Whither Eternity

Becoming an astronomer was the dream of my brother, to study the stars and make sense of all their wonders. He never realized the dream, dying at the tragic age of 16, yet his many discussions on his views of the universe have always lingered in the back of my mind. Although children, we would discuss and argue about star distances, the universe origin, and whether there was ever an end to the vast expanse. And now, in the senior years of my life, I find myself with a keen interest in whatever is the end, not just the end of my short life, but the end as it applies to all we know. All of that will go on after I am gone, yet it is my belief that I am just the first of my concerns to face the end, to be followed at some future date by our beloved Earth, the solar system we know it and, yes, the universe itself.

The struggle I face is in our belief as humans that we are superior to all around us, that we and we alone have the key to eternity, an existence that knows no end. For my own life, I yield to these words:

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. (Genesis 3:19 KJV)

Simple, isn’t it? My exit will be final. No follow-up, no second chance, no do-over, no next phase. From childhood, however, I was taught otherwise, that my life had the key to eternity and would never end. From where does this belief originate? We people fear death and seek any belief that frees us from having an end. Religion does that, as no religion can be successful unless it provides a path that eliminates the fear of death. In fact, no religion can survive otherwise.

But in saying the above, I bypass key elements of myself and all of us, leaping too quickly to a summary. We humans didn’t start this way, did we? No, our acceptance of reality has been difficult, is still emerging, and I have struggled for decades to reach only a meager awareness of who I am. From the beginning, people had a need for gods to protect their existence and to ensure an afterlife or a rebirth. Our intelligence let us believe that we were empowered to speak with the creators of the universe and that these gods had a direct interest in our lives. Eternity was within our grasp. In our own way, we were also gods, having the ability to control our future.

Although we find it horrific that the ancient Aztec and Incan civilizations made ritual human sacrifices to their gods, their actions demonstrated the strength of belief in having direct contact with the supernatural and the ability to control life. In this way, they were demonstrating that they were also gods, controlling their world by appeasing gods of a higher nature. They controlled their world. They were gods themselves. And we are no different.

Horrible? Bloody? Uncivilized? Step lightly. We are those people. Yes, yes we are. Our methods have changed, but we continue to see our actions as being the authority on Earth, that what we decide should be right becomes right for us. We live in a different time, but we are still the same human race with the same ego, the same fears, and the same belief that what we do lives on beyond ourselves, that we are somehow eternal in what actions we do.

To us, life must have a meaning and purpose, that we were placed here for a reason. We expect life to give us meaningful experiences and that we are each unique. But is any of this true? Nothing in science indicates that life must have meaning or even that we are the norm in the universe. In fact, humans appear to be the most unexpected species on Earth and obviously the most dangerous to the Earth’s survival. And for what purpose?

We believe ourselves to be special and eternal, but we are as random as the stars that grace the sky. Consider the act of procreation itself wherein several hundred million sperm are launched with the mission to impregnate a single egg. Several hundred million, each with its own combination of DNA. Several hundred million. By simple random chance, each of us had a 1 in 300,000,000 chance of being conceived (which is approximately the same odds as winning the Powerball lottery with only one ticket), and a 300,000,000 to 1 chance that the conceived child would be ANYONE ELSE, yet we are here and we act as though our existence was foreordained. Had that sexual act occurred a moment earlier or later, neither of us would be here. How is that for happenstance?

And that’s just the randomness of us as individuals. On the level of the universe, our existence is even more rare and circumspect. Will we ever meet people from another planet? No, we will not. With billions of stars and distances of tens of thousands of light-years, who are we kidding? Even if it were to happen, they would need to be our equals in both technology and society for us to communicate at the lowest level. What if they were 1,000 years (only a second in eternal time) ahead of us in technology? They would view us the same as we view the technology and society of Neanderthals and other early humans. Instead of focusing on extraterrestrials, we should focus on our lives here on Earth and preserving what we have.

Yes, we could possibly create a significantly large tax to collect funds to build the technology to fly a ship to the stars carrying a handful of volunteers. And to what end? Is there a purpose in preserving humanity? Has our race improved the Earth so much that we deserve to live forever? And does escaping the Earth do that? My belief is this is a fool’s errand. Our focus is here.

And what of that idea of escaping Earth to build human communities elsewhere? The concept itself is that the universe is eternal, that human life can sustain itself so long as there is a planet on which to live. But our knowledge of the universe tells us otherwise. Scientists have already told us of many ways in which the Earth will end; it’s not here forever. And the sun that gives us light will also be gone in a few billion years. We know that the Andromeda Galaxy is headed toward our Milky Way, with a cataclysmic explosion that will destroy many of the billions of stars involved and the trillions of associated planets.

