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Why I Am an Optimist

On the drive down to Florida Poly Retreat a few weeks back, I had an epiphany.

You see, I've always harbored a not-so-secret desire to crush the earth beneath my iron boot, but in the past twoscore years, I've made very little progress toward realizing that goal. And it occurred to me why that is. I'm actually very optimistic about the state of humanity, and unbridled optimism about the human condition doesn't lend itself to the kind of monomaniacial dedication required of a true James Bond-class villain.

There is a reason I am an optimist. That reason emerges directly from the fact that I do not believe in god.

This might seem, at first glance, to be something of a contradiction. Many people cling to a belief in some kind of divine, personally involved caretaker high up in the sky precisely because it's the only way they can find optimism and not despair. There's even a Web site set up by a Fundamentalist Christian organization that is organized around the idea "if you don't matter to God, you don't matter to anyone." The site is advertised by banner ads like this one, showing some gangster wannabe who, without God, presumably has no reason not to blow your punk ass away:

I find this attitude, that without god there is no morality and no meaning or purpose in life, very, very interesting...more for what it says about the people who subscribe to it than for anything else. The Web site that this banner advertises is strongly anti-evolution and pro-creation, and I think that's extremely telling.

There are, I think, two driving forces behind much of religious thought: fear and despair. The despair comes from the idea that human lives and human achievement are without meaning or purpose in a universe without god, a universe where we are the natural result of natural processes on an insignificant and not terribly remarkable part of an insignificant and not terribly remarkable galaxy lost in a universe that is quite literally inconceivably huge. When you look at an image taken from the Hubble Deep Field camera of a teeny, tiny patch of sky, and you see that everywhere in the universe, as far as you can look, you see not hundreds or even thousands but billions of galaxies, and every one of these galaxies is made up of billions of stars, and we occupy such a tiny sliver of this universe that our entire galaxy could vanish or be destroyed in some kind of cataclysm and the universe would scarcely even notice, some people get all freaked out.

But it's true.

Every object you see in this picture with the exception of the bright object in the lower left of center (which is a star in our own galaxy) is an entire galaxy. The scale of the universe beggars comprehension, and we feel insignificant.

So the creationists, who never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge, invent a new universe to satisfy their need to feel special. They imagine a tiny universe, a limited universe, a universe only a few thousand years old, a small place containing a world (which is seventy-five percent water) deliberately created just for man (who has no gills). They post videos on YouTube arguing that the hand of god is clearly visible in the banana, which with its convenient wrapper and hand-pleasing shape was deliberately designed by a benificient creator to fit easily in our hand and be eaten--though they ignore contradictory evidence, like, say, the coconut. Or, they argue, since the evolutionary idea on the origin of life claims life can begin when non-living matter is exposed to radiation, then how come life doesn't spontaneously begin from other non-living matter, like peanut butter?

It's easy to mock creationists; they're just so cute when they pretend to be scientists! But their folly isn't born of stupidity; it's a product of the very human need to feel special and significant.

When you add the Void to the mix, the problem becomes even greater. Human beings have the cognitive tools to generalize from their experiences and make predictions about future events, and that gives us the capacity to realize that one day we are going to die. Facing the Void is, for many people, the very embodiment of stark raving terror. We are going to die. There will come a day when we will be gone, and there is nothing we can do about it.

So we as a species respond the only way we can: by denying it. We pull the shade down over the Void, and then decorate that shade with an entire bestiary of gods and demons and angels and supernatural forces of all descriptions imaginable who will protect us from the certainty of death. When you look at all the various gods and deities people have worshipped throughout history, all the supernatural beings we've ever believed in--the sun gods worshipped by almost all hunter-gatherer tribes; the god Tezcatlipoca of the Aztecs; the various gods of the Egyptian pantheon; the feuding, spiteful divine teenagers of the Greeks; the vengeful, erratic, emotionally volatile god of the ancient Israelites--one thing becomes very, very clear: these gods are all us. All these divinities are distorted, funhouse mirror caricatures of humanity. We pull the shade down over the Void, then project onto it ourselves. All our fears, desires, petty insecurities, all our need for conformity and control, all these things are reflected in the gods and demons and pixies and faeries we invent. All these dim, distorted projections, created to convince ourselves that the Void is not real.

