The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

June 6, 2010

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Incredibly Improbable and Wondrous Occurrence of Life

The miracle of life.  We understand the mechanisms of life—cellular structure, DNA, RNA, metabolism, reproduction—and we are pretty confident that all life on Earth (as we know it) evolved from the same single-celled organism existing at least 3.5 billion years ago.  (That there may be other simple forms of life on Earth not yet detected because we don’t know what to look for is an open question.  See Paul Davies, “The Aliens Among Us,” NYTimes, 5/13/10,  But, despite all the recent press about the “invention of artificial life,” we have not yet fabricated life anew, nor stimulated the spontaneous occurrence of life.  (For a discussion of the state of “synthetic” or “artificial” life, see Natalie Angier, “Peering Over the Fortress That Is the Mighty Cell,” NYTimes, 5/31/10,; Olivia Judson, “Baby Steps to New Life-Forms,” NYTimes, 5/27/10,

We are pretty certain the Universe itself was created in the Big Bang (you can see evidence of it in the portion of snow cosmic background radiation creates on an open television channel) but not so certain how life first emerged.  Since we have not yet succeeded in recreating life, and life itself has not generated anew on Earth, some scientists posit that the living seed of Earth’s magnificent life tree actually originated elsewhere.  Panspermia.  In this strong form, the panspermia theory begs rather than answers the question of how life, as opposed to life on Earth, began.

The advances of modern science have not left too many places for God to dwell, so it is natural that theists look for God in this knowledge gap about the creation of life.  Not being of a believing bent myself, I see an unanswered question, and I draw lessons from what we do know about life, not what we don’t.

The first thing we know is that the occurrence of life is rare.  In the 4.6 billion years of Earth’s existence it has happened once (putting aside the possibility of simple forms of “aliens” among us).  And whatever other life may be out there in the Universe, other complex, intelligent beings are likely very distant from us, perhaps unbridgeably so.

We also know that every living thing on Earth is a descendant of that single, initial organism and its wondrous “life spark.”  The notion that we are all interconnected is not New Age nonsense, but scientific fact.  Some scoff at the idea that humans evolved from apes, never mind that all land animals evolved from fish.  Reality is that all animals, including fish, evolved from plants.  Before any animal came into being, Earth was the dominion of plants, which in fact are the source of the air animals breathe.*  Each of us, each living thing, is a torch bearer in an at least 3.5 billion-year-long relay carrying an inherited flame tracing back to the germinal ember of the original living cell.

And while not all life thinks or feels, all life perceives and strives—toward energy sources and away from obstacles.  On this most basic level, we can relate to even the most rudimentary forms of life.

Because our planet is especially suited to life (due in part to its particular distance from and stable orbit around the Sun and its low mass, rapid rotation and moderate axial tilt), the striving spark of life has manifested itself over the eons in a truly astonishing diversity of evermore complex forms.

Every one of these multifarious lives will die.  Entropy (the second law of thermodynamics) pretty much dictates it.

So, life as we know it is rare, diverse, finite, and literally shares in the same striving spark.

Living creation is a wonder to know and behold, even if one does not believe God into the gap.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson

Other References

Fred Adams, Origins of Existence: How Life Emerged in the Universe, The Free Press (2002) (

Cynthia Stokes Brown, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present, The New Press (2007) (

Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, Houghton Mifflin (2004) (

Giancarlo Genta, Lonely Minds in the Universe: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Copernicus Books (2007) (  

*And see Chad Upton, “The Three Plants You Should Have Inside Your Home,” at, for tips on using plants to provide clean air in your home.


1 Comment »

  1. Very elucidating! I love the image of the spark of life being handed up to the next level of life all along the millenia. I must state, however, that for me (a “believer”), I count the “spark of life” as the essence of God. But, I do enjoy a vigorous debate, and Anne makes a well-supported argument that communicates her reverence for the wonder of life, which is clearly a sentiment shared by believers and atheists alike. We are not really that different, after all.

    Comment by Sheryl Traum — June 6, 2010 @ 10:31 am | Reply

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