Sunday, December 11, 2011


     In my last post, I argued that a zest for living is the strongest instinct terrestrial organisms have.  Reinforced by billions of years of evolution, it helps them survive long enough to mate and perpetuate the genetic advantages natural selection's given them over the course of countless generations.  It also helps blind them to their own mortality.
     But in human beings and perhaps other large-brained mammals like whales and elephants, the chance emergence of high-level intelligence has created a personal awareness of dying that runs counter to their survival instincts.  Though all human beings recoil naturally from their own extinction, many for example choosing to believe that the sensual/cognitive mechanisms they call "soul" or "spirit" are immaterial and immortal, atheists reject such notions,  insisting that human death is total and irreversible.
     In today's post I'll conclude my Zest for Living series by arguing not only that human self-awareness is a product of insentient nature but also that it both enhances and undermines our will to live.  Obviously, all organic brains on planet earth have always consisted of nothing but a vast number of several atomic elements, chiefly hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon.  Jumbled into more and more complex molecules by evolutionary process, these atoms eventually became self-enclosed, self-regulating biological systems able to sense the outside world.  As these sensing mechanisms got increasingly acute, neuronal circuitry to harness the information they fed their owners' brains got increasingly elaborate.  Currently, the most complex terrestrial product of the process has been the human brain.
     In other words, humanity's ability to apprehend, reason, imagine, fantasize, dream, sense, and so on emerged from chance combinations of atoms, each without a hint of any such ability.  Human percipience and cognition arose from the oblivion of atomic mass and energy and consists now of nothing but trillions of electrochemical events constantly occuring in the human brain, each as void of consciousness as a grain of sand.  The components of human intelligence are literally dumb as dirt.
     But while we're alive and our brains are working, we have a vibrant sense of being alive and conscious that may be utterly unlike anything in this or any other cosmos.  While the odds of human-like intelligence elsewhere in this cosmos seem high, given the billions of known galaxies and the billions of stars in each galaxy, there's no question that, even if intelligence has evolved elsewhere, it's as unique to each brain that manufactures it there as ours is here.
     Throughout these Zest for Living posts I've stressed this uniqueness, which I've also called particularity or singularity, as essential to cosmic objects and by extrapolation to the All.  I find it deeply consoling.  If the All's basic stuff is infinitely singular, a conclusion implied by the empirical evidence of our cosmos, every thing it constitutes is infinitely unique and original.  Every human life is as fresh and radiant as the entire cosmos but, unlike the cosmos, aware of being so -- another reason I love being alive.
     The assumption that at bottom the All is as insentient as the natural order of our own cosmos, and that sentience is its rare and accidental offshoot, diminishes neither kind of being.  It makes both more wonderful.  Though consciousness is inorganic matter fortuitously jumbled awake, it can change itself and its surroundings in amazing ways.  Rather than bemoaning the All's indifference to humanity, I cherish our great good luck in being able to experience and savor our human existence at all.
     A billion years before it evolved, human intelligence was foreshadowed by primitive forms of mentation that were already miracles of happenstance.  But with human intelligence a huge range of new realities materialized.  Though the brain of an early sea-creature could neuronally re-create its surroundings, it couldn't make tools or fantasize.  The human brain could.
     When and in what sequence human beings began making tools, fantasizing, communicating, and doing the things that require human brainpower isn't known.  But without an ability to communicate through sounds (speech) or markings (writing), they couldn't have reported real events or told made-up stories, though then as now fact and fiction often blurred.  Nor could they have created and maintained social, religious, political, and military systems of order.
     All such creativity depended on the communication of consciousness from brain to brain by one brain's putting its thoughts into some kind of symbolic code like spoken or written language, then a second brain's translating the code back into its own electrochemical impulses.  All communication consists of a constant translation of brain impulses into and out of coding systems.  No human thought or feeling ever exists except as a material brain event or as codified matter.
     Many philosophers dismiss the theory that human consciousness is streaming electrons as crudely reductionist.  They argue that the theory doesn't account for the creativeness and originality of what they call purely mental states of being.  I disagree.  Human thought and feeling are obviously generated by brain electricity, and accounting for them in this way is anything but crudely reductionist.  In the first place, more than a century of brain research has shown that all animal intelligence is so generated.  To deny or ignore this research and cling to exploded theories of immaterial mentation is like insisting the sun orbits the earth daily.
     A related claim is that yes, human consciousness consists of electrons but no, the thoughts and feelings it produces aren't the same thing as electrons.  Electrons can't know or feel, yet human brains throb with knowing and feeling.  To equate electrons with thought and feeling is both to mix apples and oranges and to deny that the brain creats a brand-new emergent reality out of electrons.
     While I agree that a thought or feeling is in some ways unlike an electron, I disagree they're fundamentally different.  Like an internal combustion made of individually impotent but collectively potent parts, the brain is made of countless neruonal circuits that organize electrons into doing what brains do.  Just as an engine is nothing but the sum of its parts, so too is a brain.  Without gas for the engine and electrochemistry for the brain, neither works.  No material system ever mysteriously transcends the sum of its parts.  The most basic part or component of reality is an unknown stuff or substance with an infinite potential to realize itself in new combinations.  The only difference between an engine and a brain is that one's a product of intelligent design and the other isn't.
     The newness, freshness, and originality of brain products is what I think the anti-reductionists are getting at in not wanting to "reduce" intelligence to electrical energy.  They don't want to lessen the uniqueness of the different stages of cosmic evolution or suggest that they were planned or pre-determined in any way.  Nor do I.  I too see every event in cosmic history s having a uniqueness that nothing else in the All has.  One of the most astounding and unlikely of these events was the evolution here on earth of the human brain.
     Human intelligence has created countless new realities, among them many interesting fictions about, and one solid factual explanation of, cosmic origins.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims have traditionally held that a single deity created heaven and earth is six days, populating it with fish and birds on day five and animals and a man and woman made in the deity's own image on day six, and then on day seven rested.  Though scores of other creation stories exist, they tend to echo this one's fictional charm and factual emptiness.  Very different is the scientific explanation know as the Big Bang theory.  It rests on centuries of experimental proof that gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces separated thirteen billion years ago in the Big Bang and now dominate cosmic mass and energy.
     All such mental creations are unique.  They're as fresh, new, and beautiful as my sense of winter sunlight or your sense of summer moonlight.  They can be as fearsome and unsettling as a sudden insight into one's own mortality, an insight most organisms are incapable of having.  Human existence is a uniquely unplanned and spontaneous product of the All, as are each of the molecules human beings are made of and each of the electrons that generate their thoughts and feelings.  To equate human consciousness with the electrons that cause it is not to crudely reduce it but to link it to the infinite worth of absolute material Being.  So seen, human life assumes an All-like gloriousness.
     But it's also perishable in a way the All's inhuman and oblivious fecundity is not.  The human joy of living and knowing ends in death.  No matter how it's rationalized, dying is a hard, hurtful fact of human existence.  Having a capacity to reason sequentially and to create original marvels like space travel, digital technology, and artificial intelligence has helped enhance our zest for living, to the point of making some of us want to postpone death by somehow replacing or renewing our aging minds and bodies.  Though I don't share this wish, I acknowledge the tragic underside of human life and its utter transience.  I know I must get myself emotionally and intellectually ready to die.
     In my next post I'll begin explaining how, as an aging materialist and atheist, I'm trying to do just that.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


     In my last post, I argued that the ultimate source of the human zest for living is the interconnectedness and unrepeatableness of the material All from which we and the rest of the cosmos came.  I stressed the randomness of cosmic evolution and its collision between order and disorder, a collision I infer is in some way basic to the All.  I also pointed out the solace I draw from my own existence, which I consider as valuable and self-justified as any.
     In today's post, I want to highlight terrestrial evolution as the immediate source of our zest for living.  Once Earth had aggregated from planetessimals into a crusted, molten ball and chanced to acquire the size, orbit, tilt, and solar position it has, it became a unique platform for organic life.
     Exactly how this happened is not fully understood.  For example, astronomers have just discovered a nearby star at the center of a sphere of gas with huge amounts of water frozen to near-absolute zero at the sphere's outer fringes.  They theorize that earth's oceans may have resulted from similarly frozen water at the fringes of our own solar system, transported to earth's surface by comets.  The theory contradicts most current assumptions about how the earth's oceans formed.  Rather than filled with rainfall from earth's own clouds, our oceans may have filled with the water of comets from deep solar space.
     What were the odds against human intelligence emerging from such an accidental series of events?  The primordial gasses and dusts of the solar system had to be just massive and moving enough to create a sun of just the right size and heat, with just enough leftover debris to create a planet with just the right orbit and spin for collecting comet-ice (if it did), then warm it for billions of years with sunlight and vulcanism.  Random molecular action in this oceanic hatchery had to produce increasingly complex, self-replicating inorganic compounds, which then had to enclose themselves in membrane sacs and turn into organic cells.
     The odds against all this happening must have been off the charts.  Similarly mind-boggling is that each of these cells was an absolutely new and inimitable object in the cosmos.  It was a perfect singularity, not in the sense of being physically unexplainable but rather of being a unique event in cosmic space-time.  Nothing else did, would, or could ever occupy its slot in the cosmos.  Though organisms on countless other planets in countless other solar systems and galaxies may be constantly evolving from inorganic matter, they're as unique there as ours are here.  The existence of each of these cells and of every other particle of matter in the cosmos cannot and will not be repeated elsewhere.
     Whether such singularity is true of the All as a whole is impossible to know.  If space, time,  mass, and energy before our Big Bang were indistinguishable and interchangeable parts of a featureless soup of infinite heat/density, as the physics of post-Planck Era symmetry-breaking implies, of what precisely did their uniqueness consist?  Furthermore, states of being having more or less than the four dimensions of our space-time, assuming such states exist, may not particularize objects the way our cosmos does.
     Yet by extrapolating from the empirical evidence here, I suspect that the fundamental stuff of the All is infinitely singular and particular.  Since this is a pretty counterintuitive proposition, let me put it another way:  the basic component of ultimate reality -- the core ingredient or material of all existence -- is, like every object in space-time, infinitely divisible.  No matter how many times you halve something in space-time, you can continue dividing it forever.  There is no irreducible particle of stuff or matter anywhere, and when I speak of such basic stuff or matter I think of it as being somehow infinitely divisible.  Since infinite divisibility implies not only endless particularity but endless equality of value among all particulars,  I must be a singularity that is as valuable as anything that exists.  Though obviously speculative, this inference is based not on wishful thinking but on good empirical evidence.
     In other words, even before terrestrial organisms developed sensations of any kind, they were unique singularities within the cosmos and probably unique singularities within the All.  The visceral belief of all human children that they're immortal stems in part from their sense of their own uniqueness as physical objects.  Vastly more important, though, is their gut feeling they cannot die.  So potent is this feeling that most people never outgrow or unlearn it, seduced as they are by magical thinking into seeing something in themselves as immaterial or supernatural.  Against overwhelming natural evidence, they refuse to believe in their own mortality.
     Their uniqueness as material objects has been transformed into a sense of immortality by the two most powerful instincts imbedded in them by natural selection.  The first, of course, is the instinct to survive.  Only organisms that adapt well to their environment through genetic mutation do survive, and every such mutation reinforces both their sense of their own indestructibility and their zest for living.
     The second is the instinct to reproduce.  Superficially, reproduction doesn't seem to be as obviously self-aggrandizing a drive as personal survival.  Sexuality, controlled by more specialized biological triggers than the other three primal f's (feeding, fighting, fleeing), doesn't in the same way affect the individual organism's own quotidian survival.  Yet, absent reproduction, every species will quickly die out, so in every successful species sexuality is as important as outliving famines, predators, or life-and-death battles.
     These two primal instincts, along with countless supporting instincts and sensors, strengthened every organism's sense of individual selfhood to the point of overwhelming its ability to grasp or even intuit the fact of its own death.  Many survival mechanisms, such as herd, flock, or school bonding, evolved to preserve and enhance this feeling of personal indestructibility, though many other instincts like self-sacrifice for the hive or colony, muscular paralysis in the jaws or claws of predators, or white-light visions at death point the other way.
     I'm oversimplifying, of course.  Exactly how each of the countless species that have existed on the earth's surface developed, and how intense their zest for living was, are questions answerable only in a generalized, proof-poor way.  But the basic facts of organic evolution are indisputable.  First, all terrestrial organisms are locked into the mortal cycle of birth, life, and death.  Second, all terrestrial organisms except perhaps certain bacteria sustain themselves by absorbing the nutrients of other organisms, which has made the earth seem to some people a murderous place (others have called it a charnel house or death-kitchen.)  Third and most important, all terrestrial organisms instinctively deny they will die.
     This instinctive denial shows how deeply engrained our zest for living is, saturating every cell, bone, nerve, and muscle of our being.  We love life because we came into existence through a multi-billion-year process of genetic mutation that brought our ancestors from sea to land, to mammalian  reproduction, to bi-podal locomotion, and to extraordinary brain size.  Thoroughly random, the process endowed each new species with an entirely new kind of cosmic reality and each new creature with a singularity unique in cosmic history.
     In my next post, I'll discuss how the emergence of human intelligence both enhanced and challenged our zest for living.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