And it works. The first time I was confronted by the Void, at about thirteen years old, the thought of going to heaven was the only comfort I could find. When I lost that, I lost my only defense against the Void, and that's not easy to do. These crazy funhouse projections serve a purpose.

But there is a price to pay for this comfort, one that I suspect many people aren't even consciously aware of.

Part of that price is truth. If one cares passionately about the truth, one can not help but notice that every time a religious entity has disagreed with empirical science about some matter of empirical fact about the physical world, the religion has been wrong. Every single time, with not one single exception. The creationists seek meaning and purpose by believing themselves to be the favored of a supernatural entity that created the whole of the universe just for us, yet this belief requires them to imagine a universe much smaller and much younger than it actually is. Their need for meaning, their desperate desire to feel special, causes them to adopt the notion that the whole of creation is only six thousand years old (5,997 years, according to Orthodox Judiasm; Fundamentalist Christians put the figure at about ten years older), in spite of massive, overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

And this notion leads naturally to other notions as well, including the idea that humanity, the favored of the divine architect of the universe, can do no wrong. Environmental responsibility? Social responsibility? Outmoded beliefs of godless liberals; we were given divine sanction to do as we please, and that's exactly what we should do.

God made the universe for us. We are the most important things in all of creation. The world was put here specifically for the purpose of housing us. If we believe this, we will never die; God won't allow it.

If you don't matter to God, you don't matter to anyone.

When people let go of the idea of god, they're left with a sense of despair. If there is no god--if we are simply the result of natural, mindless forces operating in a universe that is incomprehensibly huge and incomprehensibly ancient, a place that is steered by no divine force and a place where an airless rock is just as good as a planet teeming with life, then what meaning can any of us have? What meaning can any of our struggles and triumphs have? What point is there?

And that attitude, tragically, misses the point entirely.

For you see, if we were made a brief time ago in God's image and put here for the sole and express purpose of worshipping and exalting God, then what we are now is what we will always be. There is an upward limit on the things we are capable of. We are born disgraced, pale shadows of the original models who fell from that grace, and our job is to struggle through this brief life of misery and tears hoping we somehow manage to do and say the right things so that god will rescue us. We have no purpose other than that which is given to us by god--and looking around, I gotta say it's not much of a purpose.

But if we are evolved monkeys...

Ah, now things are different. If we are evolved monkeys, if we are the result of natural processes that conspired across a vast sea of time to give rise to sapient, self-directing entities capable of understanding themselves and the physical world, then all bets are off. Now, there is no limit to what we can become. Now, anything within the physical laws of the universe is potentially within our grasp. Now, we have the power we once reserved to our gods; now, we can, through the application of our will, make of ourselves anything we choose to be.

And now we have meaning and purpose far beyond that of crawling around chanting to some insecure creator-god about how great and magnificent he is, and would he please please not strike us dead? Now, we are the part of the universe capable of understanding itself. We are of the universe; we are a part of it, not above it; but we are unique in all the universe we know in that we can understand it. We are aware. We are the universe's way of understanding itself.

And that is a far more magnificent purpose than telling a child-god over and over again that yes, he's great, really, he's great, he's good, he's wonderful, no really, he's great, and we love him, really we do.

There is a saying: "with God, all things are possible." The saying is false. With God, all things are possible save for rising above our station and becoming anything more than what we are right now.

Without god, however, all things not disallowed by the fundamental laws of physics really are possible. Without god, we make our own meaning and purpose; and that power lets us use the gifts granted to us to transform ourselves and the world around us in any way we want.

