LIFE CAN BE WONDERFUL
It must have been twenty years ago when my daughter Sarah and I were talking one evening and she said “Dad, when I look up at the mountains or the night sky I feel so small. Insignificant. Like nothing.” She was only about 12 years old at the time, and her angst wasn’t surprising. Many of us have such feelings when we face the immensity of space and the stars, the vast face of a mountain, or the rolling expanse of the sea. If we compare our physical size against such immensity we are indeed seemingly insignificant, less than ants staring down an elephant. But that feeling of smallness is the product of only one, very limited point of view, and given what we now know about ourselves and our place in the cosmos it is not very relevant.
Even two decades ago, I had enough insight to reply to Sarah, “You are the most complex system in nature.” I then attempted to convey that as part of the web of life on Earth, and a very beautiful member of one of the most complex species in that network, she was far more intriguing, rare, and wonderful than any star or mountain. The stars are just big globs of gas collapsing and fusing under their own weight; mountains mere piles of stone pushed up by tectonic forces. They are indeed magnificent and awesome, but lacking a nervous system they are unable to think, play the violin as Sarah does, invent, write, speculate, measure, create music, poetry or mathematics. The stars cannot look at each other and wonder or, large as they are, even feel insignificant or grand. What would it be like to be a star or a mountain? Not much different than being a stone or being dead. No awareness or thoughts, no emotions, no sensations.
We humans can observe, reason about what we see, and explain our insights to each other. And that ability to see, measure, reason, and communicate reveals ever more about us and this universe with each passing year, reveals more and more about how marvelous we are, how rare and improbable, and how wonderful. The intricate, interwoven patterns of life on Earth are the facets of a jewel in the cosmos. And only the human pattern, the most complex of these aggregates of atoms, these systems of chemically communicating cells, can puzzle out the rules, laws, and history that made us and the universe what we are. No star can do that; no mountain can attempt to decipher the riddle of its own existence.
What is the point of all this? Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, in his memorial to Christopher Hitchens wrote that “rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor” (NY Times December 17, 2011). This remark has stuck in my craw these last 12 months and is very far from the truth, betraying an almost laughable ignorance. It is typical of the remarks made by the conservative religious community about secular humanism and atheism. Such remarks are made with no data to back them up, just flat statements of dogma without justification.
Indeed, it is very easy to make the opposite case, as Hitchens did in his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, that religion casts a wasting pall over existence. It isn’t atheists who denigrate all humanity as miserable sinners, terrorizing children with threats of eternal hellfire and endless torment. And it isn’t atheists who claim that this life is only a painful proving ground for the next, warning that lest we spend our lives groveling in preparation for meeting a vengeful and capricious maker he may visit us with tsunamis and massacres of children. If those aren’t part of an enervating cloud darkening existence, I don’t know what is.
A view of existence based on evidence and reason rather than divine magic demonstrates that we are marvelous and precious creatures in our own right, far more astonishing and rare than anything depicted in creation myths or fantasies given in any antiquated text. The story of us is far more fascinating than any ancient fable. The evidence, after all, shows no trace of an all powerful creator, but tells a 14-billion-year-long tale of chaotic explosions, collapsing stars, expanding space, warping space-time, black holes and cosmic jets, serendipitously spawning a tiny island of order that eventually produced us, unique in all this universe. The atheist sees that life is rare and precious, something to be cherished and celebrated, not wasted ranting in hatred against our fellows over doctrinal differences or sexual orientation, or groveling before an imaginary deity.
To understand how rare and precious we are, we need only understand what the evidence demonstrates, that we came about through biological evolution from simpler forms of life. That evolution is driven through random mutation and non-random selection by the environment when the mutations occur. That randomness provides a set of choices for survival, and that randomness makes us unique in this cosmos. If evolution is happening on other worlds, the random mutations ensure that non-random selection has a completely different set of survival choices on each world. Life on no two worlds will be alike, and the complex creatures that might result on each planet will be quite different. The species of Earth are therefore unique. We are the only humans in this cosmos, and we may be the only highly intelligent species in it. We are certainly almost infinitely rare.
Sure, our individual lives are limited and sometimes brief, but that brevity doesn’t make them any less wonderful or marvelous. Certainly, many of us suffer horribly in our short lives, but that doesn’t diminish or make them less precious. Knowledge of the ephemeral nature of life, our mutual suffering and predicament, our astonishing origin, and the potential in each and every human brain must cultivate compassion and a positive humanism.
This year (2012) we celebrated my granddaughter’s first birthday with my daughter and her husband. At the party I marveled as I watched them, tall, beautiful, intelligent, and compassionate holding their own perfect little girl. My complete lack of religious belief cast no shadow over the love and awe that I felt at that moment. On the contrary, that lack of belief gave me a clear understanding of how lucky I am and how wonderful life can be.
Reprinted from our January 2013 newsletter
I missed Jared Anderson’s presentation of Humanism 101 last month. Fortunately, we now record speaker presentations and make them available via our website, so I watched it. Jared did a great job and expressed some ideas that I had not thought of. First, he talked about a Geek Culture where organized religions are inherently humanistic because they were created by and for humans. Yes, they get a little confused sometimes about what is and is not important but basically organized religions are about humanism! One of the first things I thought about was watching the 1988 PBS six-episode series, The Power of Myth, where Bill Moyers interviewed the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell. One of the main takeaways from this series is that every known culture, past and present, has a Creation Myth and that these myths have many common features. I’m not sure if the “original” myth is known. It is, however, understood that they all grew from a basic framework. There is almost always a Deity (creator), and the stories often involve a tree with special fruit and a serpent. The Creation Myth in the Bible is actually more than one story; in Genesis I God creates humans “in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” In the earliest known cultures this God was a woman.
You’ve seen the Fertility Goddesses, round statues of a pregnant woman. Female’s had the power to create children and were worshiped as Gods. The phrasing in Genesis I identifies humans as women, or men, or hermaphrodites and findings from dwellings of these ancients show evidence of these beliefs. But in Genesis II, which is much younger version of creation story than Genesis I, “man” is created individually. Then God planted a garden and created all the beasts, the birds, etc. Finally, God got around to creating “woman.” According to Joseph Campbell this myth arises from stories when historical humans replaced “hunter/gatherer” tribal organization with farming Communities. The new organizational structure led to men replacing women in important community leadership roles.
Jason also discussed humanism’s goal to, “Maximize Well Being.” An old and oft-used subject in humanist discussions is to describe humanism in less than 30 seconds Also called an elevator response. I have been fiddling with this for 20 years or so. Our website banner reads, “Joyful Living, Rational Thinking, Responsible Behavior.” I think clarifying edits to something like, “Live Joyfully by practicing Rational Thinking and Behaving Responsibly” is in order. Still a little awkward but I think it is moving in the right direction. Any Word Smiths out there want to take a crack at design? What about Maximize Well Being? Please email your thoughts to me with the subject of Soapbox and maybe we can get a discussion going.
The Power of Myth series is available on both Amazon Prime (charge for each episode) and on Netflix.
Our new YouTube Channel streamed now has 17 subscribers who watched videos for 18.3 hours. Have you checked it out yet?
The Florien Wineriter Trust donated $1000.00 to our chapter . Thanks to Flo’s family for following up on his wishes.