An atheist’s perspective

My responses to questions or concerns about understanding a world without a supernatural God.

Larry asks: If there is a supreme being who is omniscient and omnipotent, could he not have created the universe without revealing himself?

The double negative made this a little difficult for me to grasp, but I believe he’s asking if it is possible for God to have created the universe without leaving any evidence of his existence, thus not revealing himself to us.

My take is that yes it could be possible, but that is a very unsatisfying conclusion.  If God did indeed create the universe, but at present does not interact with his creation in any way so as to reveal himself, then it would be possible for him remain elusive.  But if it were true that God does not interact with the natural world so that he may remain elusive, then prayer would be fruitless, would it not?  God will not actively listen and change his divine plan based on your plea, otherwise he would risk revealing himself.

Ultimately, most atheists concede that it is possible that a creator initially organized the universe and then left it to take care of itself, but we just tend to agree that this is not a very likely scenario and, because it wouldn’t affect things either way, we don’t worry about the possibility.

E asks: How do you cope with the role of chance in your life?  Specifically, if there’s no deity, then it’s just luck that put you in this place, at this time, with the family and upbringing and opportunities that you’ve had, rather than sometime or somewhere else, where your life would have been nasty, brutish, and/or short.

Yes.  It is luck.  For many people, they may take this negatively and believe it to be a bleak thought, but I actually find it quite inspiring and draw a lot of perspective and compassion from this knowledge.  Like I pointed out on my “One set of footsteps” post, I am not merely blessed with my positive traits or damned with my shortcomings.  It was chance that I ended up being born to my wonderful parents.  I could have been in a much worse situation, so it keeps me grounded and allows me to identify and sympathize more readily with those less fortunate.  Because that is exactly what they are: less fortunate.  Not lazier.  Not evil.  Not undergoing punishment for the sins of their ancestors.  Just less fortunate.  It’s a powerfully unifying mentality to have.  So to answer your question:  I do believe many things in life are a product of random chance, and I find that fact can be very comforting at times.

People often fixate on the “why” of events.  “Why did my grandfather get cancer?” or “Why did my child have a genetic disorder?”  Although some feel they get comfort from the idea that it is a test from God or that it’s all part of God’s plan, I actually never found that reasoning to be very comforting or satisfactory.  The truth of the matter is more comforting to me: that some things just happen by chance.  At times, we’re the beneficiaries.  Other times, we end up less fortunate. I have found it easier to cope with the fact that many times… there is no “why”.

Lauren asks: So, if I don’t believe in God, can I still refer to these (religious) sources for guidance? Does rejecting the supernatural whole have to mean rejecting the earthbound parts?

I by no means am advocating for people to close themselves off from seeking knowledge.  That is actually the exact opposite of what I intend to convey.  I only hope that everyone be vigilant and constantly ask themselves if what they claim to believe can withstand questioning or scrutiny and is backed by reputable, falsifiable facts.

Knowledge about morality can come from every situation, any social interaction, and can absolutely come from a religious context.  There are stories I remember from mass that I felt had a good message, but as my friend Alex pointed out in an earlier comment, good moral messages can come from any book, including Harry Potter.  Obviously, having a good moral message does not make the book a work of non-fiction.

C asks: “What is the motivation of an atheist? Why do anything if nothing matters in the end…the definite end of the universe? Why help others? Why fight for the social issues that I see so many atheists fighting for? Everything will end and nothing will matter at all. All people, the earth, our solar system, our universe will all end in the same desolate end and what was it all for? When I think of an atheist world view, I think of no hope in a future beyond the split second we live on the earth, and when that split second is over it has no meaning or real significance anyway.”

I may have a unique take on this, but the explanation that I’ve come to accept is this: In short, the way I see it, the purpose of each human life is the continuation of our species and to maximize our collective happiness in the meantime.  Just like a skin cell may die on your body but you continue to live, I see each one of us contributing to the greater organism that is the human species, even if our individual lives are finite.  When we die, our lives will have had meaning because we contributed to the greater goal of keeping humanity alive and prosperous.  This is truly how we gain “eternal life”.  Sure it might not literally be MY life that extends eternally, but my genes can be passed on.  My ideas can be passed on to friends and loved ones.  Memories of me can be passed on.  As long as humanity continues, so do my genes and the impact of my life, if only for a few people.

So that is why I fight for the social issues I fight for: for the elimination of scorn and contempt of gays, atheists, people of other faiths, or anyone different or less fortunate than you.  If we get along and help others, we will be able to help humanity as a whole advance, which in my view, is our “purpose” here on earth.

To address your concern about the definite end of the universe and how that would lead to malaise and/or a bleak attitude, think about it like this: imagine, for the sake of argument, that you are diagnosed with an intractable illness and you had a month to live.  Would you sit in a room and do nothing because it will all end in a few weeks anyway, or would you try to live your life to its fullest in the short amount of time left?  I, like most, would choose the latter.

