An Atheist Challenge


The following is an email exchange with an atheist who attended one of my evening programs and offered his critique...

Michael: I was at your lecture the other night. It was enjoyably thought provoking, though ultimately I didn't agree with much of anything you said. I'm a plain old atheist, looking at the world in a purely materialistic way. I can't really disagree with any of the facts you brought up, but I disagree with your interpretation of them.

You seem to set up evolution as a beneficial and even beautiful thing for life on Earth. Though I accept that it exists, I think it's a horrible thing. I can't get past what's involved in the mechanism of evolution. Death, pain, cruelty, domination. Those are the things that push evolution forward. What more horrible system could there be? It certainly proves that there is no sentient being that could be considered a loving god. If there were, the world and life would be completely different than they are now. I can see no benevolent master plan. I'm just another animal with a defective brain (Asperger's Syndrome), and hence destined to lose in the evolutionary struggle and be miserable as long as I'm alive. Then, nothingness.

The cruelty of the evolutionary struggle is something you didn't factor into your lecture. You need to do it in some sort of convincing way, or we atheists will have no interest in your Pollyanna perspective.



Dear Robert,

Thanks for your honest feedback, both the compliment and the challenge. Obviously I have no idea what your experience of life is like – not only the challenges of suffering with Asperger’s Syndrome but also the myriad of other painful, difficult, and sometimes agonizing things that result from simply being born, living, and dying in this real world.

I’m not sure where you got the idea that my perspective is a Pollyanna-like one, but I assure you that this is not the case. I outline my view of life in general, evolution specifically, and what I think we as individuals and as a species are up against in chapters 2-6, 9, 10, 14, and 17 of my book, Thank God for Evolution. Nowhere do I deny that life is full of chaos, cruelty, pain, and all sorts of other horrible experiences. In fact, in chapter 3, I argue that, if the Universe can be counted on for anything, it can be counted on to provide all sorts of problems and breakdowns that can (but not always do) fuel the creative process.

In your third sentence, you say, “I can't really disagree with any of the facts you brought up, but I disagree with your interpretation of them.” By this, I assume you mean that you interpret the same facts differently and that you believe or feel that your interpretations are truer or more accurate than mine. But in my experience, interpretations are rarely true or false; rather, they are more or less useful. As I discuss in Chapter 6, “Words Create Worlds": We co-create our experience of the world by what we say about it and how we interpret it. Given our neocortex, we simply cannot not interpret facts, events, and processes in some way. Yet, of course, there is never only one inspiring way (nor only one depressing way) to interpret anything. Here’s the way I put it in Chapter 11 (page 217 of the Viking 2008 edition of TGFE), where I specifically discuss how one can, if one chooses to do so, develop the habit of interpreting life in less victim-like and more personally empowering ways:

Few things impact our experience of the world and the quality of our life more directly and profoundly than our habits of meaning-making and self-talk. Why? Because none of us experiences the world as it is. We experience the world through the filter of our interpretations. The meaning we make of an event, the story we tell ourselves about it, is generally far more consequential over the long run than the experience itself.

The belief that life could or should be different from what it actually is (i.e., no pain, suffering, death, etc) is a fiction that exists only in our minds—an abstraction, with no grounding in reality. I've found nothing more helpful—ineed, inspiring—on this subject than my wife Connie's program celebrating the positive role of death in our evolving Universe, at all nested levels: "Death Through Deep-Time Eyes." I highly recommend visiting this page on our Great Story site, and especially reading this:  "A New Scientific Understanding of Death".

With respect to the trajectory of evolution and the question of teleology, as I've written elsewhere, nowhere in my book do I suggest, or even imply, that there is a force, intelligence, or consciousness outside the Universe (or within it, for that matter) that is pulling strings or making evolution go in a benevolent direction. With respect to the arrow of evolution, what I DO say is this: When we look back over the course of billions of years of biological and social evolution, we see interdependence and co-operation at increasing scale of size and complexity. This is an empirical fact, not a statement of belief. Three or four billion years ago, the peak of Earth’s evolved complexity was expressed in carbon-based molecules maintained by processes co-operating at the scale of a millionth of a meter. Today, mutual support in the maintenance of peak (cultural) complexity occurs across distances measured in the millions of meters. (See pages 283-288 in the Viking edition of TGFE, where I discuss the rise of social complexity throughout human history.) It is true that I interpret this trajectory in a way that many find religiously inspiring. I also, however, acknowledge that it is just as legitimate to interpret the same facts in a non-inspiring way.

When I make the case for chaos and "bad news" catalyzing evolutionary creativity, I'm not suggesting that a Supreme Being or divine intelligence is intending favorable outcomes. Rather, I am simply pointing out the demonstrable fact that how we choose to interpret reality and life’s events profoundly affects the quality of our existence—and that this is just as true collectively as it is individually.

In my book, I mention that many, including myself, have found the mantra "the Universe is conspiring on my behalf" to be an exceedingly useful outlook in most situations. That is, when I act as if this were true, I love my life. I do not, however, suggest that this interpretation is “The Truth.” It is a statement of subjective meaningfulness, not objective truth. And there are plenty of studies that show that those who hold such an outlook live happier, healthier, longer lives. As the great philosopher and father of American pragmatism, William James, wrote in his book Pluralistic Universe, “From a pragmatic point of view, the difference between living against a background of foreignness and one of intimacy means the difference between a general habit of wariness and one of trust.”

I hope this helps you understand where I’m coming from.


~ Michael