Ask Mommy: Why Bother Expressing Our Insignificance?

Ask Mommy: Why Bother Expressing Our Insignificance? September 6, 2018

I recently found this post here on Patheos, by Frank Schaeffer, titled, I have a nagging question for my atheist friends: if we’re nothing, why bother to convince us of our nothingness? Who cares?

I went into it thinking that Frank would be posing his question in a straight-up way, with no tongue in cheek righteousness or strawmen. I was wrong, as I often am when I am asked questions by apologists. It doesn’t stop me from hoping for it next time, because I like to think the best of people, but it just did not happen on this occasion.

Frank says,

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… 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.

It may be subtle, but Frank has built a strawman here. He is suggesting that when we, as atheists and skeptics, say human beings and even earth itself is insignificant, that we’re trying to say it’s insignificant… to us. I am sure, somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind, he knows this is not the case, but being honest about that would not make a very good blog post, now would it?

Frank, life is significant to us. My life is significant to my son, my husband, my mother, my father and all of their lives are significant to me. Previous human life was significant to all existing life now, because it got us here, to a point where we can be presenting our sides of an argument in public while thousands of miles apart. If we were to find life on another planet, it would be significant for us as a species and as individuals, and likely we would be significant to that life form.

When an atheist, a scientist or a skeptic says to you that we are insignificant, like Carl Sagan did so poetically with Pale Blue Dot, we don’t mean we are insignificant to ourselves. We mean we are insignificant in the Universe. We are of no consequence to the existence of the Universe and with or without us, The Cosmos will go on. We don’t play a role in making the Cosmos possible and the Cosmos is not aware that we are here. We, in the context of the observable Universe and all there is, are simply insignificant.

With your dishonest strawman up in flames, let’s answer your question then, shall we? Why bother to convince people of our cosmic insignificance? What does it matter? There are several reasons why:

1. It is a response to a claim made by countless religions that everything we know of, including billions upon billions of lightyears of lifeless cosmos, was built solely for our sake. That we are the sole reason for 93 billion light-years worth of mostly inhospitable space. It’s pretty simple: stop making the claim, and we’ll stop pointing out how silly it is.

2. It cuts us down to size and makes us realize we are not more nor less important than the endangered rhino or your family pet. This can help us to act in more moral ways towards other species, our planet as a whole and towards whatever we may find beyond our solar system. Feeling superior to all the other life on earth leads to an unhealthy disrespect for it which results in animal cruelty, excessive and wasteful consumption of animal life and a complete disregard for the planet on which we live. A typical apologist’s response to the suggestion humans are animals and belong to the ape family is a perfect illustration of this.

3. Living in a delusion, especially one of grandeur, is not necessarily the best way to live. Living in reality helps us to adapt to what’s real, put greater value on what is real and make progress as a species.

4. Taking the purpose for life away from some celestial palace governed over by a vengeful, murderous douchebag, allows us to place the purpose of our life on those standing in front of us, in the flesh. Knowing you are not significant to anything watching over you from planet Kolob, makes you able to focus more on your significance to real people down here on earth.

5. Once you realize your significance comes from within and not from without, you’ll see that only you can take your life in the direction you want it to go. You’re not going to wait around for a celestial ruler to show you the path. Rather, you’ll take control of your own life.

It’s really pretty simple, Frank. Knowing that if the human species completely disappeared tomorrow, the Cosmos would go on, without so much as a hiccup, enables you to see how lucky we are. Lucky to have this blip in the vast expanse of time to be conscious. When you realize how lucky you truly are to have this life, you make it count. You come down to earth, you focus on your earthly life, and earthly beings in it who need you.

Frank ends his post with,

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.

and while I know Frank fully understood the dishonesty in this question, I will answer it anyway. Mr. Sagan wrote these gorgeous, lasting words for us, Frank. For human beings. That’s the wonderful thing about realizing we are insignificant in the grand scheme of things because we no longer waste our time trying to please a creator. Instead, we come down to earth and try to please our fellow human beings. That is what Carl Sagan did. Carl may have been insignificant to the Cosmos, but to our species, he was anything but. He brought joy and knowledge and wonder to so many of us, and that’s why he wrote the way he did. How sad, how utterly pathetic, that you think we only ought to create beautiful things if we are significant to something more than ourselves, our species and life on our planet.

