Today’s secular science of human insignificance inspires its own theology. This secular theology assigns us a contradictory groveling insignificant, significance. We have evolved to a high enough level of ethical consciousness to understand that we’re guilty as charged, and are merely insignificant and yet, morally culpable destroyers of life.
We may not be saying “Lord have mercy” so often these days, but we’re still muttering “I’m unworthy!” As with past theology, a vast oeuvre of secular iconic art is dedicated to keeping us in our place. The old and new theologies of significant insignificance share joylessness. Hell awaits the backslidden unbeliever of old, and the extinction of life awaits modern-day polluters. A certain gleeful delight at our awaiting comeuppance seems to characterize both the old and new prophets calling for repentance.
Speaking of secular icons… in the early twentieth century Marcel Duchamp hung a porcelain urinal on an art gallery wall to debunk the pretensions of art and the pretensions of human significance. Duchamp created this work entitled “Fountain” in order to (as he put it) “de-deify” art. Carl Sagan did the same thing for cosmology when he wrote Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Sagan played for higher stakes than Duchamp had. He attempted to “de-deify” our entire species. His beautiful, secular psalm dedicated to our demotion is unsurpassed. In Psalm 8, King David described us as only a little lower than the angels while in Pale Blue Dot, Sagan takes great pains to obliterate any sense of cosmic significance:
We succeeded in taking that picture and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you know, everyone you love, everyone you’ve ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines. Every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
Yet even post-Sagan, we value life so highly that we seek it elsewhere in the universe as if on a quest for the Holy Grail. The secular theology of nothingness is in conflict with itself. Ever since Darwin published On the Origin of Species, we learn that all living things are intrinsically equal. We’re no longer “suspended above nature” as if by some metaphysical “skyhook,” as the militantly secular philosopher Daniel Dennett puts it. We are nature herself, at her worst. And yet scientists strive to find signs of life elsewhere, life that presumably would be as ultimately insignificant as our own.
Dennett, an American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist, is an evangelist for human-primate demotion. His books include such blunt instruments as Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, in which he describes Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection as a universal acid that eats through every theory of human behavior and every human achievement, particularly religion. Along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, Dennett spearheaded the so-called New Atheist movement in which science both replaces and debunks faith. Religion’s chief sin, they argue, lies in elevating humankind above the pond scum from whence we came. Their human-primate-put-down is not original. As noted, Duchamp got there first and did it better. More recently in Martin Amis’s 1995 novel The Information, a character plans to write a book called The History of Increasing Humiliation.
These days even the Wikipedia entry on evolutionary psychology traces our fall. It says that the action of natural selection upon “memes” (units of cultural transmission, the cultural equivalents of genes) undergoes selection and recombination. Even our beliefs are understood to be rooted in our genetic evolution, not in what we have assumed was our free choice to believe something or not.
Now it seems we can’t even lord it over our vegetable patches! The line between plants and animals has been blurred. At the very moment evolutionary psychologists debunked our capacity for free will and showed our brains to be self-deluding, other scientists elevated the non-brained as our equals. Neurobiologists are redefining the word intelligence as the ability to respond adaptively. We find ourselves side-by-side with cherry tomatoes as equally cognizant citizens of the universe. As Dennett said in a New Yorker article “How Smart Are Plants?” (December 23, 2013) on the intelligence of florae, “The idea that there is a bright line, with real comprehension and real minds on the far side of the chasm, and animals or plants on the other—that’s an archaic myth.”
I have a nagging question though: if we’re nothing, why bother to convince us of our nothingness? Who cares? I would like to have asked Sagan why he bothered to write with such poetic skill and beauty about the meaninglessness of writing, given our transitory and diminutive place in the universe.
You’ve been reading an article largely excerpted from WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace