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The Alliance for Positive Thought - Frequently Asked Questions

The Alliance for Positive Thought - Frequently Asked Questions

Why do we need a secular analogue of religion?
What do you mean by "positive thought"?
What's so great about positive thought?
Does prayer work?
Does meditation work?
What is music?
Can religion and science peacefully coexist?
Is genetic modification wrong?
Is environmentalism important?
Is there a heaven?
What's the difference between humans and other animals?
Will humans be replaced by robots?
Did humans evolve from other animals?
Are people rational?
Do miracles happen?
Are we alone in the universe?
How do I know I'm not dreaming?
What is "truth"?
Isn't atheism depressing?
Is this a cult?
What's all this talk about space travel?


Why do we need a secular analogue of religion?

Studies have shown that piety is a reliable predictor of happiness – religious people tend to be happier. The reasons why religion promotes happiness are clear. Society works better when its people are totally convinced that certain moral rules must be absolutely be obeyed. Most of us prefer an ordered system to a disordered one. We’re human animals; we like to be fed, clothed, and loved. When violating others’ safety, comfort, and trust is taboo, we are much better off than when everyone is free to damage others as they please. Religion accomplishes this purpose for us – it establishes rules that are beyond question, designed to suit the preferences of some or all of the people.

Religion has other benefits besides simply the rules contained in its teachings. It provides a special kind of community – an extended family, whose only reason for existence as an institution is to provide love and support.

Perhaps the most unique benefit of religion is that it is a reliable way to promote disciplined positive thought. Studies have shown that those who practice positive thinking have a great deal of success in warding off depression. Cognitive therapies that teach techniques of repeating positive thought in a disciplined manner have been particularly successful. The theory is that negative emotions are the result of negative thoughts, and by teaching ourselves to think positively, we can conquer unhappiness.

The psychological theory corroborates the religious practice. Central to almost all religious practice is prayer, meditation, or mantras, which are essentially methods for disciplined positive thought. Worshippers repeat to themselves their wishes, which are certainly positive images, and repeat thanks for that which they have received, which are also positive images. They do this in a formal, regular way. As the principles of cognitive psychology predict, this kind of exercise produces a tangible, psychological and biological benefit to the worshipper.

But the effectiveness of religion is undercut when it relies on a lie. How can someone who knows rationally that there is no God, or at the very least, there is no way to know for sure, really be a full participant in religion? How can members be convinced of the benfits of positive thinking if the rationale for the practice is rubbish?

One reason religion works is that its believers are total believers. That is why faith is stressed as an essential value in evangelical Christianity. Your acceptance of Christ, your acceptance of the story that has been told to you, is what qualifies you for salvation.

If people are taught to obey rules because God told them to obey those rules, and then those people stop believing in God, they will have no reason to obey those rules. If I am a Christian who no longer believes in God, I have no reason to be good. God was the only reason anyone gave me. Now, that reason has become worse than useless, because I have lost trust for the society’s traditions in general, and I will not trust its taboos. And then society will suffer the consequences.

How can you really expect someone who at heart doubts the existence of God to address Him in daily prayer? And without prayer, the most important and unique aspect of religion is lost, and so is an important road to happiness. And if people do not trust the Church because it bases its teachings on axioms known to be false, then they will be less inclined to participate. They will lose the benefit of having the loving extended family provided by the organization.

As our society progresses and more people become aware that atheism will ultimately be the only rational option, we appear headed for a bleak future. As religion has waned in the twentieth century, crime has waxed. Religious conservatives claim that religion’s absence has caused a rise in crime, and they’re right. Religion is a powerful force that regulates behavior – even Machiavelli knew that. And without it, there is one less (very powerful) reason to prevent a criminal from committing a crime.

Religion as we knew it can never return – it’s a necessary casualty of our enlightened age. Once you find out that Santa’s not real, you can never go back to believing. Something new must take the place of religion.

If we want to ensure our happiness, we need an organization not based upon a mythology no one can rationally accept, but dedicated to those three things: a set of rules to help us get along in a society, a loving familial environment, and disciplined positive thinking.

We need a secular analogue of religion. An organization that does not need to lie to its members in order to secure happiness for them. An organization that eliminates the dogma and bad social ideas of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and replaces it with rules more suited to present day society, and provides love, support, and happiness. [back to top]

What do you mean by "positive thought"?

