Existential Angst

The Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago. It was lifeless. But after a billion years it was teeming with organisms which resembled oxygen producing blue-green algae which made the planet inhabitable for us. Our own ancestors were very primitive organisms 500 million years ago. What sets us off from them is the emergent property of a consciousness and self-awareness which we also share to some lesser degree with other life.

Human nature is both cooperative and competitive. These natures have been inherited from our ancestors to insure our survival in a very dangerous environment. The evolutionary goal of life has been simply to reproduce and then we all finish out our lives and die; some sooner than others.

Religion has been assumed to have been around since the dawn of human history. Human nature relied on the need to believe in origin stories because humans have an inquisitive mind and have an insatiable necessity for knowing why things are as they are. Most societies, no matter where they are at or how isolated they are from each other, all believe in some origin myths; some of which are surprisingly similar.

Up to 95% of Americans are religious to some extent, believing in God or spirits.

"Freud postulated that the belief in God is the result of the wish to be protected, the desire for safety and the fear of a punitive father. For Feuerback, theism was a projection of humanity, for Marx religion helped to cope with the effects of economic exploitation and for Durkheim religion was linked to the strength of the social order. More recently, however, it has been postulated that the religious beliefs may have a biologic rather than a theological or sociological origin. Boyer and others have suggested that our religious beliefs are ways to organize and interpret the world that have been selected by evolution. Cognitive psychology sees religious beliefs as a cultural by-product of human psychology. An agency detection device and a theory of mind module lead us to expect an agent behind any event to expect the agent to have a mind. The human need for attachment, protection and meaning may also contribute to the foundations of faith. Dawkins claims that religious ideas are like viruses that invade the host a a tender age and then replicate and spread further." (Guido O Perez, M.D., Beyond the Science/Religion Debate, a naturalist world view - 2008)

Dr Perez writes that religion may have evolved from our "need to give agency to unknown things." He says, "It decreases the anxiety of living in a difficult world and it helps us to face the inevitability of death..."It is a powerful archetype that assuages existential loneliness, provides meaning, identity and moral values, lessens individual responsibility and promises justice, happiness and everlasting life."

Religions are based on FAITH and REVELATIONS; they stress relationship of humans to a God or Gods and monotheistic religions have been around for thousands of years. Jews - who beginning with the Common Era were two groups: the Sadducees (Hellenists) did not believe in a Messiah nor resurrection; Pharisees, the other group - which goes back to the Babylon Exile of the Hebrews was influenced by Zoroastrism and did believe in a Messiah. Paul, the father of Christianity was a Pharasee and he taught that Jesus was the Messiah.

Orthodox Judaism was based predominantly on the Torah (the first 5 books of Moses) essential at the time to tribalistic cohesion and social stability. However, other movements in Judaism came out of the Reformation and were based on a modern approach to tradition and cultural practices. Christianity developed from the apocalyptic spirit of Judaism in the last century B.C.E. and Jesus became the embodiment of Christian divine reality. In the 7th century, Mohammed, declared himself the final prophet who received direct revelations through the angel, Gabriel from God which was the final word and later it was written in the Quran with elements borrowed from both Christianity and Judaism.

During World War II, a journalist, Ernie Pyle wrote "There are no atheists in foxholes" which are words repeated often in movies, i.e., the 1942 movie `Wake Island' and in news print (most notedly in Readers Digest) and magazines ever since. Of course there are atheists in fox holes, but atheists are very often vilified and this myth that there are no atheists in foxholes is often quoted as if it is irrefutable fact. Many patriotic Americans have been atheists.

Foxholes were dug large enough usually for one soldier. The army stopped digging foxholes after WWII and the Korean War. In lieu of foxholes beginning in the Vietnam War, soldiers built fortified bunkers [usually 3 feet wide by 6 feet long].

I am not surprised that 80 to 95% of Americans believe in God because of the cultural demographics of Americans and their traditions. The number is far less in Europe and Asia. There are thousands of minor religions in the world today and there are the larger major religions. [about 2.1 billion Christians, 1.3 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus - (and 350 million Buddhists). About 10% of the world is atheist.

