1/12/2011 | Share this article: View CommentsBy Larry Spencer ~
Five years ago, my son was in Basic Training to become a Marine. A drill sergeant bellowed at his company:
"DO YOU KNOW WHY A MARINE IS ALWAYS HAPPY?"
"Sir, no SIR!" they shouted in unison.
"BECAUSE IT COULD ALWAYS BE 20 @!#%ING TIMES WORSE!!"
At the same time, a thousand miles away, the Drill Sergeant of Reality was starting to shout some sense into me. Ultimately, I would gain my own unshakable reason to be happy.
Like my son, I had to endure a long period of tear-down before I was mentally equipped to stand straight and face the world. I had to leave a comfortable, 40-year relationship with God and step into the unknown of freethought.
As a Christian, I could not conceive of joy and purpose apart from God. Unexpectedly, as a freethinker I find my joy in living is much greater than it was as a Christian.
I'd like to tell you about just one facet of that joy. It's the aspect to which I always return when I feel myself slipping into unhappiness because a relationship has been strained by my deconversion, or because I'm starting to feel self-pity over the years I squandered as a Christian, or because I'm beating myself up over all the bone-headed decisions I made as a "person of faith."
What rescues my mood? Just this: the realization that it is an incredible privilege just to be alive ... as a human being ... right now.
You say that's not enough to get excited about? Stay with me while I take you on a journey through the cosmos.
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of at least 100 billion to 200 billion galaxies in the known universe. Our sun is just one of 200 billion to 400 billion stars in our galaxy. As far as we know, sentient life does not exist around any of the other 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe.
What we do know is that the very atoms of your body were gestated in the stars, forged by unimaginable pressure and heat until the stars burst and your first birth was heralded by a fusillade of supernovae. Over time, gravity re-gathered some of the ejecta into a modest clump of semi-molten rock. It was utterly sterile, but chemically it seethed with activity. The primordial elements were combined, stirred and recombined by the heat of earth and sun, the cycle of evaporation and rain, the churn of current and tide.
After eons and eons, the most momentous event in the history of the universe finally took place. Even more eons would pass before anyone could even imagine it. Among the trillions of trillions of molecules on Earth that were combining to form new compounds, a single molecule happened to form that naturally produced copies of itself from the materials in the surrounding soup. Most copies were exact, but some varied slightly. The variants that copied themselves best tended to consume the most ingredients in the soup. Over time, they came to dominate. Life was a long way off, but evolution had already begun.
Other self-replicating molecules joined the dance. Sometimes, their survival and reproductive value were better in combination than alone. Combinations aggregated with combinations. Aggregations merged with aggregations. Each generation was more complex and more capable than its predecessors. Eventually (it would have been difficult to say when, even if we had been there to see it), a threshold was crossed and Life had begun.
Life has reproduced itself prodigiously, but it is still exceedingly rare. Living organisms comprise just 8 millionths of the mass of the earth, which is in turn only 1 millionth the mass of the sun.
If life is rare, the type of life we have -- sentient life -- is even rarer.
Animals make up less than 2% of all life, by mass.
Vertebrates comprise only 3% of all animal species.
Mammals are just 10% of that 3%.
There are 5,000 mammal species, but only one of them is homo sapiens.
That’s us, and we are the only ones who can think about the universe. Every other species -- every single one -- is almost completely clueless by comparison. What a rare privilege, just to be human!
But you and I are even more privileged than that.
Although humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, civilization did not emerge until 8,000 years ago, with the advent of agriculture. We get to be part of civilization, with all the richness that entails.
But civilization has not always been easy. For most of those 8,000 years, humans toiled in poverty and ignorance. Less than 20% of all the humans who have ever lived have been born since the invention of the printing press. Before that, almost nobody had the opportunity to learn anything beyond the myopic myths of their own tribe. We do have that opportunity, but we have even more.
Only half of those 20% have been alive for the age of the Internet. In all the epochs of life on earth, from the first proto-cell to the present, the people of our generation -- you and I -- are the only ones who have had access to essentially any information we want.
Did you catch that? Any information we want.
Touch your keyboard or mouse. Are you doing it? Good! You are now touching a treasure for which any emperor of old would have gladly traded half his empire.
There is yet more for which we can be thankful.
Although we are swimming in knowledge, many of our fellow humans do not enjoy the freedom to learn that we have. Some Islamic girls dare not learn more than basic housekeeping, for fear of having acid thrown on their impertinent faces. We in the Christian West cannot feel superior, for it was not long ago that we were burning other Christians at the stake over trivial points of doctrine. Even more recently, Christians were lynching other Christians who dared to assert the equality of all races under law.
Many of the readers of this Website, in their own struggle for freedom of thought, have had to overcome tremendous social and familial pressures. However, most of us are under no physical threat. We are basically free to learn whatever we want, form whatever conclusions we think the information warrants, and spread our ideas.
In the history of the world, this is an exceedingly rare privilege. Even the nobility among our ancestors did not have it.
I don’t know about you, but that makes me glad to be alive. I’m glad to live at this time in history, when I have the information to banish superstition and fear, and the freedom to embrace knowledge and wonder.
Living in the post-Darwin era, we get to be part of the first blink-of-an-eye in which people have a clue about how the universe works and how we got here. We have won the ultimate lottery -- a lottery whose jackpot means far more than money. Now, that makes me happy!