Sunday, March 5, 2006

The New Messiah (p. 9)

The New Messiah
Alexander Braitberg

Planet Earth will cease to exist eventually, one way or another. Our sun, a yellow dwarf, is in the main stage of its lifecycle, but in a few billion years it will transform into a red giant, and become so large that it will consume all of the planets in the inner solar system. And the Earth may become uninhabitable well before then. A meteor miniscule compared to the Earth has the potential to cause global extinction. If we manage to conquer internal threats to our existence such as climate change and nuclear war, our time on this cosmic yacht will nevertheless be limited.

Doubtless most readers will have heard these facts recited in science courses, but will have dismissed them as too far in the future to be relevant. Surely our time is better spent thinking about more pressing problems: global poverty, hunger, inequality, health, art.
But we live in an age of science. Religion continues to lose ground in the developed world, despite a temporary resurgence in the decadent and declining United States of America. Evolution is entirely uncontroversial in the scientific community, and evolutionary theory makes religion optional. We still hang on to the old myths, but their original purpose no longer applies. We no longer need them as explanations for our origin – we have something more believable, more concrete, and undeniably true.

A recent study published in the Journal of Religion and Society found that among citizens of developed nations, acceptance of evolution correlated inversely with religiosity. Thus, as long as scientific knowledge continues to expand, acceptance of religious myths will decline. As well it should be. Humanity has graduated into adulthood, and no longer needs Santa Claus.
The absence of religion leaves a void. We can no longer hope for eternal life, nor can we look to a Messiah as the culmination of human history. Instead, we are left with the bleak picture that we grew like a festering yeast in the stagnant pools of Earth, and will fester alone in a corner of the Universe until scrubbed from existence, with no sign of our passing. But this void can be filled.

We need a new Messianic event – a new story of hope, of transcendence, of eternality. The new story cannot simply be another myth. Science, education, and the spread of information across the globe will preclude self-deception. The new story must be a true story. And the truth is that we need not perish on this island Earth. The new Messianic event will be the spread of humankind across interstellar space.

It is true that travel to the closest stars, tens of light years away, at currently imaginable speeds, would take hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. Of course, we do not currently know if we would find habitable planets once we arrived. But if scientific knowledge continues to expand exponentially, the development of the technology for such travel is inevitable.
The obstacles to interstellar travel are, literally, cosmically large. But humankind is almost inconceivably powerful. The idea that amalgamations of amino acids born in the furnaces of oceanic vents could evolve into God-like beings capable of music, communication, emotion, is the most incredible phenomenon in the observable universe. To what ultimate purpose have we, the real Gods in our corner of the universe, devoted our incomprehensibly magnificent talents?

For 200,000 years we have fought wars and made knick-knacks, played games and deceived each other, masturbated and procreated. We have undoubtedly made amazing progress in understanding ourselves and in mastery of our environment. But it’s about time, now that we know who we are and how we got here, that we decide what to do with ourselves.
Of course, in order to ensure that we will reach a point when we are ready to embark on our journey, we must not shit in our own nests. We must forestall nuclear war and climate change at all costs, while continuing our quest after the technology for our escape. Survival must be our new worship, our new devotion.

The Christians have waited 2,000 years for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. The Jews have waited almost 6,000 years for their Messiah. In this age of knowledge, we are capable of thinking, and will have to think, in terms of time scales much greater than the order of thousands of years. As medical technology advances and life spans increase, the time scales involved in traveling to the stars will seem less and less daunting. During our lifetimes, we may see stem cells used to grow replacement organs, perhaps indefinitely extending life. We can even imagine, further into the future, downloading consciousness into a digital medium for eternal preservation. It is within the realm of possibility that you and I will live to see the colonization of Alpha Centauri.

Like the Messianic myths from humankind’s childhood, this new Messianic event retains the promise that we may see it in our own lifetimes. We will retain our romantic quest for eternality, and we will retain a sense of purpose and hope. But this new hope is firmly rooted in the empirical – and is therefore much more resilient than the anthropomorphic legends of the past that even the most faithful cannot help but occasionally doubt.

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