Pigeon Mountain is a quick drive from my house. It’s not actually a mountain – that’s just the name. It’s a big hill though. I pass it on the way home some sometimes. Sometimes I’ll pass it at night if I’m coming home from a movie or something. And very occasionally – once every six months or so (more if I’m having a rough patch) – I’ll get the urge to go climb it at night.
At a brisk walk, it takes me about five minutes to get to the top – so no, it isn’t all that far, but it’s high enough. I don’t know if I imagine it or not, but it feels like I get less light pollution when I’m that far above the level of the street lights. The stars seem to stand out more. Pigeon Mountain is on a bit of a peninsula, so there’s pretty much constant sea winds. I wander up there in my jacket on a warm-ish night, and the wind fills my ears. I look up, and the night sky fills my vision.
I look up, and my mind fills the universe.
That infinite vacuum wheeling above my head… It grips hold of the edges of my consciousness, expands it out past my skull and up into the sky. Through the back of my skull, all the fascinating things I’ve learned about cosmology whirl behind my eyes, and in a few short instants I’ve gone off, racing across the universe, watching as stars birth, coalesce, burn, and then nova before my eyes. I think about the majestic interplay of all that energy in all its forms… all the light moving about in all directions, not just the directions I’m looking from, a sea of electromagnetic ripples overlapping one another in all ways and passing through a three-dimensional ocean.
This is all just in my head, of course. But even without knowledge of what they are, just looking up to watch the stars still pulls at the mind. My sense of self expands out, and it feels like it’s encompassing everything.
At this point, the wind has been stealing away all the warmth I built up walking up the hill. The chill sets in, and I’m suddenly aware that the universe, whilst beautiful and majestic, is nonetheless cold. Not cruel, exactly. Just impersonal. Indifferent. Moving, but unmoved by the softness or warmth of human life.
At that point, I cast my eyes down. I usually see a car going along the main road I follow on the way home. Looking down, that car could easily be me, driving along, my mind wrapped up snug in its little bubble of warm human foolishness. From the cold and alien place my mind is currently occupying, that little sliver of warmth seems so precious. Not only does it give the universe a little sliver of the warmth it lacks, but it is also precious because it is so fragile.
And it occurs to me that, whenever I’m driving, there will always exist some perspective of my car similar to the one I am taking now, atop this hill – even if it is just the perspective from the empty air above me. That preciousness will always be there, even when I’m not aware of it, and I can always let my mind expand out to take the long view so I can remind myself about it, should I need to.
Then I look about at the houses. Pigeon Mountain rises up above a comfortably middle-class suburban area. Each house is a little light, each light is a little bubble where a group of people have carved out a little life for themselves where their bubbles overlap, becoming bigger and stronger and warmer. Each home is a tiny little bubble among many – a frothing foam of warmth and softness and light, a sea of laughter and sorrows and life.
It’s all so precious, because it is so rare. And because it didn’t have to be. The universe dancing above my head stands as a mute sentinel over the fact that our world never had to be this way. The universe doesn’t care. It isn’t malevolent, just indifferent. It has nothing to care with.
The only things I know about in this universe that are capable of caring are human beings, with all our foibles and quirks and weaknesses. We are transient on the scale of the universe. In the eyes of the stars we exist but for a flicker. The universe has no purpose for us. How could it? The universe isn’t the kind of thing that can impose a purpose! It has nothing to have a purpose with. Just matter and motion, nothing more.
But from that matter and motion has come something very special – totally unexpected, totally unplanned, and perhaps unique. From the purposeless dust of the universe has come the means for imposing purpose on the universe. This is something that may never be replicated again. It is so precious. It is so fragile. It is so fleeting. And it matters so very, very much.
And it is here that I find myself overcome with the… silliness of most religious thought. It often seems that the whole point of religion is to trick us into thinking that we matter because we will live forever. It’s as if the present moment – the only thing that is ever really real – is meaningless to the religious mind. So in despair, it turns away from the present and towards the eternity of the stars – but there it turns away in horror at the cold indifference it finds in the depths of the void. So the religious mind pretends that the universe has its own bubble of warmth and life and personality, its own reassuring cocoon of personality and purpose. And the religious mind calls this fantasy-bubble ‘God’. But it is not real. It is a comforting illusion only. The real warmth – the warmth that really matters – comes from that which is really alive. Life.
Where such a mind goes wrong is at the very beginning. The transient and impermanent moment isn’t meaningless. Nothing lasts, but it matters while it does. And it matters because it matters to us, because we are. Purpose isn’t something that is granted to us mortals by eternity. No. It’s the other way around. It is eternity that is granted a meaning by us, the transient and fragile mortal minds that breathe life, lust and love into a cold and impersonal universe.
And the entire basis of religious thought just seems so… silly really is the only word that fits. There are more sophisticated arguments against the existence of God than this – clever devices of rhetoric, complex philosophy, simple observation, the fruits of critical thinking, and so forth. But it all pales in comparison when you can grasp how deeply and profoundly silly the root of religious thought really is.
And that’s the emotional impact of my atheism. I can feel in my bones how silly and human the myth of God really is. It’s so… limiting. It makes our brief, special, vibrant lives into nothing more than an entrance examination for an eternity that will never come, and wouldn’t matter even if it did. What matters is here and now. Tomorrow will only matter when it becomes the new here and now – it is the hereness and the nowness that gives a moment its meaning, not its place within eternity. It is kairos that grants meaning, not chronos. And even once we are gone, there will still be meaning and light and life in those we leave behind. Funerals are rites for the living, not the dead.
Religion denies the only thing we have that really matters in favor of a myth that wouldn’t matter even if it was real. It’s just so silly. And so very, very tragic.