Carl Sagan wrote, Frank, for the same reasons I do, and the same reasons you do: so that other people would have the opportunity to appreciate it or have a thought provoked or to have a question answered. I know that today I have answered yours, Frank. The question now is, can you be honest enough to accept it?

Thank you, Mr. Sagan, for writing Pale Blue Dot.

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  • epeeist

    It’s just a fallacy of division isn’t it.

    My favourite response to this:

    P1: The universe has a mean density of 6 particles per cubic metre

    P2: Humans are part of the universe

    C: Humans have a mean density of 6 particles per cubic metre

  • Raging Bee

    I have a nagging question for my atheist friends: if we’re nothing, why bother to convince us of our nothingness? Who cares?

    I’d ask the same question of all those religious blowhards who never tire of reminding us how low-down and dirty and sinful and ignorant we are in the eyes of their God, whenever we have the temerity to question their silly beliefs.

  • GRH

    …. and some people are just mean 🙂
    (not you of course)

  • GRH

    I’ve heard atheists both accused of being arrogant and ‘as nothing’ so both extremes are covered :).

    Personally, the phrase ‘we are stardust’ sums it up for me.
    Both insignificant and significant at the same time – points of reference being so important (the universe or ourselves).

    When theists claim we lose so much wonderment in not believing in a deity, I think of how much extra wonderment we are capable of with but a little knowledge of science. The twinkling of the stars – I can still appreciate the aesthetics of the phenomena and drill deeper by understanding the changing densities and refraction of the atmosphere I am looking through. Then, knowing that stars can actually ‘twinkle’ understand that the strength of their light reaching us can depend on a planet other than the Earth orbiting that star, or clouds of dust moving between us and it etc. I don’t just stop at ‘wow it twinkles’.
    I sometimes feel sorry for people who do not have an interest in science and deeper knowledge. Not often, but sometimes. – but then I start thinking about the processes that MAKES that person think that way, and off I go again on another endless trail of wonderment.

  • Aloha

    The Bible explicitly teaches that humans are made in the image of God … but animals are the “insignificant” ones, here only to serve the needs of humans, as food, sport, pets, or scenery. That notion has led to such destruction here on Earth. We’ve sent numerous animals into extinction, and the ones that are left are nearly to extinction (considering large mammals).

    Perhaps what we need is not to think we’re the top dog, nor to think that we’re a lowly speck of dust. We just need a little balance.

  • Kevin K

    I wish theists would decide once and for all whether all atheists are nihilists, or whether we’re all libertines.

    Can’t be both.

  • Jim Jones

    > if we’re nothing, why bother to convince us of our nothingness? Who cares?

    The theists care. We do not. Everything is one planet killing meteorite away from annihilation.

  • Raging Bee

    We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky!

  • Geek the Form

    this chart depresses me:

  • 1. It is a response to a claim made by countless religions that
    everything we know of, including billions upon billions of lightyears of
    lifeless cosmos, was built solely for our sake. That we are the sole
    reason for 93 billion light-years worth of mostly inhospitable space.
    It’s pretty simple: stop making the claim, and we’ll stop pointing out
    how silly it is.

    Actually much more than that, maybe even infinite, if data from those missions that have studied the cosmic microwave background as Planck or theories like cosmic inflation are to be believed, not to mention the possible existence of other Universes.

    Anyway, sure. At planetary scale we’re like viruses or bacteria, including to parasitize this world, and at larger scales we’re pretty much nothing, nada, zero, zilch. This indifferent to us Universe has events that could kill us several hundred times, and after that it would continue with its business as before but despite that we’re as part of it as the smallest subatomic particles or the largest galaxies as well as children of whatever process (quantum fluctuation, eternal inflation, whatever) created it, and at planetary scale and especially below we’re still important.