     Most non-atheists see atheists as unhappy campers.  They think that atheists find no meaning or purpose in human life and nature as a whole.  They believe that without a transcendent, supernatural intelligence to validate it, nature offers no basis for human joy.  To them, it seems impossible that an atheist who on one hand denies a divine plan for humanity and on the other affirms a random materiality at the core of being can find human life happy or fulfilling.  They feel that all atheists must be  uniquely prone to pessimism and depression in the face of existential discouragements like those caused by today's hard economic times.
     In this and follow-up posts I want to explain to those who feel this way why I and most other atheists do not agree.  On the contrary, we feel at least as much zest for living and as much pleasure in having been born as they.  Furthermore, we much prefer our explanation of the world to theirs.  The world is not the creation of supernatural and immaterial deities, we hold, but instead a boundless web of material substance that during the Big Bang lost its initial symmetries and became the time-space-mass-energy manifold that generated every atom in our cosmos,
     Today I'll begin by explaining how I think this human zest for living, joie de vivre, or Lebensfreude originated.  As I've said in earlier posts, materialists like me believe that all existence is material and that so-called nothingness and non-existence are human fictions.  Everything, including human thought and feeling, consists at bottom of mass-energy.  Every particle in our cosmos came from the Big Bang, which released all the matter of our stars and galaxies as well as the space-time they occupy.  All the best evidence indicates that the Big Bang was a chance eruption of unknown natural forces.
     We infer from the facts of our own cosmos that this eruption was not caused by a human attribute like cognition or emotion but was, like all the natural objects it produced -- stars, galaxies, black holes --, the result of a fundamentally non-rational, non-human randomness at the heart of reality.  But how could objects as predictable as the black holes, galaxies, and stars of our world have emerged from such unpredictability?
     Almost certainly, I would argue, from the same kind of clash between material order and disorder we see everywhere around us.  Electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces obey a rigid lawfulness yet intersect randomly in space-time.  Not one black hole, galaxy, or star was planned, predestined, or "necessitated."  They all arose from these four fundamental forces blindly driving atomic mass into black holes and stars.  Then they just as blindly began recycling the debris from exploding stars and colliding galaxies into subsequent-generation solar systems.  Everything in the cosmos emerged from a material order utterly oblivious of itself.
     So too our solar system.  Its originatiing clouds of dust and gas were pulled by gravity into a rotating disk with just enough mass and motion to cause a nuclear ignition at the centerpoint and just enough debris elsewhere to coalesce into orbiting satellites.  Among these satellites, our earth was just close enough, just tilted enough, rotating on its own axis just fast enough, with an orbit just circular enough (and so on) to evolve human sentience.  The laws of nature formed our oxygen-wrapped planet and us by chance.
     Somehow human sentience emerged from this mystifying blend of order and disorder.  I say "mystifying" because from a human point of view the ultimate facts of existence are unknown and quite probably unknowable.  So-called supernatural revelations are products of human fraud or delusion and useless except as case examples of crime or craziness.  Scientific study is incomparably more useful and valid, but it too is limited by its current inability to verify anything beyond the physics of our cosmos -- or even to understand that physics fully.  It hasn't yet ascertained what the "dark energy" making space-time balloon nor what the "dark matter" comprising most of cosmic mass are.  It doesn't yet know for sure whether neutrinos travel faster than light.  It has no idea how or why the Big Bang happened.
     All we can currently do is speculate about where nature's from and headed by extrapolating from what we know about it here to the mysterious unknowns that enfold us.  One conclusion I've drawn from this kind of speculative extrapolaton is that infinite reality is as natural and material -- and as interconnected and continuous -- as the finite reality we experience here.  The All, as materialists since Epicurus and Lucretius have termed it, is an endless and timeless continuum of some fundamental substance.
     Another conclusion I've reached is that the finite particulars of our Big Bang, our cosmos, our solar system, and our species are unique and original within the All.  That is, they are finite manifestations of infinite material Being.  No matter how closely ours may resemble other Big Bangs, cosmoses, solar systems, planets, or species elsewhere in the All, the particulars of the mesh of pattern and accident that formed us here can never recur.  That unique mesh created a circumstance and reality different from any other that ever did or will exist.
     We are the only material objects of precisely our shape and substance that could have emerged from the randomly interacting natural laws of our cosmos.  The melding, blending, and amalgamation that resulted from the clash of order and disorder here is inimitable.  As products of evolutionary chance, we think and feel in a way nothing else ever did or will.
     In other words, our sentience is the unique offshoot of random convergences in this unique cosmos.  While it may resemble sentience elsewhere here or in the All, it can never be duplicated or even approximated.  It stands irreducibly alone, occupying an entirely new and unrepeatable existence within the totality of the All's patterned chaos.  It's as worthy and valuable as the All itself simply because it too exists.  Material existence in any form never needs any validation or justification.  It is as infinitely self-validating and self-justifying as the All itself, which is all material being.  Its possibilities for self-realization are limitless, to me an exciting and inspiring thought.  Moreover, my sense of my own value and uniqueness in this infinity of material being makes me especially glad that, unlike the inorganic matter I'm made of, I'm somewhat self-aware.
     In my next post, I'll extend this notion of value and uniqueness to human evolution and argue that my zest for living is rooted in, but not confined to, that same inorganic matter.


Monday, September 26, 2011


     In my last post I suggested that atheism helps people manage money.  Knowing how risky investing is, I didn't try to claim that atheism makes investing easy, merely that it fosters realistic, rational, and moderate habits of mind consistent with saving money and avoiding debt, setting modest investment goals and pursuing them sensibly, and resisting financial panics and euphorias.  I argued that in many ways atheism is better suited than other worldviews to the hard facts of economic life.  In this post, I'd like to explain how this atheistic mindset has helped me not just survive the recent Great Recession but turn it to financial advantage.
     Let me start with the worst financial mistake I've made in recent years.  Back in the 1970s, before I'd thought my way through to atheism, I felt I could make money easily.  One of my ploys was to buy 50 one-ounce American Gold Eagles for about $20,000, or roughly $400 each, at the height of the 1970s gold bubble.  Then for the next twenty years, while I was still working, I watched the Eagles tank, kicking myself for having swallowed all the 1970s hype about gold soaring to fabulous heights.  Finally, when gold fell to under $200 an ounce, I swore to sell the Eagles as soon as they got anywhere near where I'd bought them and in 2002, seven years after retiring, dumped them for $368 apiece.  Today they'd be worth five times that much -- if I still had them.

     The cardinal rule I broke when I bought and sold the Eagles was the oldest and best in investing -- buy low, sell high.  Pre-atheism, I acknowledged the rule but often ignored it, flitting in and out of stocks, bonds, and REITs like a moth around a light bulb.  Post-atheism, I resolved to set my financial house in order.  I began by investing only in mutual funds and not in individual stocks or bonds.

     This meant switching all my pension, 401k and IRA stock holdings to indexed, broadly-diversified stock mutual funds.  It also meant maximizing my annual contributions to these tax-free, deferred-compensation programs.  And since I was approaching retirement and lived in Maryland, a high income-tax state with a triple-A bond rating, I started putting the rest of my money in a diversified Maryland municipal bond fund.

     When I retired in 1995, I initiated my TIAA-CREF pension not as a defined benefit but as a defined contribution, in which the money I and my employers had contributed to my TIAA-CREF account over the years remained under my and my heirs' control -- except, of course, for the annual minimum distributions required by the IRS.

     The tech bubble of 2000, the 9/11/01 attack, and the ensuing market volatility made me aware of a reality that I might well have missed in my pre-atheism days.  It was that the stock market doctrine I'd always followed -- buy and hold -- was no longer working.  So in 2004 I chose cautious market timing instead.  Before, I'd been putting fixed amounts in my TIAA, IRA, and 401k accounts over the years and thus averaging market ups and downs.  But since retiring in 1995, I'd only been taking out, not putting in, and I didn't want to expose my nest egg unnecessarily to the volatility of the post-2000 markets.

     So I began timing the market in the most risk-averse way I could.  In early 2004, having 100% of my deferred-compensation accounts in stock, I got nervous about the equity markets and began shifting my stock funds into money market funds (i.e., cash), which I could do without paying any fees or capital gains tax -- a huge advantage of the deferred-tax system that all investors should try to exploit.  By late 2005 I was 100% in cash and, feeling the stock market was stabilizing, once again began moving back into stocks.  By late 2006 I was again 100% in stocks, having dragged the transfer process out over months so as to cost-average.  Luckily, my stock funds rose some 7% during the next eight months.

     Then I really started getting nervous.  For years I'd been watching the real estate market with disbelief, as shacky dumps and McMansions soared in price.  Investment banks leveraged 30 to 1 were buying and selling the no-money-down mortgages of these shacky dumps and McMansions as exotic financial derivatives that no one seemed to understand.  I certainly didn't, and when in early 2007 I started seeing reports that banks didn't even have these derivatives on their balance sheets, I concluded the bubble was ready to burst.  So on May 18, 2007, I switched the 100% I had in stock 100% back into cash.

     It was the best financial move of my life.  Though it involved a lot of my own hard-earned bucks, it struck me then and now as all but risk-free.  On one hand, everything pointed to a looming debacle in the housing and stock markets.  On the other, my money-market funds were paying 5% interest -- a no-brainer of a choice.  Sure enough, by March 2009 the markets had plunged by half, and I'd already begun inching back into stocks, a switch completed in late 2009.  For a year, I watched the stock funds rise more than 10%, at which point I reversed again and began switching back into cash.  Currently, I'm once more 100% in cash, where I'll stay till the current roller-coaster market settles down, hopefully to where I can again buy low.

     In short, this old atheist dog did learn new tricks, not from atheist handbooks on how to invest, which don't exist, but from atheism's realistic, rational, and moderate turn of mind, which does.  Behind all my financial moves in recent years has been an atheistic skepticism towards every kind of religious or economic panacea.  I pay no more attention to the prophets of a new economic heaven or hell than to the old religious prophets.  Above all, atheism's given me a flexible, broad-minded view of macro-economic reality I didn't used to have.  Basing financial decisions more on national and international facts than on ups and downs in the markets, I now do my best to anticipate these ups and downs.  And I always move slowly to smooth out market fluctuation.  Though recently market-timing has worked far better than buy-and-hold, I'm open to changing the strategy at any time.  The key, as all atheists know, is first to recognize and then to deal rationally with proveable realities.

     Maybe I give atheism too much credit.  Maybe sooner or later I'd have changed from buy and hold to market timing anyway.  Yet I do feel that atheism's realism, rationality, and moderation helped me here.  They made me a more disciplined and cautious investor and sharpened my sense both of the world's overall riskiness and of the vulnerability of my own life savings.  They've made me better understand how careless and accident-prone many of my earlier maneuvers were and how careful money-wise I must now be.

     In any case, since I began timing the markets in 2004, my deferred-compensation accounts have increased in value by 27%, despite extreme market volatility and the worst economic recession since the 1930s.  My Maryland muni fund, which I 've steadily added savings to, has grown by 33%.  All the while, I've been siphoning off a comfortable retirement income from both.  In other words, I feel I've taken great economic comfort and consolation from atheism in these hard and dangerous times.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011


     I think it does.  Of course, not every atheist is a good money manager, nor is every good money manager an atheist.  But atheism's edge over competing worldviews in encouraging realistic, reasonable, and moderate economic behavior seems undeniable to me.

     The whole thrust of atheism is realistic.  Putting a premium on empirical proof, it always seeks factual confirmation from nature for its foundational concepts.  For example, it bases its view that the cosmos is a random concatenation of unsupervised natural laws on everything factually known about the Big Bang and subsequent cosmic history, including the evolution of intelligent life from inorganic matter.  In other words, atheism seeks to anchor itself in the proveably real, even when it speculates about what lies beyond the known, in which case it infers the unknown entirely from what is known.

     This realistic thrust is fueled by atheism's belief that reason is humanity's best instrument for understanding and coping with the facts of life and death.  Atheism and rationality have become virtually synonymous, for which many theists who prefer irrational kinds of faith fault atheism.  While few atheists see the universe as a whole or our own cosmos in particular as ultimately rational -- after all, the capacity to reason complexly has till now been confirmed only in a single species on a single planet --, all atheists regard complex reasoning, as opposed to, say, immortality or divine afflatus, as humanity's defining trait.

     Realism and rationality blend together in a moderation found in every nook and cranny of atheism's worldview.  For instance, atheism never claims to know that supernatural being don't exist.  Instead, it makes the moderate claim that the best available evidence points enough in that direction to convince most realistic and reasonable people.  But if hordes of unmistakably supernatural angels or demons with miraculous powers started showing up everywhere on earth, atheists would change their minds.  They approach all human concerns, including morality, politics, and of course finance, in a similarly moderate, open-minded way.

     Financial success is of course largely a matter of luck.  Being the daughter of subsistence farmers in Somalia is a less promising financial launch pad than being the son of highly-paid professionals in Switzerland.  Yet given enough luck, the Somali girl could end up richer than the Swiss boy, though the initial luck of their wealth at birth would most likely determine their economic destinies.  And good luck can turn bad in the twinkling of an eye.  Kevin can lose his well-paying job as a skilled machinist to robots.  Megan can lose her well-paying job as an account executive to downsizing.

     Granting that luck plays a large role in inheriting or building wealth, managing well whatever wealth you have nonetheless requires skills and attitudes that atheism fosters at least as well as, and in many ways better than, other worldviews.  In the first place, atheism discourages debt and encourages saving.  Secondly, it contents itself with modest financial goals and pursues them prudently.  Finally, it resists panic in financial downturns and euphoria in upturns.  Its realism, rationality, and moderateness serves its followers well in all three respects.

     First, as far as debt and savings go, atheism's basic premise -- all human beings are responsible for themselves and are in no way controlled or helped by supernatural powers -- makes atheists not only very mindful of what they do but proud of their freedom and independence from meddling, imprisoning deities.  It also makes them hate being trapped in prisons of their own making.  Debt can, and in America often does, become such a prison, and the best way to avoid it is to spend frugally and save exorbitantly.  I have no hard evidence on how well atheists don't borrow or do save, but I suspect they're better at both than humankind as a whole.

     Second, modest goals prudently sought are an almost inevitable atereffect of atheism's sober view of the human condition.  Atheists know that while human intelligence allows its bearers to comprehend, appreciate, and exploit the cosmos as nothing else yet discovered can, its ephemeral splendor ends irreversibly in death and the oblivion of inorganic matter.  Life's one-way journey from consciousness to unconsciousness prompts atheists to see all human goals as transitory and conditional and hence achieving them as insignificant in the long run.  Hence the general un-grandiosity of the goals most atheists set for themselves and their un-feverishness in pursuing them -- a mindset I see as well-suited to earning a modest living and to saving for a modest retirement.  Again, I have no idea how many atheists try to get rich quick and end up scamming, being scammed, or broke, but I suspect the number's small.

     Finally, atheism helps its followers resist financial panics and euphorias, a virtue implied in much of what's already been said.  It stems from the atheistic belief that every event in nature is a baffling mix of random chance and rigid natural law.  Unlike theists, atheists accept this disorderly orderliness as the core reality of all material being (to a materialist like me, the only kind there is) and never try to deny or change it by praying to higher powers for supernatural favors or allowing themselves to fancy they've been divinely rewarded if they're lucky or punished if they're not.

     In short, atheists find no message or meaning in financial highs and lows other than nature's own puzzling aimlessness.  Though they of course try to understand and anticipate economic rises and falls, in the final analysis they view such phenomena as no more comprehensible than nature itself and so avoid betting too much of their money either way.  It takes someone like an atheist, who feels the blind chanciness of existence in her bones, to resist the fear and greed of financial excess.  Understanding and managing risk is the meat and potatoes of money management, especially in extreme markets.  Atheists thrive on meat and potatoes.

     In this blog I've offered some reasons why I think atheism generally encourages sound money management and, in economic crises, calms and reassures its adherents.  In my next blog I'll review my own financial adventures during the past four years of economic mayhem and explain how atheism has helped me survive money-wise.


Friday, July 15, 2011


     One of my greatest pleasures during the last seven decades has been movie-going.  Since I first joined the other rapt boys and girls at the local Paramount's Saturday morning specials in the 1940s, I've loved the cool darkness of big movie theaters and their screens flashing with adventure.  Long before I knew what an atheist was, I knew what Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Superman, Batman, Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges were: -- more fun and excitement than just about anything in my Vermont boyhood.

     Now that I not only know what an atheist is but am one, my pleasure in movie-going continues.  Though choosier now than I was then, I still like watching good movies, especially if they have atheistic undertones undetected by most viewers.  I found three recent, widely-known films especially enjoyable in this respect. Unforgiven starred and was directed by Clint Eastwood.  No Country for Old Men was made by the Coen brothers.  Terrence Malik's The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain, is currently showing nationwide.  While hardly atheist manifestos, all three films are certainly atheist-friendly.

     The title of Eastwood's Unforgiven announces the film's central, non-Christian  theme. Nobody in it forgives or turns the cheek to anyone.  The lead character, played by Eastwood, wants to fulfill a pledge he's made to his dead wife to renounce his earlier career of drunken mayhem and raise their children respectably.  He does this, amorally enough, by killing two cowboys for a revenge bounty raised by a brothel of whores.  When his former outlaw friend, played by Morgan Freeman, whom he's recruited to help kill the two cowboys, is caught, tortured, and killed by the local sheriff, himself a former outlaw played by Gene Hackman, the Eastwood character avenges his murdered friend by getting drunk enough to kill the sheriff, all the sheriff's deputies, and the brothel owner  in a spectacularly bloody shootout.

     Although Unforgiven treats the Eastwood and Freeman characters and a mutilated whore somewhat sympathetically, it portrays them and everyone else as amoralists in a bleak, merciless world.  The Christian  rhetoric like hell or angel they sometimes use counts for nothing.  The film's key lines, spoken by Eastwood,  deny personal immortality.  "It's a hell of a thing killing a man," he says.  "You're taking from him all he has and all he's ever going to have."

