robert_provine's picture
Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Author, Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond
This is all there is

The empirically testable idea that the here and now is all there is and that life begins at birth and ends at death is so dangerous that it has cost the lives of millions and threatens the future of civilization. The danger comes not from the idea itself, but from its opponents, those religious leaders and followers who ruthlessly advocate and defend their empirically improbable afterlife and man-in-the-sky cosmological perspectives.

Their vigor is understandable. What better theological franchise is there than the promise of everlasting life, with deluxe trimmings? Religious followers must invest now with their blood and sweat, with their big payoff not due until the after-life. Postmortal rewards cost theologians nothing--I'll match your heavenly choir and raise you 72 virgins.

Some franchise! This is even better than the medical profession, a calling with higher overhead, that has gained control of birth, death and pain. Whether the religious brand is Christianity or Islam, the warring continues, with a terrible fate reserved for heretics who threaten the franchise from within. Worse may be in store for those who totally reject the man-in-the-sky premise and its afterlife trappings. All of this trouble over accepting what our senses tell us—that this is all there is.

Resolution of religious conflict is impossible because there is no empirical test of the ghostly, and many theologians prey, intentionally or not, upon the fears, superstitions, irrationality, and herd tendencies that are our species' neurobehavioral endowment. Religious fundamentalism inflames conflict and prevents solution—the more extreme and irrational one's position, the stronger one's faith, and, when possessing absolute truth, compromise is not an option.

Resolution of conflicts between religions and associated cultures is less likely to come from compromise than from the pursuit of superordinate goals, common, overarching, objectives that extend across nations and cultures, and direct our competitive spirit to further the health, well-being, and nobility of everyone. Public health and science provide such unifying goals. I offer two examples.

Health Initiative. A program that improves the health of all people, especially those in developing nations, may find broad support, especially with the growing awareness of global culture and the looming specter of a pandemic. Public health programs bridge religious, political, and cultural divides. No one wants to see their children die. Conflicts fall away when cooperation offers a better life for all concerned. This is also the most effective anti-terrorism strategy, although one probably unpopular with the military industrial complex on one side, and terrorist agitators on the other.

Space Initiative. Space exploration expands our cosmos and increases our appreciation of life on Earth and its finite resources. Space exploration is one of our species' greatest achievements. Its pursuit is a goal of sufficient grandeur to unite people of all nations.

This is all there is. The sooner we accept this dangerous idea, the sooner we can get on with the essential task of making the most of our lives on this planet.