This power fills some people with fear. Without god, they say, how will we know what is moral? Without god, they say, what punishment can there be for people who do things that are wrong? To this I say: Your morals, given to you by your belief in god, allow for the most appalling atrocities, historically and today. Your morals teach that some human beings, simply as a result of the way they are born, are inherently unequal to others. The notion that there is one and only one right way to live is the cause of more human suffering, more grief, and more evil than any other single idea in all of human history. This is your morals? Your morals, like your gods, are a distorted mirror of your own prejudices and your own evil. You will not find heaven by backing away from hell; the fear of retribution is not the path to enlightenment.

We don't always make good choices, it's true. But we're still a young race. And I am very optimistic about what we can accomplish.


( 62 comments — Leave a comment )
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Apr. 3rd, 2007 07:27 pm (UTC)
mark up error at "on the drive down",

good write up so far.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 07:28 pm (UTC)
Markup error's been fixed. :)
(no subject) - lefthand - Apr. 3rd, 2007 07:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 3rd, 2007 07:35 pm (UTC)
It's amazing to me that modern scientists are still rebutting the same sort of arguments (the eye was obviously made to see, the banana was made for the hand of a human, flowers were made beautiful for people to see them, and so on) by creationists as Darwin was rebutting in his day. He's already addressed this crap, people!
Apr. 4th, 2007 06:36 pm (UTC)
I think that's disappointing, but I don't really find it surprising, for two reasons.

First, people do not--even today--actually know what the theory of evolution is. This becomes painfully clear when you read Web sites about creationism or talk to people who are creationists; they're reacting strongly against something, but they don't know what they're reacting against. None of these people can actually tell you what "evolution" is or how it works.

Second, rebutting the arguments is like treating the symptoms of a disease without treating the underlying cause. People make these arguments out of desperation, because they feel that accepting evolution will deprive them of something. It's that sense of loss, not any cognitive process, that drives the arguments against evolution, so answering them with rationality doesn't do anything to address the reason behind the arguments.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 07:44 pm (UTC)
Very nice. I love posts that save me from having to say anything.
Apr. 4th, 2007 12:41 am (UTC)
Indeed. I want to respond, but there's nothing for me to say except, "yes."
(no subject) - _luaineach - Apr. 4th, 2007 12:48 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - zotmeister - Apr. 5th, 2007 03:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 3rd, 2007 08:05 pm (UTC)
This is inspired writing. Almost as if you had been touched by the hand of god. :-)

"Now, we are the part of the universe capable of understanding itself. We are of the universe; we are a part of it, not above it; but we are unique in all the universe we know in that we can understand it. We are aware. We are the universe's way of understanding itself."

Apr. 4th, 2007 05:11 pm (UTC)
Re: Awesome!
Apr. 3rd, 2007 08:32 pm (UTC)
I always found it interesting that religious people believe that without god to smite them, they would run wild in the streets, raping and pillaging. They always kind of scared me because they didn't get that I, without a god, didn't do that sort of thing because I thought it rude.
Apr. 4th, 2007 12:43 am (UTC)
Yeah. I can't understand those people who say that without religion, you can't have morality. Just because I didn't get my moral code from some old book doesn't mean I don't have one. And it's pretty freakin' strong!
(no subject) - lefthand - Apr. 4th, 2007 02:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - red_girl_42 - Apr. 4th, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lefthand - Apr. 4th, 2007 05:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - red_girl_42 - Apr. 4th, 2007 10:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Apr. 4th, 2007 06:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lefthand - Apr. 4th, 2007 07:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 3rd, 2007 08:33 pm (UTC)
What I Like About Creationism
The good part about Creationism is that it implies polytheism. After all, one look at the world and one must conclude it was designed by a committee.