      Everyone's moral decisions are random, expedient, brutal.  A cowboy slashes a whore's face because she laughs.  The other whores punish him with a draconian bounty.  The sheriff counters by sadistically beating a bounty hunter named English Bob (Richard Harris) and  Eastwood and then by torturing the Freeman character to death, all because of his own careless judgment in the slashing case.  Eastwood  kills eight men and threatens many more because his friend gets killed for helping him kill for bounty money.

     The Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men transfers Unforgiven's grim, 19th century western frontier to an even grimmer 21st century drug war on the Texas-Mexican border.  No Country is bleaker and more ironic than Unforgiven.  None of its criminals evokes even the muted sympathy we feel for the Eastwood and Freeman characters.  Although an aging sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones and a retired sheriff he visits are hints of decency in the moral chaos of the drug wars, they see the wars as inhuman and opt out of them.

     Borrowed from the first line of the Yeats sonnet "Sailing to Byzantium," ("That is no country for old men"), the title ironically underscores the fact that few of the film's male characters survive the action.  A further irony is that the Yeats poem identifies "that country" as the natural order, in contrast to a heaven of immutable beauty that awaits the poem's old men.  No such heaven ever existed or will exist in the godless, inhuman universe of No Country.

     What does exist is one of the most sinister characters in cinematic history, played by Javier Bardem.  He's introduced strangling a jail guard and escaping with a pneumatic hammer for slaughtering cattle, which he then uses to slaughter human beings.  Ironically, he precipitates the movie's main action in reaction to its only compassionate gesture.  A trailer-park cowboy hunting in the west Texas desert discovers a drug deal gone bad.  Bullet-riddled bodies of men and dogs are strewn among several trucks, one of which contains a mortally wounded Latino who begs the cowboy for water, which he refuses. The cowboy then discovers a dead Latino a mile away under a tree with a satchel of hundred-dollar bills at his feet.

     After stealing the money and hiding it that night under his house-trailer without telling his wife, on an idiotic whim he brings water back to the dying Latino but finds him dead.  Suddenly the Bardem character, originator-enforcer of the blown drug deal, arrives to investigate and discovers the cowboy's truck.  The rest of the movie narrates his implacable hunt for the money and the cowboy.

     So murderous is this hunt that Bardem emerges as the embodiment of death itself.  He kills everyone involved without seeming to himself be killable or even findable.  He badgers a bewildered gas station owner into calling a coin toss for unexplained stakes that are obviously life or death.  This traditional image of Death  the Gambler deepens the film's atheistic gloom.  Bardem explains that he kills as "a matter of principle," like the Grim Reaper himself tirelessly harvesting his crop.  Atheists can also appreciate the dark humor of the Coens' suggestion that death ends life with the finality and randomness of a coin toss.

     Unforgiven and No Country utilize some of the harsher aspects of atheism primarily for dramatic effect,  which I found interesting and entertaining.  But Terrence Malik's The Tree of Life evokes atheism's softer and gentler side and makes it central to the story.  While Eastwood and the Coen brothers portray a world void of love and ruled by greed, vengeance, and inhumanity, Malik portrays a suburban family in mid-twentieth-century Texas that for most of the movie suffers nothing worse than a modest income, having to move because the father loses his job, and normal family problems.  The house move in fact turns out well for them.  Ten years later, when catastrophe does strike, the mother and father own a much more lavish home.

     The catastrophe is the accidental death, apparently from a hiking or climbing fall somewhere in the red sandstone of the Colorado basin, of the family's nineteen-year-old second son.  The mother, played by Jessica Chastain, is shown wandering bereft through the new house and nearby woods after hearing the news, while the father, Brad Pitt, follows speechlessly.  The entire film consists of the thoughts, memories, and imaginings of the now middle-aged eldest son, played by Sean Penn, who's looking back on his drab boyhood from colossal modern buildings he now designs.  He too has grown far from his Texas roots.

     Yet his feelings about those roots are still so intense that he often sits or walks by himself pondering them inside his gleaming buildings.  The movie's mysterious images of primal light, the voiceovers, the cosmic panoramas, the tremendous floods of fire on the sun and of falling or curling water, the fantasies of prehistoric reptiles and of him rejoining his still-young brothers and parents, and other people, next to symbolic deserts or oceans, his mother impossibly floating upwards or being caressed by young women -- all these and everything else in the film are his own middle-aged daydreams and meditations on the meaning of his life.

     I think the key to what Malik is saying is revealed in an early voiceover by the mother.  In it, she recommends "the way of grace" over "the way of nature" as the dutiful catholic mother Malik  portrays her as being would.  This is the only thing she says or does in the movie that her adoring firstborn has come in middle age to see as wrong.  He -- and Malik -- have concluded that "the way of nature," contrary to Chruch teaching, is in fact "the way of grace."  That is, the titular Tree of Life is Malik's metaphor for the natural evolution of inorganic matter into organisms capable of this family's love, a love affirmed in Sean Penn's moving voiceover as the family reunites, he in middle age and they still young, and in his vision of their and all humanity's return through death to calm and beautiful oceans and deserts of insentient nature.  I found this affirmative atheism convincing and consoling.

     The Tree of Life depicts love as entirely human, natural, and evanescent, showing the boys' gradual awakening to the reality of existential loss and disappointment.  After they see another boy drown, one of them blames God in stunned voiceover.  All three stare speechlessly at a deformed man and at a struggling convict being hauled off to jail.  The oldest brother intentionally shoots his trusting, soon-to-die brother with a BB gun, steals, vandalizes, and opposes his unpredticable father who, disappointed by not being the musician he wanted to be, by not getting patents for twenty-seven inventions, and by lack of wealth, often tyrannizes his sons and at one point his wife.

     Malik constantly links the family's interactions to primordial scenes of nature recalled or imagined by Sean Penn.  Some of these scenes are violent -- volcanoes, floods of water, solar conflagration --, while others are merely threatening -- swarms of sharks, giant jellyfish, and sting rays. Though beautiful, all suggest the vulnerability and impermanence of sentient life, as do two striking vignettes of prehistoric reptiles.  In one, a wounded, dinosaur-like creature groans in pain on a seashore;  in the other, a large reptile on hind feet spots a smaller, wounded reptile lying in shallow water, walks over, and pins its head as though to kill it.  As the terrified animal writhes, the other releases it, pins it again, then walks off indifferently.  It isn't hungry.

     In other words, Sean Penn has come to understand that "the way of nature" is the only "way" there is and that the Tree of Life and its human fruit is solely the product of unplanned natural processes.  His Catholic indoctrination in "the way of grace" falsely taught him that his love for his family, for the bride-like girl he follows through the sandstone desert doorframe (a compensatory love replacing his dead brother?), for humanity dying back into the ocean of nature, and above all, for nature itself, comes from a supernatural being called God.  Now he knows better.  He knows he can love everyone in his family for what they truly are and despite their  transience -- even his father and especially his mother.

     The Tree of Life is more systematically atheistic than Unforgiven and No Country for Old Men.  It might be called atheist-centered, while they seem merely atheist-influenced.  But all three are unquestionably atheist-friendly, to me an encouraging -- and comforting -- sign of intellectual growth in the still overwhelmingly atheist-unfriendly mass culture of America.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011


     A month ago, on a Wednesday afternoon at 3:59 p.m., I witnessed my first hospice patient -- indeed, my first human being -- die.  L.S. had been admitted a few days earlier to the 36-bed hospice hospital where I volunteer once a week to sit with so-called "actively dying" patients.  Her condition had worsened the night before, and when I arrived at 2 p.m. she was semi-comatose and unresponsive.  No one was with her.

     Like almost all such patients, she was breathing in widely-spaced, softly agonal, gasps.  Her mouth hung open, slack-jawed.  Her eyes were half-open, glazed, unseeing.  For two hours, her breathing got more and more labored, until finally she took a couple of breaths a half-minute apart, lifted herself slightly from the bed, widened her eyes, and made a soft, clicking noise in her throat.  Then she gently deflated, like a balloon  losing air.  Her eyes narrowed and her chin slumped down against her right shoulder.

     Contrary to popular myth, many people at this stage of dying don't want to be touched, so till now I'd just been sitting close by, waiting to see what, if anything, L.S. might need or want.  Suspecting she was dead, I stood up to get a closer look at her face and noticed her hands were moving slightly under the bedsheet.  Instinctively I took them in my hands, whispering to her to relax, let go, accept.  Almost at once the hands  stopped moving. 

     I'd like to think we'd communicated, but I'm pretty sure she'd already died and was merely having mild, postmortem, muscular contractions, a hunch the nurse confirmed when she arrived a minute later.   Besides, whether or not L.S. knew I was holding her hands seemed trivial in comparison to the peacefulness,  serenity, and painlessness of her dying, which had been remarkably unstressful and untraumatic.  She showed no sign of suffering during her final minutes.

     To me, this was just as it should have been.  I see death as the absolutely terminal event of every human life.  It ends the chain of natural processes that begins in conception, continues with birth, growth, maturation, and aging, and concludes by re-submerging all human beings in the oblivion of inorganic matter from which  they emerge.  Never easy, death flat-out contradicts all the survival instincts ingrained in us by millions of years of evolution.  We not merely want to live but viscerally hope never to die.  Of course, reason and  experience inevitably teach us otherwise.  Yet billions of people worldwide choose to deny the finality and irreversibility of their impending death by trying to believe in some kind of afterlife.

     I think this widespread human refusal to accept and deal with the reality of death is due in large part to the suffering it often causes people who are fatally injured or dying of disease.  The possibility of  excruciating,  unrelieved pain under such circumstances is as horrifying to most people as it is to me.  The thought that I or someone I love might have to endure such agony fills me with fear and loathing.  I've no doubt that much of humanity's hatred of death stems from this same fear and loathing of dying in agony, which has helped drive human death almost entirely out of sight in the modern world.  Few people ever see other people die nowadays except in wars, natural disasters, or hospitals. 

     I volunteered for "actively dying" hospice work in order to reestablish personal contact with this tremendous, final event in human existence.  After almost a year and vigils with more than fifty patients, almost all of whom have died within hours or at most days of my being with them, I find myself deeply  moved by and committed to the task.  The main reason is that I've discovered that almost all my patients, like L.S., have been free of pain, anxiety, or even minor discomfort.  My hospice hospital, like all good ones, gives its patients the best palliative care available.  Qualified doctors visit and examine every patient every day.  Each nurse is responsible for roughly ten patients a shift, and every shift is manned 24-7.  Aides feed, clean, and reposition the patients around the clock.  No effort is made to cure the patients of anything, only to mitigate their suffering.

     Volunteers like me play a useful role in this palliative approach.  Because I sit with patients who at the time have no friends or relatives visiting them, and because such patients are normally incapable of calling  for help, I watch them closely for signs of distress and summon the nurse when I see such signs develop.  More often than not, as a result of my calls, the nurses will give the patients extra pain-killing, anti-anxiety, anti-coagulant, or other medicine, which always helps soothe and stabilize them.

     To me, this is the best thing I can possibly do for a fellow human being in such circumstances, and I get much fellow-feeling and satisfaction from doing it.  I also find that making the dying moments of my patients as painless and stress-free as possible is yet another consoling side-benefit of my atheistic materialism, which holds that human sentience is finite and ephemeral but its origins and sources in material nature are infinite and permanent.  In other words, I take great comfort in doing everything I can to ease my patients into death because I sincerely believe, first, that however menacing it may seem, death is nothing but a short passage from human sentience to the peace and quiet of natural oblivion and, second, that every human being's material remains -- his or her post-death molecules -- are somehow inextricably linked to a limitless All of material being.  Though our conscious, human existence ends with death, our unconscious, material existence persists indefinitely, in ways we don't know or understand.  Some unimaginable kind of material stuff or energy underlies and unites all natural existence, which is the only kind of existence there is.

     I have no intention of hastening or in any way causing the death of my patients or of any one else.  While open-minded on the subject of suicide, I'm strongly opposed to anyone committing it on or for someone else in any but the most extreme and unusual circumstances, and I abominate killing one's self in order to kill others, like a suicide bomber.  Naturally, I also totally oppose assisted suicide in connection with any kind of hospice program.  As explained above, the whole point of good hospice care is to palliate the dying process by making it as painless and stress-free as possible.  Once someone is diagnosed as likely to die within six months, he or she should be treated palliatively, not curatively, and all further efforts to forestall or avoid death should stop.  At that point, hospice takes over, making suicide unnecessary and irrelevant.

     .A final consolation that I as an atheist find in the palliative approach to death is that it lessens pressure on the dying, judging from my own hospice experience, to try to confront death heroically -- to "look it square in the eye" or "meet it head on," as the cliches say.  Anyone who wants to experience the full measure of agonal death of course can, like the (rare) person who refuses novacaine at the dentist's office.  But since I grew up in a time and place where many dentists didn't use novacaine and  remember keenly what it felt like having my teeth pulled or drilled without anesthesia, I'm no longer in the least heroic about pain.  Like most people, I'm happy to take advantage of every pain-killing medicine modern science has devised.  I do not long for the good old days of block-and-tackle, anesthesia-free surgery -- or dying.


Thursday, May 19, 2011


This new webpage begins with a substantial  explanation (about 17,000 words) of my atheistic worldview.  In it, a Prologue is followed by Consolations One, Two, Three, Four, and Five.  After this first long entry, I'll post much shorter additional entries at intervals, always with the aim in mind of showing how a dedicated atheist tries to cope with life at the mundane, day-to-day level and at the contemplative, metacosmic level.  My main purpose will be to try to explain to everyone -- theists, agnostics, and fellow-atheists alike -- how someone like me, who sees reality as fundamentally non-human, finds comfort and consolation in being human.



              "For whatever lives in time proceeds in the present from the
              past into the future, and there is nothing with its existence in
              time that can embrace the whole space of its life;... and in your
              daily life too you do not live in more than the moving, passsing
              moment."   -- Boethius

     Most people think atheism is cold and comfortless.  Even religiously broad-minded men and women in Europe and the Americas find it emotionally repellent.  Atheistic best-sellers like Sam Harris' End of Faith, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens' God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything have strengthened the bias, persuading many readers that all atheists are snide and callow.  A recent article in Newsweek favoring secularism concludes that "no group is more reviled in American than atheists."  Small wonder so few people understand, or want to understand, why or how atheism comforts those who live by it.

     I've been an atheist more than thirty years, having taken it up after spending my earlier decades toiling in the Vineyard of Academe and the School of Hard Knocks without thinking a personal worldview through.  Now in my seventies, I'm a battle-hardened alumnus of both alma maters -- much-chastened Professor Emeritus on the one hand and, on the other, bruised survivor of several major surgeries, including one for unmestastasized gall bladder cancer that left a sixteen-inch scar across my stomach.  Neither career has made me rich or famous, though the disease track did my doctors no financial harm.  A bleeding ulcer blackened my bowels two years ago; many of my joints are stiff with arthritis; my prostate gland's the size of a tennis ball; a heart attack in 1995 landed me in open-heart surgery.  I no longer worry about Changing the World or Making a Difference.  Nowadays, I'm content to know in my heart of hearts that atheism's the light of my life, the fountain of my joy, the bedrock of my strength.  How can that possibly be?

     Like many atheists, I don't start from the assumption that religion's terrible and must be trashed.  I assume instead that the world was not made and is not run by what adherents to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition have during the past three thousand years come to call Yahweh-God-Allah: -- a single, invisible, supernatural deity who created the cosmos from nothing, who possesses a human-like capacity to think and feel, who made humanity in its image, and who constantly monitors and judges everything that happens.  On the contrary, I and most of my fellow-atheists believe that the cosmos has resulted from observable and verifiable physical facts which are neither human nor superhuman but at the core unfeeling, unthinking, and unplannned.  The best available evidence, we're convinced, overwhelmingly supports that conclusion.

