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.
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.
Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay