Atheism with a Smiling Face

Neil deGrasse Tyson has published a video on YouTube that gives his answer to the question “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?”.   At the end of his video he says:

So while I cannot claim to know for sure whether or not the universe has a purpose, the case against it is strong and visible to anyone who sees the universe as it is rather than as they wish it to be.  (Neil deGrasse Tyson in his YouTube Video)

I have too many objections to Dr. Tyson’s video for a single essay.  For now, therefore, I am going to restrict myself to a statement he makes about half-way through his video:

If you are religious, you might declare that the purpose of life is to serve God, but if you are one of the 100 billion bacteria living and working in a single centimeter of your lower intestine, you might instead say that the purpose of human life is to provide you with a dark but idyllic anaerobic habitat of fecal matter.  So in the absence of human hubris, the universe looks more and more random. (Neil deGrasse Tyson in his YouTube Video)

Now I like Dr. Tyson.  With his amiable personality, quick wit, charisma, articulate style and undeniable intelligence, he brings a breath of fresh air to the debate between theists and atheists.  Having said that, when I hear someone say something like this it makes me want to throw myself off of a tall building.  Is this really a serious attempt by a highly educated scholar to address a serious issue in front of an educated, general audience?

The primary problem I have with this statement is that it is an extremely nihilistic statement.  We are invited to imagine billions of bacteria “living and working” in our lower intestines and contemplating the meaning of life enough to assert that the purpose of human beings is to provide “a dark but idyllic anaerobic habitat” for their species.  Any assertion that human beings are superior to intestinal bacteria is unjustified “hubris” that is unworthy of contemplation and we demonstrate our deep tolerance and humility by rejecting it.  Oh how wonderful we are for rejecting the hubris of the idea that human beings are superior to bacteria!

Now this type of “humility” may sound attractive to some people, but it is in fact an extremely dangerous and stupid idea.  If you believe that it is hubris to say that human beings are superior to bacteria, then you are a nihilist.  If you think that a group of human beings believing that they have a purpose is the equivalent of a population of gut bacteria “living and working” in your intestines and praising your poop, then you are capable of unspeakable evil.  Atheists reject the notion that they or their philosophy is responsible for terrible atrocities like the Holocaust, but you cannot simultaneously reject these atrocities and embrace a philosophy that equates a genocide perpetrated against human beings with using a can of Lysol on a kitchen counter covered with E Coli.  If human beings truly are like bacteria, then why is destroying a population of human beings any different from destroying a population of bacteria?  If your philosophy tells you that there is no distinction between these two acts, then how are you different from a Nazi?

Now some atheists have argued that, “just because a truth is compatible with genocide doesn’t mean that it is untrue”.  But is the statement that Dr. Tyson makes even factual?  I myself am extremely skeptical of what I am going to call the “Assertion of Bacterial Consciousness”.  I do not believe that bacteria contemplate the purpose of their existence or ours and a universe in which I am wrong about this is so vastly different from anything Dr. Tyson or I can even imagine that it is almost unthinkable.  I think we can establish that Dr. Tyson does not really think this way if we asked him if we should forbid the use of antibiotics on the grounds that their use would exhibit “hubris”?   I cannot believe that Dr. Tyson would advocate the death of children to avoid “hubris” in this way and so I conclude that he doesn’t really believe what he is saying.   The question is, why does Dr. Tyson say something that he doesn’t really mean?  I believe that he is making an emotional argument to avoid some readily available facts which he does not like.

The fact is that human beings have a number of astonishing capabilities which make us plausible candidates for a real purpose:

  1. We understand abstract mathematics, a subset of which seems to govern the universe around us.
  2. We are conscious of ourselves and others.
  3. We are capable of language and can communicate with others.
  4. We are capable of changing the world around us through our thoughts and choices.
  5. We are capable of asking questions and seeking purpose.
  6. We are capable of artistic expression and appreciating beauty.
  7. We are capable of love and helping others.  We are also capable of injuring others and understanding what is right and wrong.

Atheists can and do deny that human beings have these capabilities, but we have mountains of evidence for all of them in our own personal experience.  All an atheist can do in the face of this tremendous evidence from personal experience is teach that human experience is a huge delusion.  “You cannot really choose, all you really have is the illusion of free will.”  “You cannot really think, all you really have is the illusion of abstract thought.”  “You cannot really love, all you really have is the illusion of love appropriate to a mammal that evolved a certain set of social instincts.”  Ironically, the anger and vehemence with which atheists reject common human experience gives us a very real clue to God’s purpose for the universe.

It is my belief that the purpose of this universe is to teach human beings that we need God.  Our fragility in the face of a hostile universe demonstrates a very real physical need of God and makes it clear that without his protection and provision we could not survive.  The size and scope of the universe makes it clear that He has enormous power and that we are insignificant as compared to him.  Our capacity for evil makes it clear that we need his moral guidance and instruction.