     Such evidence does not, however, absolutely prove it.  Absolute proof for or against any big worldview of the kind discussed here will forever elude human grasp.  The best we can do is to gather credible evidence supporting our own worldview and contradicting that of the competition.  The non-empirical, metascientific postulates of any big worldview are only more or less -- never absolutely -- proveable.  In this sense, all atheists and religionists are agnostics, whether they like it or not, which I'll explain more fully at the end of Consolation Five.  For now, it's enough to accept Boethius' thought in the opening quotation that no one living in time knows for sure what will happen next.  Nor does anyone indisputably know, for instance, whether or not percipience in some way survives death.  Nor do we know why nature exists, what it finally is, even how it works.  Our answers to such riddles are hunches based on the limited knowledge we have at hand.

   That said, there are vast differences in the quality of the evidence used to determine what "knowledge" is.  To me, the best evidence comes from careful observation of, and empirically verifiable conclusions drawn from, nature -- in other words, evidence based on scientific study and confirmable by any independent tester.  This is the kind I most trust.  The least reliable kind for me is private testimony affirming supernatural experiences -- for instance, supernatural visions, conversations with supernatural beings, discoveries or revelations of supernatural texts, and the like, reported by one or a handful of persons.  This is the sort of evidence overwhelmingly used to found and propagate religions.  It's based not on impartial, repeatable experiences with the natural world but on idiosyncratic communings with alleged realities outside nature.  Such communings typically start with an a priori belief in the supernatural and end with inner, ecstatic confirmation that the supernatural does in fact exist.  They stand at a pole opposite the scientific method and are in my view untrustworthy except as evidence of mental or physical aberration.  Nonetheless, my atheistical agnosticism keeps me from claiming they're absolutely untrustworthy as evidence for a worldview.  Most religionists reciprocate the courtesy, conceding that atheists can't be said to be absolutely wrong, however wrong-headed they may be.  Unfortunately, religious fanatics refuse the courtesy both to atheists and to fellow religionists alike.

     My point is that most of us atheists see religion more as irrelevant than hostile to our worldview.  Far more interesting than religion, to us, are the proven facts of the cosmos from which, we're convinced, life randomly evolved -- for example, the billions of stars in each of the billions of galaxies occupying the immensities of cosmic space, all obeying predictable physical laws.  Equally interesting are the facts of subatomic reality and its swarms of particles and energies hinting at similarly mind-boggling infinitessimalities.  We hold that these big macrophysical and little microphysical facts were responsible for bringing the earth into being and causing its four-billion-year development from a redhot planetessimal into a platform for oxygenated life and the technological, economic, social, ethical, aesthetic, and philosophical complexity that a species of mammals on its surface subsequently invented.  We treat these proven and, in the scientific community, universally acknowledged facts as the foundation of our worldview, which we find incomparably more convincing than the legends, myths, and purported revelations of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all other religionists.

     I call my own brand of atheism Materialism in honor of the philosophical tradition founded by the Greek atomists Democritus and Epicurus and transmitted in detail to posterity by the Roman poet Lucretius.  It affirms that some kind of energy-rich natural substance precedes, instantiates, and binds together all forms of being.  No one as yet knows, nor may ever know, what this ultimate substance is.  It may be infinitely divisible or expandable and hence limitless.  It may be separable into endless numbers of cosmoses like our own both within every subatomic particle and also parallel to ours in adjoining space-time cosmoses.  The likelihood that the substance is either dimensionless or infinitely dimensional simply enhances the spendor and mystery of what we materialists term the All.

     Obviously, my materialistic atheism (close cousin to "physicalistic" or "naturalistic" atheism) takes for granted the impossibility of co-existence between anything supernatural and the natural order.  Nature is all there is, constituting a material plenum, fullness, or totality in which non-materiality or supernaturalness is not just self-contradictory but meaningless.  There simply is no place in the natural All for anything SUPERnatural.  Everything that exists is made of the fundamental stuff of nature, whatever it is, all the way down, as philosophers say, and talk of SUPERnaturalness is as idle as talk of non-existence or nothingness.  Everything in every kind of being that ever has existed or will exist consists, ultimately, of the same basic ingredient that underlies our cosmos.  Non-being or nothingness can't exist in relation to it.

     Consequently, atheism itself is little more than an afterthought to us materialists.  We're not primarily at war with deities or religions.  Like popularized versions of Homer's Iliad or Melville's Moby Dick, deities pale for us in comparison to the real thing: -- the cosmos that really does exist.  What chiefly interests us are the ramifications and consequences of living on a planet that is, as Wallace Stevens said a century ago in his quintessentially atheistic poem Sunday Morning, "an old chaos of the sun,/ Or old dependency of day and night,/ Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,/ Of that wide water, inescapable."  Stevens' "old chaos of the sun" is our solar system, whirled into being by chaotically intersecting natural forces and shaping us in concert with the earth's rotation.  Our lives are physically and morally "free" of supernatural oversight.  No higher being "sponsored" us, and we rejoin the ocean of "inescapable" oblivion surrounding the "island solitude" of our lives when we die.

     Harsh though these assumptions seem to many people to be, they offer genuine solace -- indeed, much hope and joy -- to me and other atheists, comforting us in at least five major ways.  In the first place, atheism frees us from the drawbacks of religion itself, which typically claims to have non-human origins but is in fact an altogether human invention.  Second, in asserting that morality is also man-made, atheism strips moral systems of like claims to supernatural authority and makes them justify themselves on purely mundane, natural grounds.  Third, atheism affirms that all human communities are human constructs rooted in the biological laws of birth, life, and death and so enjoy no supernatural privileges.  Fourth, by tracing human life to purely natural causes, atheism encourages us to love the cosmos we inhabit -- that is, our terrestrial wilderness extended outward to the cosmos as a whole -- as the beginning and end of everything we are.  Finally, atheism affirms and celebrates all Being, despite the pain and disappointment Being inevitably entails on those who experience it in human form.

     These five consolations presume a reality independent of human perception, one that is absolutely material and natural -- a boundless, multi-dimensional continuum of material fact we as yet know only as the Big Bang cosmos in which we all live and die.  That countless kinds of material reality other than that of our own cosmos exist seems very likely to those of us who see the Big Bang as merely one of an endless chain of natural events interlinked in an infinite, eternal, and nonanthropomorphic All of material being.  Human consciousness created the religion and morality of my first two consolations and played a large part in creating the complex human communities of the third.  But the Wilderness and All of consolations Four and Five unconsciously created human consciousness itself.


                                   CONSOLATION ONE:  RELIGION

     Much of the comfort that human beings have found in religion through the ages has come from their belief not only that something supernatural exists but that it can be persuaded to sympathize with them.  Prayer to supernatural gods supposedly gets their attention. When those we love die, they supposedly transcend nature and await us in a supernatural realm.  If we do what religion teaches, we are supposedly rewarded both here and hereafter.  Above all, the supernatural supposedly gives its believers an ultimate purpose and meaning.  Without it, many assume their mundane lives are pointless.  These and other religious consolations have helped millions of people cope with the pain, frustration, and disappointment of life since religion first appeared on the planet.  Their belief that religion is not a human contrivance but a gift of the gods has been a tremendous comfort to them.

     I don't question the sincerity of those who feel this way, nor do I regard genuinely-felt, non-judgmental religious consolation as weak or silly.  Each of us has to cope with living and dying as best we can.  Since no one alive knows what dying is really like, we're all justified in dealing with it in our own way.  If religion helps you through the deaths of those you love and your own death, by all means use it.  For hardcore atheists like me, however, religious consolation just doesn't work.  We think the most trustworthy signposts all point away from theism and supernaturalism towards the two great, mundane facts we see, hear, touch, taste and smell around us daily.  First and foremost: the natural order is all there is.  Second:  no organism survives its death except as chemical residues.  My aim in what follows isn't so much to expound the scientific evidence for these two facts, abundantly available elsewhere, as to explain how and why they console me personally.  Forgive me in advance for talking so much about myself.

     While it's true that religion has always comforted many people, it's also true that religion has been a scourge to many others.  In return for hoped-for control over natural disasters like disease, drought, and flood, men and women have sacrificed other men, women, and children to the deities they think cause these calamities.  In return for the alledged protection and sponsorship of their gods, men and women have waged holy wars of enslavement or extermination against religious -- and secular -- rivals.  In return for the promise of divine favor before and after their deaths, men and women have hotly believed in supernatural revelations and have tortured others into professing the same beliefs, as in the Inquisition.

     Less viciously, men and women have colluded in magical thinking and closed their minds to more credible alternatives so as to be comforted by familiar ritual.  Christmas and Easter are to me relatively harmless examples of this sort of magical thinking.  These annual celebrations of the birth and death of Jesus are in my judgment fables.  Based on the narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, they consist of clumsy conflations by Luke of the earlier and often contradictory Matthew and Mark versions, themselves written almost a century after the events they claim to narrate and void of trustworthy factual information about the historical Jesus himself, whoever he was.

     These so-called synoptic gospels link Jesus' birth and death, perhaps unwittingly, to several sun-god/vegetation myths popular at the time by claiming that Jesus, like the sun-god, arrived with heavenly fanfare at the winter solstice to resurrect a dead world and then himself revivified at the vernal equinox.  Equally primitive is Jesus' immaculate birth, a throwback to pre-agricultural religions where sexual reproduction was not understood and women were thought to be impregnated by spirits or winds.  The account of Jesus' death and resurrection is an equally transparent fiction, with its cock crowing thrice, its eclipse and stoppage of the sun, its rock rolled from the tomb after three days, its Jesus ascending bodily heavenward, its doubting Thomas confounded, and so on.

     While nowadays even many Christians see them as fictional, the Christmas and Easter stories have had a much greater impact on human culture than most such tales of magic and miracle.  As modern American holidays, they've become crass and infantile, Christmas more so than Easter.  Easter merely encourages little children to believe in an Easter Bunny with eggs and candy that their parents disbelieve and hides stone-age superstitions like eating a god for profit behind rituals of wine-tasting, ash-daubing, palm-waving, and sunrise-watching.

     Christmas is a horse of a different color.  It has in the U.S. gotten so crazed with spending, re-unioning, decorating, and pseudo-philanthrophizing that during November and December newspapers, magazines, and TV talk shows offer daily advice on how to cope with the resentment, loneliness, desperation, and suicidal impulse it always generates.  Based on myths of divine impregnation and incarnation, it apotheosizes humanity as no other religion ever has, raising child and mother worship to pathological levels.  Even more infantile than Easter, it pastes Santa Claus and his reindeer atop the myth of the virgin birth of a half-human deity and makes buying presents, especially for children, a pseudo-sacred duty.

     Don't get me wrong.  I know that most Americans, including many atheists, enjoy Christmas in many ways.  The re-uniting of families, despite transportation woes and obnoxious relatives, is cherished by many.  I myself like Renaissance and Baroque Christmas music and some kinds of Christmas decoration.  But I also like not having to participate in any way -- not giving or getting unneeded and unwanted gifts and not pretending to cherish humanity at the winter solstice because a man-made revelation from a man-made god says I should.

     More than two hundred years ago Thomas Paine concluded that the entire Bible story of the fall and redemption of humanity was a human invention.  In The Age of Reason he said, "having thus... put Satan into the pit -- let him out again -- given him a triumph over the whole creation -- damned all mankind by the eating of an apple, these Christian mythologists bring the two ends of their fable together.  They represent... Jesus Christ to be at once both God and man, and also the son of God, celestially begotten, on purpose to be sacrificed, because they say that Eve in her longing had eaten an apple."  Paine's breezy ridicule anticipated more solid subsequent proofs that the Bible, like all purportedly god-written books, is a human artifact from start to finish.  Like Paine, I'm consoled by knowing that all supernatural revelations, such as Mohammad's Koran and Smith's Book of Mormon, are also man-made fictions.

     Fortunately, religion is at worst a minor annoyance to non-believers in the United States because of our relatively strict separation of church and state and our freedom to think and believe what we want.  On the whole, Americans can take or leave Easter, Christmas, and the rest of religion as they see fit.  Most American Christians have the wisdom and decency not to try to impose their views on non-Christians, and most of what U.S. Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and other believers do as U.S. citizens benefits U.S. atheists too.

     But in many parts of the world, especially the Muslim parts, religion is once again rearing its primordially intolerant, dictatorial, bloodthirsty head.  Rarely in human history has it matched the gratuitous cruelty and violence that now, in the garb of Islamic fundamentalism, it's inflicting on innocent men, women, and children throughout the world.  It flies hijacked jetliners into buildings full of unsuspecting victims; it plants bombs on trains full of peaceful commuters; it explodes cars and trucks to kill as many blameless Muslims and non-Muslims as possible; and it recruits fanatics to blow themselves up wherever they can wreak the most havoc on defenseless noncombatants -- in markets, schools, funerals, churches, and mosques.

     This partial listing of atrocities now being committed in the name of Allah mirrors the pathological zealotry that fuels the movement.  Such pathology is part and parcel of the zealotry that has always been spawned by so-called divine revelation, whether vouchsafed through natural phenomena like floods and meteors or through human channels like hearing or seeing gods and angels.  Unquestionably, the chilling extremism now afoot in Islam has fed on the repeated insistence of the Koran, Islam's book of revelation, that the prophet Mohammad infallibly transmitted to humankind the divine word of Allah as delivered by the angel Gabriel and that everything Gabriel told Mohammad in the Koran must be believed and obeyed as Allah's will, on pain of eternal death.

     According to the extremists, all who question Mohammad's revelations are infidels who must be converted, ignored, rebuked, or destroyed.  Though the Koran nowhere commands the outright slaughter of infidels, on almost every page it promises they will be roasted in flames or boiled in liquids after they die, whereas all believers will enjoy endless spiritual and sensual pleasure in an oasis-like heaven of streams and gardens.  In treating all non-believers as at best misguided aliens, the Koran has helped persuade extremists to wage a holy war of conversion and/or extermination against not only non-Muslims but tolerant Muslims as well, whose chief infidelity lies in their refusal to murder non-Muslims.

     Nothing here is new.  The same willingness to credit madmen and knaves touting their own brainstorms as supernatural revelation has typified religion since the earliest days of humankind.  As soon as primitive men and women managed to conceptualize nature as something controlled by supernatural beings, much as they themselves to an extent controlled their own environments with crude tools and weapons, they probably began falling under the spell of those among them who reported seeing invisible people and hearing inaudible voices.  Dreams and dream interpretation doubtless fed on such gullibility, which eventurally led to elaborate fictions about the origin, destiny, and divine rulership of the natural world and to warfare with rivals who worshipped alien gods.  All these early gods embodied the crudity, violence, and selfishness of their human inventors, who lived in a near-feral state of nature.  That religious fanaticism flourished in such circumstances is not surprising, providing as it did, among other things, a road to power for every budding prophet and soothsayer in the tribe.

     Much of human history since has resulted from this sort of religious fanaticism expressing itself in holy wars of conquest, conversion, and genocide.  Greek polytheism, with its seven gods and five goddesses living quarrelsomely on Mount Olympus under the slack rule of Zeus, was the product of centuries of bloody warfare between invading tribes from the Balkans, who worshipped sky gods, and indigenous Greek tribes who worshipped agricultural goddesses.  The seven-five split, with Zeus as top dog, shows that even after getting the upper hand, the sky-god priests could not eradicate goddess worship and so certified it in this bizarre way.  Although they too adopted the Olympian menagerie of gods and goddesses, the Romans renounced the religious zealotry behind it and permitted freedom of religion throughout the Roman Empire.