Common concern #1: “I just can’t believe that we sprung out of nothing randomly” OR “I can’t accept that we are a product of a completely random process like evolution” OR “We are too complex to have come about through random chance”

Unfortunately, each of these statements reveals a subtle misunderstanding about the evolutionary process that I would like to take this opportunity to clear up: evolution by natural selection is NOT a completely random process.

Most people come away understanding the part about “evolution by natural selection starting with random mutations to an organism’s genome” just fine.  Put it seems the second part of the process, the natural selection part, is often forgotten or overlooked.  Whether an organism survives or dies in a particular environment is not a product of random chance.

Take a quintessential example of the evolutionary process, the long-necked giraffe.  Everyone understands that it was likely a random genetic mutation that produced an animal with a longer neck, but whether that mutation will benefit the animal is decidedly non-random.  A longer neck will absolutely benefit the animal’s survivability in a predictable way because its diet comes from the leaves of trees.  Even though the initial mutation was random, the outcome, which led to a more complex well-adapted species, is absolutely not random chance.  That is why we, and all the other organisms on earth (which are all products of evolution) are so well-adapted to our environment: because we had to be to survive.  So, I hope we can all agree: every organism’s well-suitedness to its environment is absolutely not a product of random chance.

Common concern #2: “What about the fact that the earth is in a narrow and perfect ‘habitable zone’ for human life?  The probability that earth just happened to be in this narrow range by random chance is so low, it means there must have been a supernatural designer.”

Probabilities are hard to intuit.  I’ll give you an example to demonstrate how tricky it can get: say you have a deck of cards.  What is the probability that you will blindly shuffle the deck and turn the cards over to find them perfectly arranged by suit and number?  Well, because there are 52 cards in the deck the answer is 1/(52 factorial) = 1.23979993×10-68 or 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000123979993  Virtually impossible!  BUT what is interesting is that the probability that you will turn the cards over to reveal ANY one arrangement of cards is the same probability because any arrangement is just as likely as any other in a truly random shuffle.  Therefore, whenever you turn over the cards to look at the arrangement, you’ll be witnessing a “virtually impossible” event.  We are not shocked by its occurrence because some arrangement had to happen; that fact is actually not improbable at all (100% probability), even though the probability of a particular arrangement showing up is very low.

Another way to think about it is this: imagine there is a worldwide raffle.  Every living person is in the running (~7 billion).  The chances of your name being drawn from the massively large proverbial hat is near zilch.  You could bet the farm that your name is not going to get picked, but someone’s name will get picked.  Therefore, even though the probability is low that you will be the winner, the chances that someone will win are great (100% probability as well).  And after the fact, for someone to approach the raffle winner and say “the probability of you getting picked was so near-zero that I don’t think it ever happened at all” would not be right because hey… someone had to win, and it just so happened to be that person.

So it goes with our earth’s particular location in the “habitable zone”.  Earth is close enough to the sun so that our oceans do not ice over, but far enough away so that they do not boil.  We orbit the sun in this narrow zone, which also keeps much of the earth in a narrow temperature range that humans can tolerate.  Some say this points to a creator, but the alternate perspective is that in the universe, with its zillions of possible plants, Earth just happened to have won the “universal raffle” (so to speak), where the winning planet is decided not by pulling a name out of a hat, but by its proximity to its sun.  Out of all of the zillions of planets in our universe, the probability of there being one planet with this narrow proximity might actually not be that improbable, and we just happen to be on that one planet (there may be others, by the way…) .

The initial seeding of life on earth probably took eons, but once life took hold, it has slowly but surely evolved and adapted to its environment here on earth.  These days, we wonder how the narrowly defined “habitable zone” earth finds itself in could be so perfectly suited for us humans.

It turns out we’ve been thinking about it backwards: in fact, it is us (and every other organism on earth) that has evolved to perfectly suit the narrow constraints of the environment we find ourselves in.

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2 thoughts on “An atheist’s perspective

  1. amber says:

    Interesting post! I just want to add, for the sake of discussion, something I have been reading/thinking about lately that you mentioned but didn’t expand on:

    “I just can’t believe that we sprung out of nothing randomly”

    I think you were talking about people and evolution, but what if you are talking about the universe? Turns out, physicists are starting to tackle this question, and there is some evidence that “nothing” aka lack of matter/space/time, is an unstable state. Here is a talk (oldie but goodie):

    and here is an interesting book review (re: the book that was written from that talk) that talks about some of the philosophy surrounding these results and how they are being interpreted (and inevitable controversy thereof).

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2012/04/28/a-universe-from-nothing/

    Interesting stuff!

    • sarchila says:

      Cool! Yeah, I admit that I didn’t touch on that subject because theoretical physics is not my strong suit… haha. I will read up on it, though, cause it’s a fascinating idea.

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