    And I prefer to live facing that truth that under the false shield of a small Universe made for us that is just a couple of thousand years old, that we descend of just a pair as perfect as naive created from dirt and a rib, and that a supposedly all-loving God who if you do not believe in him will punish you for all eternity and will destroy everything just to replace it with something much worse is watching us.

  • GRH


  • Raging Bee

    No, Ludo…wait, what was the question?

  • Raging Bee

    Looks like he forgot to add chickens.

  • Martin Penwald

    Everything is one planet killing meteorite away from annihilation.

    You’re optimistic, here. As if it was the only way the Cosmos could get us. “Death by Black Hole” from Neil deGrasse-Tyson is a pretty funny read.

  • Martin Penwald

    Do you like LSD?

  • Martin Penwald

    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…

    And according to the Necronomicon, once I’ll die I’ll become a Hellspawn who’ll lead the legions of Satan against the hypocrites who claimed talk for the Jeez. Paul is the first on the list but don’t think you’ll be off the hook (litterally…).

  • Martin Penwald

    Feeling superior to all the other life on earth leads to an unhealthy disrespect for it which results in animal cruelty, excessive and wasteful consumption of animal life and a complete disregard for the planet on which we live.

    It would still be a huge improvement if these people felt superior ONLY to animals.

  • GRH

    Two fold reference. LSD being the first (yay Beatles).
    Second was australopithecine, for the deeper knowledge of science from my original comment.
    Hope that’s a lucid account of my meanings.

  • GRH

    chickens not being mammals of course and the chart references land mammals.

  • Jim Jones

    Even a row of volcanoes could crash the planet into an ice age.

  • Benjamin Muller

    I have a nagging question for my atheist friends: if we’re nothing, why bother to convince us of our nothingness? Who cares?

    I wouldn’t, except that those folks are so full of themselves, they not only believe they are in telepathic communication with the creator of the universe, they think they have a right to force what they think his will is into other people’s lives, by crook or by hook.

    the good news is, I don’t sell “we’re insignificant”. The same Carl Sagan he indicts for “Pale Blue Dot”, also said “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”

    We are insignificant as individuals, we’re practically microscopic on a planetary scale, let alone a solar or galactic scale. And yet, we’re an inherent part of it all and aware of it.

    So maybe instead of trying to use magic to figure out who their god would have them hate, they should recognize the all of which they are a part, recognize that others are part of that same all, and recognize themselves in others and start treating others accordingly rather than looking for every reason to demonize and dehumanize them to satisfy some god ancient goat herders dreamed up.

  • Elizabeth A. Root

    I was going to say the same thing. As a matter of fact, I think that the scientific view has more dignity than the idea that we are innately evil and prone to sin, and only perfection is acceptable.

    I’ve read a couple of Frank Schaeffer’s book, and I think he is an odd duck. He quoting a conversation he had with someone, and by the end of it was contradicting the point he was trying to make at the beginning.

  • Benjamin Muller

    They can’t even agree on what their faith is supposed to be about. Bunch of quarrelsome idiots who aren’t happy unless they’re fucking up someone else’s day.

  • tatortotcassie

    twinkle, twinkle

  • Jennny

    Yes, as someone who thought the Shaeffer parents were amazing and so spiritual in the 1970-80s, it’s been interesting in the internet age to discover their one big happy family was a projection of the perfect x-tian image they wanted to present to the world. In reality there were the same human flaws many of us have..including some well hidden sex, drugs and probably rock’n’roll too in L’Abri.

  • HFR

    If a huge meteorite smashed into the Earth tomorrow and destroyed every living thing on the planet causing the very last extinction, would the God you have been indoctrinated to believe in still exist?
    All of the estimated 2600 imaginary supernatural deities will only ever exist if there are the gullible “sheep” with the primitive superstitions to be exploited, without them, there is no imaginary deity.

  • Phil Plait has a very nice book called “Death from the Skies” about that topic.

  • Melody

    It’s why I feel, though I am an atheist and very happy about it, if I were to pick something as a God, it would be something like Time, the Universe or Death. Important things, both to us and in general, and lasting things. Perhaps not ever-lasting technically but sure lasting a lot longer than ourselves.

