Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, has spoken.
“A minority of people, usually people without religion, are frightened by the future,” he says. “It’s almost as though they’ve … nothing but fear to distract themselves from the fact that without God the universe has no objective purpose or meaning. Nothing beyond the constructs they confect to cover the abyss.”
Mr Pell has a few wrong ideas there, but there is a grain of truth to his statement. We don’t believe the universe has been granted a grand purpose by some kind of deity, something central to the Abrahamic religions, at least, and we do offend Christians by our denial of a key tenet of their faith.
And that’s just fine. We not only deny it, we’re proud of our understanding of reality. It’s not just atheists that reject his god-granted purpose, but the nature of the universe that repudiates him. So let’s be clear: here is an atheist’s understanding of oour place in the cosmos.
You are like a wave in the ocean, like a gust of wind, like a lightning bolt — each one unique, yet at the same time, part of a pattern of forces. But none of us have any special privilege in the universe.
Your mind is the product of intricate, interlinked chemical process. It is complex, but it is also fragile, requiring a delicate balance of minute quantities of ions and molecules to function properly.
You are impermanent. The wave will crash on the shore, the wind will dissipate, the lightning will flash and fade…and they will never return. One day, we all will die, and we each will simply cease to exist.
That’s the core of the matter, the piece Pell has right. The rest he has completely wrong.
We are not afraid. It takes courage to confront and accept reality. The person who has the perspective to appreciate his true place in the world, who can reconcile themself to their mortality and work forthrightly for the truth, is not the frightened one. Courage isn’t a product of lying to oneself about one’s situation, but of recognizing reality and going on anyway.
We’re also not the ones tryint to paper over the abyss with wishful thinking about magical father-figures who are somehow invisible and intangible and never make a scrap of material difference in the world. We aren’t the ones deluding ourselves with fantasies about immortality as a ghost, or with getting our wishes granted by angels.
I can understand why people like Pell are upset. We’re tearing away the lies they use to cover over a fearful truth.