My status while being on vacation, where I have little opportunity to keep up on the daily news and little time to research specific stories, leaves me with an opportunity to contemplate "big picture" issues. One of the issues that concerns me is the fate of humanity.
I have heard some respond to this concern by saying, "What does it matter; we will all die anyway in the cosmic crunch or whatever fate the universe has in store for us."
On this issue, we do not know that this is true just yet. Even if it is, just as I would prefer to die later rather than earlier, there is reason to prefer that the human race die later rather than earlier. The prospect that life is temporary is a poor argument for suicide.
One of the propositions that I hold to be consistent with atheism is that we exist in a universe that is substantially indifferent as to whether we, as a species, continue to exist. For as long as we do exist, the universe does not care whether we live well or suffer. There is ample proof of this in the fact that the universe contains disease, natural disasters, and a human psychology that lends itself to more violence and destruction than is good for us.
Because the universe is indifferent to our survival or our well-being, it is left to us to protect our survival and well-being. Our weapon against disease rests in our ability to understand them and the ways in which we can avoid their ill effects -- through immunization or treatment. We must study naturlal disasters so that we can build warning systems that give us an opportunity to protect ourselves and responding to the worst effects. We must study human nature so thta we can learn how to best organize our societies so as to minimize the harms that humans inflict on each other.
This view -- the view that we must study nature scientifically and use what we learn to help the human race survive and survive well -- sits in contrast to two religious views that tell their followers not to be concerned about the long-term status of the human race.
One set of religious beliefs that tell their followers not to worry about the long-term status of the human race are those that believe that we do not have a long-term future. These are people who believe that a religious "end times" is near and that that the human race has no long-term future to worry about.
Clearly, if the world is going to end in the next few years, we will not need to worry about the national debt. If you are sitting in a fancy restaurant and you know that the whole building will come crashing down before you get your check, why not enjoy the most expensive options on the menu? You will never actually have to pay for it, right?
Another issue that the end-world believer does not have to worry about is the fate of the planet's health -- also known as "the environment". It is like, if you know that you only have a month to live, then it would seem a waste of time to exercise and watch what one eats. Instead, it is time to eat what one enjoys and ignore the consequences. They are consequences that the end-world scenario tells us we will never face.
The set of risks and concerns that we can ignore include not only man-made threats such as national debt and environmental damage. It includes natural threats. There are natural threats on a cosmic scale that seriously threaten the quality if not the actual possibility of human survival. Some we know about, such as the potential impact of a long-period comet. There may be others that we are not yet aware of, such as a plague or a dramatic natural change in our sun or earth climate. If the end of the world is near, we do not need to devote time and energy to these concerns.,/p>
I am aware of the fact that different end-world beliefs have different expectations for the future of humanity. I have heard it said that even those who believe that the end-times are near are supposed to consider the possibility that they are wrong and prepare for the future. Yet, even if this is offered as a prudent plan, end-time beliefs will interfere with the costs one is willing to bear to ensure the future of the human race.
A patient with a cancer from which the chances of survival are very low may be told to live his life as if he will live a typically long life. However, the existence of the cancer and low chance of survival will almost certainly argue against him suffering any huge burdens to obtain a future that he thinks is neearly impossible.
All of this suggests that end-world ideas might prevent people from putting in the effort that might otherwise keep the human race alive in an apathetic universe.
Another religious belief that threatens the future well-being, if not the existence, of the human race has gotten very little coverage. This is the view that we do not need to worry about our future because God would not allow such bad things to happen to us. Since God made us in His image, it would be insane to worry babout some natural or man-made event destroying us before God's plan is fully revealed, or so the argument goes.
The benevolent guardian believer is like the child who believes that his parents will keep him safe. Such a child can do whatever he pleases, confident that an all-knowing and all-benevolent guardian will not allow him to come to harm. Such a guardian has either removed the threats, or stands ready to intervene before we, in our ignorance, do too much damage.
The result is substantially the same as it is for the end-world believer. There are many things that these people will see little reason to invest much concern with. These are objects for God to be concerned with; not us.
Earth Sciences and Space Science Research
In his 2006 budget, the Bush Administration put on hold programs having to do with earth-science and space-science research. Much of this money is being spent on Bush's project to create a lunar base.
We can see how both an end-world or a benevolent guardian dictator would view earth and space sciences as unimportant. To cush a person, money spent on these types of projects is wasted. Either the end-times will strike before we suffer serious harm, or God will protect us from these threats, eliminating our need to learn about them.
Both of these views are in contrast to the aethist. The atheist knows that there are traps out there that will threaten to destroy humanity or significantly impare the quality of life unless we find them first. Such a person will see little interest in postponing scientific research when its timely delivery of that information is useful to protecting the quality of our lives and even the possibility of our survival.,/p>
The universe is indifferent to our survival. Looking at a photo of a nearby galaxy, I say to myself with confidence that somewhere in that mass of stars a civilization came into existence. Then disaster struck, leaving nothing but a shell of abandoned buildings for future archaeologists to explore.
Two religious options -- end-world beliefs and benevolent guardian beliefs -- put our survival more at. They tell people not to put the effort into saving the human race that they otherwise would. The increase the possibility that some day we will have opened our eyes to discover, when it comes to detecting and avoiding some natural or man-made threat, we have done too little and too late.