Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen


Blink
If there’s no God and no universal consciousness, and human existence is an infinitesimally brief, infinitesimally tiny eyeblink in the vastness of space and time… then what the heck is the point?

After I put up yesterday’s post (How Perfect Is the Universe, Anyway?), I realized that I left it on a bit of a downer. Something I don’t normally like to do. I wrote this whole piece about how it makes no sense to see the universe as having been designed so that human life could come into existence, since the possible lifespan of the human race is pathetically short compared to the ultimate lifespan of the universe… and I pretty much left it there. “Tough cheese, pals,” I basically said. “Suck it up.”

Sorry about that.

Today, I want to take that view of the universe, and try to respond to it with some actual humanist philosophy.

Now, the hardassed, “Reality doesn’t care if it hurts your feelings” response is… well, that reality doesn’t care if it hurts your feelings. The fact that you find reality upsetting doesn’t make it any less real. “I don’t want to live in a world without God” is not an argument for God’s existence. Tough cheese, pals. Suck it up.

But is there a more compassionate answer? A more joyful answer? An answer that doesn’t amount to “Life sucks, then you die”?

Planets2008
Can there be meaning and joy in a universe where human life is essentially an unusual chemical process on one hunk of rock orbiting one of a hundred billion stars in one of a hundred billion galaxies… a chemical process that’s only been going on for about 200,000 of the Universe’s nearly 14 billion years, and that’s pretty much guaranteed to end in another billion years, if not sooner, while the Universe continues to expand forever into an enormous expanse of mostly nothingness?

I think there is.

But it means letting go of a big chunk of ego.

I think this can be one of the hardest things about letting go of religion. It certainly was for me. I hated the idea that my soul wasn’t going to live forever; that there was no God or World-Soul animating the Universe for all eternity who nonetheless cared about my little contribution to it. I found it profoundly upsetting. (Yeah, so I have a bit of an ego. I like to think of myself as important. What’s your point?)

Earth in hand
When you let go of religion, your life can still have meaning. You just have to let go of it having meaning on an immense, universal scale. You have to let go of the arrogant belief that the very source and guiding hand of the Universe cares about what you do. You have to scale down the sense of where your life is lived: down from the cosmic, eternal scale, and onto a human, finite scale.

But it’s not like the human scale is any less real for being relatively small and relatively brief.

Quarks in proton
Here’s a way of looking at it that I find comforting. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that quarks and other sub-atomic particles have consciousness. And think of the quarks in the atoms of, say, your hand. To them, through their quarky little eyes, you would be as big as the galaxy is to you; heck, even as big as the Universe itself, if I’m doing my math right. And the atheist quarks might be having all sorts of identity crises because they’ve realized that the Person doesn’t have any personal knowledge about them, and doesn’t care about them, and that their existence is on an unbelievably minuscule scale compared to that of the Personverse.

But it’s not like the subatomic scale isn’t real, and isn’t important.

In fact, when you let go of the idea of a creator or a world-soul, the whole question of which scale of things is the most important suddenly becomes moot. Because when you let go of the idea of a creator or a world-soul, you then have to ask yourself, “Important to whom?”

Galaxy
Being an atheist means that you don’t have to be a size queen. There’s no reason the cosmic scale of galaxies and universes is objectively more important than the human scale… any more than the human scale is objectively more important than the subatomic scale. We are, in the immortal words of Mickey Mantle, children of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, yada yada yada.

We’re just no more than the trees and the stars, either.

Crowd 2
In an atheist world view, the only thing that cares about us is other people. Other flawed, crazy, messy people, living on the same human scale that we are. (Well, plus some cats and dogs and stuff… but you know what I mean.) There’s no immense, eternal, perfect being watching our every move, feeling elated at our triumphs and devastated by our failures. Just a bunch of other screwed-up bags of water and flesh, with their own problems.

And this can be a hard pill to swallow. It can be hard to ask yourself, as Douglas Adams put it in the first Hitchhiker’s book, “Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter if I don’t get up and go to work?”… and have the answer be a pretty resounding, “No.”

