Atheism’s Universe and a Little Indian Parable.


The sad concept of an atheistic universe is well captured by a simple Indian folk tale (1).

“There is an old Indian folk tale about a young man who set off to explore a nearby river on a raft. All was going well as he paddled along until he suddenly heard the distant roar of water. Squinting into the distance, he noticed that the river had a rather disturbing, absence-of-horizon look to it: there was a huge waterfall ahead! Frantically he began trying to paddle to one bank of the river, then the other, but each time the current was too strong. He cried for help, but there was nobody to hear him. Finally, he tried paddling upstream and discovered that he could just about hold the raft still, but couldn’t make any progress away from the waterfall. So what should he do? How long until his strength gave out and drifted to his doom? After contemplating this for a few minutes, he came to a decision. He threw his paddle into the river and lay back on the raft, his hands behind his head and a peaceful smile on his face; after all, he had decided, I might as well enjoy my final ride.”

Packed into this little tale is a surprising amount. What struck me first was that no matter how much the Indian man cried out for help “there was nobody to hear him.” This reminds me of the atheist Michael Shermer who, in his book, shares a personal experience from when his college girlfriend was in a car accident that paralyzed her for life. In a moment of fear, Shermer prayed that God would heal the girl but when his prayer went unanswered he turned his back on Christian belief (2). But, on atheism, that is simply brutal reality, as one atheist saw when he penned that “some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice” (3). What happens, just happens. A car crash leaving a girlfriend paralyzed for life is simply an unimportant collision of atoms. And no matter how much our hearts and mind tell us to protest against that fact it means nothing, just as a collision between two asteroids means nothing; as William Provine concluded: “The universe cares nothing for us and we have no ultimate meaning in life” (4).

If atheism is true no matter how much we beg for a miracle, for a sign, for anything, there is no God on the other end of the line to hear us. We are trapped on a rock that is no more than “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” (5). If atheism is true no matter how much we paddle upstream against the bite of existential nihilism our arms will eventually give way and we’ll plummet down the waterfall of existential despair. If God does not exist it just doesn’t matter how hard we try to paddle to one bank of the river in order to avoid the implications, as the atheist existentialist Sartre saw when dispelling God:

“If God does not exist… man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon, either within or outside himself” (6).

But our Indian friend came to a decision. He knew that he could not avoid the inevitable. He was going to die, he knew it, and decided to live his brief moment in time smiling at the cloudy sky as a merciless waterfall pulls him closer and closer. After all, he knew these implications, and he chose to dupe himself into a brief illusory happiness, lest he dwells his few moments in despair. Richard Dawkins would write: “Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life’s hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway?” For Dawkins (and our Indian friend) it is best to pretend that we have meaning, value and purpose, even though he knows, deep down, that there is “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (7).

If atheism is true we are all this Indian on the raft. What awaits us, our civilisation, our race, our planet, indeed the universe as a whole, is destruction and extinction, no matter what we do. Philosopher William Lane Craig puts it:

“If there is no God, then man and the universe are doomed. Like prisoners condemned to death, we await our unavoidable execution… If God does not exist, then life is futile” (8).


1. See Andy Bannister’s book The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist: Or the dreadful consequences of bad arguments (2015). p. 181.

2. Miller, A. 2012. Book Review: The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer. Available.

3. Dawkins, R. 1995. River out of Eden. p. 131-32

4. Provine, W. 1998. Scientists, Face it! Science and Religion are Incompatible. Available.

5. Sagan, C. 1994. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

6. Paul Sartre, J. The Rebel. p.75.

7. Dawkins, R. 1995. Ibid.

8. Craig, W. The Absurdity of Life Without God. Available.


12 responses to “Atheism’s Universe and a Little Indian Parable.

  1. I agree with your assessment until you say that is best to pretend that we have meaning, value and purpose. There may indeed be “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” as far as the Cosmos cares about us, but that does not mean that we cannot make meaning, value, and purpose in our own lives. If this life is all there is, then it is just that much more important to make the most of it–living, learning, and loving. I fail to see how this is, in any way, “pretending.”

      • We make a great many things in our lives that are real, tangible, and evident in every way. Even the intangible–our feelings, thoughts, hopes, dreams, fears, etc.–are real to the extent that they are ours. To say that something is “pretend” is to say that it does not, in actuality, exist. If I come up with meaning, purpose, and values–even if they are mine and mine alone–they undeniably exist. You might try to argue that I don’t have an underlying basis for them (though I would certainly dispute that too), but you cannot say that they are “pretend.”

        Though I don’t believe in any god, I don’t claim that theist’s meaning or purpose is “pretend.” Whether or I believe in the theological background for these things, the meaning and purpose, themselves, certainly exist.

  2. Maybe New (sic) Atheism need to change their logo from the capital A with the italic zero through it (and/or whatever else they corporate brand their faith with) to the silhouette of an American indian in a boat.

