Vanity of vanities, what is vanity?
A peculiar discussion of this issue arises in the Judeo-Christian storybook itself, in Ecclesiastes 1...
1:1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 1:2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 1:3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? 1:4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. 1:5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. 1:6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. 1:7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. 1:8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 1:9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. 1:10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. 1:11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
So what were the authors of the JCB trying to say, writing those striking words into the mouth of this minor character? The conclusion that they themselves draw is that all human endeavor seems like a vain and futile endeavor -- but it is, in actuality, not so -- for they feverishly imagine the all-powerful deity of their myths to be intently focused on such things, to the point of playing an adoring hand in all of it.
But what is the very definition of vanity? In those olden days of myth-scribbling, it indeed meant futility. But as it has matured into modern meaning, is it not self-love? Placing oneself on a pedestal relative to the world, perhaps even relative to the rest of the Universe, to the point of self-worship? And yet, such is what theists do daily, when they imagine that there is, hovering over the Universe, a being of such power that it was able to create the whole majesty of the Universe, galaxies upon galaxies, in but a thought -- and yet, that this all-powerful (or, at the least, incomprehensibly powerful) entity is, in actuality, beneath even then, for it so loves them that it can be made into a servant, to bend the laws of the Universe in their favor, dutifully answering their prayers, delivering them into an eternal paradise (sustained by it) for so small a gesture as the mere acknowledgment of its very existence.
Your Bacteria and You
And now for what will surely seem a wholly unrelated tangent, with some very, very big numbers to consider....
The human body is made of cells, with the average human body having some 50 trillion to 100 trillion cells. But our typical body cell is one hundred times the size of a typical bacteria, and it happens that the number of bacteria in your body at any given moment is about ten times the number of your own body cells, so a rock bottom estimate would be of 500 trillion bacteria inhabiting your adult body -- the great majority of those congregating in your intestines, fulfilled to spend their thirty hours or so of life (during which time they will split off dozens of generations of offspring) eating some portion of that which has passed your stomach and is traveling on the path to expulsion from the nether end of your body. And, in actuality, the solid part of what comes out the other end is less than 40% made from whatever had gone into your mouth in the first place, 60% being bacteria, both living and dead bodies. Lest this sound like a health hazard, note well that their activity is continuously contributing to your own survival, even -- existing in a symbiotic relationship with us, breaking down complex molecules that our bodies by themselves cannot.
Now, imagine that some several billion of those bacteria in your intestines are not only aiding in your digestion, not only aimlessly (if not lazily) coating and floating along your intestinal walls, but are actively worshiping your stomach (which would to them seem like an incalculably large and powerful sustenance-providing entity); imagine them as having taken your stomach as a deity. And, even, arguing among themselves about which groups of them your stomach favor most, and which ones are blasphemously engaged in forms of worship disfavored by The Stomach. These faithful insist to dissenters from their faith that your stomach, the being from which they are provided, loves each of them, individually; that it desires their worship and is pleased by their prayers or their sacrifices, so much so that it will from time to time even grant those prayers (such that every chunk of modestly-digested particulate matter that floats by is preached to testify to your stomach's loving intercession).
Your bacteria pass down stories of your stomach's commandments, have catalogued a list of sins -- claimed to come from your stomach's personal instruction, by way of visions or prophet-bacteria -- that they must avoid or repent for!! They speak of how your stomach holds certain specific micro-villi on your intestinal walls to be sacred places worthy of fighting and dying for, and some even tell of how your stomach itself came down to your own intestines as a bacteria, to live and die among them, as one of them, to sacrifice itself to itself in order to atone for the sinfulness of all your intestinal bacteria.
Orders of Magnitude
You should rightly think it absurd that your stomach is any sort of deity, much less that you yourself, a human, so far above those creatures, could even take notice of their lives (and surely you do not!! To look at a tiny few under a microscope, you would think them but a dumb curiosity; and the vast number of them you simply flush away) -- and yet here are they vainly thinking themselves important enough to trouble you, through your stomach, to address the problems of their fleeting lives, even as they cloak this bothersome self-importance in the frame of you being worshiped by them, you solving their problems for them because they are, after all, your beloved supplicants. This is hardly different from a human vainly think itself important enough to trouble the same being that it claims to be the Creator and sustainer of a Universe which is so vast we can't even conceptualize the number of stars in one single, relatively tiny galaxy, of which our entire planetary system is a dot on an edge.
Consider just a few more inconceivable numbers, now. A typical bacteria is a millionth of a billionth of your size. And yet it is much bigger compared to you than you are compared to the planet Earth, of which you are perhaps one millionth of a millionth of a billionth part. If you, curled up in a ball, were the size of Earth, than a lone bacteria on your skin would be as large as a good-sized office building. And the deity that is imagined to bear such love for humans, has it so intimate a relationship with these bacteria? And if not, why not? On the scale of its own Universe-encompassing magnitude, there is little difference between us -- where would the cutoff point lie? Is it at vertebrates? Is it mammals? Does it come after all other apes, and yet before the hairless ape? Some chimps are smarter than certain humans, are those humans forsaken, or are those chimps elevated to the theological status of humans, or does this deity practice speciesism even in favor of the genetically virtually indistinguishable "top" primates of this tiny planet? Does it care equally for the neanderthal, who went extinct? For intelligent dolphins and whales?
And, as we are just beginning to learn to manipulate our own genetic code so as to improve greatly on the flawed design that we have inherited, will our millennia-future perfected selves not merit the drawing of another such line, taking favor above old Twenty-First Century man?
And so we end this digression and come back to the true vanity of vanities, the stunningly peculiar belief by some humans that they might be held of some import -- indeed that they might adored to the point of prayers being answered and eternal reward being laid at their feet -- by an entity capable of creating an unimaginably vast and full Universe and sustaining that Creation for tens of billions of years before human feet ever dusted the ground of a tiny planet circling a tiny star of a small galaxy lost in a cluster spinning among billions of others therein. Our Universe may well be an object of intentional and intelligent Creation; but as easy as it is to be mislead, as strongly as men desire to be beloved by so great a being as such a Creator, men simply think far too much of themselves to imagine themselves as the focal point of the Universe-maker's adoration.