To be sure, we are small.
Insignificant in a cosmic sense. Utterly irrelevant in any wider context. That we are unimportant in any Universal sense, however, does not mean that what we do is without meaning, without purpose, without grace and beauty and power.
The reality is that nearly every single thing in the Universe is fixed on a specific level of existential association. Objects and entities associate with their cosmic and or atomic peers and rarely if ever transcend the natural level of association that dominate their existence. Our sun, for example, will never meaningfully interact with anything outside of the handful of humble planets caught in its orbit. Even when our sun swells as it enters its death throes billions of years from now, and destroys the inner planets, it will have no impact whatsoever on any other portion of the galaxy. The same applies to nearly every other star in the galaxy. Even those stars massive enough detonate in supernovae explosions only truly impact a tiny portion of the galaxy as a whole and do nothing beyond.
While nearly everything else in the Universe is fixed in the ways and on the levels of existence with which it can associate, life is not. More importantly, we as humans are not fixed and are not static in our ability to interact with the larger world. Humans are uniquely positioned and uniquely capable of transcending the limits imposed by virtue of our birth.
Humans are born into this world as mewling, helpless creatures. We are primates, animals. The difference between ourselves and our closest evolutionary ancestors are differences of degree, not differences in kind. Yet that difference exists. And because of that crucial difference in degree, we, despite our animal nature, are capable of transcendence in ways no other creature could even conceive of. We are capable of transcending and transforming not only our basest and most fundamental instincts, but our physical limitations, our geographical limitations and even our terrestrial limitations.
One need look no further than the society we have created. Billions upon Billions of individuals who live together, work together and share in resources together in an amazingly complex system that is simply mindboggling in its size and scope. What is truly amazing about human society is NOT that it occasionally breaks down and results in violence and barbarism, but that such violence and barbarism are the exception rather than the rule.
Human civilization has achieved a size, scope, and level of integration that would have been utterly impossible a century ago and would have been utterly incomprehensible two centuries ago. Modern human societies are a marvel of complexity. Modern cities and nation states facilitate the physical, geographical, economic, social, intellectual, political, and religious interactions of tens of millions and billions of humans with one another virtually instantaneously compared to any other period in human history. At the turn of the 18th century, the population of the entire world was less than a billion. By the end of the 20th century, the world population had swelled to well over six billion. One would think that this massive explosion in population would lead to a scarcity of resources and the rise of armed conflict and the destabilization of society, yet the exact opposite is true.
To be sure, societies are still capable of failure. There are regions of the world where history, economics, religion and outside interference have created persistent failed states where societies routinely fail in their most basic functions. And to be sure, the existence of armed conflict has persisted into the twentieth century as well.
Indeed, the second world war was the single bloodiest episode in human history in terms of the absolute number of humans slaughtered as a result of armed conflict. The conflict was the second truly global conflict that involved nearly every society on earth. Approximately 60,000,000 to 70,000,000 human beings were killed during the near constant warfare that raged during 1939 to 1945. Despite the appalling number of dead and wounded during that period, however, that conflict resulted in casualties to less than 3% of the world population despite nearly every societies' involvement. Even this, the most grotesque example of warfare in modern history, was actually far less destructive than the wars that dominated earlier epochs of human civilization which often resulted in the deaths of 10% to 20% of the societies involved. And the period since the second world war, largely as a result of human civilization's realization of the true consequences of warfare has been far and away the most peaceful period in human existence.
While individual regions and nations states existing on the margins of global civilization still struggle to maintain functional societies, the majority of the developed and developing world have joined a global society that is truly epic in its size and scope. That this monstrously complex, multi-faceted, multi-level, multi-disciplinary organism we call society functions at all is one of the most amazing facets of human existence. What is truly amazing and awe inspiring about our global society is that it is a creation entirely of and for humankind. Our luminous, wondrous, awe-inspiring civilization and all of its grandeur and beauty is not the result of the hand of some invisible sky wizard, but the result of the endless ingenuity, vision and labor of countless of billions of human beings all working together to ensure that this organism we have created, this entity that encompasses all of us, survives and thrives.
Perhaps the most astonishing facet of human society is not that it occasionally needs to resort to coercive measures to maintain its effective functioning, but that it need to do so on such an infrequent basis. Indeed, perhaps the best measure of the healthy functioning of a society is the frequency of such coercion. In failing societies, coercive corrective action in the form of police or military activities are so routine as to be unremarkable. In thriving societies, such action is anomalous as nearly all citizens actively participate in society. While such participation may be motivated just as easily by greed as by altruism, the simple fact is that in functioning societies, even the greedy recognize that there are greater benefits to be gained by working within society than against it. This is the simple biological truth that Religionists simply fail to grasp – that we are biologically hard wired to cooperate.
Take a moment to reflect on the innumerable benefits society provides to you from the moment you wake up to your alarm clock in the morning. Your alarm clock is powered by electricity provided by a generator hundreds or thousands of miles away, whose emissions are regulated by an agency who ensures that it does not pollute the air you breathe or the water you drink, when you get out of bed to take a hot shower in water that has been purified at some plant in the city you live in and is heated by the natural gas that is extracted by some for-profit corporation and regulated by some government agency and on and on and on.
Every one of us as we move through our day encounters the fruits of the labor of hundreds or thousands of others. While we often work at cross purposes to one another and while we are often fractious, there is little doubt that in the aggregate, human societies are exceptionally durable once they take root and that they largely function in stunning harmony both within individual societies and with one another.
What would have quickly led to armed conflict in earlier periods of human history is now simply worked out through banal and often painfully boring workshops and focus groups by men and women in suits and skirts rather than through men stabbing or shooting at one another. Despite the size, despite the complexity, despite the dizzying interplay of economic, social, religious, contract, legal, property, civil and political forces all simultaneously interacting within human societies, societies seem not only to have thrived in the modern era, but ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity and peace.
The reality is that despite the hysterical mutterings of prophets and mystics and religious zealots, our world is not coming to an end. Our societies are not paragons of evil and sin and iniquity and depravity. Our truly globe spanning society is the single most beautiful, marvelous, amazing, and wondrous creations in human history. A creation entirely of and for humankind. A marketplace of ideas, of knowledge, of commerce, of identity, of creativity, of problem-solving, or self-improvement and advancement. The reality is that far from our society leading us all to some kind of cataclysm that only God can save us from, society has saved us all from the cataclysm of continued reliance on God.
It is no coincidence that those societies that struggle most to maintain basic functionality are those with the most rigid adherence to antiquated principles of religious piety. It is no coincidence that those societies that require the most coercive measures to maintain order and discipline are those that ostensibly require the greatest dedication and adherence to a specific dogma or creed.