The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

July 4, 2010

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: The Astounding Advance of Knowledge

Modern humans came into existence between 130,000 to 250,000 years ago.  Only five thousand or so years ago, we were just discovering how to write.  Today, we can see to the edge of the visible universe—some 13 billion light-years.*    So in this most recent fraction of our existence, our knowledge has expanded exponentially.  The acquisition of our wide-ranging knowledge has been hard-earned—an incremental, uneven process of persistent, collective effort.  In the developed world, we are daily steeped in the products of our knowledge, and for the most part, we are not taught and do not think much about the history of our knowledge.  We tend to take our present ever-advancing state of knowledge for granted.  We should not.

After all my years of formal education were done, one afternoon in a used bookstore, I chanced upon a book I remembered from my mother’s bookshelf of my childhood—Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself.  Its placement of knowledge itself in an historical context literally changed the way I saw the world.  The study of our acquisition of knowledge is a fascinating and valuable endeavor, helping us understand how it is we have come to know so much.      

During the course of our existence, our brains evolved powerful intuitive ways of relating to the world.  But in the last five thousand years, the hallmark of our species has been the gradual cultural retraining of our cognitive capacity toward investigated and tested knowledge, rather than intuition or belief.**  This mass retooling of our native cognitive bent toward a scientific and rationalist worldview is at the heart of our culture wars.  It has occurred because science and reason produce results—better infrastructure, longer life-spans, entertaining gadgets.  Barring catastrophe, the scientific, rationalist approach will continue its expansion and dominance over non-rationalist gestalts.

But, not to get apocalyptic, catastrophe cannot be ruled out—in part due to knowledge’s advance.  At the moment, our inventiveness seems to be outstripping our ability to foresee and mitigate its destructive consequences in several domains, such as our energy and weapons technologies. And we have good reason for concern that the same could prove true for our nascent genetic technologies.*** 

Although religious fundamentalists of all stripes partake in the benefits of our scientific advances, they are at war against knowledge.  They deny what science has taught us about human nature and the construction of human cultures and want to turn back the growing global recognition of human rights.  In the United States, they want to destroy secular, public education.  Many of them are also global climate change deniers who reject what science tells us about the consequences of carbon-based energy.  Shockingly, a self-righteous select fervently advocate an apocalyptic future.

That knowledge has a downside is unquestionable.  The solution is not to retreat from its power but to understand and respect it and to consciously and constructively harness and redirect it.  While secularization is directly opposed to religious fundamentalism, it bears no conflict at all with an inspired embrace of positive values.  We must guide scientific inquiry and the advance of knowledge with the best human values—compassion, moderation, humility.  

*The consensus among historians is that writing arose for the first time around 3,500-3,000 B.C. in the Near East.  (J.M. Roberts, A Short History of the World, Oxford University Press (1993), pp. 35, 42-34; Cynthia Stokes Brown, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present, The New Press (2007), pp. 95-97.) Regarding the remarkable range of modern telescopes, see Nova’s fantastic program, “Hunting the Edge of Space, Part 1” at

** Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, The Belknap Press of Harvard University (2007) provides an in-depth treatment of the historical transformation to a fundamentally secular worldview.

***One could also voice concern about potential unintended consequences of artificial intelligence and cyborg technologies.  As long as these technologies are not self-replicating, my personal judgment is that they pose fewer concerns.

copyright 2010 S. Anne Johnson


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