The term “positive thought” is a shortcut; it is a way of referring to a set of practices developed and perfected by religions and other institutions over time. It does not mean optimism or ecstasy or joviality. Prayer, meditation, music and cognitive behavioral therapy are “positive thought.” The label is meant to refer to what all of these arts have in common – namely, the ability to influence behavior and emotion using the power of the mind in ways that are beneficial and healthy. All of these share in common the following characteristics:

A. They are associated with a method
B. The method requires discipline
C. The practitioner enjoys benefits as a result of practice
D. These benefits are the result of changes in neurochemistry caused by thought patterns

There are limits to positive thought. The brain only has power over things that occur in the brain, like thoughts and emotion. The brain cannot prevent outside events from occurring. Fortunately, most of what we all perceive comes through the filter of our brains. So despite our inability to affect the world, we can affect our mood and the way we respond to the world.

In order to achieve the goals of positive thought, its methods must be applied lightly. In music therapy, the music should match the subject's emotional state and then gently bring him up into a different state of mind.

Sturm und drang as an aesthetic value is not ruled out by this kind of positive thought. Those who like the Mozart Requiem and My Bloody Valentine can still be practitioners of positive thinking. In fact, much of religious music and art is gloomy, and religion (which defines positive thought) promotes a variety of aesthetic moods along with its ideology.

But the positivity without discipline can be ineffective or even counter-productive. It is not helpful to assure yourself of a positive outcome in a gamble. It is not helpful to imagine that you are not injured if you are. It is not helpful to believe that the stock market will improve during each moment that it falls.  What religion brings to the table is a long history of proven models for how to structure and harness disciplined thought processes. [back to top]

What's so great about positive thought?

Scientists believe that there is a biochemical feedback loop between positive actions and positive feelings. A neurobiological understanding would hold that thoughts manifest themselves as a particular configuration of chemicals in the brain. Certain neurotransmitters are associated with positive thoughts, like dopamine and serotonin, some with the fight or flight response, such as adrenaline, and some with other effects. Positive thinking works because the act of thinking produces a biochemical reaction which in turn produces an emotion. When we think positive thoughts, the brain releases chemicals which make us happy.

Many classical philosophers believe in mind/body dualism. But science tells us that the mind is contained within the brain, a physical object. Our physical mind has the ability to undertake certain activities that make us suffer physically or make us feel physical joy. One study reports that transcendental meditation has a positive impact on blood pressure.  Just as we have the ability to make our bodies exercise in order to strengthen ourselves physically, we can exercise mental muscles that are just as physical. When we think positive thoughts, we ingrain neural pathways that reinforce happiness, and we release neurochemicals associated with feeling happy. When we do good, we feel good.

You might say, “Well, I am not depressed, and so I have no need for positive thought.” Cognitive behavioral therapy arose as a treatment for depression. But positive thinking does not benefit only those who are unhappy. It is also a necessary part of life for those who would like to remain happy. One reason many people turn to religion is because they benefit from the exercise of positive thought.

It doesn't really matter what kind of positive thought is being practiced. The kinds of things we might recommend, however, are those that don't contain any unecessary mythology. [back to top]

Does prayer work?

Prayer avoids the potential clash between an expectation of unhappiness and unproductivity by establishing God as a proxy. You know your own status to be unsatisfactory, and so you address your requests to this overseer. He requires and suggests nothing. You merely address your queries to him, and in doing so you recite an ideal vision of your happiness to yourself.  This process is very similar to the act of repeating a mantra in Buddhism,  or "rational rules" in cognitive-behavioral therapy.  A variety of disciplines have been developed throughout history, one of which is prayer, that utilize the mind's capability to alter the physical state of the body.  This is nothing outside of mainstream neurobiology: experiment after experiment shows that something like the placebo effect occurs.  So yes, prayer can be a powerful practice, for the person who prays. [back to top]

Does meditation work?

Meditation at its core means focusing the brain in one direction in a disciplined fashion, and it is done mindfully, meaning that the conscious mind is fully focused on the present moment. This is just another way of saying that it is disciplined thinking, rather than a stream-of-consciousness. Meditation can be used to shape the mind in a number of ways, and one of those ways is to cultivate a sense of well-being. It isn't a euphoriant, but it enables to mind to rub away any distractions and focus on a thought pattern of its choosing.

