Life as an Atom


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Life as an Atom

By Bobby Neal Winters

I’ve missed the vast bulk of the reality show fad. At least I hope I have. Recently I’ve had a little extra time to watch TV and saw one. It gave me the urge to start a book which I have.

Every once in a while one of my smart friends at the university will convince me to read one of those books with big words and small type. One of those I am working on now is entitled Science and Poetry by Mary Midgley. The book is concerned with many things, but one of those seems to be a criticism of “atomism.” Atomism, in loose terms, is the idea you can understand something completely by breaking it into its constituent parts.

I said “seems to be” above because I’ve only managed to fight my way through about half of the book at this point. I tend to go to sleep after a chapter or so, but the same thing happens these days when I’m watching Men in Black, so this is not necessarily a criticism. In any case, the reader should be warned I am not an authority on this.

Let me preface some comments on what I think she’s saying with some thoughts of my own.

The human being has forgotten what he’s supposed to be. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” When a robin gets up in the morning, it pretty well knows what its day is going to be like: Catch a worm, eat a worm, repeat. And a fox knows to go out looking for the robin’s nest. But Man has come unplugged from his socket in the universe.

Somewhere in the great machine that is what is, there is a place where a human-shaped cog should be, and it is empty. Its emptiness throws the whole machine out of whack. The Christian formulation of this is that Man is fallen. It is tied inextricably to the notion of original sin.

Folks don’t like the idea of original sin. They have difficulty understanding—even in terms of metaphor—how someone eating a piece of fruit thousands of years ago could have any affect on us today even if that someone was Adam. Yet the idea is not so much different than a man’s being an alcoholic could cause his children problems years down the line.

However the human species came to lose harmony with creation, the consequences have mounted up. One might try to phrase it Forrest Gump style and say, “Life is a like a bowling ball. Once it goes off course, it just keeps going until it hits the gutter.” But things are as they are. Man has left the place where he fit as a species, and we’ve become displaced as individuals from the spots we should occupy within the species.

The seed our problem is contained in the word “individual.” The Bible put it, “It is not good that man be alone,” while moderns say, “Man is a social animal.”

In Science and Poetry Midgley discusses the ancient idea that everything is made out of atoms. Atoms were understood differently by the ancients than they are by the modern physicist in that the modern physicist knows that atoms can be divided and the ancients wouldn’t allow for that. She believes atomism spread from physics over to the social sciences and given us the false notion that a society is comprised of individuals just as hydrogen gas is made of hydrogen atoms.

The analogy might seem strange, but this is not the first place I’ve seen it. Henri Nouwen spoke of “atomic people” who are cut off from meaningful contact with their fellow man.

The idea that society is made of individuals is so much our way of thinking we don’t even question it. However, there is another way of looking at things, and we only have to look to the newspaper headlines about suicide bombers to find it. When we ask ourselves why someone would blow himself us in a cause for his people, maybe the answer is he knows himself to be simply a small part of something much bigger. Whether we agree with suicide martyrdom or not—and I certainly do not—we can’t deny the reality of it. There is something larger than ourselves of which we are a part, and we in the West have forgotten that, or at least we act like we have.

The truth of the matter is that any given individual is the offspring of two parents and has been raised in a family of one sort or the other. None of us is born knowing how to talk, how to hold a fork, or how to write. Though there is clearly such a thing as “the individual,” a society is not simply made of individuals, but it also makes them.

However, we’ve bought into the notion that the individual comes first and believe that our society will be formed by putting those individuals together in one way or the other. We believe we can all do our own thing with utter disregard for the whole, and it’s all going to work out somehow. “Such faith I’ve not seen in all of Israel.”

This is roughly like laying butterfly wings alongside a thorax and thinking the thing we make will just fly off. It doesn’t work with butterflies, and it doesn’t work with society.

As with all things, our point of view can by colored by politics, but if we allow ourselves to look, we can see the damage that has been wrought in ways that are apparent to anyone regardless of his place on the political spectrum. Those on the right can see damage to the family as marriage—one of our tightest atomic bonds—dissolves before our eyes. Those on the left would recognize the damage to the environment as the environment is ravaged with total disregard to ecosystems.

Looking only to our own best interests cuts us off from reality. I think the success of the so-called “reality” shows now clogging the airwaves is due to the starvation for reality this causes. People have a sense there is some larger “real world” they are missing, and ironically, they turn to TV in order to find it. They would have better luck finding reality by turning off the TV or by seeking it in well-crafted fiction.

Or reading a book recommended by a smart friend.

(Bobby Winters is a professor of mathematics, a writer, and a speaker. You may contact him at or visit his website at .)