after a Mars-sized object whacked into the proto-Earth. At first, the new Moon was extremely close to our similarly molten planet, just beyond the zone in which tidal forces would have ripped the satellite to pieces. Due to gravitational effects involving tidal forces, the Moon has always been spiraling away from Earth. At first very rapidly, then more slowly, down to around an inch a year in more recent astrogeological times. By the way, the fact that the Moon is currently gravitationally where it should be, if it has been spiraling away for 4.5 billion years, is actually yet another piece of evidence that the solar system is not a few thousand years old.
Also, the Earth is very slowly spiraling away from the Sun due to a combination of tidal effects and our star shedding a tiny fraction of a percent of its mass via all those photons and the solar wind heading into interstellar space. Plus the Sun is expanding by around 5 percent every billion years as fusing hydrogen into helium in the core causes the star’s temperature to rise. While we are at it, note that unlike the Moon, the Sun does not actually have a surface. It’s just a gradually increasingly dense concentration of gas with no sudden increase in density. What we perceive as the surface is just the bottom of the zone of transparency, the photosphere being where the gaseous density is just low enough to render the photons that have been very gradually working their way outward finally free to zip away unhindered at the speed of light. So a total eclipse is really an illusion of a gas and light—we’re being gas-lighted folks.
For a long time, the young Moon was too close to Earth to produce the same apparent diameter total eclipses that wow us humans—and having seen the eastern seaboard 1970 total eclipse, I can verify they are mind blowing in a way that can only be understood by seeing one of the darn things. But when the seemingly big Moon covered the apparently smaller Sun disc, it must have been pretty spectacular and would have lasted for much longer than what we get today, which never exceeds much more than seven minutes and is usually much less. It won’t be much more than two minutes this August. That began to change a few hundred million years ago. Not being perfectly circular as premodern godly star gazers assumed they should be, the orbits of the Earth and Moon are both modestly elliptical, and the plane of the Earth-Moon orbit is tilted over five degrees relative to that of the Sun-Earth. So when the Moon was at its greatest distance from the Earth at the same time the Earth was at is closest to the Sun—I think I got that right—and at the same time the plane of the two orbits coincided, the first same apparent diameter total eclipses started in the Paleozoic or early Mesozoic; exactly when is hard to calculate because neither the changing size of the Sun nor the outward spiraling of the Earth can be precisely estimated. Had human-level intelligent dinosaurs existed, they might have gotten all giddy about the astronomical happenstance being evidence for a supernatural creator.
These days, the peak of total eclipses has already passed. Currently, the Moon’s orbit has enlarged a little farther than is optimal for producing total eclipses at maximum rates, which occurred back in the late Cenozoic era before hominines were available to make up deities. As it is, about 60 percent of eclipses occur when the Moon is sufficiently far away that a brilliant ring of sunlight encircles the entire Moon—that’s one reason why total eclipses are so rare—and if the Earth and Moons orbits were perfectly circular, all eclipses would be annulars. Annular eclipses are sort of impressive, but nowhere near as jaw dropping as a total eclipse; they cannot be looked at directly with the naked eye, and because the sky remains fairly well lit up, neither the solar corona nor stars show up. But don’t fret too much. For at least six hundred million to over a billion years, total eclipses will still occur; just how long they will last depends in part on the uncertain rates that apparent diameter of the Sun increases as it heats up and our planet spirals away. After that, all solar eclipses will be annular, which will be taken as evidence that God is dead perhaps.
Ergo, the fact that total eclipses occur every once in a while is merely the happenchance of the Moon having spiraled out far enough from Earth over the eons to produce them—because the Earth and Moon orbits within this naturally sloppily structured solar system are elliptical rather than perfect circles. Total eclipses are occurring over a geologically very long period that will span around a fifth of the existence of the solar system by the time total eclipses cease, and they happen to have seen the evolutionary appearance of intelligent beings that tend to make up and then try to come up with evidence for unsubstantiated creation stories. That the peak occurrence rate of the most impressive eclipses has already passed reinforces that there’s nothing deeply special or at all unnatural about Sun-Moon match ups; it’s a quirk with a substantial chance of occurring. The correlation would only be in any way remarkable if the Earth and Moon orbits were truly circular and, as the Moon spiraled away, were spaced just the way they would need to be for we humans to see consistent totalities rather than mostly annulars. Even then it could be put down to being one of those meaningless coincidences of existence. Even if the solar system is just a few thousand years old as the young-Earthers believe—which would negate the factor of the Moon slowly spiraling away into its current orbit—the fact that most eclipses are annular, and all would be so if the orbits were perfect circles, discredits the perfect intelligent designer theory. When all is said and done, the thesis that total eclipses are evidence for a creator is about as wimpy as you can get. Kind of sad, actually.
Now, let us assume the following: all the orbits of the planets and moons are in exactly the same plane; the orbits of all the planets and the moons are circular, and their spacing followed obvious and very regular ratio patterns; a year is exactly 360 days long—no extra hours, minutes, or seconds, exactly 360 days—and the lunar month is precisely thirty days so there are twelve months exactly. Aside from being nicely convenient calendar wise, all that would be pushing coincidence way beyond its logical, natural origins limits. Such meticulous planning and construction of the solar system would constitute solid evidence for the existence of an intelligent designer of immense power. As it is, we dwell in a sloppy solar system that is fully and far more compatible with natural origins than with careful design, and the fact that we get some total eclipses thrown in is a trivial fact that theists offer up because they have little or no real evidence to offer.
Wrapping this up by looking at the really big picture, it’s important to understand that the “beautiful total eclipses should be seen as compelling evidence of God” thing is part of a greater cover-up conspiracy. Theists have long been working to get us to focus on the supposed sheer existence of a creator via the beauty of our Lord’s creation. That’s because they don’t want us to pay due and necessary attention to the deeply dark underside of their proposed super intelligence. The universe may be pretty, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, is correspondingly arbitrary, and can cover profound dysfunction or evil. Far from the universe being truly fine-tuned for intelligent life, it is in many respects hostile to it, to the degree that Earth is a toxic blue dot so infested with lethal microbes that diseases have killed off half of humans born, to the tune of fifty billion dead children. There is nothing pretty about that.
Let us assume the following: children are immune to diseases, so that few if any die young, rather than the 20,000–30,000 that will die around the globe on August 21. Such a world would be pushing happenstance way beyond its logical, natural cause limits. Such benign protection of the lives of the most vulnerable and innocent would not only constitute solid evidence for the existence of a truly intelligent designer of immense power, it would demonstrate that the entity really is ethical and actually cares about the free will of humans. As it is, we dwell on a kid-killing planet that regardless of its awe-inspiring aspects—including total eclipses—is fully and far more compatible with amoral natural origins than with loving design, and there is nothing trivial about that terrible fact.
Gregory J. Paul is an independent researcher, analyst, and author, and a Free Inquiry columnist.