Now this human inadequacy and need of God is deeply offensive to human beings and this accounts for the anger and vehemence of those who reject their need of Jesus Christ.  Instead of being self-reliant individuals who are superior to other human beings because they understand evolution and see the world as it is, atheists are just sinners who need the grace of God like everybody else.  It takes an enormous amount of honesty and what George Orwell called “the power of facing” unpleasant reality to admit that this is true, but how can you claim to “see the universe as it is rather than as you want it to be” if you cannot admit that you need a savior?  An atheist who admitted that he needed a savior to give him life, love, guidance and forgiveness but simultaneously said that there was no evidence for such a savior could make a compelling case.  An atheist who says, “I don’t need a savior to show me how to love others and there is no evidence that we have one.” cannot claim to be intellectually honest or courageous because he has rejected a reality that is as obvious as it is painful.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
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11 Responses to Atheism with a Smiling Face

  1. agnophilo says:

    I never see people disagree with atheists or atheism without grossly distorting their position in order to do so. He used the word “hubris” from which you deduced that he agreed with hitler and was in favor of genocide.

    The rest of the blog is more of the same.

    Complain all you want about obnoxious atheists attacking religion, but at least we don’t do so by saying that according to christianity the universe was created by a giant elephant who pooped out a universe egg or some nonsense.

    • Agnophilo,

      Dr. Tyson’s statement likening human beings believing that we have a purpose to gut bacteria was clearly a nihilistic statement and I was pointing out the obvious connection between a philosophy that embraces nihilism and the consequences of nihilistic philosophy.

      I also made it clear that I thought Dr. Tyson would not embrace nihilism and asked the question, “why does Dr. Tyson say something that he doesn’t really mean?” I then attempt to explain why I think he makes such a bad argument.

      You have “grossly distorted” my argument just as you accused me of doing to Dr. Tyson.

      • I have to agree with Agnophilo. I had a hard time seeing how you could have reached the straw man you presented without mischaracterizing what Dr. Tyson said.

      • Stan,

        Is it really so hard to see the connection between nihilistic philosophy and the obvious consequences of nihilistic philosophy? Let’s go through it.

        In any population that shares a common belief, there will exist a spectrum of fanaticism. Some people will take the belief extremely seriously and devote their lives to the belief, some people will say they believe but their lives will not demonstrate this proposition. You see this in religions like Christianity and Islam, you see it in racism, you see it in people who are part of a pyramid marketing scheme like Amway. Every belief comes with a spectrum of fanaticism.

        Now the majority of people who profess a belief will be those who don’t order their lives around it. Most Christians don’t take Christianity all that seriously, most Muslims don’t want jihad, most racists in the American South never lynched anyone and most antisemites in Germany had nothing to do with the holocaust. The remaining fraction of people who take the belief seriously, however, can have a large impact on human beings and human civilization. It does not take a large percentage of bigots in the American South to join the KKK in order to make an impact, it does not take a large number of fundamentalist Muslims to create a problem with terrorism.

        So when you argue that Dr. Tyson’s nihilistic beliefs don’t have any negative consequences, you are mostly correct. Most of the people who profess those beliefs will not live their lives that way and, as far as those people are concerned, nihilistic beliefs are no big deal. Teach millions of children that human beings are no different from intestinal bacteria, however, and there is a small fraction of the population who are going to take you seriously and live accordingly. Their actions could be very frightful indeed.

        Now it is human nature to deny that our beliefs and our actions have negative consequences. German antisemites will say that they never meant for Hitler to kill Jewish people and Islamic believers will say it is only the extremists who practice jihad against the unbelievers. I am of the opinion, however, that beliefs have consequences and this is why I write a blog, do videos and wrote a book primarily dedicated to trying to eliminate objectionable and hateful beliefs from the Christian church. If you think that taking what someone says seriously is equivalent to erecting a “straw man”, then obviously you disagree with me on the importance of beliefs.



  2. The list of things wrong with this staggers the mind.

    1. I don’t believe Dr. Tyson was making a statement about nihilism so much as he was talking about perspective. We humans think we’re pretty important, but if you take us out of the picture the universe goes humming along as it has done for billions of years. That’s the hubris he’s talking about, the idea that the universe was made for a single type of organism on a single world that has only existed for the last 100,000 years or so.
    2. To say that humans and bacteria are alike because we both arose in an environment that was hospitable enough to allow it is not to say that we are totally equivalent. It’s like saying that a lemon and a school bus are equivalent because they’re both yellow. Nobody would make such a ridiculous claim except as a straw man.
    3. Even if you want to make the assertion that humans are merely a biological organism that evolved from primitive forms, then we still evolved in a way that gives us emotions and a need for morals and rules for social interaction. True nihilism would mean anarchy, and the race wouldn’t last long. So if we are evolved, then nihilism has been mostly selected out.
    4. There will always be a fraction of the human population willing to perpetrate harm on others, in large or small scale. Some are vicious, others are just broken. Such people don’t need a reason for what they do but beliefs, whether they be nihilism or Christianity, can serve as both focus and trigger for their actions. In either case, it’s frequently just the excuse rather than the cause.

