Renowned biologist, professor and heralded champion of atheism, Richard Dawkins has written extensively of the world as it relates to evolution through natural materialism; the notion that the world in which we live with all it’s complexity and diversity can be explained by the simple laws of physics and chemistry as played out in living things. Of such a world governed by materialist evolution he says:
Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. — Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden; A Darwinian View of Life 1995
No rhyme, no reason, no justice — A world filled with pitiless indifference. Sounds pretty bleak, I admit. If I had to live in a world like that, I’m not sure I’d have a tremendous desire to carry on, to persevere, or to even think that I had the remotest chance to make a difference.
Yet as I consider Dawkins’ assessment, I find little with which I can mount any parade of disagreement. When I visualize the vast open spaces of the world where the elements conflagrate with wildlife, weather and the cycle of life, it is indeed a place of pitiless indifference. Plants are frozen out of existence. Soil is baked to the point of cracking. Animals reproduce more young than possibly survive under the conditions. Some die slow, agonizing deaths with their life forces squeezed out of them by drought, extreme temperatures, floods or fires. Others suffer painful, horrific torture literally being eaten alive by predators.
I really need not even to venture in my mind to the remote, uninhabited corners of our planet for I can see the same drama played out in little vignettes in my own back yard. A lizard drowns in my pool, a grasshopper is caught in a spider’s web, a red-tailed hawk swoops from its lofty perch to snatch a lingering gopher (THAT was so totally cool to see! Does this bespeak of my loathing of gophers… oh well!).
I watch the human existence around me play out in similar fashion. A loving husband and father is snuffed out in a tragic traffic collision. A construction worker suffocates when the earth collapses around him and his colleagues cannot dig him out quickly enough. A child is taken from us by lymphoma after a lengthy battle. An elderly couple, in love and married for over 60 years is run down by a drunk driver returning home from a party the night before while taking their long-standing ritualistic morning walk together. These senseless, tragic, everyday occurrences challenge our sense of reason and justice. But if we live in a world governed only by the simple, unaffected laws of physics and chemistry, is there really any other alternative paradigm?
Can there possibly be any meaning to life or reason for living given these godless facts of existence? Many would argue that there must be a higher power that gives purpose and meaning to this brief vapor of existence we all traverse. Some find that the only comfort they can derive from this life is that there is a supreme existence that leads and guides, comforts and encourages them through their journey. While there is no evidence for such a being, millions upon millions of people across the wide stretches of this planet will die before denying the existence of this yet unproven being of omniscience, omnipotence, goodness and love.
So how then do those of us who have no belief in any such supreme being cope with the seemingly meaninglessness of this life? How do we carry on with day after day of “no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference?”
Since I have given up my religious beliefs, I have found more meaning and purpose to my daily living than ever before. So omnipresent was the promise of a better life after death that I gave nearly as much thought to the prospects of that existence as I did to my real existence here on earth. Now that I’m freed of those divided loyalties, all of my focus is here. Today! This very moment!
I greet each new day with the prospects of this one life I have to live. There’s no hope for heaven. There’s no longing for some problem free existence where there no more tears. (sounds like a Johnson’s Baby Shampoo commercial) All I have is today. And when my todays are run out, it’s over. With only the prospect of this limited number of solar cycles I have to spend here, I’m thrilled for today.
Who can I meet? Who can I love? Who can I touch? Who can I inspire? What kind of trouble can I get into? What can I learn? What can I experience? What joy can I experience and share with others?
I’m not rich, world famous, or in a position of great influence. I have but a few people on this planet who even know or care that I exist. But therein lies the magic of living. I have my immediate family: my beautiful wife, my three grown children, their spouses and five grandchildren. I have a few very close friends, a dozen or so regular friends, and maybe another handful of acquaintances with whom I interact on at least a semi-regular basis.
Living my own life to the fullest coupled with the opportunities to interact with and make a difference in their lives gives me all the meaning I’ll ever need in this life. It’s the people who have and will continue to fill my life with design, purpose, and goodness. With these sacred beings around me, I will not suffer blind, pitiless indifference but rather a visionary, compassionate zest for living that will fill my days with wonder and meaning.
The answer is you and me and the people around us. The answer to a meaningful life is indeed, We The People!
As A. C. Grayling puts it in his introduction to The God Argument, “the most wonderful resources for good and flourishing lives lie in the intelligence, the experience, and wisdom and insight of our fellows in the human story.”
The purpose of life is simply to live it. And it’s the people around us who make all the difference.
Dennis lives in San Diego, CA. He’s spent the better part of his life in the world of fundamental Christianity. He’s taught both adult and high school Sunday School classes, led men’s retreats, and he’s served as both a teacher and a worship leader for camps and conferences throughout southern California often in front of thousands of people. The last two years he has taken the journey from faith to the free-thinking realm of atheism. At 62 his perspective is seasoned with a deep understanding of committed church life. He is not yet “outed” to his wife, three married children and five grandchildren who all continue to serve as pastors and leaders in several local churches. As he says, “This atheist thing is a tricky tightrope in my patriarchal position… pray for me!” (Humor.. don’t leave home without it!)