Predictably, there has been another visitation from the local Jehovas' Witnesses last Sunday, and while I do enjoy the opportunity to debate the merits of atheism vs. theism, there once again came up a misconception about atheistic life that I find hugely annoying. and more than a little offensive. It has varying forms which I have seen in many a down-talking article, blog post, or being debated on radio and television. In general, it goes something like:
'It must be horrible to be an atheist, I mean, I couldn't bear to live in a world where my life was meaningless..'
The implication clearly being that life with a God, (that is, believing that a god exists rather than there necessarily being one) is filled with purpose, since it provides a person with a reason to be and do good, for the promise of heaven and the prospect of reuniting with loved ones at the end of a life dedicated to it. Another way of looking at it is that we are God's special creation, above and separate from the animals, capable of huge feats of civilisation, high-order thought processes, compassion, dreams, and everything else we hold dear. It is clear that God has a plan for us, and the lucky few who are special enough are chosen to spread the word in their local communities.
An atheist by comparison has no source of morals, no connection to their community, no reason to do good, and thus no reason to actually be on the planet. They are a slab of meat that is born, grows up and old, then dies. With their lack of moral fibre, they think nothing of robbery, murder and the selfish pursuit of pleasure. Because they identify themselves as just another form of animal, they have made their beds to lie in, sitting around with no impetus to learn, care, or take part in their community. They have separated themselves from the theistic majority and they can bloody well stay there, so long as they don't start making too much noise.
This seemingly throwaway slight when analysed has a meaning more involved than a cursory glance would suggest, and is deployed quite deliberately as a preservation mechanism by the religious, for the religious, to put potential wayward souls off pursuing any doubting thoughts they may have regarding the existence of their god, (assuming they got past the hurdle of daring to have a doubting thought when that alone is enough to send them to hell).
It is a very persuasive argument as well, except for one thing: it's complete bollocks. I hope to be able to suggest an alternative view, that you can choose to accept whether you are theistic or not.
We begin with a piece of paper. On that paper we draw the axes of a graph. Time runs along the x axis; the origin of the graph is the origin of existence.
We do not know our origins. We can guess, we can theorise based on what we do know, or we can believe unswervingly in some higher power despite the absence of any evidence of him, but we don't know. Not really. Leaving God and his seven days of creation alone just this once, we are at the theological and technological state now where the major thinkers of this age have established that roughly 13.7 billion years ago, nothing became something, and something of infinite mass exploded into space and matter and gradually it clattered into itself and fused and reacted and eventually became everything we know now.
We don't know what created that bang; it may have been some form of being that loosely fits our description of a god, or it may have been a purely nuclear/chemical reaction. Since we have no idea what exists beyond the universe, we'll just have to stick a big question mark on it for now, until our technological know-how is able to bring that information within reach.
Now a line is drawn on the graph, almost horizontal and stretching away from the origin.
One thing that was formed from the chaos of the creation of the universe was our Sun. Something caused it to combust, and fortunately for us, various large pieces of rock caught in its gravitational pull all squished together over time just far enough away to be nicely warm but not scorchingly hot, a perfect breeding ground for life to begin.
The line begins to bend upwards a little as it increases in length.
We do not know where those first sparks of life came from. Did it begin on earth, or was it brought from another planet by meteorite as some theories suggest? We don't know, and it's not really relevant: At some point, somwhere, a single entity that could be considered the simplest form of life stopped being a collection of chemicals and became alive. Was that god? Again, we don't know. As an atheist, my default view is that it isn't, and won't change until proved otherwise. As a theist, the default view would be that it was. But that doesn't matter because the situation remains the same.
At this point, the y axis gains a label - it reads, simply: progress.
We know that the sun is not infinite. It burns because it has a huge but not inexhaustible supply of hydrogen to fuel it. When that hydrogen runs out - mercifully in a billion years or so - it will expand massively, engulfing the earth. It may for a few million years more remain large enough to make life possible on a more outlying planet such as Mars, but it will eventually be extinguished and become a fizzled out speck, and the source of all life in our solar system will die out completely.
We have risen to be the custodians of this earth, and all the forms of life upon it. We are the one species of animal who, through good fortune have large enough brains to attain huge technological, theological and compassionate feats, paired with bodies that can act and build and engineer and forge from the base elements provided in the world around us. With each generation, the sum total of progress and knowledge is pushed forwards a little bit by every person who engages themselves in the pursuit of the next thing on the list to learn.
