In her piece “In Praise of Insignificance” in Scientific American, Jennifer Ouellette says,
If one embraces an atheist worldview, it necessarily requires embracing, even celebrating, one’s insignificance. It’s a tall order, I know, when one is accustomed to being the center of attention. The universe existed in all its vastness before I was born, and it will exist and continue to evolve after I am gone. But knowing that doesn’t make me feel bleak or hopeless. I find it strangely comforting.
A cockroach is insignificant even to the extent that squashing it, i.e. depriving it of its life in an expedient and, for the roach anyway, awful manner, cannot be considered wrong. It can even be said to be good or necessary for the “greater good.” What, after all, is the life of one small bug when compared with the wellbeing of even one human being?
But then if that human being has admitted herself to be insignificant, to have willingly placed herself on the same moral and ontological plane as a filthy bug, why is her good to be placed above the roach’s? Don’t just pass this sentence by with a quick nod. Insignificant is a strong word, none stronger. Taken at its definition—which is what we are doing here, to see where it leads us—means meaningless, valueless, of no use, disposable.
Now it might appear to imply that if all accepted that they were insignificant, all would be allowed; that is, any behavior would be acceptable. But this is false; indeed, the opposite is true. No behavior would be allowed or acceptable.
When we examine questions of morality we quite naturally think about what our behavior would do or mean to somebody else; that is, we imagine ourselves acting in some way and then in some person or persons reacting. If we decided that “we are insignificant” then it appears that if I wanted to (say) hit you upside the head with a baseball bat, then that would be fine because your life is insignificant. (Richard Dawkins, for instance, famously admits that rape isn’t “wrong” in this sense.)
That is true in a weak sense, but we stepped over the hard part. The problem is that I have already admitted that I am insignificant too, which entails that I have no justification for my initial act. My pleasure is nothing, even the physical exercise gained in hefting the wood is meaningless. If I realize this, then I cannot justify to myself why I should act. Not just in swinging the bat, but for walking, talking, eating, any activity at all that isn’t automatic (eating is not automatic; it implies you have judged that to feed yourself is good, which admits significance). If I am to be logically consistent, then I must remain entirely impotent and always motionless.
You’ll notice that in these arguments, I sling around the word I, as if I have deduced that I exist, and the same for you. But if I exist, if I am aware of me and that there is a me, then this automatically implies significance (I at least know there is the rational creature me). It remains to be seen what are the limits and implications of this significance, of course, but that there is some significance, that there is an absence of insignificance, necessarily follows.
So it cannot be that we are insignificant nor can we imagine ourselves insignificant (we can say it, but we’re always either lying or deluded), though it is easy, as history has repeatedly proven, to think the other guy insignificant. Ouellette does not really believe she is insignificant, despite her claims. She informs us that she tells her husband daily that she loves him, a very nice thing. But it is only nice if she admits to being significant, which we have seen she must do. Of course, we haven’t proven that because are are significant saying “I love you” to somebody (and meaning it) is nice, though all of us believe it (and it can be proven).
Ouellette’s first argument is right, though: “If one embraces an atheist worldview, it necessarily requires embracing, even celebrating, one’s insignificance.” I mean her argument is right if you strike out the “celebrating” bit, for to celebrate and to enjoy a celebration presupposes significance. A real world running on atheist lines would contain no celebrations, indeed nothing but non-moving bodies, frozen in realization that nothing—as in no thing—they did matters or is justified.