But it also relieves us of a certain amount of responsibility. I mean, I have a hard enough time feeling hyper- responsible just on a human scale. I have a hard enough time with the burden of responsibility for the effect I have on poverty and racism and corporate imperialism and global warming. It’s kind of a relief to not have to worry about whether I’m letting down the World-Soul as well.

Rivers and tides
And I think it’s a mistake to think that longevity is the truest measure of importance or value. A five-minute dance in the park can be more valuable than an ugly abandoned building that never gets torn down; a half-second of transcendent joy and connection with a lover can be more important than a boring job that you slogged through for ten years. The movie “Rivers and Tides” was a profound influence on me for that reason: it reminded me that fleeting moments are every bit as valuable as stone monuments. In fact, fleeting moments are really all we have. We should make the best of them.

And finally, if you want to be all egoistic about it…

As far as we know, we’re the only beings in the Universe with consciousness. (Well, again, us and maybe dogs and cats and stuff.) And that doesn’t just mean that we get to create meaning for ourselves. It means that we get to decide which scale is the important one. In fact, if we are the only beings in the Universe with consciousness, our scale is the most important one, pretty much by definition… since “importance” is a concept that only makes sense if you have consciousness. The scale of living things is arguably the scale that matters most… since livings things are the only things to whom anything can matter.

Contrary to the canards that get tossed around about atheists by people who’ve never bothered to talk to one, atheism doesn’t mean that life has no meaning. It simply means that we get to create our own meaning. The meaning of our lives isn’t handed to us by someone else: we get to choose the meaning of our lives, based on the wiring of our brains and the values of our culture and the experiences that we and we alone have had.

Crowd
And the same is true for the importance of our lives. Being an atheist doesn’t mean that life isn’t important. It means that we get to create our own sense of importance. The human scale is where we live. It’s what we have. And if we decide that that’s the most important scale for us, there’s nobody out there to tell us otherwise.

Comments

  1. says

    Very nice post. One of the toughest things in the initial phase of rejecting theism and embracing atheism is letting go of that sense – delusion, really – of Grand Purpose. Once one lets go of that, though, the knowledge that one gets to create one’s own purpose is exciting. The scale is smaller, but it’s a more realistic and fulfilling one to work in.

  2. says

    I’m reminded of a wonderful Animaniacs song, the punchline/chorus of which was something like, “It’s a big universe, and we’re not!”
    *Metaphorically trots off to youtube, finds it*

    In a slightly different way, it wasn’t so long ago that I went on a little rant that explored this idea of making meaning for ourselves in a big universe – although mine was altogether snarkier than what you had to say here. If anyone’s curious, click my name below to find out why the universe is out to get me, and why I’m okay with that…

  3. says

    Oops! I just discovered a case of radical blog-incest: I pointed to a post I made which, when I took a closer look, was inspired by (and linked to) a post you made. Then when I re-read your old post, I discovered that my post in response to it evolved out of a comment I left on your post. (And then I linked to it here and I wrote about doing so in a subsequent comment, which might finally achieve the level of recursive ridiculousness that consumes the internet, or possibly the universe. Let’s click “Post” and see!)

  4. Todd says

    After struggling with the existential meaninglessness of life, I finally came up with a personal philosophy that works for me.
    “In a million years, no one will remember how badly I just fucked that up.”
    It really takes the pressure off.

  5. says

    Wonderful, as always, Greta. :)
    It always strikes me, the arrogance of these people who believe their names and their deeds need to be eternally memorialized if they’re to count at all. Do you need to be exalted higher than the galaxies? Is it that important to you that your name be set down in a roll call that will survive long after the last sun has burned out? This is the belief system that shows greater humility, really?
    I’m not that ambitious. I’m a mortal creature, and my life, like all life, is fleeting. We have a brief time in the sun, and I’m going to make the most of it: make some friends, listen to music, write down some thoughts, bake brownies, love and be loved, sleep in on sunny Saturdays, and hopefully leave the world just a bit improved, overall, over how it was when I came into it. My aspirations are modest, perhaps, but I like to think they’re achievable. To my mind, if you have your priorities straight, this life is more than long enough and large enough to do all the things you really need to do. Even if the stars don’t burn with envy for me, I think it’s well worth living on its own terms.

