I’m sometimes asked if I don’t feel that I am missing out, by not believing in ‘something greater’. It’s a valid question and actually one that I think all atheists should ask themselves. But the answer, at least for me, might also be of interest to others.
Yes I am part of something greater, in a very real and immediate sense. It’s not so much a question of believing but of accepting the evidence in front of me. I am part of the Earth. The Earth is not just a core of molten iron covered in a crust of rock and water, with an outer gaseous atmosphere, though it is these things. It is a living system, an entity. And I am—we are all—part of that entity.
Consider what you are: you are composed of billions of individual living things called cells. All of these living things co-operate in such a way that the whole survives. This is a very successful evolutionary strategy for the genes that make them—and you. Every cell in each individual human body—just like all other multi-cellular animals—contains exactly the same DNA as all the other cells. We have, recently, come to understand how parts of our DNA control other parts, so that each type of cell plays the role it should.
The maverick ecologist James Lovelock proposed that the Earth was an interconnected living system. I agree. Certainly the Earth does have an inert core—but so do we; our skeletons are made of calcium carbonate, which is limestone, and pretty inert. Massed around that is all the astonishing variety of cells that constitute us. In the same way, massed around the mineral substrate, the Earth’s biosphere has incredible variety, with millions of species of plants and animals, all interacting and evolving.
Is the Earth sentient? Of course. The core and mantle are no more sentient than our bones, but no-one, I hope, is arguing that skeletons have feelings. Poor Yorick would be distraught. Instead our nerve cells feel—and for the Earth, every animal possessed of a nervous system feels. Does the Earth think? Yes, of course; we, and the other higher animals, are the thinking part of the whole, incredible living space-ship that we are a part of. We are the Earth’s brain. Our thoughts are hers. We humans, indeed, are the flight computer, and it would be wise of us not to make too many mistakes.
Is the Earth a part of me? Of course, just as I am part of it. Everything that I am comes from the Earth. My body is composed of compounds formed from the stuff of the planet; she owns me, I don’t possess her. And those materials are not given, but loaned, for I will as surely return them one day as I take, and use, them now.
And yet, it is even more incredible than that, for what you must realise is that in the beginning, the Big Bang, there were only three elements formed, the lightest—hydrogen, helium and lithium. Some of this, because of gravity, became stars, which are huge fusion reactors. Everyone knows that the stars turn hydrogen to helium, but this is not the only fusion reaction going on, only the one we see on the surface.
Inside stars, other, more complex fusion occurs, and in the largest, high-mass stars, every element that we know, along with others which decay too quickly to survive, is formed by fusion reaction in enormous heat and pressure. When these stars die, they blow themselves outwards, seeding the universe with the heavy elements that make planets and life itself. We are, literally, stardust. The wonderful Carl Sagan first told me of this when I was young and it amazes me as much now as it did then.
So, you ask if I am part of something greater? Oh yes, I am not only part of the most unimaginably great thing that we know, the Universe, but my particular organism, the Earth, is just one of countless planets. Many are also living things, possessed of sentience, of life, of other beings who are right now looking up into the glittering night sky full of stars and asking themselves ‘Am I part of something greater?’ Beings who, perhaps, will go indoors as I just did, put another log on the fire and settle down with their thoughts. I wonder what those thoughts are like? Would I find them beautiful, or terrifying, or just incomprehensible? I am pretty sure I will never find out.
For the last 12 years I have been researching our early beliefs and how these have filtered through to today, and our modern cultures. That research is the basis of the new books I’m writing now. One thing that has struck me again and again is how close the earliest beliefs we know of were to the truth.
Our ancestors believed that life came from the Sea. The Sumerians, for example, believed that the first deities, Ki, the Earth, and Anu, the Sky, were born in eternal lover’s embrace, deep within the Sea, which they called Nammu. They understood Nammu to be female, and to have existed for eternity.
And we do come from the sea, though it took many thousands of years for us to scientifically establish this; all life comes from the Sea, and we actually carry it around with us. The fluids in our bodies are saline, but far less salty than today’s oceans—why? Because, 375 million years ago, when our first terrestrial ancestor, Tiktaalik, a fish with eyes on top of its head and fleshy pectoral fins, containing the same bones as in are in our arms, first struggled onto dry land, it did so from an ocean that was much less salty than today’s. Our tears are the taste of the long-gone sea that birthed us, our original Mother.
Our foremothers revered the Moon, and this too has carried forward. For the Celt, time was counted in nights, and we still have ‘fortnights’. And what is a month if not a ‘moonth’?
For our ancestors, as they picked and foraged their way along the shoreline, three things must have seemed so closely related that, taken together, they formed a statement so powerful that it is still with us: the monthly cycle of the moon, the monthly cycle of the tide, and the monthly cycles of women were all related, and that could only mean one thing: god was a woman, and women were of her.
For our ancestors, human women were possessed of the goddess’ powers, since they alone could make life. So the sea, and rivers, became sacred to us, because we knew that within their bodies, women used a magical water to make babies, water which flowed out of them when they brought life forth.
When we moved inland, following the rivers, to the interior of continents, we lost touch with the sea—though how long our reverence for her persisted is clear in the Sumerian and following mythologies, other myths from all over the world, and even into the Bible.
Then the land became our Mother, and again we revered her as the Earth, the Sumerian Ki, or Ninhursag. She brought us her riches and we were grateful. First these were the herds of wild fauna and the fruits and vegetables that we lived on, and later the riches were from agriculture, which gave us civilisation. Rivers were her amniotic fluid, and to bathe in them was literally to be reborn in the grace of the Mother—as happens today, and every other day, to the millions each year who make pilgrimage and immerse themselves in Mother Ganges, as once I did, too, long ago.
We are used, perhaps, to the idea that the Ganges is sacred to the Hindus, but perhaps less aware that in Europe, the Celts believed the same, and every river was sacred to them, a manifestation of the Goddess herself; this is a belief that is found all over the world.
Perhaps my Christian friends should remember what they are actually doing, as they splash the holy water on their babies’ brows, or allow themselves to be plunged under water and ‘reborn’. From no male sky-god does that water come, either literally or metaphorically, because it is of the Earth, and it is of the Mother. To be baptised is to be reborn from the Mother, doused in her amniotic fluid.
I don’t have a problem with any of this. I know I am of the Earth and that it (perhaps one shouldn’t personalise her too much) is incredibly greater than I am. I don’t believe she has supernatural powers, but the fact is that the natural ones she certainly does have are utterly dumbfounding.
I know I came from her, and I know that to her I will return and this does not in any way fill me with dread, for I am absolutely certain that there is neither punishment nor reward after death, only an eternal sleep as dreamless as the one I slept before I was born. She is the Mother, the Living Spaceship, carrying us on her back as she hurtles along at mind-numbing speed. Everything about her strikes me mute with sheer, unmitigated awe.
So yes, I am part of something greater, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.