    This tolerance vanished with the rise of Christianity, which in 325 C.E. became the state religion of Rome and began the relentless series of missions, colonizations, crusades, and internecine holy wars that continue to the present day.  First, it subjected all of Europe by Word and Sword to Christianity.  Then, after the Muslims had imposed their own religious dictatorship on northern Africa and Spain, Christian crusaders repeatedly tried by force to rid the Holy Land of Muslims.  A horrific, many-centuried civil war within Christianity itself followed, in the course of which hundreds of thousands of Protestants and Catholics dispatched each other to heaven and hell, as they have till recently in Ireland.  This schism coincided with the discovery, colonization, and conversion of the New World, carried out for the most part by Catholic priests and colonists but in English-speaking North America by Protestants.  The violence, brutality, and near-genocide visited on the native peoples of America by these European Christianizers is only too well known.

     To an atheist, one of the worst products of this long, dismal process of human religionizing has been the notion that human beings survive their own deaths in some kind of supernatural state of existence.  Belief in human immortality is inconsistent with everything we know and daily witness around us in nature.  Yet it is apparently so flattering to humanity's sense of its own self-importance and so soothing to its instinctive fear and hatred of dying that it's become the prime test of faith for most revealed religions.  Because the human instinct of self-preservation is so potent, even religiously skeptical men and women often want to believe in immortality.

     For religious zealots, there's never a doubt.  They are taught not only that they must believe they'll live on after they die but also that all their thoughts and actions while they're alive are so important to whichever deity's in charge that they can earn them eternal salvation or damnation.  Belief in divine judgment is everywhere demanded of the faithful, page after page, in the Koran.  Less obsessive to modern Christians, Judgement Day looms large for many of them too.  Even so preposterous a cult as Scientology, with its fantastic doctrines of reincarnation and the 75-million-years-ago Galactic Confederacy, can persuade its devotees that disobeying the cult's leader, David Miscavige, imperils their immortal souls.  In a recent New Yorker article, an apostate name Jefferson Hawkins explained cult members' unwillingness to resist or challenge verbal and physical abuse from Miscavige.  "If you don't go through Scientology," said Hawkins, "you're condemned to dying over and over again in ignorance and darkness, never knowing your true nature as a spirit.  Nobody who is a believer wants to lose that.... [Miscavige] holds the power of eternal life and death over you."

     Aside from Scientologists and suicide bombers, I suspect most yearners for immortality are consoled and comforted mainly by the hope they'll rejoin their loved ones after death.  I also suspect they picture this future state as pleasant and familiar.  But since the mundane empirical evidence against such yearnings is so overwhelming, no sane person can be dead sure immortality exists.  Moreover, in Judeo-Christian-Muslim lore, immortality is potentially horrible.  Hell awaits the damned.  While liberal Christians dismiss hell as a fiction, more fundamentalist types aren't so sanguine.  Some Islamic radicals, for instance, blow themselves up as insurance against danmation.  And what if the future state is not as advertised by most religions but instead, as an example, a trance-like spell like that of the dead in Homer's Odyssey, which only the drinking of animal blood can break?

     I find atheism's insistence that death is total and irreversible a comforting antidote to all this morbid longing for everlasting life.  It is genuinely consoling to me not to have to pretend that something in me called a soul or spirit will live on after I die, not only because, at age seventy-four and frosted with disease, I have no wish whatsoever to outlive my own death but also because I look forward to the painless peace and quiet dying will bring me.  To see death as the permanent, oblivious sleep that, on the basis of the best available evidence it cetainly seems to be, is far more comforting to me than any supernatural alternative.

     Besides, I'm as sure as I can be that I have no soul or spirit in the traditional religious sense anyway.  Everything I know, feel, think, imagine, or dream is the result of processes in my brain and body no less natural than my body's mechanisms for absorbing food and water.  The world I apprehend outside and inside me is the product of billions of simultaneous electro-chemical events in my brain and body that, collectively, cause everything I consciously and unconsciously know, feel, and do.  My soul or spirit is the sum total of these fantastically complex and numerous neural processes, each in itself as unknowing and unfeeling as the firing of a spark plug, which occur inside me every moment of my life and collectively provide me with whatever percipience I have.  They, and with them my conscious and unconscious self, will end the moment I die.  I will then consist solely of the leftover molecules and atoms that once comprised me and will truly experience the peace that passeth all understanding.

     I don't say this sarcastically.  I'm in fact much moved and comforted by those passages in religious rituals of burial that stress the finality of death -- for instance, the Christian liturgy's magnificent "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, and dust to dust."  They acknowledge what all human beings emotionally deny but rationally surmise:  when we die, we cast off forever the pain and sorrow -- and, less happily, the exhilaration and joy -- of human existence.  We'll be unaware of and indifferent to the All around us and, like the planets, stars, and galaxies in their orbits, feel nothing, know nothing, want nothing.  We will, in short, be planets, stars, and galaxies, or at least a sampling of their elements, and will continue voyaging through the cosmos as serenely as they.  This much moves and comforts me.

     I'm also moved and comforted by the affirmation of immortality at Christian funerals, but in a totally reverse way.  Christianity's cry to Christ for rescue from death, like all such cries (Brahms' agnostic affirmation of immortality in the Requiem is another), is an acknowledgment of the core dilemma of human existence.  On the one hand, much of our success as highly-evolved organisms depends on our valuing ourselves above all else and consequently doing everything we can to keep ourselves alive.  On the other hand, all such self-prizing and self-preserving inevitably fails.  The gap between our instinct to live and the harsh fact we must die can't be bridged.  As Melville said in Pierre, death "is the last scene of the last act of man's play; -- a play, which begin how it many, in farce or comedy, ever hath its tragic end; the curtain inevitably falls upon a corpse."  All great art, I think, tries to bridge the gap between living and dying but likewise always fails.

     Yet the effort itself seems to me as noble and worthy of respect as anything we do, and as an atheist I take comfort from it and the great religious gropings toward immortality in church liturgy, music, statuary, painting, and architecture.  I likewise admire and sympathize with the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and other so-called holy books even as I flatly reject their supernatural claims.  Though helpless to solve the riddle of mortality, they at least sense its tragic dimensions.  And sometimes, as in Job and Ecclesiastes, they acknowledge its insolubility.

     In sum, though I'm much comforted by my freedom from religion, I know religion offers those who believe in it great comfort at a hard time like dying.  So long as the comforting doesn't entail proselytizing, bullying, or killing anyone, I'm for it.  Each week I spend hours sitting what used to be called the death watch with patients diagnosed as being within hours of dying.  While most are semi-comatose and unresponsive, some are not.  Standard procedure for us death-watch hospice volunteers is not only never to contradict our patients but always to corroborate whatever they say, see, or want.  If a patient hallucinates that long-dead relatives are standing by his bed, I say, That's great.  If a patient asks me if she'll go to heaven, I say, Of course.  Yesterday I helped a Catholic priest give extreme unction to a devout patient by first putting the patient's finger on the cross in the priest's stole and then helping him hold the priest's crucifix.   I was happy to.  I want to help all my patients through their final ordeal any way I can.


                                CONSOLATION TWO:   MORALITY

     To me, the fundamental premise of Consolation Two is a self-evident truth: -- all morality, like all religion, is man-made.  Yet I'm continually surprised by how few people agree.   Human morality is either god-given, they say, or, if not god-given, somehow universally valid.  God-given?  A meaningless assertion to an atheist.  Universally valid?  My imagination pictures thousands of distant planets, none remotely like our phyically or morally -- if such civilizations do in fact exist.  We on earth may be the only morally conscious beings in the cosmos, and, if so, our morality is of course ours and ours alone.  If not, it will remain the only morality we know until we make contact with our purported neighbors.  When, then, did our man-made morality originate, how does it work, why do I as an atheist find it consoling?

     All reasonable people agree that the natural order itself is profoundly amoral.  Our knowledge of the way the universe began and developed is now so full and proven that almost no one still tries to claim that the sun, the moon, the stars, the galaxies, or other inorganic objects in our cosmos exhibit moral purpose.  We know that space-time predictably expands and vanishes into black holes, galaxies coalesce and collide, stars ignite and burn through nuclear fusions, planets form and disappear -- absent plan or design.  Driven by energies unleashed billions of years ago in a single flash, every atom of matter and photon of light in the cosmos unerringly obeys natural laws that do not know or choose but instead ride rails laid down by the Big Bang.  So symmetrical, featureless, and supercharged was the initial instant of Big-Bang, Planck-era time that human thought and feeling cannot comprehend it.  It did not then have, nor have its chrystallizations into inorganic matter since had, anything resembling a mind or heart.  Yet everything we human beings are and do is its product.

     What we call morality probably first appeared on earth when complex molecules, after randomly forming, dissolving, and reforming in earth's primordial oceans for a billion years, genetically mutated into self-enclosed, replicating, cellular organisms.  Before this mutation, the molecules had no existence apart from the water around them and hence no buffering from its heat, light, motion, and chemistry.  In accidentally enclosing themselves in membraneous sacs, they walled themselves off from their surroundings and developed internal norms and processes critical to their survival and reproduction.

     More importantly, with cellular self-enclosure came self-definition.  Each of these cellular sacs now had an identity separate from its chaotic environment and capable of crude responses.  These initial responses gradually evolved into more and more sophisticated perceptions and judgments of the world.  After countless generations and mutations from cell to plant to animal, light sensors on skins became eyes, and other kinds of sensors and chemical mechanisms became equally useful organs of discrimination.  Since the ability to distinguish light from dark, heat from cold, food from poison, and friend from foe was a huge survival advantage, organisms that developed it and other kinds of perception flourished.

     Throughout this billion-year evolutionary process, the ability of these organisms to discriminate among the particulars of their world obviously coincided with -- and was indistinguishable from -- their ability to evaluate those particulars.  Determining what kind of plant or animal faced you equalled determining whether it was good or bad for you.  Recognizing and judging your surroundings in this way meant, among other things, the difference between eating and being eaten.  At least to me, nothing in the history of life on earth seems more obvious than the fact that perception and judgment are and always have been simultaneous and identical gut instincts.  Although humanity has greatly refined and socialized these gut instincts since the days when molecules accidentally walled themselves inside sacs,  recognition and judgment remain what they then were -- the indispensable and inseparable ingredients of everything we now call morality.

     To understand human moral instinct or intelligence in this way is deeply satisfying and comforting to me.  In the first place, it lets me dismiss supposed revelations of supernatural morality as the human inventions I take them to be.  While much of the morality taught by revealed religion is sound and useful, whatever soundness and usefulness it has stems from its altogether mundane roots -- that is, from the collective social experience of human beings a-borning, co-existing, and dying together for hundreds of thousands of years on the surface of the planet.  Divine injunctions either against murder and theft or for compassion and honesty are nothing but everyday, common-sense social wisdom writ large by human religionizing.  And many other features of religious morality are man-made tools for manipulating the gullible, including promises of eternal salvation or damnation for believing or not believing in given deities, commands to exterminate the followers of rival deities, supernatural rules for clothing, diet, sex, hair style, word choice, and so on.  Such claims hurry my thoughts toward the comfort and safety of mundane justice and equity like dogs chasing foxes or rabbits to their burrows.

     In my final analysis, all human morality boils down to this safe, comforting, mundane justice and equity.  Although people hurt by bad luck,  by other people, or by themselves are often lured by religion into believing in, or at least hoping for, supernatural redress, such hopes are little more than tokens of the tragi-comic gap between what humanity feels it deserves and what it actually gets.  Only in fantasy is virtue routinely rewarded and evil punished.  In the real world, crime often pays, virtue often loses, chance mostly rules, and the Grim Reaper always wins, as religionists themselves never tire of pointing out.  Ecclesiastes tells us all is Vanity;  Augustine tells us Original Sin ruined the world;  Calvin tells us humanity deserves to be damned.  Only sentimental optimists like Jean-Jacques Rousseau argue that human beings are inherently good to each other in the best of all possible worlds.  The truth of the matter is that human justice and equity emerged from the quotidian meatgrinder of human social history, a meatgrinder that eventually produced Roman secular law and after that the democratic rule of law, humanity's best moral construct to date.

     The democratic rule of law consists of clearly stated and widely disseminated rules for human behavior that are subject to review and revision by those they govern.  These rules may be local, national, or international constitutions, codes, treaties, or other binding agreements which in some way embody the will of the majorities they encompass.  The democratic rule of law rests on concepts like universal literacy, fixed terms of office, scheduled and monitored elections, an independent judiciary and judicial review, governmental protection of minority groups and opinion, and freedom of speech and thought.  In it, written laws rather than monarchs or priests govern.

     But because it was a by-product of the evolution of simple cells into complex animals, the rule of law often exhibits the incoherent self-contradictions of nature itself.  It too evolved from inflexible natural laws randomly colliding in an unplanned cosmos.  It's nothing more than collective human experience trying to "soften," as Henry Adams put it, "the severity of natural process," a hard task indeed for fragile organisms on the surface of a ball of molten lava spinning blindly through space-time.  Often unfair and unjust, it is, despite its many faults, the best moral system yet devised by humanity.

     One of its more consoling features is its acknowledgment that human beings are potentially no less amoral than the natural order out of which they emerged.  They are by nature neither moral nor immoral, it presumes, but so non-moral that they will always tend to favor and preserve themselves at the expense of others, like feral animals protecting a kill.  The rule of law sees humanity's anti-social impulses as no less normal and natural than its social impulses.  To discourage breaking and encourage obeying its rules, it has devised many shades of penalty for many shades of misbehavior, such as those that punish different misdemeanors with different fines, different felonies with fines or jail time, and different capital crimes with jail time or death.  Paying in this way absolves the wrongdoer in the eyes of the law.  He has both exculpated and rehabilitated himself, though he may also have been in some way permanently stigmatized or even (worst case) executed.

     In other words, the terms and conditions of the rule of law are practical, contractual, commercial.  Like Hail Marys meted out in Confession, they are fines to be paid rather than crosses to bear.  The democratic rule of law ignores melodramas like sin, evil, purity, and holiness.  Taking for granted humanity's primordial brutishness, it frees people from obsessing over guilt, conscience, and moral perfection by laying mundane, mostly pecuniary, penalties on them for their misdeeds.  It comforts them by acknowledging their inherent animality and by subjecting them to practical, time-tested social rules for getting along together.

     Yet it also acknowledges that human animality is not completely feral.  The human capacity to ponder and resolve the complex moral issues that saturate all social intercourse is radically non-feral and has made the rule of law the tough, fair, canny moral system it is.  On the one hand, our rationality, which is responsible for every code, treaty, constitution and moral principle comprising the rule of law, is one of our best consolations in an irrational cosmos.  On the other, it teaches us how absurdly amoral and ephemeral we are.  Despite my sense of its cosmic irrelevance, I'll defend the rule of law with my life, if need be, because of its matchless moral value to me while I remain alive.

     The crown jewel of the rule of law, also solely a product of human experience and reason, is the so-called golden rule: -- do to others what you want them to do to you.  Unnatural and counterintuitive, the golden rule contradicts almost every self-preserving and self-aggrandizing impulse of our viscera.  It asserts that our best chance for safety and well-being lies not in selfishness but in self-sacrifice for the safety and well-being of our fellows.  In recommending we compromise and cooperate for the common good, it makes the rest of the rule of law work.

     Yet it also takes for granted that all such communal effort is voluntary.  Everyone is free to choose to be socially responsible or not -- to do or not to do to others what she wants them to do to her.  If she chooses not, she of course risks being punished, though as everyone knows many laws are easy to break and many law-breakers go scot free.  Be that as it may, most citizens who can choose to live by the rule of law do so, chiefly because their reason tells them they benefit more with it than without it.