  6. says

    Very nicely put. I guess I’m one of the fortunate ones in that I never had a struggle giving up theism. It had never been the central focus of my life, just something tacked on by my upbringing that I was forced to endure. I also never had a big enough ego to cause me to think that I’d live forever. I have no clue what happens to our consciousness after we die, but it never really mattered to me. Now, I’m still scared to death of dying (pun intended) ;-) But I’m too busy living to worry about dying.

  7. says

    LOL, I am LOVING the “Personverse”! Your posts always make so much sense to me that I want to share them with everyone that I know and then I realize that most of the people I know are Mormon. Yikes. Just a little Atheist in a sea of Mo’s…

  8. Glynn says

    Yes! Great post. Just because you have to find your own meaning to life, it doesn’t make that meaning any less valuable. It makes us free.

  9. says

    Just a few days ago I was sitting with my kids at the dinner table explaining the idea that we are able to make our own meaning in life because we are conscious beings, and that what matters in life is the impact we have on other people.
    Great post Greta :)

  10. says

    Lovely writing:
    “In an atheist world view, the only thing that cares about us is other people. Other flawed, crazy, messy people, living on the same human scale that we are. (Well, plus some cats and dogs and stuff… but you know what I mean.)”
    But other than that, I feel I must disagree: I think “Suck it up” IS the best advice you can give to anybody about almost anything ;-)

  11. Jim Robinson says

    And, of course, the theist view is just another way for humans to tell each other how important we are or are not. I don’t think we get to dodge our responsibility to look after each other by sticking our hand in the god-sock and pretending that the sock is doing all the talking.

  12. says

    We don’t know that other creatures do not have a consciousness, STiBeast. So we can’t answer that question. But put a different way, it is nice to be able to look at the universe as a creature that can.

  13. Victor says

    It seems to me that it’s as crazy to imagine the universe creating itself out of nothing as it is to think of a God creating it. As readers might guess I’m agnostic!

  14. Skreeran says

    I think my biggest problem is just the fact that I’m so pessimistic. Instead of thinking “Wow, life is so amazing… I love being alive and I’ll cherish the time I have,” I think “Wow… I’ll never get to see my great-great-great granchildren. I’ll probably never find out if there is other intelligent life out in the universe. I’ll never get to set foot on another world. I’m just stuck with regular boring ol’ now, with all this other stuff that I can only look at and think about but can’t touch.”
    Yeah, I’m a pessimist. I try my best to look at the positives, and that helps (hence my not being depressed usually; I’ve taught myself to ignore the depressing stuff), but I’m a pessimist by nature, and that’s what makes the world sting.

  15. Kris says

    I would say it’s a whole order of magnitude crazier to imagine a god creating a universe than one coming into being by itself.

  16. says

    It’s a personal theory of mine that one of the reasons people cling so fervently to gods, religion, spirits, occultism, and the belief in alien life* is the uncomfortable feeling that if we’re alone in this epically vast, unimaginable wonderful universe, then we’re not, as a species, doing an awful lot that can justify it’s existence.
    *not the acceptance of the statistical or scientific possibility (or likelihood, depending on how you do so sums) of extra terrestrial life, but the absolute unquestioning faith that alien life ‘has to’ exist.

  17. says

    It’s funny… As a little girl I had a severe problem with my size. I saw patterns everywhere, and made up all sorts of weird conspiracy theories that set me and my sisters apart from the rest of the world. Losing that… admitting to myself it wasn’t real… that was hard. Really hard. Those beliefs made me feel special, and confronting the fact that all it was all made up (and not that originally.. I mostly just copied movies I’d seen) made me feel small and unimportant.
    It’s taken a lot of work to get where I am now. I understand as well as anyone how hard it can be to give up that artificial high of self-importance. But looking back, I’m glad to be wrong. I’m only just beginning to understand what a blessing it is to be a part of this amazing world, and that standing with my fellow human beings is far more empowering than standing above them. I am unique for the choices I make and the things I do, and there is no predestined path I walk. I am happy for it.

  18. Libby Mendez says

    As someone who’s recently lost her faith, and is struggling to find meaning in a life without God or an immortal soul, this is probably one of the most comforting things I’ve read. Thank you.

Leave a Reply