The reason it is scientifically measurable instead of religious mumbo jumbo is that there are physical connections in the brain between the parts that think and the parts that feel. Think of it this way: you have a muscle that can wiggle your ear. It might take a while to learn how to control it, but it's connected to your ear whether you can control it or not.

Likewise, your brain is wired to let you control your thoughts and emotions, whether you have learned how to do it or not. Meditaton is one (extremely effective) way of learning to make this connection. [back to top]

What is music?

One scholar says that music is "an arrangement of sounds and silences." That seems reasonable enough, but then the more difficult question becomes "WHY is music?"

The arrangement of sounds and silences is a language which communicates a message, which can be expressed either in a written or played form. This language is uniquely suited to express emotion -- it has the power to directly invoke a feeling. It is entirely unlike everyday language, like the one I am writing in, because everyday language, used by ordinary people who are not poets, can only describe emotional responses, not evoke them.

We know that emotional health and well-being are extremely important for normal functioning human beings, so it is not hard to see why having an emotional language is evolutionarily beneficial. If someone is feeling blue and is not joining the hunting party, playing a hunting march is a convenient and easy way to tap directly into the emotional state of the listener and modify it to suit society's needs.

The components of musical language develop over time due to particular cultural configurations. There is nothing particularly sacred or special about harmonic consonance or dissonance -- it is just that those components happen to be the codes that we have attached to particular emotional content.

Not any music will do. Music is like other languages, in that it can express a wide array of thoughts. When we feed our brains angry music, we will become angry, but when we feed our brains happy music we can make ourselves happy. Music has the potential to soothe the energized and to energize the soothed, and it can evoke joy, sadness, anger, determination, love, hate, fear, or any emotional content.

Positive music has a great deal in common with other positive thinking methods - there are scientific reasons to believe that it can heal us and make us happy, due to the connection between thoughts, emotion, and biology.  Just as in other types of positive thought, the use of musical language for positive thought purposes is a complicated art.  Playing upbeat music is not enough.
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Can religion and science peacefully coexist?

There has been much written recently about how religion and science are not truly at war, how religion and science answer different questions, and how they are compatible in the minds of many. But that's just not true.

Of course there is a strong reason to wish it were so. If we could have religion and science comfortably living together in our brains, then maybe we could avoid much conflict, and the important social role that religion plays could continue without undermining the science that drives our technology, our medicine, our lives.

But religion resists science, and has done so at every historical turn, because science challenges religion on a fundamental, inescapable level. Sure, we can craft a story about how God set up this grand string of dominoes, and evolution is just the elaborate fall from God's initial hand. God doesn't intervene because he has set up laws for the good of all his creatures that don't require his intervention. And every now and then, when the fate of the world is at stake, he will step in and set things right.

The problem is that religion teaches that God is more than just a setter of dominoes. He has given Man a special place in the universe – a place that was undermined by Galileo's heliocentrism, and will be toppled completely if evolution were accepted by all, because then we will not even have anthrocentrism.

It's bad enough for religionists that the Earth is not the center of the universe. We now know, and even they don't dispute, that the Earth is just one planet, around one star, in one corner of galaxy amongst billions in the universe. But maybe there's something special about our corner of the universe. Maybe our neighborhood, tiny though it is, just might be the best place in the universe.

But if we are just one animal in a long string of evolutionary change, with nothing separating us from the billions of organisms on Earth, that really destroys our ability to conceive of ourselves as God's chosen. If evolution is true, there will be more dominoes falling after us, bigger, better dominoes.

For Christians, evolution undermines the foundations of religious ethics. Christianity teaches that goodness means self-denial, fighting your base and evil urges, and giving yourself over to a higher purpose. If evolution is true, even if God is still the initial cause, then that can't be right at all! Our urges are what we evolved with in order to survive better. We can't have a higher purpose because our purpose was forged in the fires of a struggle to survive.

The God of dominoes himself cannot stand up to science's inquiry. Where did he stand when he set up this grand chain of events? As we see further and further into the horizon of existence, the number of possible locations for God's domain diminish.