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that entropy exists in all systems, that over time all systems deteriorate. And this applies to the universe as well. Although its demise is billions or trillions or quadrillions of years in the future, there will be an end to the universe. There will be nothing. Nothing. And if there is nothing, whither eternity?

The Atheism Challenge

It was in my 2015 book, God and I, that I acknowledged my acceptance of atheism as a reasonable perspective on the supernatural, rejecting my long history as a Christian. In that book, my views were mixed, trying gently to show how a shift in a major belief is not an overnight experience, but one that requires hours, weeks, and months—years, really—internally searching for the truth. Were I to write that book today, I would share deeper thoughts. That first writing was a reaction to my upbringing in a Fundamental Christian family, but I am now more aware of the existence of what I refer to as Fundamental Atheism (my term for the people who post those anti-Christian billboards). That may appear as a contradictory term, mixing the words fundamental and atheism, but this subculture exists, thrives, and is growing. My fear is that it may be missing its true mission. But let me go back for a moment.

For decades, I have been aware of Fundamental Christians, those who long to return to a time when it was commonly believed that the Bible is 100% inerrant, when evolution was not a topic, and when the Earth was believed to be 6,000 years old. What people know has changed much in the past 150 years and I acknowledge it has been a struggle to adjust religious beliefs to accept new discoveries. This struggle has resulted in many Fundamental Christians withdrawing into their world, casting all aside who do not share their beliefs. This self-forced alienation hurts our society by ensuring there is no meaningful sharing, helping, and supporting of each other. Where I become especially troubled is when people attempt to recreate a history that did not exist, such as with the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter.

Such moves alienate the rest of us, sending a signal that a shared view on common ground will not be attempted. Scientific discoveries will always be with us and, yes, sometimes they may force us to accept that what we had always thought to be true was never true. The Bible was not written to be a book of science and there is much there that we can share and build upon. That seems a preferable place to start, but it may never happen through the Fundamental Christians’ reluctance.

Christianity has always had a rich religious history of support, compassion, help, and personal discovery that is being set aside and will be our loss due to the Fundamental Christians’ semi-militant rejection of newer ideas and discoveries. Life is a mystery that unfolds only with self-reflection and an acceptance that we are dependent on others as we struggle through what will always be too short a life. This one life. This undeserved and unearned life, this life that continues to seek answers to life’s questions and, through science, answers to the bigger parts of our world. The religious framework from our ancestors has a place here and the “us against the world” stance taken by Fundamental Christians could bring ruin to us all. I encourage all of us to move to a stance of reaching out to find common areas. Love one another should be our guiding phrase.

The problem as I see it is there is a belief among many that religion and science cannot coexist, yet they are two different topics. Science helps us understand this material world and how it works. Religion helps us understand ourselves, our dreams, our emotional needs, and the value of communal sharing. For each category, there will be topics we do not understand, but that does not mean we should reject them. In science, I do not understand black holes, quantum mechanics, or quasars—but I don’t deny their existence. In religion, I do not grasp a superior being as our creator, but I do not deny the possibility that such is conceivable.

And that brings me to my earlier topic: Fundamental Atheists. Here I see a lost opportunity in what appears to be their misdirected strategy. Whereas most atheists have a “live and let live” attitude, avoiding religious discussions when possible, Fundamental Atheists seem to be at war with people who identify with organized religions, seeing them as biased anti-intellectuals. However, their attempts to insult, tease, and demonize Christians (and other religious groups) by posting anti-Christian billboards cast them into the same mold, focusing on issues that are not relevant or that make their own statements, instead of focusing on areas where there may be shared beliefs to allow true communications. Common ground will not be found by debating Noah and the ark and similar stories that were written, not for accuracy, but to convey a truth, belief, or idea; nor will it be found by blatantly declaring that Christians are wrong. If the motivation of Fundamental Atheists is to replace religious beliefs with secular ethics to guide our world forward, they need to first discover the positive benefits that religious beliefs have provided and then to work within the religious community to explore common avenues. One does not drop a belief in anything without finding a replacement belief that addresses the same issue.