Rev Si
Apr. 3rd, 2007 09:08 pm (UTC)
Re: What I Like About Creationism
That would be the obvious conclusion. I think that would be a hilariously funny notion. Nothing would have ever gotten finished.
Re: What I Like About Creationism - cgmp - Apr. 3rd, 2007 09:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: What I Like About Creationism - violet_tigress1 - Apr. 3rd, 2007 09:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: What I Like About Creationism - tacit - Apr. 4th, 2007 06:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: What I Like About Creationism - peristaltor - Apr. 5th, 2007 05:12 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: What I Like About Creationism - red_girl_42 - Apr. 4th, 2007 12:43 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: What I Like About Creationism - trillian42 - Apr. 4th, 2007 03:03 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: What I Like About Creationism - red_girl_42 - Apr. 4th, 2007 05:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: What I Like About Creationism - tacit - Apr. 4th, 2007 06:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: What I Like About Creationism - trillian42 - Apr. 4th, 2007 06:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: What I Like About Creationism - trillian42 - Apr. 4th, 2007 03:03 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 3rd, 2007 08:34 pm (UTC)
I am glad you beat me to the punch. I have a "why I'm an atheist" post bouncing around in my head and you've said it much more eloquently than I can at the moment.

Other than: I'm happy because I don't believe in god. I don't believe in god because I'm happy. It works itself out.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 08:47 pm (UTC)
I remember years ago coming across poems by a Unitarian Universalist minister who was also an atheist. (UUs tend to be a rather eclectic bunch for a purported denomination.) I remember being struck by his poems mostly because, as opposed to most of the Sartre existentialist-style attitudes that could be summed up as, "There is no God; everything is meaningless," Ken Patton's poems were thematically more along the lines of, "There is no God; isn't that wonderful?"

Your post -- which is good stuff -- reminds me a bit of a stage monologue done last year which I bought as an audiobook from iTunes a couple months ago called "Letting Go of God," about a lifelong Catholic's journey toward atheism. It's funny (the author/performer is Julia Sweeney, who was on "Saturday Night Live" years ago), but pretty thoughtful.
Apr. 4th, 2007 12:12 am (UTC)
I remember years ago coming across poems by a Unitarian Universalist minister who was also an atheist.

My Dad has always said he liked the Unitarians because they believed there was *at most* one God. ;)

Great post, Franklin. You are an amazing thinker and writer. I've always been annoyed by the religionists attitude that those without religion have no morals, as if everyone is a child that needs to be told wrong from right. I think that if you don't believe in any certain afterlife that it makes life and the Earth even MORE precious, because this is all you have, Heaven and Hell are all right here and now. There is one line that I love, ironically enough from the (albeit liberal Episcopalian) church service - "This fragile Earth, our island home". Religion on the other hand has been used since time immemorial to keep the peasants down - after all, your reward is in Heaven, where the rich man can't fit in through the eye of a needle, it's okay to live in miserable feudalism now.
Apr. 3rd, 2007 09:53 pm (UTC)
Thank you thank you thank you thank you

for once again saying everything in my head that I can't get out in an understandable manner.

For me, though, letting go of God was not followed by despair. It was followed by such an immense sense of relief, for precisely the reasons you state above for being an optimist.

Whenever a religious person uses the "without God, people would do bad things" argument, I counter with "1) I have no god and I do not do those things and 2) you are telling me that only your fear of god keeps YOU from doing those bad things ... does that mean you really want to do them now and only the fear of punishment keeps you in check? That doesn't say very much for your moral standpoint, especially since I have no desire to do those bad things and it's not fear of retribution that keeps me from wanting to ... I just don't want to."

That usually starts them sputtering when I call their own actions into question.

I'm favoriting this post so I can point links back to it later,and I may outright steal some of it when I right my own posts/threads/entries/webpages on the subject. You always know just how to say what I'm thinking!
Apr. 4th, 2007 12:13 am (UTC)
For me, though, letting go of God was not followed by despair. It was followed by such an immense sense of relief

Exactly my thoughts when I read that part.
(no subject) - peristaltor - Apr. 4th, 2007 04:45 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 3rd, 2007 09:56 pm (UTC)
Awesome post. In a completely un-godly way. ;-)
Apr. 3rd, 2007 10:41 pm (UTC)
loving it... please come live in Oz? i think i'm falling in love with your mind;-)

I faced the void before i knew what it was and then played devils advocate for 3 years in highschool at religious ed camps (I went to a methodist college)... much to the amusement of myself and the Rev who ran them... luckily he was more interested in encouraging thought than dogma.