Religion is right to fear science. As science progresses, God's ground will grow ever smaller, and eventually disappear in the minds of those who haven't already dismissed the possibility of his existence. Those scientists who claim that religion is compatible with their views are admirable because they seek harmony, but are foolish if they believe they are not contributing towards the truth that religion seeks to suppress. [back to top]

Is genetic modification wrong?

The argument made by those who oppose genetic modification is that humans are sacred and that we ought not play God. Further, genetic experimentation is dangerous because gene modifications could have unintended consequences.

If human beings are chemical concoctions lacking free will then the ethical objections to genetic modification melt away, except to the extent that these practices harm either our survival prospects or harm ideas which promote survival.

The trick in tackling controversial ethical propositions using an evolutionary ethic is sometimes teasing out which aspects of the intuition, or socially or biologically conditioned ethical feeling, actually produce the survival benefit, and which aspects are mere side effects. Evolutionary biologists who believe that all traits produce survival benefits are “adaptationist,” but the non-adapationists have strong arguments; so many human behaviors seem like they are just side-effects.

We have a sense of self and sacredness about our persons, because those traits might be conducive to keeping clean and not biting our own legs. But perhaps our sense that “our bodies are temples” is misfiring when confronting a situation that never arose during its evolution. Humans are only just beginning to gain the ability to modify both our own stem cells and the genes of other animals. We owe it to ourselves to swallow our revulsion and explore the possibilities.

Of course we should be mindful of the danger, and an ethical standard cannot do the work of cost-benefit analysis.  Scientists must carefully weigh the dangers of a malicious mutation spreading when they decide to experiment.   As noted elsewhere, scientific progress in general is paramount, because technology is what can enable the salvation of humankind. [back to top]

Is environmentalism important?

The environment is of paramount importance for future human survival and future life survival. [back to top]

Is there a heaven?

We are in heaven right now.  Of all the billions of locations in the universe about the same size, the space I occupy sitting here and typing is unique. We can see a huge variety of locations in the universe, and every single one of the ones we can see is completely unlike the one where I am sitting at my computer. Some are black holes, nebulae, or stars, some are space dust, large planets, and possibly even Earth-like planets. But none of the locations that we know about look anything like the one I see in my life.

We hold a privileged place and it's hard to imagine how we could feel more honored. Earth is the first among the known solar systems' eggs to hatch, and who knows if any of the others will? What's different about the hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon on Saturn's moon, Titan? Why don't those atoms get to be alive, and looking out at the universe with telescopes?

Compared with other possible existences, ours is clearly paradise.
[back to top]

 

What's the difference between humans and other animals?

We are very different from the other animals and other life, but the chasm is smaller than most people think.  What distinguishes humans from animals is our ability to master skills like intergenerational transfer of information, and a host of other capabilities that we share in kind, if not in degree. The power that grants us a high level of proficency in all skills is toolmaking.

Birds and monkeys chatter, express jealousy, love, hatred, sympathy, fear, and so do humans. But we humans can also write about it with our nifty charcoal sticks, and mats of paper, and computers, preserving it in precise form, to refer to later. Our ability to engineer tools enables us to enshrine our thoughts exactly.  That precision of ideas enables further discourse, epicycles upon epicycles of discourse, that can be tracked and measured. Tools allow us to think further ahead in the game of life because they enable us to record the moves.

Despite our phenomenal ability to assist ourselves by building tools, we are still composed of genetic material we largely share with other animals, and our behavior shows our kinship with them. Like ants, our life patterns are determined by our genetic material and our environment. Ants teach their children what they believe to be the right things. They have a hierarchical society, job specialization, and school. We don't think they are intelligent because they lack the tools to inscribe their language and thoughts, and build on what we would consider basic perceptions and cognitions.

Our kinship with the rest of life is not a reason to feel marginalized on Earth. We are clearly the dominant organism, and because we have the ability to make tools, we are the only creature likely to be able to build an escape pod from Earth. If our ultimate destiny is survival, then we, as a species, are the chosen ones.  Having the ability to make tools is like being the superhero who has all the powers because he or she can imitate. We have the ability to imitate, and in real life, that makes us giants amongst the other living things on Earth.