     Often, of course, the residue of primodial amorality in the human animal makes efforts to establish a global rule of law seem quixotic.  Fanatics and criminals seize power and impose their dogmas and whims on millions of people.  Even in law-abiding nations, disgruntled individuals and groups often try to subvert the commonweal to their own ends.  The ancient Adam in all of us -- the amoral chaos from which we emerged -- contradicts our moral reason, sucking us backwards towards a brute state of nature.  Human pride, vanity, cruelty, and craziness stand ready to help in any way they can.

     Yet as an atheist I'm much reassured and comforted by our capacity to reason morally.  Odds are, no such capacity should have developed from the inorganic stuff we're made of.  Evolving it was an incredible, perhaps unique, stroke of luck.  It enabled us to choose not merely how to interact with our fellows but whether to interact with them at all.  In this sense, our moral freedom is absolute.  We can opt to cut ourselves off from humanity in part, through crime or misanthropy, or in full by committing suicide.

     For those who, like me, opt to live with humanity under a rule of law, the need for moral reflection and judgment never ends.  Do I confront the teenage louts at McDonald's whose obscenities I and my grandchildren must endure, or do I just get up and leave?  Do I in some way protest the prayer that opens the graduation exercises at the public university where I teach?  Do I contest the $300 fine for driving nine miles an hour over the speed limit on a deserted highway (except for the trooper manning the speed trap) at two o'clock in the morning?

     The advantage atheism gives me in answering these and more serious moral questions is my certainty that I'm answering them myself, guided only by my own worldly knowledge and experience.  But since in my view all human beings, atheists as well as non-atheists, base their moral decisions on worldly knowledge and experience anyway, whether or not they know it, I find it unsurprising that atheists and non-atheists often agree on moral questions.  It would be hard, I think for anyone to infer I'm an atheist from many of the moral choices I've made, as the following list may suggest.

     I support licensing private citizens to store locked rifles, shotguns, and pistols in their homes and, in special cases, to carry concealed weapons outside their homes for self-protection.  I oppose selling private citizens any kind of rapid-fire, military-style firearm.  I support family planning and a woman's right to choose abortion.  I support the death penalty for heinous capital crimes, especially those against children or police officers.  I oppose legalizing currently illegal drugs.  I support a free-market capitalism robustly regulated and fairly taxed by the state.  I oppose racial prejudice -- and preferences.  I support mandated, universal health care.  During my lifetime, I've voted in presidential elections for John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr., Robert Dole, Albert Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama.

     Though responsible men and women could disagree with every one of these choices, they would probably accept them as honest efforts on my part to uphold and further a global rule of law.  A global rule of law is in my view the moral system humanity most needs.  It would abrogate the idiosyncratic, parochial moral systems that dominate much of the world today and would enforce standards of public behavior based on humanity's hard-won scientific knowledge and social experience rather than on its prejudices and gullibilities.  While vulnerable to moral grotesqueries like Hitlerian Nazism or Islamic theocracy, the rule of law may ultimately prevail, I suspect, because of its deep roots in human evolution.  Humanity may eventually outgrow its need for supernatural morality, but it will never outgrow its need for the rule of law.


                            CONSOLATION THREE:   COMMUNITY

     Consolation Three is more complicated than Consolations One and Two.  Because human communalization seems to me even more instinctive and natural than religion and morality, it occupies in my mind a middle ground between human creativeness and createdness.  Hence its middle slot in my five consolations.

     In my judgment, what most tightly binds human beings together is their shared biology.  The genetic coding that evolved over billions of years into the human species is the source of all our communal life and moral behavior, including the rule of law.  To me, a major consolation of atheism is its premise that all communities, like all moralities, are products of the natural order, without a trace of anything SUPERnatural in them.  In cosmic terms, no human community is privileged over any other collection of beings or objects, a fact that should hearten those who favor curbing human self-indulgence in face, say, of global warming.  Humanity hasn't been divinely chosen to plunder this or any other planet.

     But unlike the genes of ants, bees, geese, alligators, or beavers, which also dictate communal behavior, those of human beings have evolved complex reasoning to supplement instinct as a major motivator for cooperation.  Originally, when the human brain was a third, quarter, or tenth the size it now is -- that is, before it developed the capacity to reason sequentially and so to create religion, philosophy, politics, literature, law, mathematics, science, and the rest of human civilization -- human beings, like all animals, bonded from blind instinct.  Their sexuality produced offspring who needed food, protection, and, as brain size increased and maturity took longer to reach, years of nurturing.  This in turn produced complex families, tribes, and nations.  The shift from pure instinct to partial reason caused by this evolutionary process was as tedious and random as the process itself.

     To this day, human beings remain fundamentally irrational throughout their lives.  They have no say in being born and can't think complexly for years afterwards.  By the time they begin to ratiocinate, they've already been irreversibly preconditioned by the linguistic, parental, georgraphical, and socio-economic facts of their birth and by the genes they've inherited.  As infants, they are mere eating, sleeping, and excreting machines and never fully outgrow this instinctive state.  Thoughtout their lives, they are compelled by the billions of years of evolutionary chance that shaped them to feel first and reason afterward.  Their instincts to reproduce and preserve themselves are thoughtless to the core.  Their will to live and their joy in living are feelings which no amount of reasoning can -- or need -- ever justify.

     The irrationality of humanity's love of life and fear of death is confirmed, ironically, by reason itself, which relentlessly concludes that no living thing outlasts its own death except as dispersed molecules.  If we were fully rational, we might accept this fact and live, not as immortals-in-waiting, as most religionists claim to do, but as though we were the ephemera we truly are.  If we were fully rational, perhaps we would, as 20th-century existentialism said we should, see deciding whether or not to commit suicide as the only important choice of our lives.  Life would probably then seem much more gloomy and unhopeful than it now does to most of us.

     But we're not fully rational.  Instead, we live inside cocoons of longing for an afterlife, or we hope for happiness or fulfillment in this life, or we picture life as tragi-comic and write essays on the consolations of atheism.  Viewed rationally, the cosmos we inhabit seems so chaotically ordered, meaninglessly meaningful, emptily full, purposelessly purposeful, and meanly majestic as to reveal no coherence whatsoever.  It is a senseless jumble of mathematically describable patterns, wrapped in impenetrable mystery.  On the other hand, viewed humanly -- that is, irrationally --, it can be whatever we want it to be.  It can be a drama of deific punishment and salvation, or of the rise and fall of civilizations, or of moral and social progress or regress, or of countless other fictions.  Common to all such fictions is some humanly invented notion of community.

     Because human communities evolved from the need to nurture offspring during longer and longer childhoods as brain size increased, they assumed the wide variety of form and content typically resulting from complex evolutionary histories.  Like those of many animals, human families may have been dominated early in the evolutionary process by alpha males and /or females whose parents, siblings, and offspring may have lived with them and helped feed, house, clothes, and defend the clan.  The sexual mores of such clans probably varied from promiscuity to polygamy or monogamy and were sooner or later reinforced by habit, custom, and religious myth.

     All such commuinties were human inventions with the same instinctive goals they had from the start: -- self-presevation and propagation.  Just as all human morality evolved from sensory appendages that enabled primitive organisms to scan and judge, all human community evolved from the gut need of these organisms to prosper and procreate.  And just as human morality reached its apex in devising the rule of law, human community reached its apex in adopting the rule of law.

     I'm consoled by the thought that all human communities, like all human moralities, are at bottom voluntary and optional.  Every adult man and woman on earth is inherently free to choose his or her communal commitments and associates.  Although many are blocked at least in part by the customs, ideologies, tyrannies, or impoverishments into which they are born, not to mention the worldwide legal maze of birth citizenship we're all trapped in, every adult of sound mind has the inherent ability to enter into or refuse relationships with other people.  We can choose to have or not have friends, amuse or not amuse ourselves socially, join or not join whatever groups we want.  And some people, among them the poorest and most tyrannized on earth, break their inherited chains and either escape to other parts of the world or die trying.  Every family squabbles over questions of family obedience and commitment as offspring seek and are forced to leave home.  Children often choose to communalize very differently from their parents and from each other.  A few members of almost every family on earth make communal choices that cut them off from most of their family forever.

     The idea that membership in any community is voluntary for those capable of choice, as most adults are, is to many people disturbing.  For them, the thought that communities have no more authority than they themselves have as individuals is frightening.  Such people want friendships, memberships, or communions that transcend the heartless sowings and reapings of biological process.  They want from communal life assurances that surpass mere survival.  They want their relationships with their fellows to reflect cosmic fairness and a friendliness in the stars.  In seeing the universe as a family nurturing its members, they are projecting an idealized version of themselves onto the natural order.  They are sentimentalizing their own flawed human families -- families flawed not only by natural selection but by the inevitability of death and the possibility of betrayal.

     Family betrayal is common enough.  Fathers or mothers abandon their spouses and children for many reasons.  They may hate their mates and/or children or prefer other sexual partners.  They may be bored with the humdrum or overwhelmed by the burdens of family life.  They may be suicidal and choose to kill themselves.  They may kill their families first and then themselves, depending on their psychosis.

     To me, such hatreds, irresponsibilities, and insanities are tragically unavoidable facts of human life.  Too many human beings come off the biological assembly line with too many flaws for anything else to happen.  They may have inheritied genes that make them bad parents.  They may have been poisoned in the womb by alcohol or drugs or abused as children.  And, of course, they may be vicious by choice or nature.  One needn't have grown up among farm children, and seen how much some of them liked torturing and killing animals for sport, to acknowledge such viciousness --  but it helps.

     Obviously, human imperfection, self-contradiction, and villainy has permeated not just nuclear families but every human community since the human race began.  Anti-communal and anti-social impulses lurk in the viscera of every man, woman, and child on earth.  Although most people repress most of these impulses because of social conditioning or conscious awareness of the advantages of cooperating, many do not.  These anti-socialists spend their time preying on others as best suits them.  They may steal, cheat, bribe, assault, kill singly or serially, assassinate individuals or groups in the Columbine or Islamic manner, and so on.  Their indifference to the misery they cause is not unique to them.  All human beings have the potential to commit or condone such crimes and do so constantly.  In many places throughout the world, crimes against humanity and the rule of law are deliberately ignored by almost everyone but their victims.

     The root of all is the selfishness in our genes.  We can't change or eliminate it except through dying or perhaps some kind of genetic re-engineering in a future dystopia.  Essentially irrational, human egotism relentlessly bends human reason to its will.  If threatened, it rationalizes flight, surrender, betrayal, and countless other forms of self-preservation.  If flattered, it transforms humbug into high-octane judiciousness.  If choosing which communities to join, it picks those which serves its own self-interests best.

     All this consoles me.  By acknowledging how inherently selfish human beings and their communities are, I'm freed from whatever obligations to them my own instinct and reason make me question and, in many cases, reject.  I can feel as I do that American democracy is worth defending to the death yet at the same time find its crudeness, hucksterism, and imbecility appalling.  I can grant the need for chain-of-command discipline in war yet still hate its mindlessness and brutality in general.

     To me, no human organization, commuity, or society is more cosmically meaningful or worthwhile than I myself am, a conclusion that presupposes my own cosmic insignificance and helps me deflate my own delusions of self-grandeur. This cosmic egalitarianism consoles me the way my breathing does.  No one has much of an atmospheric advantage over me.  We all breathe pretty much the same air, without which we'll all die fast.  So too with the sun.  Though indispensable to our survival, it's also capable of vaporizing us all instantly.  In short, no community gains or loses more than each of its members does from nature's implacable even-handedness.

     Despite its drawbacks, adult humanity's freedom to choose how or whether to communalize comforts me in several other ways as well.  In the first place, it de-sacralizes and de-sanctifies human social behavior and subjects it to the wholesome acids of skepticism.  The absurdity of political institutions like the Electoral College may not elude reason forever.  Nor may the insanity of allowing almost any American teenager or adult access to military-style weapons.  The mindless upsizing and stuffing of American houses with credit-bought gadgets, furniture, and gas-guzzlers has waned, thanks to the Great Recession.  Americans may now accept, grudgingly, a less grandiose way of life.  The ability of individual men and women to give up stupid and self-destructive habits like these has always improved the nitty-gritty of the human condition and will always displace whatever "higher" authority it challenges.

     Second, human reason is often extremely truthful despite its bondage to emotion.  One of its best results in this respect has been its exploration and understanding of nature, which has proven invaluable in countless ways.  Human beings can rationalize or deny many things but not gravity.  Falling from the top of a skyscraper is always fatal; water always flows downhill.  Grasping both this kind of quotidian fact and counter-intuitive astonishments like the Big Bang, black holes, and quantum mechanics has certified human intelligence as so reliable an engine of discovery and verification that the myths, superstitions, and pseudo-explanations of earlier ages concerning who, where, and what we are no longer matter.  I'm consoled -- and thrilled -- by humanity's self-impelled comprehension of the natural order.

     One extraordinary community, the community of science, has made this comprehension possible.  To me, the scientific community seems less susceptible to human selfishness and irrationality than any other, however egomaniacal and unreasonable its individual members often are.  This is in part because, collectively, scientists share the fundamental aim of establishing natural truth.  Their basic goal is not to better, worsen, or in any way change their own or other people's lives but rather to understand how nature works.  Like the rest of us, they're mostly driven by emotion in their personal lives.  But their ultimate communal standard of success or failure is unambiguously objective:  can they prove their claims to their peers?  Here non-scientific laymen don't count, lacking both the expertise and, more importantly, the commitment to proof that are the scientist's sine qua non.

     Some find the objectivity of science cold and inhuman.  They reject it, much as they reject atheistic materialism's premise that life ends irreversibly in death, as implying so bleak and comfortless a view of the world that no one with a heart could possibly prefer it to more "humane" worldviews.  To such people, I would say that the truth of the human condition is indeed, from a non-scientific point of view, harsh.  But the scientific point of view avoids philososophizing or moralizing about the human condition and tries instead  simply to determine the facts of nature.  Unconcerned with what human beings hope or want the cosmos to be, it tries to define what the cosmos is.  In this effort, it has succeeded beyond pre-scientific humanity's wildest dreams, giving us astounding insights into past, present, and future cosmic reality.

     Of course, in explaining the once-inexplicable, it has also opened fresh mysteries like the origins of the Big Bang, the physics of black holes, the asymmetries of matter and anti-matter, and so-called dark matter and energy.  The All itself remains as enveloped in mystery as it was when humanity first marvelled at the sun, moon, and stars and wondered how and why they moved.  Consoled by what science has already proved and not proved, I'm confident it's done immeasurably more than any other human community to help me understand who, where, and what I am.

     I take more practical comforts from science as well.  I survived a heart attack fifteen years ago and have since had a rich and active life because open-heart surgery unheard of at the time I was born replaced three of my coronary arteries with healthier ones from elsewhere in my body.  I and all my contemporaries have greatly benefitted from this kind of scientific betterment of life on the planet.  And every such improvement has been the result of communally-organized effort.  Without social, economic, and political cooperation, no scientific discovery could ever have influenced human affairs or happened at all.  Admittedly, scientific "progress" has had many negative results, among them nuclear warfare and global warming.  Yet such results are more attributable to human ambition, greed, self-delusion, and folly -- that is, to human irrationality -- than to science, which I see as by far the most rational community humankind has ever devised.

     I'm also thankful for countless lesser communities that enhance my health and well-being.  Among these are the networks that feed and shelter me, including the mines, farms, and factories that produce what I eat, wear, and inhabit and the outlets where I get it.  The educational communities that helped me read, write, and rithmetize, and later to try to understand the universe, comfort me.  The medical communities that tend me when I'm sick or injured, the financial communities that invest on my behalf, the police and military communities that protect me from crime and foreign aggression, the artistic communities that soothe and divert me: -- these and many other cooperative human ventures have helped me remain improbably happy in the inhuman cosmos where I was born.

