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"Are you good without God? Millions are."

This was the message proclaimed in 2010 by a large interstate highway sign near Fayetteville. The sign was sponsored by the Fayetteville Freethinkers, a group that meets once a month to celebrate a secular philosophy that separates church from state and promotes evidence and reason in public policy.

But how (you might ask) can we be good, or find meaning in our lives, without God or religion as our guide?

My answer to the question of finding meaning is that it involves a "category error." Life is not the kind of thing that has a meaning. Life is an experience, the way a roller-coaster ride is an experience. You wouldn't ask about the meaning of a roller-coaster ride. If you spend the ride thinking about "meaning," you're missing the point. The meaning of life is not a deep question. In fact, it's not even a question. It's so obvious. Life has no "meaning" beyond its direct experience: the joy, celebration, sharing, cherishing, loving. In short, the living. To search for the meaning of life is to look a very fine gift horse in the mouth. Just relax and welcome it.

And how should you live your life in order to be "good." Like the meaning of life, it's another question that answers itself: Having received this wonderful gift, use it to be all you can be. The real sin is to miss the ride. Indian philosopher Ramana Maharshi puts it this way: "Your own self-realization is the greatest service you can provide the world."

But do not interpret "self-realization" narrowly. It's intuitively and rationally obvious that humans must be altruistic toward others and, given that we now shape the entire planet, toward the environment. Biological evolution, in other words life itself, has built altruism into our genes. Without it Homo sapiens surely would not have survived. A moment's reflection will confirm this. This is why altruism feels good, why we are happier when those around us are happy, why we suffer when our loved ones suffer. We understand, in our genes, that we are all in this together.

Think of how enormously lucky you are to be here at all. Your molecules could have wound up in a tree, or a rock, but you possess this amazing human consciousness. So treat your molecules well.

At 82, I'm quite aware that I'm not going to live forever. Biological evolution has geared us to want to stay alive, whence comes the natural desire for eternal life. But it cannot be. There's not room on the planet for everybody to live forever. There is a sense in which it's selfish to expect to live forever, or to expect some sort of life after death. I can imagine God, if She actually existed, muttering to the seeker of eternal life: "What? I've given you all this, and still you want more? Get outta here!" So be satisfied with the enormous gift of existence, and bend your efforts not toward the chimera of eternal life but toward improving this here-and-now world and creating conditions in which all of us can find the self-realization that spells real happiness.

We live in a time when science-based technology is changing the world, usually for the better but sometimes for the worse. The problem is that the power of technology is such that "the worse" can be devastating, as for example in the case of nuclear weapons, humankind's greatest present danger. War, overpopulation, global warming (humankind's greatest future danger), and other scourges are going to steal our current civilization from us and consign us again to a dark age of ignorance, superstition and suffering unless we can summon the will to enable all humans -- not just a rich, or white, or male minority -- to prosper from the power of modern technology. In my opinion, this is well within our grasp if we will only use our rational powers to seize it. The challenge of the modern age is to accomplish this when today we are mired in dysfunctional instincts and superstitions that, given the power of modern technology, can quickly destroy us.

The industrial/scientific age has been thrust upon us quite recently following millions of years of human evolution, and this presents enormous growing pains. We can resolve these challenges by coupling our altruistic instincts with the power of intelligence to find the truth through reason based on verifiable evidence. For many, this quest is what it means to be good without God.

Commentary on 03/14/2017

Print Headline: A godless existence

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