Which brings us to a stalemate. We have atheists who see organized religion preventing a more progressive agenda in society and preserving unscientific views on history. To them, organized religion must be eliminated, peacefully or forcefully. And we have the reverse from the attitude of many Fundamental Christians, who see atheism as an anathema to society that must be destroyed if not converted. Until both sides discover we are in this world together, little progress will happen. And we all lose. Fundamental Atheists are our hope to get the discussion started. We can all win if we but try. The Bible provides us with a guide in Galatians 6:9.

 

Religion and Us

Have you noticed how Sunday is morphing into just another Saturday? Yes, it’s been happening for over fifty years, but now seems on a sprint to the end of Sunday as we once knew it. There was a time when Sunday was a day of rest, a day when stores were closed, a day when people focused on life and its meaning to them and to family.

As a child, I remember Sunday’s fixed schedule in my parents’ home: wearing my best clothes, first to Sunday school, then to worship service, then a big dinner afterwards, followed by a return to more church activities in the evening. As an adult, I taught our teenage son how to drive on Sundays by practicing on the empty parking lots of a local mall, as all stores were closed for the day. Sunday was a day of peace and reflection.

But all that is now behind us; our future will be one with fewer churches and fewer people identifying with any religious framework and there is no longer a day of rest. Our world is becoming accustomed to activities and commitments that span 24/7. Many people may believe the Sunday of yesterday needs to be restored and that the means to that is to increase the participation in religious activities. But that will not happen. As I mentioned previously, that world is behind us. Our survival requires adopting a new framework, not wishing for an abandoned one.

Wishing to restore yesteryear acknowledges that we are avoiding the facts. We pretend nothing has changed, that we are still active in religious beliefs and practices. But it’s a lie, isn’t it? Churches are becoming more and more to be less and less a part of our lives. Ask us our religious affiliation and we’ll respond, but please don’t ask us if we believe it or practice it. Or even understand it beyond the simple stories taught to us in our childhood. Any poll in the United States will show a majority believe in God, yet that is more a confirmation that it’s easier to say yes than to explain why not. We say it and we quickly move on, not wanting to reflect on the issue facing us.

Why do we have this dichotomy? Facts and polls showing we’re not religious, yet our leaders and the media talking of us as a “Christian nation.” And maybe that answers the question: Politicians believe they may lose votes if they shy from references to being one nation under God, and the media likewise parrots the political view. And we don’t correct them, either because we don’t care about the subject, or we fear alienating others and giving the perception that we are horrid, evil, atheists. Religion as it affects us is something of which we do not like to discuss.

It is this refusal to come “out of the closet’ on the topic and begin active dialogue on the issue of religion that keeps our moving on with our lives. Are you not tired of listening to people talking of how God will solve our problems, when we know that the problems we face can only be solved by our taking ownership and working to fix them?

Facing the truth is our only hope to move to a better understanding of our time here. Our world is changing and we are part of it. A few years ago, I wrote a post on the closing of the church my dear wife and I had attended for several years. That post is at https://davidsplace.org/for-sale/ and I have read it many times as a reminder that I am part of the changing world, whether I want to admit it or not. That church did not close because of me, but I cannot claim innocence: it was my leaving, along with many others, that caused that little church to die.

Apology? Regret? Guilt? No, I feel none of that. My emotional needs are no longer met by religious teachings and I know I do not stand alone. In the news, I read now of people telling our president and others that the time-worn phrase, We’ll pray for you, no longer works. Why? People believe in actions, not in prayer. Because actions produce results.

That little piece of knowledge has taken civilization over five thousand years to learn, and many haven’t yet, which is already causing a dangerous split in society: Many who believe in God and prayer also believe that those who do not are evil, and those who do not believe in God and prayer also believe that those who do are avoiding reality. That is a huge chasm to cross—but the non-believers are slowly winning this debate, as evidenced by the closing of churches.

And that brings me to where I began: we’re at the end stage of religion. And move forward we must, with a new vision and a new sense of what all people share at their core. We are not God’s children, we are Earth’s children, and that alone makes us all part of one family. Read the material of any major religion and you find common ideas: kindness, charity, love, sharing. Those common areas are proof that people, despite their religious beliefs, all share basic ethical and moral guidelines.

The existence of these common ideas proves something more: that kindness, charity, love, and sharing come from within each of us and have no dependency on religion. People are basically good, seeking support and companionship from others. There was respect for human life, marriage, and family before the story of the Ten Commandments.

Churches will continue to close. Let’s stop wringing our hands on this and start a fresh dialogue. Religion’s place needs to be defined and owned by those who support it, not by politicians and the media who use it as a crutch. And we need to acknowledge and accept that religious belief no longer dominates our society. We can do this. It’s time. It’s long past time.