It is well known, and you have seen it demonstrated by the astronomers, that beside the extent of the heavens, the circumference of the earth has the size of a point; that is to say, compared with the magnitude of the celestial sphere, it may be thought of as having no extent at all.
– Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Book II, Section VII (Early 6th Century)
The sheer size of the universe hardly counts as new knowledge (as the quote from Boethius above demonstrates). What is new, however, is our ability to quantify, in some rough and general way, the size of the observable universe in relation to the size of the earth. That is one of the great accomplishments of modern astronomy.
Also new is the fact that some have attempted to take the size of the universe to be evidence against the existence of God. In particular, Nicholas Everitt, who teaches philosophy at University of East Anglia, presents an argument against the existence of God is his aptly named book, The Non-Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2004). Generally, Everitt’s argument from scale seeks to show that the probability of God’s existence is lowered by the evidence drawn from the size of the universe and the fact that much of the universe is inhospitable to life. However, there are reasons to think that Everitt’s argument from scale does not succeed in showing that the probability of theism is lower given such evidence.
What is the Argument? – A Precise Formulation
In the text, Everitt says that his argument “aims to show that the picture of the universe with which modern science presents us constitutes evidence against the truth of theism,” and he adds, on the next page, that “the nature of the universe revealed by modern science gives us reason to reject traditional theism.” To quote the text precisely, Everitt gives a formal presentation of his argument:
(1) If the God of classical theism existed, with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him, then he would create a universe on a human scale, i.e., one that is not unimaginably large, unimaginably old, and which human beings from an unimaginably tiny part of it, temporally and spatially.
(2) The world does not display a human scale.
(3) There is evidence against the hypothesis that the God of classical theism exists with the purposes traditionally ascribed to him. (from 1 & 2)
The argument, being a straightforward instance of modus tollens, is clearly deductively valid – such that if the premises are true, then we will be constrained to accept the conclusion of the argument. It seems pretty clear, that the universe doesn’t display a human scale (and that Everitt’s use of the term “world” doesn’t refer to our planet, but to the universe as a whole) – so, the second premise of the argument seems unobjectionable. But what is one to make of the first premise? The premise isn’t exactly clear on its own. What are the purposes “traditionally ascribed” to God – and how are those purposes relevant to the scale of the universe? Fortunately, for the reader, the material he presents prior to his statement of the argument makes his meaning relatively clear.
According to Everitt, traditional theism – or classical theism – presents us with a particular account of God’s purposes and properties. He writes:
Consider, first, the account of God’s nature and purposes with which theism presents us. Theism tells us that God is a being who is omnipotent and omniscient, wholly self-sufficient, with no needs, lacks, or deficiencies of any kind. … God decides to create a universe in which human beings will be the jewel. Although he will have care for the whole of his creation, God will have an especial care for human beings. … Because humans are the jewel of creation, the rest of the universe will be at least not unremittingly hostile or even indifferent to human flourishing. Even if the universe will not make such flourishing immediately and easily and painlessly accessible, it will make it at least accessible in principle for humanity at large.
He follows this with the claim that such a description would naturally lead us to find a universe of a particular kind. Specifically, Everitt thinks that this should lead one to expect to find a universe created on a human scale. By “human scale” Everitt has the following in mind:
In particular, traditional theism would lead you to expect human beings to appear fairly soon after the start of the universe. For, given the central role of humanity, what would be the point of a universe which came into existence and then existed for unimaginable aeons without the presence of the very species that supplied its rational? … But equally, you would not expect humans to arrive very long after the animals, for what would be the point of a universe existing for aeons full of animals created for humanity’s delectation, in the absence of any humans? Further, you would expect the earth to be fairly near the center of the universe if it had one, or at some similarly significant location if it did not have an actual center. You would expect the total universe to be not many orders of magnitude greater than the size of the earth. The universe would be on a human scale. You would expect that even if there are regions of the created world which are hostile to human life, and which are perhaps incompatible with it, the greater part of the universe would be accessible to human exploration.
Now that we see what Everitt means by “human scale” and by “traditional” or “classical” theism, we can see that the formulation that Everitt gives to his argument is incomplete. Given that by “traditional theism” or “classical theism,” Everitt means a theism in which humans are the most important thing in the universe (perhaps following God), we can give a complete statement of Everitt’s argument as follows:
(4) If the God of traditional theism exists, then God created humans to be the most important thing in the universe.
(5) If God created humans to be the most important thing in the universe, then God would create a universe on a human scale (that is, one that is not unimaginably large, unimaginably old, and which human beings form an unimaginably tiny part of it, temporally and spatially).
(6) The universe does not display a human scale.