    It’s why I find it interesting that Death is a god in Game of Thrones, because it does make some sense, just like nature religion. As an atheist I can understand ancient people worshipping the Sun or Rain better than I can my former Christian self. No one denies the importance of sun and rain in our world and that was true even more before modern agriculture.

    Worshipping something real is problematic enough in and of itself, but worshipping something that is not real is a level beyond that is what I’m saying.

  • ORigel

    It is comforting to know that there were meteorite impacts at the end of the Eocene that had little effect on life. Extinctions occurred a little later due to the Earth entering an icehouse state (glaciers formed on Antarctica), but the impacts didn’t cause it.

  • ORigel

    Actually, many of us fit the TV Trope of Anti-Nihlist. We know there is no Purpose or Meaning to life, but we should still enjoy life especially since this is the only one.

  • Kevin K

    The Christian trope of that would be Libertine, wouldn’t it? Someone who “just wants to sin”.

  • ORigel

    You mean someone who believes in a god that punishes sin, yet loves sinning? I’d do that if I believed, taking a gamble that the scientists in Hell gave it air-conditioning.

  • “… such a worm as I.” I hated that song even when I was a believer.

  • And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

  • Raging Bee

    “…a wretch like me” is another favorite of mine.

  • Raging Bee

    You could worship the ancient Greek gods — they have a god of reason (Apollo), and a goddess of justice (Athena). Also a god of wine, visions, trance/ecstasy, and revelry (Dionysus). And unlike that Yahweh guy, their father-god Zeus is a sensible parent who knows the kids are going to grow up and push limits, and that’s okay.

  • Melody

    I think my worshipping days are over 🙂 but yeah, a god of reason or justice would be far better!

  • Raging Bee

    Yeah, he’d still exist. He’d be feeling pretty silly for not seeing that meteorite coming, but he’d still exist…

  • Raging Bee

    They’d have to decide which of those is “bad” first, and then tar us with it.

  • MadScientist1023

    I will never understand why Christians think being slaves, sycophants, or pawns for some cosmic being who may have a plan for you but doesn’t actually *need* you for anything beyond his little game down on Earth somehow gives life meaning. People tell themselves that the Christian god needs them for something, but if he’s truly all-powerful, he can do it himself with no effort and do a better job of it than you ever could.

  • Raging Bee

    Humans are social animals, and society requires at least some hierarchy; so we have a basic instinctual need to at least feel we’re part of something bigger. And I think religious leaders pander to that instinctual need to get people to follow and obey them.

  • Kevin K

    Someone did the math based on bible verses and found that hell would be substantially cooler than heaven anyway.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    “was built solely for our sake.” and yet they call us ‘special snowflakes’

  • Bob Jase

    gee, which is better to one’s mental & emotional health – the atheist view that in a vast universe we are insignificant or the Christian view that to an omni-everythng deity we are worthless, unsalvagable, disgusting, evil sub-creatures?

  • Excellent point.

  • I am so full of wonder and awe at our universe. It’s ridiculous to think I would have more by accepting the claim that a god did it all.

  • Well said.

  • Exactly.

  • That is depressing.

  • Great question!

  • Exactly.

  • I choose option 1.

  • HFR

    No, he would no longer exist, because there would not be anyone left to believe the supernatural deity had ever existed? It can only ever exist in peoples minds, that is the only place all the estimated imaginary fabricated 2600 Gods have ever existed.

  • Otto

    6. Because realizing you are just an insignificant human on an insignificant planet in an insignificant galaxy, and you are not in fact best friends with the creator of the entire universe who needs YOU to spread his will, might…just might…keep you from acting like a self righteous jackhole.

  • Haha, perfect!

  • Anri

    Late to the party, but:
    Atheism doesn’t say we should consider ourself worthless, just that we shouldn’t expect the rest of the universe to care.
    To put it another way, you can yell at the clouds all you like, but they won’t listen.

  • Raging Bee

    Hidden rock-n-roll?! Heaven forefend!

  • Raging Bee

    Shine bright…

  • Raging Bee

    God is our density!

  • Raging Bee

    NOW you tell me…