As the superhero species, we have the responsibility to safeguard the rest of life, and make sure it survives whatever apocalypse arrives first. With great power comes great responsibility, and in our technological rebirth, we belched forth carbon dioxide and other pollutants that have the potential to destroy our society. [back to top]

Will humans be replaced by robots?

The lesson of evolution is that it will continue as long as conditions allow life to continue to exist. Humans are evolving right now and will continue to do so, and over time will either become completely unrecognizable, or be replaced by something superior life form.  It remains to be seen whether silicon and metal constructs can self-replicate as efficiently as ones based on organic processes. If it turns out that the machines can self-replicate as well or better than organics, then AI will rule over life.

These terms are fluid, of course, because once what we consider “AI” gains the ability to self-replicate as efficiently as life does, it just becomes another kind of life. It already meets the other requirements of life: metabolism and information processing.  Now, it seems highly unlikely that a self-replicator of high efficiency could be designed by a group of humans, because we have yet to design more than the most basic of such mechanisms. If an alternate method of self-replication comes into existence, it will most likely evolve.  That means that if AI comes to dominate evolutionary history, there will likely be an intermediate stage of partnership, wherein humans and other carbon-based life serve as the producers of the essential commodity of self-replication, and other technologies feed off of it. [back to top]

Did humans evolve from other animals?

Yes. [back to top]

Are people rational?

People are not rational. We are the subject to the winds of change and random circumstance, and we are not masters of own destiny. But that’s not a negative. Even though we can’t say that we are rational, we make decisions on factors that help us survive. Knowing that we are irrational enables us to accept our fates and succumb to the positive forces that buoyed our evolution. We are riding on waves that lead us towards our beautiful destiny while we struggle to second guess our evolutionary programming.

There have been countless studies showing that external factors can influence how we think we perceive things in almost random ways. When people are showed a doctored photo of an event they remember, the altered photo can change their memory. Combinations of light and sound can trick our brains into seeing something that’s not there.

It’s hard to see how all of these irrational behaviors are evolutionary adaptations. Some of them may be necessary trade-offs with certain other advantages. Some of them are just drift characteristics, that neither help nor hurt our chances for survival. And some of them may already be fading due to their survival disadvantage. [back to top]

Do miracles happen?

We have to be very careful in what we believe, because we all have a tendency to impose a narrative on what we see. It's easier to understand things in story form. When we tell other people what happened to us, we tend to structure events with a beginning, middle, and end, with a problem and solution, even if it didn’t quite happen like that.

So when events happen that fit into story form, we are more likely to remember and retell them. No one wants to hear your dream if it’s not interesting or doesn’t come true, and most dreams are like that. But you might tell and retell the story of the one in a million dream that accurately predicts the future, a dream which statistically, you are almost certain to have at some time in your life.

In the same way, you might eat a million pieces of toast in your life, and one of them is almost certain to have a passing resemblance to the Virgin Mary, and that’s the one you will remember, photograph, and post to the internet.

Now, when you have been indoctrinated into a religious tradition that believes in miracles, you are more likely to dream about God, because God is part of the cast of fictional characters running around your subconscious. A whole society of people reading stories about Jesus is practically guaranteed to experience miracles all the time.

How do you sort through all this? You just have to be ever-vigilant, and committed to examining claims of miracles with skepticism. You only have three choices: either you believe them all, or you believe none of them, or you personally investigate. The bottom line is that there probably isn’t any such thing as a miracle, because the alternate explanation – random fluctuations of probability – is so compelling. [back to top]

Are we alone in the universe?

The conditions that cause life to grow may in fact be very common in the universe. Unless we have reason to believe otherwise, why would we assume that our planet is unique? [back to top]

How do I know I'm not dreaming?

The present moment as we experience it is a neurological construct – neurons firing. Which means that we can be tricked and confused about reality -- and it happens all the time.  There is nothing sacred about what you experience right now, no privileged place for the subjective experience that you think you are having, because all the daydreams you have ever had were running on the same software as “reality.”

The fluidity of our perception of reality has two things to say about how we should live our lives: first of all, we should not put much stock in things people say based on their life experiences, and second, we can’t be too skeptical about our own beliefs. [back to top]

What is "truth"?

