For those who believe in a god, the world must seem to be a wonderful evocation of his mind and will. From the golden dawn to the setting scarlet sun; from the blue teaming oceans to the sparkling canopy of stars; from the majesty of the rain-forest to the rainbow over the waterfall — these are all taken as ample evidence of their god’s artistry.

For those of who us who have no such belief, let me assure you the world is just as colourful and just as dazzling, and perhaps even more wondrous. We see a universe fashioned by the forces of nature rather than the hand of a deity, and humanity as the smallest speck in it all. We strive to understand the workings of this remarkable machine called the Earth and this fragile thing we call life.   And, perhaps, most importantly of all, we recognise that this world and this life are our greatest treasures, for there are no others.

I was recently pitied by a friend for my ‘atheism’. A word, I must admit I detest, as I do not see why I should be defined by something I don’t believe in. There are many things I don’t believe in or subscribe to, like ghosts and day-time television, but I’m not sure that’s how I should be described. “If I didn’t believe in God,” he went on, “I would just do what I liked. I mean, how does anyone who has no god in their life behave morally?” I think the question was genuine, as was the arrant stupidity of the sentiment. The idea that morality has anything to do with religious belief is surely put to rest after even a cursory viewing of the evening news. Now, as in the past, men and women have used their belief in one god or another to justify the most despicable of acts imaginable. Abuse, torture, enslavement, mutilation and murder are all carried out by those doing their particular god’s will. No, belief is not a prerequisite for decency, nor is it a necessity for caring about other people, other animals or the planet we call home itself.

The soaring complexity of creation — and yes I do believe it was created, just not by a god — leave me, just like everyone else, in awe. My way into and through this feeling has been science. The artist may attempt to replicate the wonder of it all, even to harness it, but it is the scientist that seeks an explanation. Through our observations we find patterns and by the careful joining of the dots we craft meaningful pictures that help us understand what we are seeing, hearing, feeling. However, the process of finding out how and why does not destroy the wonder; it is still there and perhaps even increased by the business of discovery.

And those observations can lead us to unexpected conclusions. As the evidence piles up we are forced to accept the possibility, however unpalatable, that we are not the centre of the universe, or even the solar system. We are compelled to accept that we are one species amongst many on this rather average small, blue planet and that the level of our insignificance in the universal scheme of things is simply unfathomable to our finite minds. But while science reveals our limitations, it simultaneously offers us a view of a further horizon, a more distant shore.

When the biologist JBS Haldane was asked what the study of the works of creation could teach us about the mind of the Creator, he pondered and replied that He must have “an inordinate fondness for beetles”. I rather like the idea of a god tirelessly trying out new designs, until quite suddenly he finds himself overrun by prototypes and embarrassed by the time he has spent at the workbench. Indeed, there are more than 350,000 species of beetle; that’s around one in five of all species of living things, animals and plants. However, the reason there are so many different species of beetle currently on Earth, and who know how many more since the dawn of life, is not because of an over zealous God, but because there are thousands of different habitats and niches to occupy. No single design can make a living in every environment, so rich diversity is the key to success. Life is there for one reason and one reason only, to thrive and create more life. At least in my opinion, the purpose, even the meaning of life, is life itself.

But what of god — did he weave the strand of DNA that defines you and differentiates you from the microbe, the banana, the haddock or the chimpanzee? Did he craft the molecules from which you as well as the stars are made? Did he shackle the clouds to the sky and the wind to the waves? Did he craft joy as he was etching pain, happiness as he was distilling agony? I think not. For me, the universe, or the vanishingly small portion of it we know about, is quite wondrous enough to comprehend without resorting to a god. Indeed, it was Mervyn Peake who said, ‘To live at all is miracle enough.’ And I think he was right.

© Allan Gaw 2017

 

 

Now available in paperback…

Testing the Waters: Lessons from the History of Drug Research

What can we learn from the past that may be relevant to modern drug research?

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“I cannot recommend it highly enough: even if you read nothing else about the origins of drug research and what it can (should?) teach us, read this….This is a ‘buy’.”  Madhu Davis review in Pharmaceutical Physician May 2016.

My other books currently available on kindle:

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