(7) The God of traditional theism does not exist. (from 4, 5, and 6 by modus tollens twice)
That this really is the argument that Everitt intends is made plain by his use of the phrase – “the jewel of creation” – in reference to humanity. With an accurate statement of Everitt’s argument in hand, we have to ask ourselves two questions. First, does traditional theism entail that God created humans to be the most important thing in the universe? In other words, is premise (4) true? Second, even assuming that God created humans to be the most important thing (or among the most important things) in the universe – would it follow that the universe need to be on a human scale? In short, is premise (5) true? The answer to both of these question is "no" -- but in what follows we will be focusing solely on premise (4).
Does Traditional Theism Entail the Primacy of Humanity?
In discussing traditional theism, it becomes rather clear that Everitt really has in mind something like Christian theism or Biblical theism. For instance, Everitt writes:
These expectations are largely what we find in the Genesis story (or strictly, stories) of creation. There is, then, a logic to the picture of the universe with which the Genesis story presents us; given the initial assumptions about God, his nature, and his intentions, the Genesis universe is pretty much how it would be reasonable for God to proceed. Given the hypothesis of theism and no scientific knowledge, and then asked to construct a picture of the universe and its creation, it is not surprising that the author(s) of Genesis came up with the account which they did.
Moreover, as we’ve already seen, Everitt seems to think that an essential element of Christian theism is the view that humans are the most important element of God’s creation – as he says, humans are the “jewel of creation.” However, this issue bears a little further reflection. Nowhere in the account(s) of creation in Genesis – whether taken in a literalistic fashion or whether interpreted as conveying truths through symbols and images – does the text ever say that humans are the “jewel of creation” or that humans are the most valuable things in all of the created order. One simply finds the text lacking in any such pronouncements. Everitt appears to be inserting claims into the text that are not there. Given this, there is no reason to think that premise (4) is true.
However, one might respond (to that fact that that the text does not clearly state the claim of the superlative importance of humanity’s place in the created order) by saying that the text suggests strongly that humans are the most important thing in creation. After all, doesn’t the text say that humans are created in God’s own image – and doesn’t the text say that the creation of humanity was very good? The argument could be stated like this:
(8) According to Genesis, humans are created in God’s image.
(9) According to Genesis, God calls the creation of humans very good.
(10) If, according to Genesis, humans are created in God’s image and God calls the creation of humans very good, then humans are the most important thing in all of creation (i.e., humans are the jewel of creation).
(11) Therefore, according to Genesis, humans are the most important thing in all of creation (i.e., humans are the jewel of creation).
It is true that the Genesis text (whether interpreted literally or not) claims that humans are made in the image of God (see Genesis 1:27). However, premise (9) is false. According to Genesis, God doesn’t simply call the creation of humanity “very good.” Rather the text states: “And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). So, if the conclusion is to be reached then it must be reached on the force of premises (8) and (10) alone. But can these premises bear the dialectical weight placed upon them? It seems not. First, there is no reason think (based on the text alone) that humans are the only creatures in all creation that are created in God’s image – or that God’s creation is limited merely to what is described in the first two chapters of Genesis. At no point in the text is it stated that the accounts given there are exhaustive of God’s creative activity. Second, even if humans are the only beings in all of creation with the feature of being created in the image of God, being created in God’s image may imply something other than primacy of place. For example, being created in God’s image may merely imply that “human beings are not morally and spiritually neutral” rather than implying that humans have first position in the pecking order of importance. In fact, the Apostle Paul, who certainly had some familiarity with these passages from Genesis, instructively points out that it is not only humans that are being reconciled to God by the work of Jesus. Rather, Paul writes God has reconciled all things in heaven and earth to himself through the blood of Jesus’ cross (Colossians 1:28). In short, it is consistent to maintain both that humans are created in the image of God and that humans are not the most important element of God’s creation (regardless of whether or not humans are created in the image of God). In other words, it is consistent with traditional theism to say both that humans are created in the image of God and that humans are not the most important thing in the material universe. So, given the traditional Christian view, does an appeal to the Christian scriptures support the claim that humans are the most important element of God’s creation?. Given what’s been said, the answer to this is question rather clearly appears to be “no.” Even if (unknown to us) it happens to be true that humans are the most important objects of creation, the texts appealed to by Everitt simply do not give us any reason for claiming such a thing to be true or essential to traditional Christian theism. The upshot, then, is that Everitt has engaged in a rather cagey use of the straw man fallacy (that is, giving an implausible account of something when there are more plausible accounts of that position available).
While what has been pointed out thus far is alone sufficient to completely bulldoze Everitt’s argument, there's more that can be said against the argument. Specifically, there are good reasons to reject premise (5) of his argument -- so that even if humans were the most important thing in all of creation, it still wouldn't follow that we should expect the universe to be created on a human scale. But that is a discussion for another time (namely, Part 2 of this post).
 Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2004).
 Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2004), pages 213 and 214.
 Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2004), page 225.
 Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2004), page 215.
 Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2004), page 216.
 Robert P. Vande Kappell and John D. Currid, “The Old Testament: The Covenant Between God and Man,” in Building a Christian Worldview, edited by W. Andrew Hoffecker (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1986), page 18.