Truth depends on context. Change the rules of language and culture, and you also change the rules of truth.  In science we have one definition of truth, something like, "A true statement is one that can be verified using the scientific method and that is accepted in the scientific community." In religion, the rules are different. Truth is defined as something like, "Truth is what the Bible says." We are often totally unaware of the antecedents of the rules that we have chosen for truth. Over the course of history, the rules change without our noticing, and we forget why we picked the rules that we picked.

But when we say "truth," what we mean is something like, "that which when examined rigorously and according to the rules of logic and rationality, remains consistent with other things that are true."   How do we obtain anything at all that is true to begin with, to compare other things to? By my definition of truth, we cannot. But because we want to be able to find some things that are true, we have to just start with some assumptions, assumptions that we cannot prove true. We must accept the conditionality of the truth of whatever we discover.

We want to start with as few assumptions as possible. So what assumptions are we obligated to make? That is, what MUST we assume?  Well, we are human beings.  We have to eat and breathe and sleep and procreate. In order to do those things, we have to be able to function. We have to be able to interact with my environment, and other people. In order to do those things, we have to believe our senses. In order to find food, we have to assume that when our eyes tell us there is food in front of us, they aren't lying, otherwise, we will starve to death.

So we assume that our senses convey true sensory input, and beyond that, the requirement for truth is rational consistency with that sensory input.  What is rationality? A set of arbitrary rules. Fortunately, logic and mathematics have rigorous and precise definitions for rationality. Why those particular rules? Well, we need some common set of rules in order to discuss and argue and prove, and those seem to work pretty well, and to need the least tinkering. If we were wrong about A = A, a lot of things that we depend on would no longer work. Our rules are arbitrary in that no God or universal order legitimizes them, but among the rules we might use, they are the best for our purposes.
[back to top]

Isn't atheism depressing?

The biggest draw of religion is also its greatest drawback – the promise of eternal life. The problem is that it is false advertising, because we will not live forever, and our planet, our sun, our galaxy, will all eventually die. This is incredibly depressing. How easy and comfortable it would be, by comparison, to just give in to peer pressure, and to relax into the feeling of the salvation offered by Jesus Christ (or whatever).  But the very reason we are so desperate to spread our message is because we believe in the value of human life and we want it to continue.

A giant spider’s web might be comforting and safe – webs certainly look silky and smooth. But if we saw our brother sound asleep in a giant spider’s web, of course we would rouse him and alert him to the danger. We would feel sadness if he fought and wanted to go back to sleep, but we wouldn’t feel terrible about our desire to rouse him. We fervently want him to survive, and maybe that desire is selfish in some way, because maybe he would be happier sleeping comfortably until his death. But we think we would save our brother from the web.

But though the truth is daunting, it cannot prevent our happiness.  Our thesis is that the practice of positive thought is the key to happiness and does not require belief. [back to top]

Is this a cult?

No, we oppose religions and cults.  Cults are like religions, only more dogmatic and demanding. They are popularly imagined to inspire the sacrifice of a greater portion of a cult follower's life than traditional religion does. Popular culture also supposes that cults promote the subversion of the individual will of their followers. The scientific interpretation of philosophical questions that I advocate stands diametrically opposed to this cultish attitude.

Self-doubt is the hallmark of a scientific approach: the scientific method demands that the practitioner posit a hypothesis and attempt to prove it wrong. If a scientist could not bear to refrain from self-certitude, she could not bear to test the truthfulness of her assumption, because to do so would be to risk proving her own foolishness. That is, unless she worked with the intention of ignoring evidence that could contradict her hypothesis. But selective perception does not return accurate results and is scientifically unacceptable.

A scientific approach is therefore not compatible with a faith-based approach. One who has faith in his views as handed down from on high must feel the self-certitude that I have described as scientifically impermissible. All religions demand an approach to thinking about big philosophical questions that does not abide by this requirement of incertitude. The cult is the subspecies of religion that flaunts its disobedience to scholarly methods most extremely.

As reference.com describes it, "the term cult is now often used to refer to contemporary religious groups whose beliefs and practices depart from the conventional norms of society. These groups vary widely in doctrine, leadership, and ritual, but most stress direct experience of the divine and duties to the cult community."1 The greater the power of the object of faith to subvert individual perceptions of truth, the greater the power of ideological leaders to enforce performance of religious duties by the adherents of the faith.

