Isabelle Jung/The Cornell Daily Sun

September 13, 2023

TEBBUTT | Each Little Bird That Sings: Why Atheists Need Worship, Too

Print More

Each little flow’r that opens,
each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.

As I walked out across the Slope in early spring, I heard the familiar rapid-fire trills that give the Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) its name. They seemed to come from the little stand of White Pines (Pinus strobus) whose trunks dandle many a hammock during the summer, and whose five-needle clusters symbolize peace among the Haudenosaunee Nations. The sparrows also share a long and storied relationship with the conifer, though this family’s beautifully crafted nest was dangling, capsized, from a lower branch:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

          Gang aft agley

Four little nestlings lay huddled in the grass, chirping with the desperation of beings that are perpetually 15 minutes away from starvation. I righted the nest, scooped them up in my hands and left their panic-stricken parents to take care of the rest.1 Upon returning an hour later, however, down had come babies, cradle and all. 

Over the next week, I snatched moments between lectures and study to aid the wretched in their struggle against natural selection. After a number of unsuccessful experiments, I finally asked a friend to help me string up a berry basket, in which we set the nest and its hapless occupants. In the ensuing days, I found my walks religiously bending themselves towards the same tree, where I would elevate the inevitable maverick (there was always one) back up into the branches. On the seventh day, as they were soon to leave the nest for good, I did too; I had done all I could.

In its way, the whole episode was an act of worship; the saga meets the dictionary definition of Christian. But I didn’t feel the influence of a supreme being in the process. In fact, my friend and I reflected on how our fumbling, imperfect attempts to save these little creatures offered a more credible model for the role of a god than the earth-shattering miracles of the world’s major deities. Slightly less impressive than David Chalmer’s omniscient simulation programmer, such a god is just a being one rung higher up the ladder of existence than humanity, frenetically trying to fit us into their busy schedule, not fully sure how to proceed, and wishing that we’d just get it together and sort ourselves out.

You may have gathered by now that I don’t have much truck with gods in the traditional sense. Six years of six services a week in the Church of England certainly made their mark, but without particularly endearing me to the God of Abraham. There is a lot that is bright and beautiful in this world, yet there is too much that is dank and ugly for me to label the design as intelligent. Any would-be-Creator has a lot to answer for, and four marooned baby sparrows is only the start of it. At the age of 18, it took a wise friend of mine (and James Joyce) to make me see living without divine purpose as liberating rather than intimidating, and to acknowledge that my main religious motivator up until that point had been fear: of damnation2; loss; emptiness.

Humans, as Nature, abhor a void, and have plenty of enticing options to fill it with: hedonism, nihilism and capitalism all proffer tempting invitations to grab all you can while the getting’s good, free from the responsibility or consequences that come with a creator and an afterlife. Christians may not be able to “serve God andmammon”, but who’s to stop the atheist from squeezing every last drop from the cup of life, and the rest be damned?

Like Leo Tolstoy’s aristocrats or Oscar Wilde’s aesthetes, I’ve found that unfettered pleasure soon turns to ash in the mouth or, nowadays, CO₂ in the atmosphere. Without God, we still have responsibilities and consequences, arguably far more. While the Enlightenment’s humanism offers a promising alternative set of rules and ethics to religion, they have delivered neither milk nor honey to quite a lot of people. A quick scan of the last few centuries will tell you that secular states can produce just as much misery as religious ones. I have yet to see a society that does not worship, or “venerate with appropriate acts, rites, or ceremonies”, something, be it God, the Party, or billionaires. Even Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody.

In abandoning my faith in God, I found myself exploring other rules and rituals, usually associated with reverence for the natural world: vegetarianism, temperance and meditation have each, in their own way, taught me to tread softly on the earth. I have blessed orchards through the ancient practice of wassailing, and joined hands with academics, Caciques and Massai to sing for environmental justice. At the same time, I have held on to a lot of what I saw as valuable in organized religion: Lotti’s crucifixus, the memento mori in Partrishow Church and the observation of Lent are just as dear to me for what they say about the profane as they do about the sacred. In today’s culture of overconsumption and instant gratification3 what could be more appropriate than a sustained period of abstinence to reflect on how much we have to be grateful for?

Whether God put us here, or evolution, or both, as humans we occupy a privileged place within Nature. At the same time, it gives us everything we have. Whatever you believe, by all means: stop to smell the roses, and sling your hammock among the pines. But don’t forget to thank the gardener for all the glowing colors, and to stoop to help a pair of tiny wings.


1While we’re here, let’s clear up that theory that the parents won’t return to a nestling you’ve touched: it’s not true — though fledglings are a different story.

2Even now, part of me shudders to put these views in print.

3The secular world seems perfectly willing to hold on to Easter and Christmas.

Charlie Tebbutt is a third year Ph.D. candidate in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His fortnightly column Rêveries is a collection of musings that wander from the hill, over the Atlantic and out to the beautiful planet that we all share. He can be reached at [email protected].

The Cornell Daily Sun is interested in publishing a broad and diverse set of content from the Cornell and greater Ithaca community. We want to hear what you have to say about this topic or any of our pieces. Here are some guidelines on how to submit. And here’s our email: [email protected].