In the latter half of the second millennium, science came of age, answering many of our “how” questions but leaving the “why” questions to the theologians. Perhaps now the time is ripe for us to develop a framework that addresses questions such as “why am I here?” while remaining true to science.
But what might allow such a leap at this point in history?
Two things: the Internet, and the rise of the “unaffiliated,” which the Pew Forum defines as atheists, agnostics and both religious and secular people who subscribe to “nothing in particular” when it comes to religion.
The Internet is at least as revolutionary of a development as the printing press was in the 15th century. Thomas Carlyle, an influential Victorian-era writer, said the art of printing had led to “a whole new democratic world,” and the same is now true of the Internet.
But there is a key difference between these two pivotal developments. Printing allowed knowledge to be preserved and circulated in a consistent manner, which was crucial to the advance of science and academia. The Internet, however, is democratic on a whole new level; not only can we find and manage information like never before, we can share it. And we can share what is important to us, what we think and how we feel about it.
Indeed, this is the core of Web 2.0: user-generated content and networking.
Of course, this development can be a danger when it comes to facts; misinformation can spread like a virus and, as ever, it is “user beware.” But what about situations where there is no “right” answer?
Think of it as a left brain/right brain dichotomy. On the logical objective left, the lens with which we view the world is fairly consistent across individuals. But the lens on the creative subjective right is not one-size-fits-all. For example, everyone’s experience of gravity is pretty much the same; everyone’s experience of spirituality is not. This is where a cacophony of voices – true democracy – is perhaps the best way to get to the heart of the matter, and the Internet an ideal tool.
What do all religions have in common once you get past the dogma? They are all stories about why we are here. How did I get here and where am I going? What value and purpose and meaning does my life have? Is death the end, or a new beginning?
Do we need organized religion to answer these questions? It depends on what kind of answer you are looking for. If certainty is required, then religion does offer that (or claims to). But here is where the rise of the unaffiliated comes into play. Those of us who are not committed to a particular dogma are more comfortable with ambiguity. We can look toward our fellow humans for – well, not answers exactly, but inspiration.
Last October I launched a web site – Stories About Why We Are Here [http://www.StoriesAboutWhyWeAreHere.com] – as a portal for such insight. Some of my content comes from famous folk. The Dalai Lama says the purpose of life is to be happy. Marianne Williamson, to be a conduit of love. Physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies suggests that we are central players in the evolution of the universe. And Kurt Vonnegut said we are here “to fart around. Don’t let anyone tell you any different!”
But I’m interested in what regular folk have to say as well. To overcome our fears, says Jeff Davis, an art director living in New York. Elizabeth Harper, a teacher, speaker and writer, believes we are here to learn about ourselves. Retired ESL teacher and freelance writer Brenda Lachman says, “I believe there are as many purposes as individuals on earth,” while burgeoning recording artist Susaye Greene says, “I am positive that I am here to inspire and encourage others.”
I am grateful for all these contributions to my quest, a satisfying journey with no end.
For fifteen-plus years, the Internet has connected us. Perhaps Web 2.0 is just this: a collective brain that will come up with some answers. Not the answer, and not for certain, and not for all people – very different from organized religion. But exploring how other people make sense of their lives can lead to positive personal growth, even planetary change. At the very least, such sharing can contribute to tolerance, and maybe even appreciation, of the varieties of spiritual experience across the globe.