Progress has a much wider interpretation of course; before our technological spearhead shot us forward, there was the evolutionary path taken by the cells, bacteria, plants and animals that got us to the point where we have the brains and bodies to do the things we can do, and thus we should also not lose sight of the fact that we are stood on the shoulders of our distant ancestors. Before that, we have the primitive forces of space that formed a place where such life could grow. In short, every atom in the universe has been employed over billions of years to get us to the point we are at now. The massive sum total of progressive steps this adds up to is unfathomable.
The curved line on the graph is at its steepest when it stops, or at least it appears to. Taking a microscope to the surface of the paper at the line's endpoint, we can see it moving with glacial pace. The end of the line represents the universe, right now.
Humanity is making discoveries on top of the ones we already know, creating new theories and refining the ones of those gone by, at a rate as yet unseen that will mean we will soon be able to begin to populate other planets. First the International Space Station, then the moon, then Mars, and who knows what after that. Technological brick walls we consider difficult, impractical, prohibitively expensive or just impossible to overcome now will no doubt be scalable by the end of the century, replaced by the next set of problems that is even greater.
We have our origin, our rate of progress, and our current point on the graph. Everything looks positive and good. Then, without sound, at the right side of the page far away from the end of the curve, a thick red line draws itself, vertically downwards, bisecting the x axis.
This line represents the stage at which our sun runs out of energy and engulfs us all and we become extinct. Note that this is the default form of universal extinction, the one that does the job if nothing else (such as a pesky stray meteorite) jumps the queue and gets there first.
A large, red question mark appears next to the line on the axis, and the line itself shimmers so as to blur its exact position, to signify this uncertainty.
A second line begins to run horizontally across the top of the graph. It is dashed and coloured black, and draws itself high above our current point. This line represents the level of technological and evolutionary progress required for us to escape our current location and move to another rock which has both the resources to sustain our life needs, and the location to avoid being wiped out by some other threat for a few more million years.
Our purpose and meaning in life is clear. Do all that we can in our short lives to edge us further up that graph, even by the tiniest amount, so our line of progression passes the horizontal line before the vertical one. Because if we don't, the whole 15 billion years or so it took to get to that point will have been for nothing, and God's little petri dish experiment will have failed, and he'll have to start again. Of course, whether a god being started the experiment or not, the purpose remains the same. Continue adapting, evolving, learning and growing, or suffer a fate worse than death: Obliteration on such a massive scale that nothing will remain for others to see we were even here aeons from now.
Personally, I find this notion, that of our roles as being minuscule but potentially critical movements on the graph of life, with the ultimate goal of preserving our existence, started so long ago as the most basic of forms and now so much more, to be far more beautiful and awe-inspiring than the limited, stunted stories told by people thousands of years ago with a much smaller world view and using peoples' own selfish desires for heavenly reward to get them on board. It also has the flexibility of fitting into the world view of those either side of the theism debate. If you were to choose to take the theistic interpretation, god started life in a huge experiment to see if that life could get to a point where it can escape its confines and we can help prove him right. An atheist's interpretation just omits the idea of a god - we have an amount of time to escape our situation or it's curtains. The purpose is the same.
Not only are we encouraged to climb up that graph by this way of looking at life, but it also installs in us a more responsible world view; it encourages compassion for our fellow man since we are all together striving towards the same goal. Compassion also towards the world as a whole, since we have the responsibility as the most able beings on the planet to take care of it, and we now have the brains and knowledge to realise that it is all connected together and interdependent. From this comes a set of morals and principles that are similar from those sold to us as particular to a theistic life but are actually not attributable solely to them, and from adoption of these come community and society, themselves tools that have been developed to aid us on the push up that curve.
Compare that to the biblical interpretation on life's purpose. Be good not because of some desire to make the world better for the next generation, but because doing so gets you a golden ticket through the pearly gates. The world and its plants and animals were made by God for humans to use as they will, and these resources won't run dry because God wouldn't do that to his favourite beings-in-his-own-image now would he? We can rape the earth for all it's got because it's our playground to use as we want.
The paper is screwed up and thrown in the bin.
Life is extremely short; a mere fleeting atom of dust on the graph paper, and its potential to be snuffed out in an instant without being used to its potential is all too easy, be that through being puree'd by a bus one morning on the way to work, or by a young life brainwashed into suicide bombing under the promise of eternal glory. It's sobering that for every life that pushes progress forward, another can hold us back.
DISCLAIMER: This train of thought is not intended as the basis of a religion in itself. I am not a moonie-style leader of people, I couldn't lead a set of drunks to the nearest pub and have no want or desire to do so.