“We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” — Carl Sagan
“We are part of this universe. We are in this universe. But perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact — many people feel small, because they’re small and the universe is big, but I feel big. Because my atoms came from those stars [that I see when I look up in the night sky]. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life; you want to feel connected. You want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings-on and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.” — Neil Degrasse Tyson
When I first left Christianity and became an atheist, for a time I thought I had to deal with the grim fact that we are alienated from a thoroughly indifferent universe that doesn’t care what makes us laugh, cry, worry, love, and the rest — a universe that does not care about me at all.
To be sure, this view had its perks. For one, an indifferent universe means I don’t have to worry about some all-powerful mind-reading creepily-judgmental/petty dictator who is obsessed about my every move. We atheists have the freedom to see other people without God’s judgment, to embrace hobbies, to live whatever we consider to be a meaningful life. But WE decide it, not some all-powerful deity. When I left Christianity, I thought that was exhilarating.
And it was. It still is. I am not beholden to the will of God anymore. I can do what I want, love whom I want, and think what I want without an all-powerful thought-police who expects me to love Him with all my heart obsessively spying on my every move. Colors are brighter, music has vibrance to it, and life seems more wide open for an embrace.
God isn’t judging.
If I’m going to be honest about it, though, there also an uncomfortable side to seeing the universe as indifferent. I felt I had to face the fact that we humans were utterly, totally alone in the universe. The universe did not care about us.
As Stephen Crane once put it:
A man said to the universe:“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
Now, this sense of living alone in a universe that did not care about me was better than living in one that had an all-seeing thought police in it. But it still felt lonely — kinda like being suddenly single after a long, problematic relationship that ended partially because you were catfished and the person never really existed in the first place. It used to be that I thought the greatest being in the universe (I mean, yes, He was an atrocity — but I was relatively blind to it as a Christian) loved me, and now I had to suddenly confront the fact that there was no sky daddy; just us human beings on a spinning ball of infinitesimal dust. It was an opportunity to embrace freedom…and yet I felt loneliness from no longer being the ruler of the universe’s personal favorite (as messed up as that relationship was).
Instead, I now had to deal with a stark reality of nothingness that didn’t care, that was completely indifferent to me. Although this felt much better than a life that had a nonexistent God in charge of its every move, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that sometimes it was a bit of a downer to think I was alienated from a universe that didn’t care.
I’m not the only one who has found this idea depressing. The whole “indifferent universe” idea doesn’t bother ALL atheists, but it’s true that I’ve talked to many other atheists who have great joy in their freedom to embrace that doesn’t have an all-powerful judge watching their every move, and at the same time struggle with the supposed fact they are all alone in the universe.
How can the universe be indifferent when we are part of the universe and we are not indifferent to ourselves?
There is no magical being to somehow separate who we are from what the universe is — we’re literally made up of the same stuff the universe is made up of, and operate via the same principles the rest of the universe operates by; we’re part of the same process and existence. Sure, we contain consciousness, and most of the universe doesn’t. But that’s just a feature of who we are as part of the universe. It doesn’t alienate us from the universe any more than the fact that a flower contains nectar, or water contains hydrogen, or stars contain heat. It’s just a feature of our part of the universe — a characteristic.
There is a major difference here — in the Christian model of existence, we are sinners, separated from the God of the universe and thus unworthy of our very existence. Once you delete all God and gods from your worldview, there is nothing separating you from the natural processes and existence of the universe. Get rid of God, along with God’s standards, God’s supposed decision to make you special, and God’s decision to put you in heaven, and all that separation between you and the universe around you disappears.
You literally came from stars. You literally are star residue. You’re not special enough to be separate from the universe, which in a way is a good thing — you were part of it, and have always been.
This isn’t anything new. Carl Sagan has observed that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” And that might sound like cute poetry, but he meant it as an actual fact. We are, quite literally, parts of the universe that are wholly made (from top to bottom and inside out) by and out of the stuff of the universe. We aren’t separate from the universe, thanks to the deletion of God. We are part of it. We are the universe looking at itself.
Another way to look at it — when I delete God from the equation, I take God’s place. I don’t need God to care about and accept me in order to belong in the universe. I already belong in the universe — by myself, without any help from God — because I’m a completely natural, head-to-toe, inside-and-out part of it.
When I realized that, I began to realize that the question of whether the universe cares can’t be answered by just looking at unconscious beings. It includes the entirety of the universe — the animals, the people, even myself. Aren’t they parts of the universe just as surely as the stars whose residue they are from? So…if they care about me, and if I care about me and them…then together, aren’t we the universe caring about itself?
So…I’m a part of the universe caring about something. The universe is not indifferent — as if God’s nonexistence leaves us forever alienated from a universe that doesn’t care about us. No — the universe, after billions of years of evolution, has given rise to a phenomenon of human beings and other conscious beings that have given it the capacity to care about itself.
We are a way for the universe to care about itself. .
And I don’t just mean this in a feel-good way — although it can feel like that at times. It seems to be a clear fact: We are, after billions of years of evolutionary development, a way for the universe to care about itself.
Since I saw that, I’ve been feeling like I belong in a universe much more than I did than when I thought I was alone in a universe that didn’t care about me — and the best part is that I can feel that sense of belonging without losing any of the freedom I had to give up when I was a “sinner” begging for God’s grace. When someone cares about me, or when I care about someone — even when I care about myself — I see ourselves as part of the universe’s natural fabric, a part of the universe that has, through evolutionary processes, enabled the universe to care about itself. I am not on the outside, looking in. I’m an insider from the start.
So…because I left God, I realized that I’m an opportunity for the universe to care about itself.
Makes me glad to be an atheist, to be honest. Reality doesn’t have to be beautiful, but in this specific case, and from the angle I’m looking at it right now, it is.
Thank you for reading.