June 2, 2019

What If Atheists Are Right?

Atheists are quick to point out the differences between religions (and especially between different denominations of the same religion) as proof that people of faith have failed to come to any kind of
consensus. That alone, they say, is enough to prove that faith is nothing more than a bunch of superstitious hogwash. But they are overlooking something when they resort to this argument. Even though there are literally thousands of different religions, there is one factor that they all have in common.

I’m going to call it “continuity.”

According to the Pew Research Center, 84% of the people on this planet are affiliated with a religion. This means that the vast majority of humanity shares the belief that there is something more to our
existence than this life. Whether it’s Heaven, Nirvana, reincarnation, or returning your energy to the cosmos, people of faith all believe that some aspect of what we call “us” continues to exist beyond physical death.

Hence… continuity.

Atheists say that this is all there is, and when you die… it’s GAME OVER.

Now, I love science. Almost more than I love barbeque. Probably less than pizza… I also believe that there is more to reality than science can explain. But… what if I’m wrong? If atheists are right, and science is the only appropriate way to interpret reality, what does the future look like for humanity as a species?

Assuming we don’t all meet our end by some man-made catastrophe like nuclear war, super-viruses, a nanite grey-goo apocalypse, or the ascendance of a hostile AI super-intelligence, one thing is
certain: If humanity is going to survive, we have to get off this planet. Astronomers and astrophysicists have some pretty convincing evidence which indicates that planet Earth is going to die.

We’re going to be eaten by the sun.

Near the end of its life cycle, our sun will grow hotter and larger, eventually growing so large that it will swallow the Earth. If you’re thinking Mars sounds like a pretty good place for our second home, think again. Mars may not get swallowed, but it will be burned to a crisp. (Probably not in a tasty, bacony way….) We have about a billion years left to figure out a way to avoid joining the Owen and Beru barbecue club, and then maybe 5 to 7 billion more years until the sun completely burns itself out. While all this extra heat might make it possible to colonize the outer solar system (for example, some of the moons around Jupiter and the other gas giants), that will only be a temporary solution. Eventually, the sun will die, and we will have to abandon this solar system altogether in order to survive.

Hopefully we can develop technology which will enable us to travel to other stars by that time, with the goal being to establish colonies all across the galaxy. But even if we find a way to go beyond this
galaxy and develop an intergalactic civilization, the universe itself will eventually die (incidentally, the Bible says the same thing). Scientists have several competing theories about how this will happen, but none of them have a happy ending.

So if the atheists are right, and this life is all there is, what’s the point of it all? We like to say that the brevity of life gives it value, but does that still hold true if we’re talking about the end of ALL life? Or is it just an empty platitude that we tell ourselves to try to ease our existential angst? I mean, sure, if life in the universe could go on forever, then the continuation of the species certainly makes for a strong argument. Everything we do now would have an impact on the everlasting survival of the human race. So even though I’m going to die, I could at least know that my life contributed to keeping humanity alive. I could live with that.

Well, until… you know...

But science, which is allegedly the guiding philosophy of the atheist, says, “No.” Even though it may take trillions upon trillions of years, all life in the universe will come to an end. All means all. Even if we happen to encounter super-advanced alien civilizations, their eventual fate is no different than our own. Even if we somehow develop the ability to upload our minds into some kind of computer-based life, that, too will be destined to die when the universe eventually uses up every last bit of energy. There will be no one left to witness the legacy of humanity - no one left to appreciate anything of value which we might leave behind.

What then, will have been the point of it all?

I’ve heard the origin of life (especially intelligent life) described by science as a happy accident, but if this is all there is, and it’s all doomed to end and be forgotten, it really starts to seem
like more of a cruel joke.

Anybody else starting to feel like you’re stuck in an Edgar Allen Poe story? Maybe Hemingway? Just me?

I’m going to be a little bit presumptuous here and speak for a certain 84% of humanity. To the atheists, we say, “You’re wrong. There is more. There has to be.”

Sure, it’s conceivable that we’re all way off on the details, but at least we have hope. I have hope that even though I’ve been a less-than-perfect human, there is a place reserved for my soul after my body
dies. Sure, maybe some of us believe that when you die you come back in another form, and others think we’re all just part of the universe trying to experience itself in different ways, and that death just means a return to unity with some universal mind. Sure, maybe none of this is scientific, but it gives us hope. Is that such a terrible thing?

I mean if the atheists are right and I’m fooling myself by believing in God, who does that hurt? If we’re all just going to die and rot anyway, does being “right” about that somehow make life better or more important? Would it make me a better person? Does it give me a reason to even try to be a better person? What benefit is there in that line of reasoning? Because I don’t see one at all.

And religious beliefs provide more than hope. They teach us about right and wrong. They give us reasons to better ourselves. They teach us how to interact with each other. They inspire us to do great things, to create beautiful art, music, architecture, and yes, even to pursue science
so that we can better understand this amazing universe that we’re in.

Now some disgruntled atheist is already typing something in the comments about how religion has been the cause of wars and suffering and persecution. Yes, some humans have leveraged their religions to justify their own bad actions. Have you met a human lately? They’re not exactly… perfect or consistent. And there are some downright nasty ones. And some of the nasty ones have done some pretty awful things in the name of…


Et tu, Dr. Mengele?

One can no more blame religion for humanity’s evils than we can blame science for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Humans have a bad habit of… being bad. Setting aside anything supernatural and looking at history from a purely sociological standpoint, religion’s primary benefit to humanity has always been in keeping our darker impulses in check. Yes, there have been anomalies and failures along the way, but without religion, we’d be centuries behind where we currently are in terms of societal progress by any measure.

Including science.

So, decide for yourself what to think about life, the universe, and everything - and feel free to talk about it down in the comments. But as for me and my house, gimme that old time religion!

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