Essay Competition: If There Isn’t a God, Why Bother? by Steuart Campbell

This essay tied for second place in the Mary Evans Picture Library competition. It appears here unedited.

Those who believe in the existence of a god (or just ‘God’) tend to behave in a way that they believe would please that god. The devout earnestly seek guidance in their everyday lives and hope that the behaviour will be rewarded in the afterlife. They may also fear divine retribution if they misbehave. The not-so-devout yet still religious similarly believe that they should be good because that is what their god expects, but they are usually unclear as to how their behaviour will be rewarded, if at all. Even those who are not religious, but not openly opposed to it, tacitly accept a morality derived from religion: in the West, mainly some version of the Mosaic Law or in Christian societies Jesus’ encouragement to do as you would be done by (a maxim that predates him). Commensurate with religious belief, to varying degrees, is the belief that a god or gods created the universe for the benefit of humanity and that this god/gods had a purpose in doing so.

Claims that there is no god disturbs the religious and confuses them. Without a god to give moral guidance, they claim, how would we know how to behave? In fact, the evidence is that people instinctively know right from wrong and do not need to be told by scripture. It seems that legal codes like the Mosaic Law emerged to spell out what everyone thought to be right anyway. In fact, the Hebraic law is similar to those proclaimed by many ancient Near Eastern kingdoms, such as that of Hammurabi and it may be derived from some of them. All legal codes are intended to control behavior so that it conforms to acceptable norms. Indeed, if anyone wants to know what is right and what is wrong, they only need to look to the law. Despite Moses’ claim to have received the tablets of the Law from God himself, laws do not emerge from the whim of a supernatural being, they emerge from society. Morality is society’s set of accepted rules and norms of behavior and it does not necessarily derive from any divine instruction. Most people ‘bother’ to behave well, not because they think that a god is watching them, but because they think it the right thing to do. So, in most circumstances, the question posed by the title becomes irrelevant.

Some religious people claim that the absence of a reward for good behaviour and punishment for bad behaviour leads to the breakdown of civilized behaviour, indeed that it has already done so. A sceptic might reply that uncivilized behaviour is nowhere more apparent than in so-called religious societies: the very religious USA has more crime per capita than the largely irreligious UK (but only just). In fact, most people behave as well as they can whether they are religious or irreligious. Human instinct overrides religious morality and leads us to do good for mutual benefit. We ‘bother’ because we want society to benefit and to be rid of crime and we hope that the future will be better than the past.

There is another sense in which mankind bothers: we bother to live rather than die. Some see no point in life and wish to end it. Without a god, they might say, there is no purpose to life and no purpose to my own life.

‘Why bother living?’ is a question that has often featured on the Internet. On YouTube, someone calling himself ‘KingHeathen’ addresses the matter for over 5 minutes, provoking (so far) 2552 responses. Actually the question he addresses is: ‘Why should you bother living if you don’t think your life has a purpose from God?” KH rightly turned this around and asked why Christians (he was only dealing with Christianity) do not rush to die so as to get to heaven quicker. Of course we know of some examples where Christians have taken this course, some en masse. But he rather overlooked the bit about ‘purpose’. If the religious believe that their god has a purpose for them (never mind whether or not that god has purpose for the universe), then they have no reason to seek an early death. Instead they seek to find that purpose, perhaps converting the unconverted to their religion, and carry it out.

‘Why bother living?’ is a question that was posted on Yahoo two years ago, with the added question: ‘Is there a point?’ The best answer (from Tracy T), chosen from only six respondents, was:

‘Living has got to be better than dying. There is always a point to everything. Sometimes we come to a point in our lives when life seems unfair or worthless, but this stage will pass eventually, you must have faith…’

‘Faith in what?’ one might ask, but this does not appear to have been a reference to religion; just an encouragement to look on the bright side.

But of course the question is less trivial than that; it implies that the religious have more reason to live and to live a good life than those who are not. But is this really true? One could argue that the philanthropic non-religious who work for the betterment of society without hope of reward are more worthy that those who only do so in the hope of a reward.

The religious may believe that the world, perhaps the whole universe, was created by their god. While some cling to Archbishop Ussher’s calculation from the Old Testament that it was made only some 6000 years ago, the more enlightened religious accept science’s calculation of 13.7 billion years, with the Solar System and our planet emerging about 4.6 billion years ago. However, because not even Genesis tells us God’s purpose in creating the world, the religious are driven to conclude that it was merely for our benefit. If they accept the scientific evidence, they have to accept that their god created the whole universe and then left it to evolve until we arrived. That raises unanswerable questions such as ‘did God know we would appear?’ or ‘did this God care whether or not we appeared?’ In short, the religious have to conclude that their god had a purpose in making the universe but they do not really know what it was. To a sceptic, there seems little difference between a universe with an unknown purpose and one without a purpose. But to the religious, a purposeless universe is inconceivable. They might ask: ‘Why bother living in a purposeless universe?’

