Q: How Many Angels On The Head Of A Pin?

Posted by on November 16, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 6 comments

Image: Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (detail) via Wikipedia.

A: Zero.

That’s right, zero. How do I know? Well I can’t prove to you there aren’t angels on the head of a pin. Nor can I say for certain that there aren’t a million angels on the head of each pin in existence, but I can say with a high level of confidence that there are neither angels on pins, nor anywhere else for that matter.

Where did this idea come from?

The argument about angels and pins has its roots in an apparent discreditation of Thomas Aquinas and his treatise Summa Theologica, where he asks such questions as “Can several angels be in the same place at the same time?” Given the nature of angels, ie. of high intelligence but without any physical form, any amount of angels could be located in any one space at any given time. In other words, an infinite amount of angels could be sitting on my keyboard right at this very moment, and I wouldn’t know it. Of course this is all depending upon evidence that angels to exist at all, of which there is none.

What are angels?

According to the website CARM (Christian Apologetic & Research Ministry):

Angels are very active in the Bible and are used by God as messengers, warriors, and servants. The word “angel” comes from the Greek word angelos which means messenger. Angels are spiritual beings without bodies of flesh and bones, though they apparently have the ability to appear in human form (Gen. 19:1-22). Angels have many functions. They praise God (Isaiah 6:3), serve as messengers to the world (Luke 1:11-20, 26-38; Luke 2:9-14), watch over God’s people (Psalm 91:11-12), and are sometimes used as instruments of God’s judgment (Matt. 13:49-50).

According to the site Christian Answers, the origins of angels are thus (bolding is mine):

While the Scriptures give no definite figures, we are told that the number of angels is very great (Daniel 7:10; Matthew 26:53; Hebrews 12:22).

It appears that all angels were created at one time. No new angels are being added to the number. Angels are not subject to death or any form of extinction; therefore they do not decrease in number.

It seems reasonable to conclude that there are at least as many spirit beings in existence as there will have been human beings in all their history on earth.

It seems that by all definitions angels are not the spirits of the dead in their new-found heavenly forms, as many popular cultural stories would have you believe, but are in fact eternal spirits, and messengers to humanity from God.

In some new-age spiritual practices, the word “angels” describes a spiritual guide, a fairy-godmother if you will, that helps people through tough times with guidance and encouragement. These “angels” too, are never seen, and can only be “felt” to be around.

It is interesting, then, that these beings are invisible (sometimes showing themselves in human form), they only show themselves to singular people, or small groups, or in dreams. Angels are routinely mentioned in the bible, as messengers and heralds of God, but this makes them no more real than Cthulhu in the Lovecraft books.

But if angels are invisible, how do I know they don’t exist?

Well, I don’t, but I am not claiming angels don’t exist. I am claiming that since angels have never been proven to exist, and given their properties as intelligent beings with no physical form, have never been seen (outside of the human head), never been touched, tasted or measured, I can conclude that angels are the product of the mind, and therefore have little chances of existing in the physical world. One has to show evidence of the existence of such a being, or at least evidence that goes some way into proving that angels exist, before we can start asking questions about the physical nature of such a being.

But what about all the people who have claimed to see angels?

I can’t pretend to know what others claim to have seen, nor can I account for any altered states of mind they may have found themselves in when claiming to have seen angels, but as I said above, there is no proof, not one iota of proof, that angels exist.

A larger problem with the idea of angels is the human-centric nature of angels. Given the vastness of the universe, and the according to the Drake Equation, which is a rough estimate of the likelihood of there being other life in the universe other than that on earth, it is highly likely that life does in fact exist elsewhere. The likelihood of it being intelligent is lower again, and the likelihood of that life being vaguely anthropomorphic is even lower still. But the likelihood still stands at a very high number indeed. It is likely that there is another intelligent life-form elsewhere in the cosmos. Yet angels only talk to humans, for which the entire universe was created. I think alien intelligence would be right to be insulted by such a notion.

If angels don’t exist, why so many mentions of them throughout history?

Let’s take a step back and look at what angels are used to describe.

Angels are invisible intelligences, ones that bring comfort and messages to the corporeal humans on earth. They exist outside our understanding of the universe, and are therefore impossible to describe from the standpoint of a puny human mind. Angels are mentioned to describe flashes of inspiration, divine intervention, and messages from beyond this world. They always inhabit Bill O’Reilly’s “You can’t explain that!” space, one where a story is told with few witnesses, people with poor a understanding of the sciences, or among the faithful. Those who claim angels exist already believe they do whether they’ve encountered one or not. Angels are there when someone is cured from a disease (usually a disease that they are being treated for by traditional medical methods), or when a person wins the lottery (a lottery for which the person already bought a ticket). They always appear to a friend of a friend, or to someone in a trance. Angels rarely appear to those who do not believe in them, or who are not looking for a way out of their current situation. And they rarely appear at all.

It is safe to say then, that angels are a metaphor for the natural happenings around us that we lack the information at hand to explain.

Think about all religions and cults of the past and present, and ask yourself, “what do they all hold in common?” The main thing that sticks out is the unreasonable explanations of situations and happenings at the hands of “other-worldy” beings. These beings either cannot be seen, for they inhabit another sphere such as heaven or another dimension, or only show themselves to those “deemed worthy” to be messengers to the people. Allah revealed himself to a seventh century warlord named Mohammed, who happened to be looking for a way to bind his people together while under siege. God revealed himself to Moses at a time when he too was trying to bring his people together. Moroni revealed himself to Joseph Smith when Smith was trying to work out a way to make some money. These “other-wordly” beings are always endowed with unbelievable powers, some omnipotent and some just potent, but never have been known to be seen by larger groups of people. What does this say about these beings?

