Rats in a Maze

(Note: This essay was first posted in summer 2002.)

I woke up early this morning. Alone in my house, I dressed and went outside, onto the second-story deck. It was a clear, silent, beautiful morning. The sun was dazzling bright and full of life, the sky was endless blue from horizon to horizon without a cloud in sight, the air was fresh and warm, and my entire view encompassed living greenery, a forest of soaring trees cabled in climbing vines. After the recent erratic weather, there were finally signs that spring was here and the land was coming back to life. It was a beautiful new day, full of hope and promise; and as I sat there in the sun, mentally organizing the things I planned to do with my newly reclaimed hours, I contemplated my life, the turnings I’ve taken to come to this point, and how proud and happy I am to be an atheist. I’ve come full circle and found my niche, and barring some radical and unforeseen change in circumstances, I don’t ever intend to change my mind.

After breakfast, on a whim, I switched on the TV and turned to the Trinity Broadcasting Network (always a reliable source of unintentional humor). The televangelists were singing and preaching about Jesus, as usual. Playing the piano, chanting their hymns of praise, interrupting occasionally to give teary testimonials about how Christ has changed them – just like they do every week. Delivering the same sermons they’ve given a hundred times before, repeating the same arguments that atheistic philosophers refuted decades or centuries ago, reading from a book that hasn’t changed in nearly two thousand years. One of them noted that she still finds inspiration in a particular song, even though they play it every week, over and over, in an endless, changeless repetition.

I don’t think I can be faulted for concluding one of us is wasting their life, and it’s not me.

I mean, what’s the point of it all if God exists? If he doesn’t, then this universe takes on so much more significance – more mystery, more excitement, more urgency. How did we get here? Why are things the way they are and not some other way? Why is there something instead of nothing? If there is no god, it might eventually be possible to answer these questions in a meaningful way, a way that actually explains something. Why aren’t people electrified by this prospect? Why aren’t they consumed by the hunger to know, to really know, not just to have a religious platitude in lieu of a real reason? For centuries the only answer to any of these questions was the trite and uninformative “God did it” – but now that we can actually improve on that and provide a better answer, why are there still so many people who prefer the old, comforting, familiar one? But then, I’ve just answered my own question.

Think of it this way. If God exists, and if his goal for us is to be saved and rejoin him in Heaven, then all he’s done is deliberately create us apart from him and then set up a series of arbitrary hurdles we have to jump over to get back to him. Why not just create us in Heaven in the first place? Why create us at all? In the theistic view, our lives and the cosmos are just an experiment, a test run, a child’s puzzle box. The things we do here and now have all the significance of a rat trying to find the way through a maze contrived by the experimenter. What’s the point? To memorize a route through the maze and be rewarded with a piece of cheese? I refuse to believe my life has no greater purpose than that. Why is so much – an infinity, in fact – riding on our performance in this infinitesimal blip of existence in a lower sphere?

In fact, if God exists, how can anything we do in this earthly life be significant at all? Artists, writers, sculptors, composers, programmers and the like might as well just give up now – they’re all one step behind. Whatever you try to create, it’s been done; God’s omniscient mind already thought of it, and an infinity of variants of it that are far better, billions of years before you were born. Where is the pleasure in creation if you’re just reproducing someone else’s work? Where is the wonder of invention if in reality all that’s happening is that you’re being unknowingly fed the tiniest trickle of ideas from the mind of the Almighty?

Likewise for scientists. If there is a god, science is not about the deep wonder and mystery of discovering the fundamental rules of the cosmos that has, incredibly, brought forth intelligent life that can look back through time and space and consider its own origins – rather, it is about determining what arbitrary values God picked for the things he decided to create. Presumably, if God created the universe there’s no deeper significance to the way things are other than that he wanted them to be that way; if he had any reasons for those decisions, they are in all likelihood unknowable.

Some famous scientists, past and present, have said that their work is an effort to know the mind of God. But how much inspirational power could this really possess? Nothing is more exciting in science than an unsolved problem; why follow in the footsteps of someone who’s already been down this road? Why recreate work that’s already been done by another? Again, this worldview reduces the universe to the lab rat’s maze. Dark energy, gamma-ray bursters, neutrinos, quasars – these are not fundamental components of existence, but little diversions God inserted into his creation to keep us busy, like Rubik’s Cubes or blacksmith’s puzzles. There would be no necessity, no deep reason for being for anything we find in our investigations of physical reality. Creation is here as it is just so we can figure out how it works – and whether we can is a foregone conclusion, because before he ever created the first atom, the first proton, the first quark, God knew exactly how far our science would go and what questions we would be able to unlock. We are merely actors in a cosmic stage, playing out our predetermined parts before a critic who already knows how the whole thing’s going to end.