We, humans, think about these things because we must. We have evolved the cognition and consciousness to inquire about everything including our existence, sense of purpose and meaning in our lives - but doing so also causes a concomitant problem, that of knowing about our own dying - and thus the risk for extinction by the existential angst for contemplating our own mortality. It is reasonable that those with less anxiety about death would have a greater sense of purpose and will to survive would be favored by evolutionary pressure to eliminate the less fit to survive to reproduce.

When humans could enumerate and contemplate their navel, they needed to also be able to rationalize "ultimate and intrinsic meaning" or the fear of death would be overwhelming; they needed their absolutes.

"Furthermore, without God, there are no absolutes. All of our laws, our morals, our so called "eternal truths," become subjective conceptions, man-made devices, as flawed and imperfect as the humans who created them. Good and evil become relative terms, devoid of any true means. Without God there is no absolute moral order in the universe. We become existential orphans, barren of purpose, truth, or soul, lost forever to the vast and meaningless abyss." (Matthew Alper, The "God" Part of the Brain" A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God (98))

We have come a long way toward having a deeper understanding for who we are and never so much as the last 3-400 years and especially the last 100 years in science.

Writer Christopher Hitchens says religion is bad for you. He says this about religion: "I'm an atheist...I'm not just neutral about religion, I'm hostile to it. I think it is a positively bad idea, not just a false one." And scientist Richard Dawkins says, only the ignorant are religious.

The view about religion may be changing but as humans can we stand the knowledge upgrade? I'm not sure. Religion is good for some people. There is no doubt it can drive men (and woman) insane, but it can also cause one to go insane if too obsessed with it but as a good thing it can create the conditions for coherence for communities and cultures and a codification of morals - although there have been major breakdowns in religious societies and their morals and ethics also.

To be an atheist it is not necessary to prove that God doesn't exist. What do we call people who don't believe in leprechauns, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, or Tinkerbell? Do we have to prove they don't exist? Rather, it is incumbent upon those who assert God does physically exist to prove it. -- A Bierce

Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, the author of On Human Nature and Sociobiology: The New Synthesis and Consilience, The Unity of Knowledge is an atheist who believes we must co-exist with religionists. In his autobiography, Naturalist (1994), he said, "Religion had to be explained as a material process, from the bottom up, atoms to genes to the human spirit. It had to be embraced by the single grand naturalistic image of man."

In an interview he did for Salon (April 2000) he calls himself a secular humanist: "And humanists -- I'll identify myself as a secular humanist -- recognize that they do not have 2,500 years of the evolution of ritual and mythology into which they can invest their spiritual energies. That's the easy way. Humanists recognize that there's another way. It's harder and it's not undergirded by a long history of sacralization. And it may never have sacred prayers and sacred hymns."

Religion and God ideas, which it now seems likely evolved as a module in our brains to make us more fit to survive to reproduce (and then die) answers the basic question a religious conscious being would ask, why there is something rather than nothing. It is an evolutionary adaption which originates in their brain. However, there is also the question which is often posed, that if God created the universe, what then created God? And if there really was a God, why is there no concrete evidence to prove God exists? Because it doesn't, except in our brains because of that certain psychological need to invent God. Ethics and morality are not something which relies on the permanence of a soul. For atheists like me the impermanence of life is strong motivation for putting a greater value on life while the religious view is predicated on a lie. We don't need to base ethics on myths. Ethics is something we should feel about quality of the short life we have. It doesn't need intercessors nor rely on reward strategies, i.e. doing good to insure an afterlife, etc.

All of Life is Interconnected

Panspermia is the theory that life on Earth didn't start here. It is a theory that life started as micro-organisms which originated somewhere else in the universe.

Exploration of Mars has fueled an interest and a second look at the century old theory that primitive life might have travelled in our solar system on chunks of rock or ice and seeded life on our planet.