    It seems the story offers no further insights, is no less enlightening and no more challenging than the British Bus Campaign: ‘THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE’.

  3. So you’re propagating the fallacy that life can have no meaning if there’s no god. The truth is that the only difference between the theist and atheist is that the theist looks to his god for meaning, where the atheist looks elsewhere. Moreover, it is arguable that the belief in an afterlife actually devalues this life. Christians believe that the sole purpose of this life is to win an afterlife (though most of them also seem to believe that only those who practice their own particular brand of Christianity will actually do so). Since the atheist believes this is the only life we’ll ever have, I can assure you that it has considerable meaning.

  4. So, God is real because the idea that he isn’t real is sad to you? Okay, but you should know that we are all different. Not only am I unable to believe something based on my desire for it to be true, but I also do not agree that a world without God is sad. And even if I could believe in a thing just because I wanted it to be true– I cannot find meaning in a Christian world, where we live for no other purpose than to please a mysterious god, who then offers us an eternity of worshiping him. That feels even more pointless to me.

    My only advice to you is to consider how others see things in a completely different light; because then you would already know that arguments such as these are a waste of time. You make the mistake of believing everyone is basically the same, and that if you just explain it better they will finally get it…. but you are wrong about that. Very wrong.

    • Christians “live for no other purpose than to please a mysterious god, who then offers us an eternity of worshiping him” – this is such a false summary of Christianity, it’s no wonder you see no point in it! So it seems that you have not rejected Christianity, but a straw-man version of it.

      Please throw out that nonsense, and re-evaluate based on what Christianity actually teaches:

      God is Love. He created us out of love, for love. Like the good and loving Father that He is, He wants only what is best for us. (As Creator, He knows better than we ever could!) He loves us unconditionally, and calls us to return that love, and to share that love with others. (This is in our best interest to do, as it leads to our flourishing.) In prayer, we converse with Him and build our relationship with Him, and that relationship dramatically improves our life here on earth. We serve Him as a response to His love, and look forward to unimaginable love in His presence for all eternity. Who would not want to be with his/her beloved?

      • I am completely aware of what Christianity teaches. I once believed all those words about God being love, too– until I found Christianity to be a false summary of God. I know it’s what you believe and I am not interested in debating its truth, but for me your description is meaningless. You say “we look forward to unimaginable love in His presence,” but of course we can never define this. What does that even mean? I hope you know, and I hope it is a comfort to you, but you have had to fill in a lot of blanks to get there that aren’t good enough for me.

        The New Testament talks about how much God loves us, and many Christians do connect the dots and assume that’s the whole purpose of eternity. But the Bible is only clear about eternal life, which its authors seem to think is what really matters. Again, eternity is a focus of the New Testament– and I know enough about that history to put as much faith in those words as I put in yours. As far as I can tell, God has remained silent on the subject of eternity, and everything else. And it does not trouble me.

        If a god exists, Christians have certainly defined him with impossible detail. Most former believers lost faith in the Christian definition of God long before losing faith in God himself, because it requires so much faith in man’s interpretation of God. And if it cannot be trusted, then we know nothing at all. Again, this does not trouble me.

        Once upon a time I thought I had built a relationship with God through prayer, too. But a strange thing happens when you are in a relationship with someone who never physically appears or audibly speaks; you are required to communicate through feelings and signs, which are always biased and questionable. What felt real to me then, now seems silly from a different perspective. It was that easy.

        So while I appreciate your effort here, you are making the same mistake I mentioned in my original comment: you believe I will “get it” if only you explain it better. But you cannot simply sweep in and tell me that I do not understand. You should already realize that the feeling is mutual.

        • You write “I am completely aware of what Christianity teaches.” and then proceed to – again – demonstrate the opposite.

          Consider these facts: There are different flavors of Christianity – different churches. Each with some common teachings and some teachings that differ. At most, only one can have the fullness of truth, and the rest teach some error.

          Now, if you only have experienced one that teaches error, and walk away claiming “I know it all and I reject it”, then you haven’t rejected the fullness of truth, but some messed up subset. Your caricature of Christianity is not what real Christians believe. It’s a straw man that you have rejected. And I would reject that, too!

          You have twice demonstrated that you do not, in fact, understand the truth that Christianity teaches. That is why I gave you a link, so you can learn what it really is.

          Even if you don’t care to learn about it, I ask that you please stop portraying Christianity in that straw-man style, because it is false, and can lead others astray. Thank you.

          • I can only assume you meant this for someone else, because this cannot possibly be in response to my comment. Best of luck to you.

  5. I am one who has experienced a spiritual life,
    not just a moving robotic body with a physical brain. It is a pity that atheists cannot experience a spirit of grace and being in another realm. If atheists could rise up and experience that place above themselves, then perhaps they would understand the divine plan for their existence with and without a body!

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