A scientific approach requires doubt, and so cannot inspire blind devotion. Therefore, those who doubt traditional religion on scientific grounds, like us, are even more unlikely to succumb to the minimally verifiable certitude demanded by a cult that hews to the perception given to us by popular culture.
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What's all this talk about space travel?


Planet Earth will cease to exist eventually, one way or another. Our sun, a yellow dwarf, is in the main stage of its lifecycle, but in a few billion years it will transform into a red giant, and become so large that it will consume all of the planets in the inner solar system. And the Earth may become uninhabitable well before then. A meteor, miniscule in size compared to the Earth, has the potential to cause global extinction. If we manage to conquer internal threats to our existence such as climate change and nuclear war, our time on this cosmic yacht will nevertheless be limited.  There is a pressing need to consider the eventual destruction of our planet.We live in an age of science. Religion continues to lose ground in the developed world, despite a temporary resurgence in the decadent and declining United States of America. Evolution is entirely uncontroversial within the scientific community, and evolutionary theory makes religion optional. We still hang on to the old myths, but their original purpose no longer applies. We no longer need them as explanations for our origin – we have something more believable, more concrete, and undeniably true.A recent study published in the Journal of Religion and Society found that among citizens of developed nations, acceptance of evolution correlates inversely with religiosity. Thus, as long as scientific knowledge continues to expand, belief in religious myths will decline. As well it should be. Humankind has graduated into adulthood, and no longer needs Santa Claus.

The absence of religion leaves a void. We can no longer hope for eternal life, nor can we look to a Messiah and Rapture as the culmination of human history. Instead, we are left with the bleak picture that we grew like a festering yeast in the stagnant pools of Earth, and that we will fester alone in a corner of the Universe until scrubbed from existence, with no signs of our passing. But we do not have to accept this picture. The void can be filled. We need a new Messianic event – a new story of hope, of transcendence, of eternality. The new story cannot simply be another myth. Science, education, and the spread of information across the globe will preclude self-deception. The new story must be a true story – and the truth is that we need not perish on this island Earth. The new Messianic event will be the spread of humankind across interstellar space. It is true that travel to the closest stars, tens of light years away, at currently conceivable speeds, would take hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. Of course, we do not know if we would find habitable planets once we arrived. But if scientific knowledge continues to expand exponentially, the development of the technology for interstellar travel and colonization is inevitable. The obstacles to interstellar travel are, literally, cosmically large. But humankind is almost inconceivably powerful. That amalgamations of amino acids born in the furnaces of oceanic vents evolved into God-like beings capable of music, communication, emotion, is the most incredible phenomenon in the observable universe. To what ultimate purpose have we, the real Gods in our corner of the universe, devoted our incomprehensibly magnificent talents? For 200,000 years we have fought wars and made knick-knacks, played games and deceived each other, masturbated and procreated. We have undoubtedly made amazing progress in understanding ourselves and in mastering our environment. But it’s about time, now that we know who we are and how we got here, to decide what to do with ourselves.

Of course, in order to ensure that we reach the point when we are ready to embark on our journey, we must not shit in our own nests. We must forestall nuclear war and climate change at all costs, while continuing our quest after the technology for our escape. Survival must be our new worship, our new devotion. The Christians have waited 2,000 years for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The Jews have waited almost 6,000 years for their Messiah. In this age of knowledge, we are capable of thinking, and must think, in terms of orders of magnitude much greater than the thousands of years. As medical technology advances and life spans increase, the time scales involved in traveling to the stars will seem less and less daunting. During our lifetimes, we may see stem cells used to grow replacement organs, perhaps indefinitely extending life. We can even imagine, further into the future, downloading consciousness onto a digital medium for eternal preservation. It is within the realm of possibility that you and I will live to see the colonization of Alpha Centauri.Like the Messianic myths from humankind’s childhood, this new Messianic event retains the promise of seeing it within our own lifetimes. We will continue our romantic quest for eternality, and we will maintain a sense of purpose and hope. But this new hope is firmly rooted in the empirical. Thus, it is much more resilient than the anthropomorphic legends of the past that even the most faithful cannot help but occasionally doubt. [back to top]

 
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