     I'm not at all troubled that almost all of these communities (indeed almost all that work best) are money-driven rather than love-driven.  I prefer hard-eyed, professional self-interest to tender-hearted altruism when arranging my own affairs, as I did in joining a well-run assisted-living community at age seventy rather than waiting for my children to bail me out.  I love my children, but in my old age I'd rather be taken care of by people I pay.  To indulge this preference, I've saved sufficient cash, having been orphaned at thirteen and forced pretty much to make my own way, though with the incalculable help of two honest, capable women -- first my wife and then my partner.  As a Depression baby, I've always lived frugally, eschewing all debt after paying cash for my third house when I was forty and having never bought another thing on credit.  In short, money not only makes the world go round but also makes most of its communities work as well as they do.

     Yet if money moves the world, love conquers all.  Self-interest and its daily scramble for self-preservation are no more comforting a fact of human community than the genuine love that binds many people together.  Husbands, wives, children, and many other family relatives, more often than not, sincerely love each other.  Friends often bond for life.  Less intensely, many people love the institutions that school or employ them.  Many love the homes, towns regions, or nations where they live.  At least in countries with a rule of law, most people cooperate more out of trust and affection for others than out of raw fear, insecurity, or selfishness.  Even the probability that all human love is at bottom self-love consoles me because, if true, it proves how potent and instinctive our love of life and the world is.  Though cosmically unrequited, human love is requited by other human beings.


                          CONSOLATION FOUR:   THE WILDERNESS

     We come finally to the two areas of consolation that humanity had no hand in creating but that instead created humanity.  These I call the Wilderness, the subject of this section, and the All, the subject of Consolation Five.

     By "Wilderness" I mean everything that has existed, now exists, and will exist in the cosmos we inhabit.  While we have learned a great deal about our cosmos in recent centuries, we still have a huge amount to learn.  We know, for instance, that it originated some thirteen billion years ago in a cataclysmic burst of energy and then expanded and evolved into the immense debris-field of galaxies that now dot the billions of light-years of space-time it comprises.  Invariable physical laws determine every aspect of this expansion and evolution, from the birth and death of stars to the birth and death of organic life on our planet and perhaps countless others.  Subatomic particles ruled by electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces cause everything to happen, cosmically speaking, from galaxy formation to human daydreaming.

     On the other hand, we don't know how, why, or whence the Big Bang occurred, what dark matter and dark energy are, whether our cosmos will always expand or at some point gravitationally contract, or what kind of physics governs so-called singularities like black holes and the Big Bang itself. On balance, one cosmic fact does seem certain: --  life is wholly the product of natural law and process.

     This comforts me in several ways.  In the first place, simply to be able to appreciate the sheer spectacle of the cosmos is both thrilling and consoling.  Most inorganic objects, among them galaxies, suns, planets, mountains,  and oceans, have no idea what they are or what surrounds them.  Moreover, most organisms are either, like flora or microbes, oblivious of the world or, like fish, birds, and animals, conscious only of their own narrow survival environments.  They lack the brain function to question and think that drives human beings to ponder and appreciate the cosmos as a whole.  Tragic though human existence may be, we're rather well compensated for it by our ability to comprehend and interact with the magnificent panorama around us.

     As science and technology have probed it more and more deeply, the panorama has grown more and more stupendous.  We now know that our sun is one of some four billion stars in our own galaxy, which is about a hundred thousand light-years in diameter.  Measured against our solar system, the galaxy's size requires that light like that from our sun, which takes eight minutes to reach earth, will have to make seven million consecutive eight-minute journeys in order to cross the galaxy.  After an hour of travel, the light will have gone less than a billion and a half miles, or one eight-hundred-and-seventy-six millionth of the distance.  After a year, it will have gone one one-hundred-thousandth of the distance, which means that if it began its journey from one side of the galaxy at about the time Neanderthal Man succumbed to Homo Sapiens, it will reach the other side some fifty thousand years hence.

     Yet the vastness of our galaxy, with its innumerable stars (and, as seems increasingly likely, planets) separated by thousands of light-years of space, seems miniscule in terms of the cosmos as a whole.  Millions of galaxies and galaxy clusters have already been catalogued, most spiral-shaped like our Milky Way, fewer globe-shaped.  Save for a five-mile-thick film of atmosphere around our planet, none of these galactic or stellar systems may be capable of producing or sustaining human life.  Outside earth's envelope of air, a human body explodes in the vacuum of space like a popped balloon.  Out there, it's too cold and radiationally toxic for a human being without shielding to survive more than seconds.

     Yet this immense, inhuman flux of billions of galaxies aimlessly circling and colliding, and probably chained by gravity to immensely powerful black holes, consists of the same handful of atomic elements that comprise every living thing on earth.  Like all these galaxies, we human beings are entirely the offspring to the Big Bang.  All our molecules are combinations of atoms that began forming a million years after the Big Bang, when radiation had cooled enough for simgle protons and neutrons to fuse into atoms of hydrogen and so start the process that ultimately produced the hundred-odd elements of the Periodic Table.  The sense of kinship with the cosmos that this fact gives me is the second great comfort I find in being wholly a product of natural law and process.  Far from alienated or estranged from me, the cosmic wilderness is my primal parent.

     Yet I know that my kinship with it is hopelessly one-sided.  I can admire and love it all I want, but it will never admire or love me back.  Except (maybe) on other planets like ours, it lacks the capacity to think and feel that makes us human.  Though sensitive, high-reasoning beings like us may have evolved elsewhere in the cosmos, they have done so as accidentally as we and enjoy no more of an emotional or intellectual bond with the inorganic stuff of their planets and solar systems than we do with ours.  At bottom, the cosmos is an unfeeling, unthinking maelstrom of motion and matter whose metacosmic origins we don't understand and whose effects we suffer in the mortal cycle of  our human existence.  In other words, to be human is to be an inessential byproduct of an essentially inhuman reality.

     But this fact implies not only the consolations I've already mentioned but a further balm as well.  Far from the bleak and demeaning insult many seem to see it as, the emergence of humanity from inorganic matter is a truth proven by countless empirical facts, which to deny, as all but the incorrigible grant, is intellectually indefensible.  No one, of course, is born knowing the following facts:  electromagnetic force is always inversely proportional to the square of the distance between two charged particles;  the gravitational force is always inversely proportional to the square of the distance between two massive bodies;  the strong nuclear force always binds the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of an atom until the number of protons approaches a hundred, in which case the electromagnetism of the electrons paired with each proton overwhelms the nuclear force, making large atoms unstable.  Facts like these were teased from the wilderness by centuries of scientific observation and experiment.

     On the other hand, everyone knows from daily life that lightning, disease, flood, earthquake, tsunami, and countless other natural events can kill and that, once dead, plants and animals do not revive.  Moreover, all moderately informed people understand that the laws of nature randomly interact to produce natural events, and they regard facts like the formation of our earth from aggregating planetessimals and the planet's subsequent wobbly, axial spin as no less accidental than the shape of clouds in the sky.  You don't need advanced degrees in physics to gain such knowledge.  All you need are reliable senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste and enough time living to accumulate a modicum of adult information.

     In other words, a counter-intuitive comprehension of quantum mechanics and a commonsense comprehension of gravity's pull on water are both capable of appreciating not only the splendor but the indifference of the cosmos.  Both types of understanding reveal what reality is.  Both seek to know what really exists outside the perceiver, no matter how painful or unpleasant it may be, and both see proven truth as incomparably valuable.  Establishing such truth is for those who crave it the greatest satisfaction and consolation they'll ever know.  I say this not to tout philosophical veridicality but in response to my own gut hunger to know what is.  Even as the wilderness stabs me with its indifference, it soothes me by being so reliably, undeniably, and gigantically there.

     To this point, the wilderness consolations I've described have been pretty much cerebral.  I know intellectually, that is, that the cosmic wilderness lies out there beyond the atmosphere, but I can see and feel the sun only by day and see the moon and nearby stars only on clear nights.  But the wilderness of the earth itself has been viscerally known to me my whole life.  I grew up in the Vermont backwoods on a farm ringed with hills and linked to the nearest stores by fourteen miles of dirt road.  A hundred feet behind our farmhouse lay a thirty-acre stand of hemlock that I spent hours as a boy exploring, along with the hundreds of acres of wood and hills beyond it.

     The solitude of uninhabited woods, mountains, and deserts has calmed and soothed me ever since.  I love to be alone outdoors, far from human contact, where I always have the contradictory feelings of kinship with and alienation from the wilderness that dominate my worldview.  Every rock and plant is my brother and sister, yet none knows or cares about me at all.  Wild animals avoid me like death, though some would like to kill and eat me.  In short, I deeply love the wilderness, but it never reciprocates.  To be alone anywhere on the earth's surface symbolizes who, what, and where I truly am in the cosmos as a whole and puts in clear perspective my own and all human affairs.  But solitude doesn't require large areas of uninhabited land.  It can be found in cities or wherever else people live.  An hour alone watching trees swaying in wind, clouds passing overhead, or bees working flowers can generate a sense of wilderness peace and quiet in me anywhere.

     I've lived much of my life outdoors.  As a teenager I canoed the Connecticut River, hiked the Green and White Mountains, skiied much of New England, worked one summer at a gold mine in the Alaska wilderness, and often drove back and forth across the continent, usually camping in the wild.  The climax of my camping career came in the early 1970s, when my family and I spent much of my year in Germany as a Fulbright professor camping throughout Europe.

     After that, I did the wilderness more from beds than sleeping bags.  This phase climaxed in the mid-1990s, when I bought a cabin in the Tahoe National Forest with backdoor access to the high Sierras.  These I began exploring by trail and bushwhack and in fall 1995, after arranging a teaching exchange at University of Nevada-Reno in order to live full time at the cabin, started some serious wilderness probes.  One of my goals was Devil's Peak, a granite dome fifteen miles west of Lake Tahoe and 2,000 feet above the Rubicon Valley and the Desolation Wilderness.

     I was determined to reach Devil's Peak, climb it, and see what the Desolation Wilderness beyond it to the west looked like.  After weeks of approaching the Rubicon Valley from gravel logging roads, I finally found the only route to the base of Devil's Peak not blocked by cliffs or gorges.  After working my Geo Tracker a half mile down an abandoned logging trail, I bushwhacked through a quarter-mile of Douglass fir forest to descending glacial granite fields sprinkled with firs, lakes, and manzanita brush, at the bottom of which meandered the Rubicon River.  A raging torrent in spring, the Rubicon now trickled brook-like through fields of smooth granite, groves of pine and fir, and ponds linked by waterfalls and rock-walled channels.  One of these ponds lay directly below Devil's Peak.  A half-acre of icewater bordered by firs, it's the most beautiful wilderness campsite I've ever found, though I've never actually camped there.  To honor it, I named it Matter Pond.

     By late November I was ready for my assault on Devil's Peak.  Underway before dawn from the cabin, I reached the end of the logging road by sunrise and Matter Pond by nine.  The first part of the climb up Devil's Peak was brush-clogged and steep, but gradually the slope of the polished granite flattened and groves of Douglass fir, looking from afar like miniature Christmas trees, towered past overhead.  When the granite underfoot levelled, I knew I'd reached the summit.  But I could see only open sky through a final fringe of fir branches.

     Then the earth vanished.  I was standing fifty feet from the edge of a thousand-foot cliff that fell straight down beneath my feet to a stunning vista of lakes, firs, and glacial granite undulating westward as far as the eye could see.  This was the Desolation Wilderness, in which by law no human structure can ever again be built.  I stared and stared.  Finally I roused myself, knowing I had to reach the Tracker by dark.  Finding a secure perch on the edge of the cliff, I ate lunch and lit a celebratory cigar.  It didn't taste right, so I threw it off the cliff and headed back to Matter Pond.

     By two o'clock I reached the pond.  Fishing an apple out of my backpack as extra fuel for the three-mile bushwhack up to the Tracker, I paused to urinate in a grove of firs next to the pond.  Simultaneously urinating and biting into the apple, I went faint.  I caught myself from falling only by slumping down onto my left knee.  The faintness stopped, but my body was shaking.  I stood up and took a step, heart pounding.  Eying the first part of the climb ahead, a quarter-mile of steep granite, I thought to myself, I'll never make it.

     With that, all the charm of the landscape disappeared, replaced by the bitterest moment of wilderness alienation I've ever known.  That grey, smooth rock, moments ago so picturesque, now bulged and glittered with menace.  It was going to grind me to pieces, as it had itself been ground smooth by millions of tons of ice.  I would die here alone, and nothing and no one would know or care.

     Then just as quickly my will to live took over.  Lifting one foot and putting it down in front of the other every two or three seconds and trying not to think about where I was or had to go, I found I could make slow, steady progress.  Every four or five steps I stopped to catch my breath.  I never sat down, afraid of not being able to get back up.

     That first quarter-mile was the worst.  When it was over, I rested a long time, looking down at Matter Pond and up at Devil's Peak, marvelling at how lucky I was to have survived, alone in the wilderness, whatever physical breakdown I'd just had.  I felt strong enough to negotiate a couple of steep ravines, then increased my speed slightly for the last two miles.  I reached the Tracker just before dark.

     To say I was glad would be the understatement of my life.  I was euphoric.  An oddly comforting thought kept occurring to me:  if I had died down there, I couldn't have found a better place to do it.  The Desolation Wilderness I'd just seen had already become my prime image and symbol of cosmic wilderness as a whole.  By dying there, I would have rejoined the magnificent desolation of the natural order that created me, in one of the most beautiful wilderness areas on earth.

     When in subsequent days I learned I'd had a heart attack at Matter Pond because three of my coronary arteries were blocked and needed bypass surgery, I asked my children to scatter my ashes there after I do die.  Irrational, of course: --  Democritus' request to leave his body out for birds to eat as repayment for the pleasure they'd always given him made far more sense.  But I have followed Democritus to an extent by letting organ harvesters, medical students, and scientists carve me up, cremate me, and return me to my kids.  Knowing that the only existence I'll then have will be scattered at Matter Pond is the final consolation I take from the wilderness.


                                    CONSOLATION FIVE:   THE ALL

     The word "all" denotes comprehensiveness, totality, inclusion.  Materialist philosophers have traditionally used it to describe everything that exists, which in their eyes includes everything, period.  Since the teaching of Parmenides in 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E., materialists have rejected the notion of non-existence, nothingness, or non-being, arguing that all reality, including human percipience, ultimately consists of some kind of primordial stuff.

     What the stuff may be has been guesstimated more and more cunningly in recent centuries.  Epicurus in the 4th and 3rd centuries and Lucretius in the 1st century B.C.E. theorized it consisted of atoms of irreducible matter colliding randomly in what they called Void.  It took humanity twenty centuries to improve their concept appreciably.  Einstein sed the way with relativity theory and its mass-energy equivalencies and transformations, followed by the quantum theorists, whose predictions concerning the behavior of sub-atomic particles have proven to be the most accurate in the history of science.

     These predictions underlie Big Bang theory and the process of symmetry-breaking it postulates.  During the initial instant of the Big Bang, known as the Planck Era and lasting 10 to the minus-forty-third of a second, all the components of the impending cosmos were symmetrical.  Matter did not yet exist as a separate entity, nor did space or time.  Gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces were indistinguishable during an instant of infinitely hot, featureless radiation.  Then in quick succession the cooling of the Bang to a billion billion degrees broke the symmetry between gravity and the rest of the burgeoning fireball, then between the strong nuclear force and weak-nuclear electromagnetism, and finally between the weak nuclear force and electromagnetism.  The process lasted a billionth of a second and caused Higgs bosons to break their symmetry with the electroweak field, chrystallize into the so-called Higgs field somewhat like water freezing, and become the foundation of all cosmic mass.

