I once had a believer ask me “Every atheist I’ve met believes in something. So what do you believe in if not God?”
“Nothing” I replied. At the time, this was probably true. Even now, I can’t say that belief takes any part in what I consider to be transcendent, but there are some things I know to be true, and this knowledge, gained through science, is what allows me to comfortably call myself an atheist.
I don’t have to believe that mankind is like a newborn baby who’s eyes are darting around a lit room for the first time and noticing things, it’s self evident. To a newborn, everything is surprising, everything is new. As her attention shifts from her mother’s nose, to her eyes, she is learning. She’s adding it all up and forming a cumulative collage of her surroundings. Over time she’ll begin to understand who she is and develop a sense of self.
Humans are doing the same thing as we focus our telescopes at the farthest depths of a vast and incomprehensible universe, or hurl protons at one another at close to light speed to see if we can catch a glimpse of what they are made of when they collide and break down into even smaller pieces. Mankind is an infant in an infinite universe. It doesn’t require belief to recognize or understand this.
Just as a newborn would feel alone and helpless if she didn’t see the soothing eyes and hear the gentle voice of her mother, so does humankind look out into her universe and pray that there is something there, some comfort to be found. Here a believer would say that there IS something there. They claim they can see their celestial father smiling back at them and stroking their hair. “It’s all right” they hear him say, “I will take care of you if you trust in me.”
I do not share that delusion, but I do however feel that sense of longing. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t. All mammals, most birds, and a smaller percentage of cold blooded animals exhibit extremely tight bonds between at least the mother and her young through infancy and adolescence. Not until they are ready to survive on their own do parents cut ties with their offspring. Evolution has thoroughly conditioned us to need that relationship. It doesn’t surprise me that we collectively long for a cosmic hug.
However, as we humans open our eyes for the first time, and let out that first intergalactic scream, we are coming to the conclusion through science that our virgin birth has luckily not rendered us helpless or alone at all. More like a colt or a fawn, we are able to hit the ground running and fend for ourselves. Billions of years of evolution have already done the job of making us self sufficient. No parenting is needed, no hand holding or teaching; we will learn and grow, and when we reach adulthood in some distant future we will be beautiful, strong, confident and humble for having made it so far; together, not alone.
The sense of awe and wonder I feel when thinking about such things doesn’t require me to believe in anything supernatural or irrational. It doesn’t require me to take anything on faith.The feeling that comes over me when I’m able to just sit and think about the universe and how lucky I am to be a part of it, but yet how small we all are in it’s presence, is a transcendent experience that requires me to “believe” nothing, only to come to “know” as much as I can in the blink of an eye we call a lifetime.
I find comfort through knowledge, not faith. Life has meaning because there remain things to be known. To the believer, a life with unanswered questions is void of meaning, to me, a life with all the answers penciled for me is pointless.