Finding Meaning in a Contingent Universe, by Michael Shermer

I am often asked by believers why I abandoned Christianity and how I found
meaning in the apparently meaningless universe presented by science. The
implication is that the scientific world-view is an existentially depressing
one. Without God, I am bluntly told, what's the point? If this is all there
is, there is no use. To the contrary. For me quite the opposite is true. The
conjuncture of losing my religion, finding science, and discovering glorious
contingency was remarkably empowering and liberating. It gave me a sense of
joy and freedom. Freedom to think for myself. Freedom to take responsibility
for my own actions. Freedom to construct my own meanings and my own
destinies. With the knowledge that this may be all there is, and that I can
trigger my own cascading changes, I was free to live life to its fullest.

This is not to say that those who are religious cannot share in these
freedoms. But for me, and not just for me, a world absent monsters, ghosts,
demons, and gods unfetters the mind to soar to new heights, to think
unthinkable thoughts, to imagine the unimaginable, to contemplate infinity
and eternity knowing that no one is looking back. The universe takes on a
whole new meaning when you know that your place in it was not foreordained,
that it was not designed for us, indeed, that it was not designed at all. If
we are nothing more than star stuff and bio mass, how special life becomes.
If the tape were played again and again without the appearance of our
species, how extraordinary becomes our existence, and, correspondingly, how
cherished. To share in the sublimity of knowledge generated by other human
minds, and perhaps even to make a tiny contribution toward that body of
knowledge that will be passed down through the ages, part of the cumulative
wisdom of a single species on a tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star on the
remote edge of a not-so-unusual galaxy, itself a member of a cluster of
galaxies millions of light years from nowhere, is sublime beyond words.

Since we are such a visual primate, perhaps images can help capture the
feeling. The Hubble Telescope Deep Field photograph in Figure 10-3, revealing
as never before the rich density of galaxies in our neck of the universe, is
as grand a statement about the sacred as any medieval cathedral. How vast is
the cosmos. How contingent is our place. Yet out of this apparent
insignificance emerges a glorious contingency--the recognition that we did
not have to be, but here we are. In fact, compare this slice of the cosmos to
two of the most hallowed and sacrosanct structures on Earth--both medieval in
age but on opposite sides of the planet, literally and figuratively: Machu
Picchu and Chartres Cathedral. Machu Picchu captures the numina through an
interlocking relationship between nature and humanity that generated in me an
almost mystical connection across space and time with the ancients that had
once lived and loved atop this 8,000-foot precipice. This is the "lost city"
in so many ways. When I stood inside Chartres Cathedral with my soul mate,
lit candles, and promised each other our eternal love, it was a more sacred
moment than any I have experienced. Skeptics and scientists cannot experience
the numinous? Nonsense. You do not need a spiritual power to experience the
spiritual. You do not need to be mystical to appreciate the mystery. Standing
beneath a canopy of galaxies, atop a pillar of reworked stone, or inside a
transcept of holy light, my unencumbered soul was free to love without
constraint, free to use my senses to enjoy all the pleasures and endure all
the pains that come with such love. I was enfranchised for life, emancipated
from the bonds of restricting tradition, and unyoked from the rules written
for another time in another place for another people. I was now free to try
to live up to that exalted moniker--Homo sapiens--wise man.