We human beings are awfully little things in comparison with the universe. Most of us adults are between five and six feet tall, while the universe has a diameter of something close to 160 billion light-years. And we are awfully short-lived. While the universe is nearly 14 billion years old (dating from the moment of the Big Bang), we are lucky if we live to be seventy or eighty or ninety years old.
And it gets worse. Our universe, vast though it is, may not be the only universe. There may well be others outside of our own. There may even be, as was held by the ancient philosopher Epicurus, an infinite number of universes (if the notion of an infinite number of anything makes any sense). And time, instead of having been in existence for 14 billion years, may have had, as Aristotle held, no beginning.
If we have no interest in cosmology or in cosmological speculations, and we wish to confine ourselves to terrestrial thoughts, it turns out that the individual person is only one of seven billion humans currently living on the planet Earth.
Now if you meditate on these facts long enough, you may well come to the following conclusion: “I am an infinitesimally small thing, a quite insignificant thing; I am barely distinguishable from nothing at all.”
But this will never do. First of all, it is too depressing. It will deprive us of much of our motivation for action. So we will have to find some way of evading these depressing thoughts. The Catholic religion has for many centuries found a threefold way of doing so.
For one, it makes a distinction between matter and spirit and tells us that our spirit, even though it has no physical qualities, is a greater thing than the entire physical universe (or universes). Our spirit is so great that it will survive the death of our bodies; indeed it will survive the final destruction of all the universes.
Second, it tells us that God, who is, of course, the greatest of all things, values us, pays minute-by-minute attention to us, and at all times stands ready to help us. If God is my friend, why should I care that the limitless universe is indifferent to me?
Finally, it provides us with membership in a sacred community (the Church). The sacred community is intimately connected with Christ, who is God. Indeed, the connection is so intimate that the Church is routinely spoken of as “the bride of Christ” or “the body of Christ.” If the Church is this closely connected with God, it must be the most important thing in creation, more important than the universe (or universes). And if we are members of that supremely important thing, we too must be important with a borrowed or shared importance.
Put these three factors together, and we have no reason to be appalled or depressed at our apparent littleness.
But not everybody is Catholic. And not everybody is semi-Catholic. In North America and Europe, we are told by people who keep track of these things, that more and more people are not religious in any way. They are (to describe them negatively) atheists or agnostics. Or they are (to describe them positively) secular humanists. How do they avoid being depressed by their infinitesimal littleness?
They cannot avail themselves of the first way noted above, for they don’t believe that they are (or have) an immaterial spirit that will survive the death of the body and the collapse of the universe.
Nor can they avail themselves of the second way. How can they have God for a friend if God does not exist?
But they can avail themselves of something like the third way. They cannot, to be sure, be members of the Catholic Church or any other truly sacred community. They can, however, belong to what may be called a quasi-sacred community.
What are some examples of a quasi-sacred community? The Nazi Party in Germany in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. The Communist Party in Russia and many other places during most of the 20th century.
If you belong to a quasi-sacred community, you, no matter how little and insignificant you may be as an individual, become important with a borrowed importance insofar as you are a member of (as it seems to you) an unquestionably important thing. Even though you have rejected belief in God, it feels to you that your community is a godlike thing. It may not be sacred, but it feels sacred.
Unfortunately for the typical secular humanist, the Nazi and Communist parties are no longer live options. What self-respecting secular humanist would today wish to be either a Nazi or Communist? But there are other options.
For one, there is the feminist movement. If you are a “radical” feminist who believes that virtually all men are the enemies of virtually all women, if you believe it is a splendid thing to have an abortion, a thing to be proud of, you are part of a feminist quasi-religion. One senses, however, that this kind of feminism, which flourished in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is now over the hill. Old ladies who decades ago were proud of their sexual liberation are now proud of their hip or knee replacements.
But the gay movement is still going strong. It still qualifies as a quasi-religion.
Best of all for the secular humanist looking for a quasi-religion is the anti-Christianity movement, which takes many forms and will therefore never go completely over the hill. Once it took the form of a drive for abortion rights; then a drive for gay rights; more recently a drive for transgender rights.
What next? Now that we can say that women are men and men are women, who knows? Maybe next year we’ll be saying that some triangles – not all, mind you, only some – have the right to four sides. And who has the right to judge them?
*Image: The Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dalí, 1937 [The Tate, London]