In June 2007 the AARP released the results of a survey where 1011 over-fifty Americans were asked about their beliefs regarding life after death, heaven and hell, religion and spirituality, spirits and ghosts, and other afterlife issues. Soon after, the AARP magazine published an article based on this survey claiming that 94% professed belief in God, 73% believed in the afterlife, 53% in the existence of spirits or ghosts, 86% in heaven and 70% in hell. These numbers surprise me. They imply that 20% believe in life after death yet do not believe in spirits and ghosts and 16% believe in heaven but not in hell. Are not these beliefs codependent?
These strange results aside, the most telling quote within the article came from an interviewee named Tom. When asked, is there life after death, Tom responded, “Nope. I’ve always felt that way. Life’s short enough without having to worry about something you can’t do anything about anyway. It’s just reality, you know? I mean, I’m a Catholic. Sure. They preach life after death, you know? I just say, hey, people preach a lot of stuff. You just gotta make up your own mind about things. I go to Mass. I live my life like there’s life after death, but I don’t believe there is. If it’s true, well, hey, it’s a plus. But if it ain’t, I didn’t lose nothing.”
I suspect there is a lot of this kind of quiet, grassroots atheism behind church doors, but most people are not as open about it as Tom. Personal beliefs are just that, personal. It is when these beliefs intrude on world politics that things get scary. Stephen King, move over. One of the most horrifying books ever written is Revelations. I have no doubt that people can make Revelation’s prophesies come true. It is not farfetched to say some crazy-for-power politician will someday drape the title of Antichrist around himself like a badge of honor, set out to rule the world, and drag us all into WWIII.
As a humanist, I frequently find myself defending evolution. Evolution is perhaps the most misquoted and misunderstood theory in existence today. It has usurped the Earth is flat and at the center of the universe controversy of centuries past. Those who believe the bible is the infallible word of god are quite adamant in their hate and fear of evolution. They claim it is only a theory, completely ignoring the fact that everything in our technological world is based on scientific theories including airplanes, bridges, satellites, cell phones, and all of medical science, just to name a few.
Fighting to maintain belief that they are fashioned in the image of God, theists try to cast doubt on evolution by using Intelligent Design as though we would not recognize Creationism under such a simple disguise. Who else but God could possibly be the Grand Architect? Aliens? They go on to thrust a picture of a chimpanzee in our face and ask if this is your grandfather, adamantly rejecting any notion that humans are related to monkeys or any other life form on Earth. With a high degree of confidence, modern science indicates that all species shared a common ancestor at some point in their past, humans and monkeys relatively recently, humans and the fly buzzing around looking for a meal, much further back in time. The monkey is not our grandfather, but it is a distant cousin many times removed, as is the fly. Theists counter by claiming evolution reduces life and human existence to pure chance and that belief in God is somehow better for the individual and society. Evolution is a selection process that brutally exterminates any life form that does not have the biology to survive. Evolution does not care if we believe in it any more than does the spherical Earth as it rotates about an ordinary star at the edge of an average galaxy composed of a trillion such stars, in a cosmos containing billions of galaxies. It simply is.
When I was younger, I liked to go to parks and lay on my back, looking up at the trees. Wisconsin has some mighty fine oaks, Colorado has elms, California has Joshua trees, and here in Arizona we have eucalyptus and mesquite. When I look at a tree, or any living thing, I feel a kinship that extends back in time beyond my meager ability to imagine, but still enjoy trying. In the beginning, life consisted of a single species of one-celled creatures emerging from the chemical froth of a very young Earth, perhaps in a tidal pool stirred by the moon and heated by the sun. From this humble start, life evolved over a length of time impossible to grasp in its entirety, branching out and diversifying into all living creatures, past and present.
The tree and I share a spot on the leading edge of this vast wave of life, the current manifestations of a recently recognized process we humans call evolution. However, it does not end with us. We are not a final product. Instead, the tree and I are part of an awe-inspiring continuum through space and time that marches on with each successive generation. All two-hundred-thousand years of human existence is but a snapshot in this immensity, a single moment in time when a species gained the wit to ask the right questions, not about gods and the afterlife, but about our true place in the universe. This is a wondrous and beautiful story, one that everyone can take pride in. We are special, but so are all other living things that share the Earth with us, even the trees.