Life’s Value

November 8, 2009 at 6:13 pm 5 comments

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

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Whacked Bible Contradictions: 6 A Letter to Me

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark  |  November 9, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    What is the entirety of creation is “god” or is that pantheism.

  • 2. Joe  |  November 9, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Mark—

    Yes—pantheism believes God makes up everything in the Universe. That God basically IS the Universe and everything inside it or outside it too.

  • 3. anti-supernaturalist  |  November 9, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    Natura naturans: atheists restore to nature its “innocence”

    The de-deification of western culture (including the sciences) is our task for the next 100 years.

    1. we free culture from the dead hand of near eastern mythological speculation

    A mishmash of near eastern magical texts makes spurious claims of being god-given. Their nihilistic dualism and androcentric understanding of the universe and paternalist model of human nature are too damaging to contribute to a humane planet-wide ethos.

    2. we free culture from a death impulse characterized by “sin” and “guilt”

    The universe evinces neither affect, nor morality, nor intellect. Neither physical nature nor human nature say anything about a superordinate, supernatural realm populated by creators or law givers.

    Nature is silent. There is no concept of truth in nature. Indeed, there are no concepts whatsoever in nature. Nature obeys nothing. Nature knows nothing. Natura naturans. Nature acts.

    Nature is neither meaningful nor meaningless. Neither a source of comfort (natural theology) nor a source of despair (existentialism). Both are rooted in the same mistaken presupposition that meaning can be found by searching “the starry heavens” for gods or by quarrying human inwardness for “the moral law within [us].”

    3. we show that religion is a cultural artifact

    Religions belong to cultures embedded in nature. And cultures are our distinctive human-all-too-human handiwork. Religions are obsolete, replaceable cultural artifacts.

    Any specific religion reenacts and institutionalizes cultic myth. It gets spread through recruitment, custom and conquest — financially supported by tax code and state funding — enforced by indoctrination, intimidation or violence.

    4. alleged god-given morality is rooted in ancient imperial propaganda

    Xian mythology, like related big-4 monotheisms zoroastrianism, post-exilic judaism, and islam, posits a moralized universal order which never existed. No more can be found than the ancestors put there in the dream-time. (All commentary, aka theology is fifth-rate fan fiction.)

    Some pseudo-meaning derives ultimately from Sargon I’s (2334-2279 BCE) imperial propaganda when the very first violent yoking together of disparate city-state cultures occurred in what is now Iraq. The first myth of divine status of the emperor and of an empire-spanning morality turns out to be ancient political spin. (Still works today, doesn’t it?)

    5. we present a “way” superior to world hating monster-theisms

    Adjust your understanding, adjust your expectations, and you will have a right relationship with the only total reality there is natura naturans. Nature naturing —

    the anti-supernaturalist

  • 4. Joshua  |  November 10, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    You know, one of the interesting things about this concept is that for most of the people in the world, I would imagine this isn’t even an issue. For them, the question “does life have value?” is probably stupid.

    Yet somehow for Christians in particular, there is this massive energy spent trying to find value in life. I wonder if it comes from the incessant rehashing of the all the woes in the world that occur within churches. In a way, it is almost as if church-goers have to back up their salvation by finding things they are saved from, and one of those things is a “meaningless life”.

    Quite frankly, what is wrong with a meaningless life? I don’t really think about it anymore unless it is brought up, and even then I don’t take it too seriously. I create my own meaning in life… I find things to make my life meaningful and to add perceived value to my existence.

    And in a way, religious people do the exact same thing. They “find” God’s will for their life and often feel useless until they do (I’ve seen it happen). Ironically, God’s will normally just ends up being “what I like to do with a spiritual twist”.

  • 5. Mike Haubrich, FCD  |  November 17, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Your second point is the one that I think is by far the most critical to your argument, because it relates especially to the issue of euthanasia. I can’t find answer to the question of how, if the person in question is about to pass on to the wonderful great beyond with God, all efforts are needed to prevent that. If this world’s body is locked up in a vegetative state, a coma, wracked by cancerous pain, why must that person be held back from release? Or is it because they just don’t trust their faith that their is a wonder beyond?

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