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However the universe came to be and for whatever reason, if any, it fills one with reverential awe to contemplate on a clear night from the deck of a ship at sea the immensity of the starry sky, knowing that it contains as many galaxies as there are grains of sand on every beach and desert in the world. To know that it stretches outwards for billions and billions of miles and has existed for 14 billion years is to be overcome by the mystery of it all and to feel one’s own insignificance, and the insignificance of all humankind.
In the unfathomable immensity of it many scientists believe that we, on earth, are the only form of life, as we understand it, in the universe. Some scientists, however, believe that there may well be life somewhere out there. Why do we on earth, have the right balance of conditions that have allowed life to develop? Either a creator God somehow arranged it so, or these conditions came about purely by chance.
Looking at human life itself there is no theme, dimension or underlying structure of any kind that points to life having a meaning. The dynamic that does underlie and motivates all life is the vitality for life itself in all its forms, human, animal and plant; the powerful life-force in all living things that ensures procreation and the survival of species. Within this universal force there is competition for survival from viruses and bugs that threaten human life. All of this great complexity must be coped with as an integral part of living, but it gives no hint as to a meaning or purpose for life itself. This is where religion comes in.
Human beings developed rituals and modes of behaviour in order to keep favour with the supernatural divine powers that they perceived to be the source of their food and other necessities for survival and to protect them from all that might threaten them. When the sun shone and the rain came they believed that their god was pleased with them and their crops prospered so they performed a ritual to thank him. When there was thunder and lightning they perceived that he was angry and punishing them so they performed a ritual to appease him. When they defeated another marauding tribe they performed another ritual to thank their god for victory. Nothing changes.
These days Churches have services of thanksgiving to God for giving them the harvest. They do this despite the fact that millions of people throughout the world die of starvation every year as a result of drought, and God doesn’t appear to do anything to help them to survive. When Aids emerged as a universal disease some churchmen and religious people said it was a punishment from God for the practice of homosexuality, which was the same reason some people said God punished the people of Lisbon with the earthquake on All Saints Day 1755. When Britain won the Falkland’s war the Church of England put on a service of thanksgiving for the defeat of Argentina which the Royal Family and members of the British government attended. Religious people invoke God in the most incongruous ways.
While the gurus of religion still proclaim the involvement of God in the world, people get on with their lives under the imperative of nature. They are born, grow to maturity, procreate and die and the cycle goes on. During the space of a lifetime some people, in order to avoid the existential nausea, the experience of meaninglessness, involve themselves in the meaning that religion purports to give, all the while filling their time with the occupations necessary to survive. Some people go further and give themselves purpose by accumulating wealth, excelling at sport, positing alternative religions and a million other ways, including going on cargo ship voyages, to occupy themselves until they come to die.
As I said earlier, out on the ocean we were away from the obsession with news that ashore is pumped at us by the media all day every day. News that brings into our homes the pain and suffering of the world with accounts of wars, starvation, murder, rape, drugs, gangland crime, inter-personal bitterness, hatred and many more unthinkable human activities. Listening to and reading about all these unspeakable travesties of human love and decency every day cannot be good for us. As we know it is only rarely that the media report the good things that people do; the often heroic care of people by people; the love for each other that does give some meaning to life. Such love and care are the ethical and moral virtues of religion without the miraculous and without aspirations for religious salvation.
Despite what some religious people say it is possible to have one without the other. It is possible to live a meaningful moral life without the metaphysical assumptions of religion. It is possible to live lives where the purpose is to be loving and caring for other people, to create a decent society without the necessity of believing in miracles, resurrections, divine intervention, and life after death. It is possible because many atheists, humanists, agnostics and unselfconsciously non-religious people do it all the time.