Throughout history mankind has struggled to explain the origins and reasons behind natural phenomena, claiming mountain ranges were carved from stone by a giant rainbow-coloured snake (as with the Aboriginal people of Australia, circa 40,000 years to the present), or that God caused a flood which covered the entire earth and only a handful of people were saved (as with the story of Noah). A sound in the night, like the howling of a woman or baby in torment, was credited to banshees (probably the wind), a missing set of keys was blamed upon elves (absent mindedness), and a strange “bump in the night” was called ghosts (a house settling as the air temperature changes in the evening). These answers were the only ones available to people who had little knowledge of the complexities of the world around them, and some continue to this day as common folklore, or more formally in religions.

We would call anyone who seriously claimed the that the earth is held on the back of the giant Atlas as either insane or delusional, yet people still believe in angels, in their intervention, and in their divine presence all around us. To me, “angel” is just shorthand for “I don’t know, but it’s nice to think I’m being looked after.”

But that doesn’t prove angels don’t exist.

Quite right, and it’s not my job to do so. It is the job of the claimant to prove the existence of that which they claim. I can’t disprove a negative claim, and neither can you. To make a decision on the existence of a being or object, look first at the evidence available. Look again at possible explanations as to how something may happen. What do we know? What can we know? What parts of the story lack detail or clarity (“I don’t know what happened next but…”), or include a section where the story-teller blacked out (“… and then I came to”)? In other words, use your brain to examine claims, not just your fanciful notions based on half-truths and vague stories.

So, how many angels on the head of a pin?

Again, I say, zero. There is no proof that any amount of non-existent entities could occupy any space. What do you think?

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6 Comments

  1. I’ve never really thought much about angels – they were never really emphasized much in my Protestant upbringing. But this post did get me thinking about their origins. It seems strange to have demigods of sorts in a monotheistic faith (assuming you don’t have an issue with the trinity). Here’s my brainfart theory: they were vestiges of syncretism. The key lies in their names. Michael and Gabriel are the main guys. Notably, their names end in “-el”. Which is a curious word of seeming Semitic extract. Bel or B’el or bel-prefix (e.g. bel-zebub) was a cognate implying ‘master’. Bel was associated with Marduk. A variant is B’al, coming from Hebrew, which became Ba’allah and ended up simply as ‘Allah. So my question is whether perhaps angels started out as separate gods and were assimilated into a single master (El), the eventual God of war of the Old Testament. From what I understand of Islam, Allah doesn’t have the exclusivity of the Christian God. Other gods are more like a poor representation of the true god, but

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  2. I’ve never really thought much about angels – they were never really emphasized much in my Protestant upbringing. But this post did get me thinking about their origins. It seems strange to have demigods of sorts in a monotheistic faith (assuming you don’t have an issue with the trinity). Here’s my brainfart theory: they were vestiges of syncretism. The key lies in their names. Michael and Gabriel are the main guys. Notably, their names end in “-el”. Which is a curious word of seeming Semitic extract. Bel or B’el or bel-prefix (e.g. bel-zebub) was a cognate implying ‘master’. Bel was associated with Marduk. A variant is B’al, coming from Hebrew, which became Ba’allah and ended up simply as ‘Allah. El-Shaddai was an import from Mesopotamia into Judaic lore. So my thought is that perhaps angels started out as separate gods and were assimilated into a single master (El), the eventual God of war of the Old Testament. Some of them retained thir separate status and became demi-gods. Others actually came to characterise the eventual nature of the final deity.
    It’s interesting to note that the Islamic god isn’t as exclusive as the Christian one. If you worship the wrong god, but are righteous, there’s a chance that the real God won’t mind because you were kind of worshiping him indirectly. A similar concept comes up in Pauline theology with the “what then of those who have not heard?…” clause in Romans. And then we end up with the addition of the trinity to Judaism, while retaining the angels. If only we could travel back and figure out where all this stuff came from.

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    • murraybiscuit

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  3. “What do you think?” asks the honorable Mr. Pribble. I think that this is an excellent post, full of incisive analysis, and with a superb conclusion, “To me, “angel” is just shorthand for “I don’t know, but it’s nice to think I’m being looked after.”
    But, you really should correct the flood reference to a “story of Noah” (instead of a “story of Moses”).

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  4. I think skeptics can treat the evidence for “elusive” beings differently to the evidence for “disembodied” beings.When somebody claims they saw an angel –and cannot show us their evidence– we find that testimony unbelievable because it’s far more likely they’re simply mistaken about whatever they think they saw or heard. Scientific research shows us how fallible our senses and brains are. Courtrooms recognise that eye-witness testimony is increasingly unreliable. We aren’t calling anybody a liar. It’s just that such incredible claims need more credible evidence than an eye-witness.
    Those who accept that angels have communicated with humans, we find unbelievable because –despite the countless stories told throughout history– it’s far more likely that all non-human minds that exist in this world will turn out to be embodied. That is, physical with moving parts like a living brain …or something very like it. Scientific research reveals the answer to body-mind dualism. It’s false.

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  5. Well done Martin.  It seems that skepticism, or perhaps, just basic critical thinking, is something that we often have to explain over and over again.  The concept of evidence is also important.  People will generally accept religious claims with far less evidence than they would any other area in their lives.  I think most people know how to do it, but fail to apply to their gods, angels, and other religious areas. 
    I think it was also important that you flush out the idea that is not our job, as atheists, do disprove things like angels, but rather the theist to provide evidence for their existence.

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