I'm posting a link to this on my blog...
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 4th, 2007 06:54 pm (UTC)
Don't mind at all!

Interesting take on the "speck on a speck in a speck" thing--the Chinese are currently embarking on a very ambitious program of manned space exploration. They've already designed a knockoff of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and their goal is a manned lunar landing in the next decade or so, followed in short order by a permanent lunar colony.

As part of that project, they've just announced that they're developing an unmanned lunar rover, which will be sent to the moon ahead of their manned mission. The lunar environment is quite harsh and solar power isn't much of an option, so the lunar rover is nuclear powered; it's run by a radioisotope battery.

Protesters have already started drawing the battle lines against this idea. One of the protesters quoted in a C-Net News article a couple days ago said wee have to stop the Chinese from junking up the moon with radiation.

Clearly, this man is lacking in perspective. And, er, a background in astrophysics.
Apr. 4th, 2007 02:57 am (UTC)
Another great writing :)

As you know, I grew up a-religious without a concept of a 'god' of any sort. So I never had one to let go of, and thus really can't fully comprehend the process of letting go or this despair you speak of. I also don't have a fear of the "void", or any profound fear of death. That's never been a driving force for me. I appreciate my mortality, it makes me realize to make the best of every day I'm blessed with living, and to realize my place in the way ideas evolve amongst our collective minds.

So while I completely get, and experience, the sense of optimism without clinging onto a higher power - I haven't necessarily gotten to that perspective via similar paths. And that's the wonderful thing about life.. is finding others with similar viewpoints who got there in different ways :)
Apr. 4th, 2007 03:29 am (UTC)
(aside: I wish you'd lj-cut these long posts; when I'm scanning my friends page I don't spend the time your writings deserve, in order to be read and comprehended and grok'd)

The insignificance of man was neatly summed up by Douglas Adams in "The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe", talking about the Total Perspective Vortex...

The Universe, as has been observed before, is an unsettlingly big place, a fact which for the sake of a quiet life most people tend to ignore.

Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do.

For instance, in one corner of the Eastern Galactic Arm lies the large forest planet Oglaroon, the entire "intelligent" population of which lives permanently in one fairly small and crowded nut tree. In which tree they are born, live, fall in love, carve tiny speculative articles in the bark on the meaning of life, the futility of death and the importance of birth control, fight a few extremely minor wars, and eventually die strapped to the underside of some of the less accessible outer branches.

In fact the only Oglaroonians who ever leave their tree are those who are hurled out of it for the heinous crime of wondering whether any of the other trees might be capable of supporting life at all, or indeed whether the other trees are anything other than illusions brought on by eating too many Oglanuts.

Exotic though this behaviour may seem, there is no life form in the Galaxy which is not in some way guilty of the same thing, which is why the Total Perspective Vortex is as horrific as it is.

For when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says "You are here."
Apr. 4th, 2007 04:54 am (UTC)
(Bow Deeply)
I don't know what brought you to my own journal years ago; but one day you were there making great comments. I learned how to reciprocate the Friending (eventually) and later still learned how to read one's "friends list."

I learned then, as I have so many times in the past, how much I have to learn about how best to convey ones thoughts through words. This latest learning experiece is one of the best yet.

Honestly, a core of your posts and the ensuing exchanges we have had have made the entire LJ experience both memorable and worthy of pursuit.

If I haven't said it before, thank you. Once again.
Apr. 4th, 2007 11:22 am (UTC)
Re: (Bow Deeply)
And I find it amusing that I found his journal through yours, and the both of you have caused me to stop and ponder until I grok in fullness.
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