Although science can explain how life evolved on Earth, how the Earth came to exist and even how the universe evolved from its origin, it has yet to find any prime cause, any reason for the existence of anything. Some think that the best explanation is that there is no prime cause—the universe and/or perhaps its higher-dimensional predecessor just exists. The fact that our universe contains life and us in particular because certain basic parameters are propitious seemed spooky until it was suggested that there are, or have been, many universes. In that case, it is mere chance that our universe exists. It did not need a supernatural being to tweak the parameters so that we could evolve.  It seems that, in the words of the song from the trenches of the First World War, ‘we’re here because we’re here’. This is known as ‘the weak anthropic principle’. There may be other universes in which life does not evolve, but who can say which has meaning and which does not? There are some who believe that the purpose of our universe was to allow us to evolve (some versions of ‘the strong anthropic principle’), but this is surely a delusion. Science shows that life, however it emerged, is a mere accident, an epiphenomenon of the universe and in which the large-scale universe has no interest. Stars and galaxies live and die with no thought for life, a mere excrescence on the surface of some planets.

Many might despair at the idea that there is no reason for existence, no meaning. But the fact that life emerged without purpose, despite the indifference of the universe as a whole should be something to celebrate. Intelligent life looks at the universe in wonder and through science has been able to understand the processes that operate in it. One could argue that intelligent beings have a duty to ‘bother’: to try to understand the vast universe in which they find themselves. The absence of a god makes it even more important to study our surroundings, to explore, to analyse, to catalogue, to explain. That should be our purpose. Of course we could not do that if we died out, for whatever reason. So another purpose has to be to survive and to breed to perpetuate our species.

Another perspective on our place and purpose is gained from the fact that we have, so far, not found any other intelligence in the universe and debate rages over whether or not we are alone. As Arthur C Clarke put it: ‘Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying’. Attempts to find the number of extraterrestrial civilizations with which we might come into contact in our Galaxy have resulted in various estimates. Frank Drake thought that it is 10; others think it is two or three.  The ‘Rare Earth Hypothesis’ claims that planets like Earth in a system like ours are rare. Especially rare is a habitable planet with a moon as large as ours, indeed Earth may be habitable only because of the existence of the Moon. One reevaluation of the Drake equation, taking into account the Rare Earth Hypothesis, concluded that either we are alone or that there is only one other civilization. But this Hypothesis does not make allowance for the fact that we owe our existence to the accidental extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It should not be assumed that such destruction does not threaten other planets, or that it does. Without that event, the dinosaurs, who had ruled for 180 million years would probably still rule the Earth. If life on other planets follows such a path, do we have to assume some equivalent calamity before intelligent life can emerge? If so, what odds do we put on it?

It is easy to assume that because we exist, intelligent life is common (see popular belief in aliens). However, we should consider the peculiar circumstances that have allowed us to evolve.

Most anthologists believe that bipedal hairless apes (humans) evolved out of many other varieties of hominins due to climatic changes in Africa and some believe that we evolved our special characteristics, not least of all our large brains, in an aquatic environmental excursion (hardly a normal evolutionary experience). Some point to the explosion of the super-volcano Toba about 70,000 years ago, which may have caused the extinction of many rival hominins and nearly wiped out our ancestors in what is described as a ‘genetic bottleneck’. This catastrophe may also have been the trigger for our migration out of Africa, so leading to the development of civilization.

Then consider the possibility that such a civilization will destroy itself. Nuclear war could have destroyed our civilization in 1962, only two years after Frank Drake made the first SETI search of another star system and before we sent out our own signal in 1974 (although not before our radio, TV and radar signals leaked out). This could lead to the conclusion that the chance of finding another advanced technological civilization at this time is vanishingly small (Paul Davies does allow it to be zero).

James S Hansen has recently drawn attention to fact that, for the past 7000 years, sea level has been remarkably and unusually stable. He claimed that this may have contributed to the development of civilization. The reason for this is that all the major civilizations developed on coasts, especially on river deltas. Repeated changes in sea level could have inhibited the development of civilization. We have also built our civilization during an interglacial period; we could not have done so with ice sheets covering most of Europe.

Does it not seem that we have been lucky? Or rather that we owe our existence to a series of fortuitous chance events, events that must be rare in themselves, never mind in combination? If that is true, then we are probably a very rare phenomenon, an intelligent species that has developed advanced technology, even now venturing into space. My guess is that the chance of another such species emerging elsewhere in our Galaxy is almost nil and we may indeed be alone.

If we have won the lottery of life and are alone, the only species in our Galaxy and perhaps in hundreds of galaxies able to look at and understand the universe, then we have a huge responsibility. We have a duty to survive so that the knowledge we have gained and will gain is preserved and exploited for the good of all species, but especially for intelligent species. That is why we ‘bother’. We ‘bother’ because we can, because we must.