     Obviously, cosmic mass is not at bottom hard matter but some kind of stuff compatible with the infinite heat and energy of the Planck Era and the unimaginable conditions that preceded it.  These conditions must have contained the mechanisms of the symmetry-breaking triggered by the Planck Era.  Further, they point backwards from the Big Bang to an even more unfathomable chain of consecution, interdependence, and interconnectedness unifying them ultimately, I believe, with the All.

     I extrapolate this ultimate consecution, interdependence, and interconnectedness from my experience with the Big Bang cosmos we inhabit.  Neither I nor anyone else has direct knowledge of the All itself.  We can only infer it from the empirical facts of physical nature, unless of course we believe it can be divinely revealed to us by books, angels, visions, and the like.  Since I regard all such revelations as products of human fraud or self-delusion, I find them unhelpful for serious metacosmic speculation, much preferring my own atheistic-agnostic principle, first, that no one has direct access to absolute knowledge and, second, that everyone must base their speculations about ultimate reality entirely on the empirical evidence of our own cosmos.  When we extrapolate and speculate as I'm about to, we must always grant that we cannot absolutely know whether what we're saying is true.  We can only guess in drections wrranted by the proven facts of the natural order we experience every day of our lives.

     I start, then, with the proposition that our humanness -- our capacity to feel, think, and know -- is a chance byproduct of the space-time asymmetries caused by the Big Bang.  Scientific evidence has proven that everything we're made of, to the last electron, proton, and neutron, came from that primal event, which means in turn that all our sentience and percipience came from the physics, chemistry, and biology of cosmic evolution.

     My next proposition is that, since we know that none of the elements in Periodic Table comprising every galaxy, star, and planet in the cosmos can think or feel, it's extremely probable that whatever precipitated the Big Bang can't think or feel either.  Extrapolating from the cosmos to the All, that is, I infer from the fundamental non-humanness of the natural order here an equally fundamental non-humanness throughout the All.  The All's possible infinities and non-dimensionalities are surely no more human at the core than our own crazy patchwork of natural laws.  Obviously, the All has the potential to produce conscious human life, because it's done so here.  The All contains this and every other potential, though why it does and how and why such potentials are realized is now, and may forever remain, a mystery to humankind. 

     Even more mysterious are the hows and whys of the All itself.  It seems to have no beginning or end.  Since its essence is probably absolute material Being, nothing can exist apart from it.  Mathematical theorists have speculated that its basic component, at least in our cosmos, is a one-dimensional string of primordial energy that can either remain open or loop shut and whose vibrations determine all our micro- and macrophysical structures.  Such strings may have chrystallized from whatever caused the Big Bang, as Higgs bosons chrystallized during the post-Planck cooldown.

     Or the strings may have been the basic ingredients of an infinitessimally tiny singularity of ten, eleven, twenty-six, or more dimensions from which the Big Bang itself burst.  Or they may  be key components of a metacosmic force field that generates countless virtual cosmoses, somewhat as electromagnetic fields have been theorized as generating virtual photons that become real photons when light waves propagate.  If so, our cosmos may be one of countless parallel cosmoses caused by multidimensional "branes."  Or strings may be the fundamental stuff of the All itself.  Or string theory may be wrong.  Some other stuff (loop quantum gravity?) may unify everything.  In any case, sentience and percipience seem no more fundamental to the All than to our own natural order.  Cognition is probably accidental wherever it happens, if indeed it does happen elsewhere.

     Assuming, then, that the All may be somehow materially analogous to or cognate with our cosmos, it might consist of many one- or multidimensional energy fields capable of causing four-dimensional cosmoses like ours and likewise dominated by gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.  The Big Bangs that produce these cosmoses might obey the laws of symmetry-breaking that forged ours and produce analogous space-time cosmic wildernesses filled with innumerable stars and galaxies.  But because the physical laws of our cosmos are only implicit in whatever precipitated our Big Bang, they are not, I think, likely to govern the All itself.  On the other hand, if the supposedly infinite heat and radiation of our Planck Era was in truth infinite, it might well have contained something of the All's fundamental stuff.  Our atoms might have a touch of the infinite in them too.  Everything human in us -- for example, our thoughts and feelings -- would thus be inessential offshoots of these All-tinged atoms.

     If time, space, gravity, matter, thought, feeling, and the rest of our cosmos aren't essential to the All, what then is?  The All's essence is almost certainly not the predictable and measurable physical lawfulness we know.  It's far more likely to be some kind of unlimited power capable of realizing itself as anything but non-existence or non-materiality.  It's probably as random as quantum uncertainty yet not bound by our laws of quantum mechanics.  It seems to have no self-awareness.  It may be some kind of infinitely self-regenerating force-field.  It will almost surely remain closed to human understanding forever: -- no human being can visualize or intuit what one-dimensional existence is like or make sense even of the Planck Era.  Infinity, eternity, non-dimensionality, and even cosmic planlessness are all radically non-human possibilities.

     While the All probably initiates everything, it seems to predetermine nothing.  Predetermination implies either mechanical necessity or conscious design.  Neither seems to characterize the All.  Though patterned enough to have resulted in the natural laws of our cosmos, the All appears to be, like quantum reality, fundamentally unpredictable.  It may of course, in expressing itself, average out, like quantum mechanics, to an orderliness and stability that counteracts the disorder and instability of its basic stuff, like the actuarial tables used by insurance companies to price their premiums.  That is, the All may generate a statistical coherence that its essence, like the individual deaths comprising an actuarial table, does not reflect.  At bottom, the All does not seem to plan.

     To most religionists, the idea that a limitless, material, insentient, and nonanthropomorphic All accidentally jumbled human life in our cosmos into existence seems not only demeaning but downright wrong-headed and wrong-hearted.  How, they ask, could any right-minded, right-feeling human being find solace or comfort in such an inhuman worldview?  As always, I'll try in answering not to proselytize for atheistic materialism but simply to explain how and why it consoles me personally.

     In the first place, the All's indifference, like that of the cosmic wilderness, is strong evidence that death will bring me absolute peace and quiet.  I will no longer be so oddly out of step with nature as I now am.  Sleeping a deeper sleep than before I was born, I'll be fully in tune with the rest of cosmic matter, hustled and bustled about without a care in the world.  Conflict, dissatisfaction, ambition, hope, fear, pleasure, pain, and all other human sensations will never trouble me again.  I won't miss the good times I had when I was alive, because I won't remember them.  Consisting of nothing but the material parts that comprised me, I'll float in blissful ignorance into whatever existence awaits me, wherever in the All it may be.  Confident my consciousness won't survive my death, I anticipate the shutdown and stoppage of all my bodily functions, followed by a sleep as profound as that of the twinkling stars.  What could be better than rejoining those stars in perfect rest? 

     Furthermore, my death will preclude any weirdness, uncertainty, or horror of survival into some sort of postdeath state of consciousness.  I'm as sure as the evidence I most trust can make me that I'll never by a ghost, zombie, or bodiless spirit in some heaven-hell-limbo afterlife.  I won't wake up from the cessation of all my bodily functions in an inconceivably strange, yet somehow recognizable, supernatural state of being.  The idea that human beings, given all we know about their life-cycle evolution from simple cells to sentient mammals, could suddenly awake from death in an utterly foreign realm of personalized existence has struck me since childhood as repugnant.  I'll never suffer the grotesquely comic muddle of the Poe character who, asked just after he dies how he's feeling, answers bewilderedly, "I - I think I am dead."

     I will, however, continue to exist in non-human form.  The material building-blocks of my human life -- the strings, loop quantum gravity, or whatever else may connect my molecules with the All -- will outlast my death.  This primal stuff is probably as insentient as the electrons balancing the protons of my atoms, which probably have some unknown link to primal matter.  What will persist after I die will not be my humanity but the material bits and peices it was made of.  And those bits and pieces may be, despite the countless permutations, symmetry-breakings, and transformations that may have taken place in the great chain of material being stretching from me to the All, true sparks of the All itself.  If so, I look forward to a natural immortality more cheering, heartening, and reassuring to me than any so-called  supernatural immortality could ever be.

     My material remains, which are all there will be, will embody the All's basic stuff -- its absolute, material Being -- at least as well as I myself now do.  They'll be no less infinite and eternal than I myself now am.  Again, I have no idea what this basic stuff is or how it links me to the All.  The symmetry-breaking that cooled the heat and energy of the Planck Era from immeasurable to measurable levels suggests analogous leaps from indefinable cause to definable effect throughout the All.  That is, metacosmic natural events may be constantly occurring that are random in origin but orderly in result.  How or why this should be is no more understandable to me than quantum unpredictability is to the scientists taking the collective predictability of quantum mechanics for granted in all their work.  Nature is impenetrably mysterious to us all.

     I make personal sense of this possibly ultimate contradiction between order and disorder by assuming that the All is essentially chaotic -- an infinite, non-spatial flux of absolute Being which nonetheless somehow exudes countless kinds of more orderly, subsidiary being.  The All is probably at its core nonrational, unpredictable, lawless.  It is absolute potential without plan or purpose.  Stabilizing and organizing it is its constant, inexplicable extrusion of its own absolute Being into contingent being.  In so expressing itself, it somehow counterbalances its chaotic shapelessness against the infinitely various orderlinesses of the contingent being it becomes, as it did, for instance, in throwing off the mass and energy of our cosmos.  The result may be a universal parity or balance between the All's infinite, creative Being on the one hand and its self-realization in finite, created being on the other.

     The natural parities and balances we've discovered in our own cosmos suggest some such asymmetry at the heart of everything.  Positive and negative charge as well as opposites like matter and anti-matter  point to such a conclusion.  Although entropy in our cosmos always degrades energy irreversibly, the All is probably not subject to entropic law.  The absolute Being it transforms into subsidiary being may somehow return to it unreduced.  It may, in other words, recycle itself in accord with our thermodynamic law of energy conservation without suffering any entropic loss in the process.  But how or why the All exists and transforms its disorderly being, if it in fact does, into more orderly being, which then it may somehow recapture, are questions beyond my and everyone else's pay grade.  All I can do is speculate, from inferences based on the best science I know, that I'm linked to the All in some ineluctably material way.

     Science has proven to me beyond the shadow of a doubt that the cosmos I inhabit is an incomprehensible battleground between order and disorder.  A few invariant natural laws spewed out in the Big Bang have since randomly collided in space and time to form billions of galaxies.  These galaxies are littered with black holes and infernos of nuclear fusion called stars, which under certain conditions will simultaneously implode into neutron stars and explode into supernovae.  On our obscure little planet, all this aimless, inhuman violence has fortuitously boxed itself into an unlikely corner from which human life has chanced to evolve.  Yet after the sun burns its way through all its fusionable elements, human life on earth will end.  I find it reasonable to infer from these incomprehensible rigidities and accidents in our own cosmos that order and disorder just as blindly oppose -- and complement -- each other everywhere.

     The glue between me and the All may be, as mentioned, some primal, elemental, non-dimensional kind of absolute substance -- some sort of ultimate building-block.  I think that my material existence, which is the only kind of existence I now have as an animal or will have as inorganic matter, is directly or indirectly derived from and connected to the All.  Some primal, elemental thing in me, I think, echoes the All's absolute Being.  It may be a non- or multidimensional, infinitely expandable or contractable stuff found in every kind of existence.  It may have gone through countless transformations and permutations on its way from the All to me, though I feel I'm as significant a part of the All as anything ever has been or will be.  Whatever else this spark of being in me is, I genuinely believe it confirms my Big Bang ancestry, my close kinship to the All, and my material immortality.

     Wait a minute.  How can I "genuinely believe" in an infinitely material, non-human All of absolute Being?  I've said repeatedly that no one can know for sure whether belief in any ultimate reality is tenable.  I've argued that we can infer from cosmic evidence no more than an inkling of possible extra-cosmic realities.  I've dismissed all claims of supernatural revelation as fabrications, useful only as evidence of fraud or mental aberration.  The atheistic agnosticism of my whole approach to the All suggests I shouldn't be able to "genuinely believe" in anything metacosmic no matter how much I want to.  If I can't know whether an All exists, how can I "genuinely believe" in it?

     The answer lies in correcting the misleading way "agnostic" has come to be used in informal philosophical parlance.  Nowadays, being "agnostic" means being unable and unwilling to conclude anything about metacosmic reality because of insufficient information.  While theists credit divine revelation, natural theology, or personal feeling as grounds for religious belief, and atheists credit scientific fact or sense experience as grounds for religious disbelief, self-styled agnostics credit neither theism nor atheism with enough informational muscle to justify any metacosmic conviction whatsoever.  Typically they'll say they can't know whether or not one or many gods exist or even what a god is.  Lack of data prevents them, they insist, from even guessing, much less concluding, anything along such lines.  They say their ability to explore the unknowns of their own existence is utterly paralyzed by want of proveables.

     How or why such a misleading use of the word "agnostic" made its way into philosophical jargon isn't important, though 19th-century conflicts between religion and science and 20th-century relativism doubtless helped.  What is important is that my use of "agnostic" be clearly understood.  To me, the word denotes a hard fact of human existence.  From moment to moment, one never knows in this cosmos absolutely or for sure what will happen next, as Boethius says in the quotation prefacing the Prologue.  Stroke, lightning, or falling orbital debris may kill you, as may earthquakes, tornadoes, or tsunamis.  You may find a bagful of money or have your identity stolen.  Everything in our space-time is unknowable in advance, including tonight's skyful of stars or tomorrow's sunrise.  In effect, we're all "agnostic" every moment of our lives.

     Yet all of us constantly come to and act on genuine beliefs about everything we experience existentially.  We infer or extrapolate from what's already happened to us genuine beliefs about countless things we assume will happen to us.  Among the most genuine is that when darkness falls this evening the stars will reappear as they have since sentient earthlings first noticed them on clear nights.  Equally likely is that the sun will rise tomorrow morning.  Though there's no absolute certainty these events will occur, the likelihood of their occurring is based on millions of years of observation, which now includes detection of the tiniest deviations in celestial patterns.  In other words, we genuinely believe the planet and the solar system will continue their customary movements despite our agnostic awareness they might not.

     Getting killed by stroke seems more likely than being hit by lightning, both of which seem more likely than dying from falling orbital debris.  The chances of getting caught in an earthquake, tornado, or tsunami depend to some extent on how much time you spend in areas where such things regularly happen.  Finding a bag of money depends more on pure luck, like space debris, while having your identity stolen depends more on how carefully you guard your personal information.  Calculating all such odds always involves my kind of  agnosticism.  Your belief in whether or not such events will happen to you is based entirely on inferences and extrapolations you've drawn from when, where, how often, and to whom these kinds of events have already happened: -- in a word, on deducing the unknown from the known , which is precisely what I've done in concluding that atheism is the worldview most justified by the  available evidence.

     The major choices most of us make in life are based on very imperfect information.  When we decide what college to attend, most of us have only the sketchiest notion of what we'll find.  When we choose a vocation or career, most of us are driving at night with our headlights off.  When we pick a spouse, hope usually overwhelms proven data hands down.  For these and most other life-changing decisions, we often have no clear -- much less sure or absolute -- knowledge of what we're getting into.  Yet we're typically able to generate a genuine belief that what we're about to do is right and will succeed.  The fact that as often as not it is right and does succeed is proof of how well my  kind of agnosticism works in daily life.  It works just as well, I submit, beyond daily life and the boundaries of our cosmos.  If my existential, atheistic agnosticism can lead to genuine belief here on the planet's surface, it can also lead to genuine belief about what lies beyond the farthest stars.  This is a major consolation I've found in reaching for the All.