"Every night I tell myself, I am the cosmos, I am the wind..." (Chris Bell, "I Am the Cosmos")
Peter Mosley (at Patheos) tackles the question of how atheists can stand living in an “indifferent” universe, a universe with no meaning or purpose and not the least bit of concern for us or for our very existence. Mosley’s answer--banal or inspiring, depending on your perspective--is: “We are a way for the universe to care about itself.” 1
Mosley’s argument begins with the question of the universe’s supposed “indifference”:
How can the universe be indifferent when we are part of the universe and we are not indifferent to ourselves?
Atheist that he is, Mosley claims that the absence of God is not only liberating, but that it enables us (once the baggage of religious guilt has been discarded) actually to connect with the universe:
There is no magical being to somehow separate who we are from what the universe is — we’re literally made up of the same stuff the universe is made up of, and operate via the same principles the rest of the universe operates by; we’re part of the same process and existence. Sure, we contain consciousness, and most of the universe doesn’t. But that’s just a feature of who we are as part of the universe. It doesn’t alienate us from the universe any more than the fact that a flower contains nectar, or water contains hydrogen, or stars contain heat. It’s just a feature of our part of the universe — a characteristic.
There is a major difference here — in the Christian model of existence, we are sinners, separated from the God of the universe and thus unworthy of our very existence. Once you delete all God and gods from your worldview, there is nothing separating you from the natural processes and existence of the universe. Get rid of God, along with God’s standards, God’s supposed decision to make you special, and God’s decision to put you in heaven, and all that separation between you and the universe around you disappears.
Theists say that we are God’s creation and that we belong to Him. Mosley begs to differ:
You literally came from stars. You literally are star residue. You’re not special enough to be separate from the universe, which in a way is a good thing — you were part of it, and have always been.
This isn’t anything new. Carl Sagan has observed that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” And that might sound like cute poetry, but he meant it as an actual fact. We are, quite literally, parts of the universe that are wholly made (from top to bottom and inside out) by and out of the stuff of the universe. We aren’t separate from the universe, thanks to the deletion of God. We are part of it. We are the universe looking at itself.
Another way to look at it – when I delete God from the equation, I take God’s place.2 I don’t need God to care about and accept me in order to belong in the universe. I already belong in the universe — by myself, without any help from God — because I’m a completely natural, head-to-toe, inside-and-out part of it.
When I realized that, I began to realize that the question of whether the universe cares can’t be answered by just looking at unconscious beings. It includes the entirety of the universe — the animals, the people, even myself. Aren’t they parts of the universe just as surely as the stars whose residue they are from? So…if they care about me, and if I care about me and them…then together, aren’t we the universe caring about itself?
And perhaps we are the universe thinking about itself, the universe’s consciousness and its conscience as well: if there is no God, then we (as a species) seem to be the only candidate in sight for the job.
Mosley rises to his peroration:
I’m a part of the universe caring about something. The universe is not indifferent — as if God’s nonexistence leaves us forever alienated from a universe that doesn’t care about us. No — the universe, after billions of years of evolution, has given rise to a phenomenon of human beings and other conscious beings that have given it the capacity to care about itself.
We are a way for the universe to care about itself. .
And I don’t just mean this in a feel-good way — although it can feel like that at times. It seems to be a clear fact: We are, after billions of years of evolutionary development, a way for the universe to care about itself. 3
Since I saw that, I’ve been feeling like I belong in a universe much more than I did than when I thought I was alone in a universe that didn’t care about me — and the best part is that I can feel that sense of belonging without losing any of the freedom I had to give up when I was a “sinner” begging for God’s grace. When someone cares about me, or when I care about someone — even when I care about myself — I see ourselves as part of the universe’s natural fabric, a part of the universe that has, through evolutionary processes, enabled the universe to care about itself. I am not on the outside, looking in. I’m an insider from the start.
So…because I left God, I realized that I’m an opportunity for the universe to care about itself.
It is, of course, entirely possible that Peter Mosley is wrong about God’s existence, in which case he can discuss this issue (among others) with the Deity in Eternity. That aside, Mosley makes a persuasive case for all of us to care for one another (as well as for ourselves) and for the world in which we live; that is, having eliminated any need for "the first great commandment,” he urges us to take the second one that much more seriously.
I can't see why even God would object to that.
1 Mosley was expressly paraphrasing Carl Sagan, who wrote that “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”
2 I don’t know if Mosley would want to defend his statement that “I take God’s place.” If he does, he’s on his own; atheist though I am, I’m not inclined to self-deification.
3 At this point in his essay, Mosley appears to develop a serious case of “Marco Roboto”; it shouldn’t be allowed to obscure his point.