"For the past 25 years Cardiff University Professor Chandra Wackramasinghe has postulated that terrestrial life was brought to earth by comets. Rhodri Evans, Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), April 19, 2002)

"Some 500 million years ago evolution had resulted in the rise of the first vertebrates - fish...150 million years later came tamphibians, then reptiles 300 million years ago...200 million years ago mammals appeared, by 136 million years ago primitive kangaroos, and 60 million years ago mice, rats and squirrels had evolved...By 50 million years ago the first primitive monkeys were to be found, but it was a further 30 million years before the evolution of chimpanzees...By 4 million years ago the first humans were walking upright and by 2 million years ago they had started using stone tools...Just half-a-million years ago the first modern men were to be found." (ibid)

For 500 million years that life evolved our species developed the complexity to make awareness of ourselves and our surroundings the reality it is.

"...Scientists have developed computer simulations of how rocks ejected from a catastrophic meteorite collision on Mars could have wandered through space and been captured by Earth's gravity. Cornell astronomer Thomas Gold believes organisms living deep enough in a planet or satellite could survive space travel. Gold believes all life, including Earth's, started in rocky fissures deep below the surface as microbes feeding on methane, sulfur compounds or other energy-rich chemicals. On Earth, micro-organisms have been found as deep as 19,000 feet, surviving without any sunlight or air. Gold believes this kind of life could generate on other more hostile planets and even survive space travel. It also is possible that the solar system has collected materials from outside itself, some perhaps even life-bearing." (Chicago Sun-Times - Sept 22, 1996)

Evolution of a complex mind is the great leap in intelligence that made possible the development of myths and stories creating culture and socialization which empowered humans to create civilizations. Evolution of cultures have outpaced the evolution of our biology.

Our ancestors were primitive - organisms which were alive more than 500 million years ago. The elements of life in the universe are the product of eons of cosmic evolution which may have seeded Earth and our human species is physiologically the same as 200,000 year man whereas knowledge of science is only hundreds of years old and the environment is being changed faster than we could adapt our biology.

We are aware of our consciousness and most of us know the universe was not created for us; we were created out of the elements of star stuff. We are animals and we depend on other life for the energy we need to stay alive and that energy comes from our sun.

So are we closer to proving life came from space? Do we have the wisdom and science to decipher the cryptic secrets of life? We are definitely getting closer to something very remarkable.

Four hundred years of science has demonstrated that all of nature is connected and impermanent. We live in an indifferent universe and we are ALL organic chemicals bonded into fragile organisms; and our human minds are flooded with existential angst. Salvation exists for us only in the moment - in our feelings and emotions and seeking connections with other animals and each other.

It is what is human in us which makes us sad when we break with traditional memes. It is our complex brain, though similar in plan to other animals is different, and the emotions and feelings which motivates some people to do very bad things and other people to have feelings of dread when a meme; a habit we normally find some comfort is changed.

BUT everything changes and time changes much too fast. Sad feelings are part of being human which are uncomfortable and depressing. It is our mind which though similar to other animals is also the emergent property of our oversize brain which motivates and conserves complex neural mechanisms, cooperative and competitive behaviors we inherited from our ancestors which insured our survival in a very dangerous world but navigating the social interactions - to enhance our reproductive fitness are at times as depressing as they are at other times a comfort.

We have a mind and consciousness which we can't yet define with precision but we do know it provides the ethical dimension which provides us with meaning and purpose. There is a unity of nature and our human awareness determines how we navigate the present.

Unregulated growth is not just degradation of our natural resources, it is short sighted and destructive. Civilizations can burn themselves out. Our capacity to be human is our only real salvation. If we do not reject nihilistic tendencies in favor of more egalitarian societies, we will not survive as a species and the entire planet may go dark.

Regardless where life began it will end here if we continue down the path

of aggression, egoism, tribalism and greed.

What is also apparent to everyone who studies our nature and biology is that life is impermanent and our social interactions provide some comfort against angst. We, all of us determined by our nature, our nurture and the interaction of the two; and there is an awareness that we are fragile and temporary.

So how do we find personal meaning in any of this? I think we do it by knowing the truth. We acknowledge the connections we have with our past and time limited future. And we connect with someone. There is also a certain sense of awe acknowledging our connection to all living things and rising above that fragility. That is our capacity to be human.

Hank Roth

All quoting per the Fair Use Doctrine
for educational and discussion purposes pursuant to
Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, Copyright Law.

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