Have you ever gone outside and looked at the sky on a really clear night away from any big cities? You’d see a lot of stars up there. So many that people have been in awe of the sheer number of them since time immemorial, and they have been used as a metaphor for “too many to count,” for as long as humans have been using metaphors. But one of the things we’ve learned from astronomy is that there are more galaxies out there than there are stars visible to the naked eye. And each of those galaxies contains billions of stars. Each of those stars is, in fact, a sun with a solar system pretty much like our own. Now consider the fact that just our one solar system alone is so mind-bogglingly huge that the number of cubic miles it encompasses is impossible to assign intuitive meaning.
You just can’t look at that honestly and conclude that we’re anything but insignificant. Where is the arrogance in accepting that view of the universe?
Or, let’s look at it from another perspective.
What, exactly, do we mean by something “greater,” than ourselves? It’s not as though we’re all that great, really. Sure, we (meaning humans) are the cleverest beings on the planet (that we know of). But so what? Can we really claim that makes us “great?” We choose to see intelligence as a measure of greatness, and gee whiz it just happens to be the trait we’re better at than every other animal. Of course, many animals are faster, stronger, more durable, have better senses… heck, pick any trait you like other than intelligence, and I guarantee you we know of at least one living thing that beats us at it so badly that we might as well not claim to have the ability at all. Heck, some creatures can survive unharmed in the hard vacuum of space! Why can’t we say they’re “greater” than us?
In that sense, we’re not even “greater” than bacteria.
Now, in another sense, it’s pretty easy to see how one might look at the universe and see lots of things that are greater than ourselves. Is not the sum of humanity greater than any one person? Is not the sum of all life on our planet greater than any one species (humans included)? Is not the entire history of that life greater than just what is alive today? Isn’t the entirety of the earth greater than just the life that’s on it? And so on and so on; there are so many things that can be seen as greater than us that the mind boggles just at trying to list them.
The beautiful thing about evolution, by the way, is that it tells us that we are part of these things that are arguably greater than all of us. We may just be one among many, and perhaps even not all that significant a part, but that connection part of the beauty of it all.
I’m sorry, but I just can’t see the arrogance in that. The universe is not a hierarchy of lesser and greater things. A fact-based view of the universe tells us that we’re really an insignificant part of a whole that is so much greater than ourselves that we can’t possibly comprehend it. At least… not yet.
Or are we arrogant if we claim responsibility for our own successes? I don’t see that either. After all, if I accomplish something it is demonstrably evident that I accomplished it. There would be no evidence of some invisible being doing it for me. So my taking credit (or blame) for what I’ve done isn’t arrogance, it’s simply acknowledging what is quite evident to any observer.
But let’s compare that to the worldview of the most frequent levelers of this accusation of atheistic arrogance: Christians. In that world view, we are made in the very image of the all-powerful creator of the universe. He gave us the right to rule the entire world, and we are the most important thing in it. We are so significant that a single decision by a single man and woman fundamentally altered the very nature of the universe. Every natural disaster, for all that it may kill millions of living things and forever alter the landscape of the planet, is intended as a lesson solely for our benefit. God speaks directly to humans, and takes a personal interest in advancing their lives and goals. The omnipotent creator desires our love so badly that he volunteered to suffer and die in the hopes of winning it, and his greatest enemy bends all of his efforts solely to depriving him of our love because it’s the thing that would harm him most.
You’re going to tell me that that’s not arrogant? Humans, in this view, are the most important thing in the entire physical universe. Sure, they’re also evil, hateful, and vile and really ought to despise themselves, but they’re literally the most significant thing in all of God’s creation (with God himself being outside creation, and therefore the only thing that can occupy a higher rung of importance).
And this is part of why I think Christians call us arrogant. Because if you view the world as a hierarchy with God at the top, humans second, and everything else beneath, and think that all that atheists have done is take this view and chop God off the top, then that must leave humans as the most important thing ever. But this fails to understand that this just isn’t how an atheist sees the world. We see ourselves as part of the world, not above it. We didn’t make the universe, and it wasn’t made for our benefit – we’re just struggling to understand it. From an atheist perspective that top-down hierarchy, in which humans could potentially elevate themselves to the status of “most important thing” if we just get rid of the only being above us, does not exist!
At this point I feel compelled to state the standard disclaimer that I am not, and cannot be, speaking for all atheists. After all, the only thing the label “atheist” entails is not believing in gods, and a vast variety of world views can still be found within that broad category. I’m sure there are atheists who are quite arrogant (as such people can be found in pretty much any population of humans you care to name), and atheists who espouse philosophies in which humans really are the most important things in the universe. But I think that I’m not too far off from the mainstream of scientifically literate atheist thought in this matter.
But I do hope that this helps give some perspective on how it can be that atheism is not an inherently arrogant position.