I’m struck by the wildly diverse views of life on Earth held by two books I’ve been reading lately. This is something that should strike any reader of religious scripture the moment he or she ventures out into the world of scientific literature. The two views of our place in the universe couldn’t be more different. The first is from the Qur’an:
“Have you not observed how God causes water to descend from the sky, making it flow as springs on the ground, then through it causes crops of diverse colors to sprout forth, then the crops dry out and you see them yellowing, then He turns all into stubble?” (trans. T. Khalidi)
The passage from the Qur’an is milder, less hectoring in tone than others I’ve mentioned on this blog. Don’t let that fool you. It’s buttressed by the same repetitive threats of hellfire and eternal pain for the unbeliever. You never have to go more than a paragraph from where you are to find them. In the Qur’an, there is a familiar omnipotent, benevolent (well, not really) and omniscient being who gets very offended when his little creations don’t blindly submit to his greatness. The fact that they don’t actually have to do anything in particular, behave in any particularly righteous way, abstain from noxious behaviour is telling here. It seems all that is expected of them is faith. That appears to me to be the entirety of the Qur’anic message. If you don’t have faith, if you live a perfectly good life by any other standard but deny the revelation of this book, you are destined for an eternity of punishment. And if you do have faith, and you happen as well to be a murderer, a liar and philanderer you will be rewarded with delectable fruits in heaven. The second is from Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot:
“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.“
The contrast here is clear enough.