In fact, theistic belief renders practically every field of human endeavor worthless. Whatever we build or invent or engineer, the greatest triumphs of civilization and technology, is like ants scrabbling in the dust to build a pile of sand as far as God is concerned. Our momentary triumphs were known to him eons ago; our failures were planned out by him before the Big Bang. Our daily, workaday lives are just going through the motions, running the maze, a pointless and futile endeavor that will eventually be swept away regardless. When we go to church, we’re just endlessly telling him things he already knew. What’s the point of it all?

Under theism there is no good reason to be an environmentalist, no reason to preserve the sanctity and health of this planet or the life it supports. Why bother? God could snap his fingers and create a dozen brand-new Edens if he wanted, and if we all die as a result of our own depredations, at worst there will be a mass exodus to Heaven where human life will continue. If the Earth has any value under this belief system, its value is not inherent, not something it possesses in and of itself; it is valuable only because God arbitrarily said so. Likewise, there is no real reason why the planet needs or deserves our protection, other than that God told us to do it.

Indeed, in this framework there would also be no good reason to preserve one’s own health. Why get inoculations against deadly diseases? Why wear a condom when having sex, wear a seatbelt when driving, wash one’s hands before eating, or even strive to eat a healthy diet or exercise? What’s the worst that will happen – you’ll die and go to Heaven? Why is life valuable, why is it something to be preserved, in a belief system that views the flesh at best as a momentary distraction before the real thing and at worst a positive source of sin and temptation that may earn us eternal damnation if we succumb to it – and the longer we live in this coat of skin, the more likely we are to succumb, right? Again, under theism we are all lab rats running a maze, and the sooner we get out of the maze, the sooner we’ll be rewarded. There’s no reason to lengthen our stay there and every reason to get it over with as soon as possible. (Lest one think this viewpoint is an atheist-invented straw man, there is a popular religious song entitled “This World Is Not My Home” that expresses precisely this sentiment.)

What better way could there be to rob life of its meaning and its wonder? How better to deny the value of human freedom, human intelligence, human accomplishment? In other words, what’s the point of it all? I can’t see any. Why would God need to create other life in the first place, being perfect and completely self-sufficient, and even if he did choose to do so, why would he create life so unbelievably vulnerable and limited as our own? We can’t surprise him; we can’t improve him. All we can do is tell him what he already knows and jump through the hoops he’s set in our way, over and over, until everything reaches heat death and the saved souls in Heaven face an eternity of sterile, unchanging monotony stretching out endlessly before them. (See “Those Old Pearly Gates” for more on this.) In the end, it all seems pointless. What will have been accomplished? Those preachers on TBN can’t really be looking forward to an infinity of repeating the same hymns they sang here on Earth every week – can they?

Atheism, by contrast, frees us and reinvests our lives with meaning. Our existence as thinking, conscious beings becomes all the more mysterious, wonderful and significant without the benefit of a god to guide it and pull the strings behind the scenes. Our lives become full of purpose when we realize that we can set our own paths, make our own goals, that the things we do are original and significant and entirely our own. Science becomes a worthy enterprise again – once again we are able to learn why the cosmos is intrinsically the way it is, learn the deep reasons why things are as we find them and not different. Our planet, the cradle of life and our only home in the cosmos, becomes unique and precious, worthy of our deepest respect and protection, as do the countless other species we share it with. We can once again recognize that when we’ve lost these things, we’ve lost them forever, and if we destroy our home then we will destroy ourselves, and whatever potential we had will irretrievably vanish. Our technological and cultural triumphs truly will become our own, noble and worthy achievements to be proud of. And our own individual lives will take on far more value by virtue of the fact that they’re the only lives we’ll ever have.

Under theism, we are nothing more than rats in a maze, running out our prearranged lives through arbitrary predetermined scenarios to a foreordained conclusion, never actually making any progress or accomplishing anything except satisfying the unknowable whim of the experimenter. I say this view of reality is both false and depressing. We can do better. We can tear down the walls of the maze and set our own course, throw the puzzles aside and find out the real reasons for things. We are awake, alive and free right here, right now, and we have lives to live and the whole wide universe to explore. Who needs a god?