I finally read Richard Dawkins’The Greatest Show on Earth last week. As I read the chapter on embryology a couple of nights ago, I couldn’t help marveling at how amazing life is in all its forms. Religionists often claim that their views enhance the value of life, particularly human life, because all of it has been ordained and designed by the hand(s) of god(s). It seems to me, however, that religious views actually cheapen the value of life. I want to point out three ways in which this occurs.
First, the creation of life forms is not a particularly significant accomplishment for a deity or deities that are capable of doing all sorts of spectacular things. A galaxy here and a supernova there, a parasite here and a mammal there – just another mundane day in the deity office. Ho hum; now it’s time to rest. Big deal.
Second, religious believers frequently assert that earthly life is second-rate compared to what’s ahead in the next life (or lives). Life on earth in the here and now is a trial run, a testing ground, the primary significance of which is to prepare people (or allow people to prepare themselves, or for people to allow god(s) to prepare them – there are many variations on this theme) for the hereafter. If you think this life is great, just wait till you get to heaven; you haven’t seen anything yet. Or, if you think this life sucks, just wait till you get to heaven; god(s) will reward your patience and faithfulness with something much better.
Third, there are religious believers who teach that humankind is the pinnacle of creation. Think about this a moment. As marvelous as human life is, it takes real hubris to believe that humanity is the apex of creation. Bertrand Russell put this idea well when he said, “If I were granted omnipotence, and millions of years to experiment in, I should not think Man much to boast of as my final accomplishment.” Human life is remarkable, but to consider it the best thing going (outside of heaven) is tragically impoverished.
On the other hand, a naturalistic view of life, which asserts that we still don’t know exactly how life came about, but we do know quite a lot about how it functions now and how it developed historically – once it got started (on earth) – inspires awe. Life is precious precisely because, in many ways, it’s mysterious. Regardless of whether we ever figure out exactly how life began, it will always retain an air of wonder. After all, as abundant as organic life is on earth, it is relatively rare compared to the abundance of inorganic matter that surrounds us. It’s amazing that anything lives at all, let alone that the earth teems with countless life forms ranging from bacteria to whales. Life is also precious because the best evidence uncovered thus far indicates that living beings only get one chance at it. There are no do-overs, no second chances, no hereafters. This life is all we get, so it’s important to make the most of it. Finally, as varied as life on earth is, there may be other planets that are populated with many other life forms, forms that may (or may not) resemble the diversity of life here. There is still much more to learn about life right here on our little planet, and there may well be volumes to discover about life on other worlds. I find all of these ideas utterly inspiring and more than a little bit humbling.
One does not need to believe in divine sanction to treasure life. Rather, all one needs is an appreciation for the wonder of a cosmos that humankind is just beginning to understand. As far as we can tell so far, life forms play small roles on the stage of the cosmos. Organic beings may be relatively few in number, but we’re pretty amazing nonetheless. This shouldn’t surprise you. After all, it’s often the bit characters that steal the show.
– the chaplain