    I don’t disagree, beliefs are important. But I’d prefer to focus on beliefs that have been demonstrated to do real harm than something taken out of context and then blown out of all proportions. To go from what Dr. Tyson said to the KKK and advocating the death of children is a leap beyond all logic or reason.

    • Stan,

      1. He wasn’t making a statement about nihilism, he was making a nihilistic statement.

      2. He did not say that bacteria and human beings both “arose in an environment that was hospitable”, he said that if he was an intestinal bacteria “he might say that the purpose of human beings was to provide a dark but idyllic environment”. If you were an intestinal bacteria, you wouldn’t say anything because you wouldn’t be capable of speech. Why minimize the difference between bacteria and human beings? Why not recognize that human beings have a set of astonishing capabilities that separate us from bacteria? He downplays and minimizes the differences between human beings and bacteria and this is a nihilistic approach.

      3. Nihilism has been mostly selected out? Do you know anything about human history? Rapes, murders, genocide have been “mostly selected out”? Anyone who made such an assertion would be exhibiting pure ignorance.

      4. You say the beliefs are the excuse and not the cause and it is true that this if often the case. But there are some beliefs which are much more effective at causing certain kinds of behavior. Sam Harris has argued in recent speeches (some of which are available on YouTube) that the problem of Islamic Fundamentalism is the fundamentals of Islam. Even someone who takes the position you seem to be defending very seriously admits that certain beliefs must be avoided. Nihilistic views that liken human beings to bacteria are among these beliefs in my opinion.

      5. I never said Dr. Tyson advocated joining the KKK or killing children. In fact, I conclude that he would never do so and ask why he would make such a bad argument. The argument is bad and the man made a bad argument. Haven’t you ever made a bad argument? Give it up.

      • Given a choice between “Dr. Tyson made a bad argument” and “you misinterpreted his argument”, I’ll go with the latter. I will agree with your point 4 so long as you include Christianity on the list.

  3. You make very confident but unfounded claims about atheism, sir. It’s astonishing how people insist on referring to atheism as a philosophy. Atheism is not a belief in itself; it is merely the rejection of the argument for the existence of a god or deity. I am also compelled to defend against the ridiculous implications that atheist nihilism is responsible for the Holocaust. The Nazi regime may NOT be called an atheist or secular movement. To make this suggestion or to even entertain such an idea is not only inflicting serious violence to history but is a revolting insult to the non-religious community.

    In your blog “Accusations of Narcissism” you defend against Sam Harris’ claims that Christianity is essentially narcissistic, and yet you assert in the same breath that human beings “need” the protection and provision of God and would otherwise be capable of terrible atrocities. I am living proof that this is not true. My morality, ethics and spirituality do not require a belief in the supernatural NOR am I any less intellectually honest or courageous for my lack of belief NOR do I consider myself superior to any of my fellow human beings for my atheism.

    • Doulton,

      In this essay, I discuss a nihilistic argument made by Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson. I do not argue that his atheism makes him a nihilist. In fact, I specifically say that I do not believe that Dr. Tyson would embrace the logical consequences of the argument he is making. I am merely pointing out that atheists sometimes fall into the trap of nihilism when defending their case. It is imperative for them to avoid this trap because the widespread adoption of nihilist views would have catastrophic consequences for our society. I argue in my essay on narcissism that I do not blame atheism/secularism as a philosophy for National Socialism and I agree with you that atheists can be fine people. I do, on the other hand, blame nihilism for the atrocities of the Nazis. A state like Nazi Germany is the only possible result of a state embracing a nihilist philosophy.

      In your second paragraph you say that I argue that “human beings need the protection and provision of God and would otherwise be capable of terrible atrocities.” The way you discuss beliefs later on, this almost sounds as if you think I am making a truly horrifying claim. “Only people who agree with me are safeguarded from the possibility of committing terrible atrocities.” This is a revolting idea and not at all what I believe. If anything I have written has implied this, then please point it out so that I can reword whatever I wrote.

      My actual feelings are made clearer in a video that I made on Why Christians Can Go To Heaven while Gandhi does not. My beliefs do not make me better than you or even the same as you. I believe in the Holy Spirit who is a person and with his help I can do things beyond human capabilities. The distinction here is not a minor one. It is the difference between thinking that I can run faster than Usain Bolt and thinking that I can cross the country from Los Angeles to New York faster than he can do it on foot using a 747. The fact that most Christians do not avail themselves of this help is a sad reality of our world.

      Thank you for your comment,

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