An Open Letter to Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins
I am writing to you to ask for your approval and support for a worthy cause. Like yourselves, I have struggled with the irrationality of faith and superstition for the better part of my life. As a child, growing up in the deep south, I was indoctrinated into Christianity at a very impressionable age. While I fondly remember many outdoor picnics and holiday celebrations with family and friends, I never managed to fully embrace the Christian worldview. My tenacious curiosity often led me down the most confusing paths, because those elders to whom I looked for understanding were so helplessly steeped in myth and dogmatic traditionalism that they were seldom able to satiate my inquisitive nature with answers or ideas I could accept.
For example, a preacher once explained to me that black people were all descended from the Genesis character Cain. By his reasoning, God had marked Cain so that all men would despise him, as punishment for slaying his brother. According to this man, Cain's "mark" was blackened skin, and this would be the stain that bore his shame throughout all the generations of his descendants. Another vivid example of the influence this superstitious culture on impressionable people comes from my (now crazy) mother, who recalled being suddenly awakened as a young girl by my hysterical grandmother, who demanded that they pray together and ready themselves for the "end times" (precipitated by the eminent arrival of the lord and savior, Jesus Christ...). This occurred during the late sixties, as news of the first shots of the Six Days War streamed across international airwaves. My grandmother recently posted a Facebook comment: "Blood Moon sets over Mt. Zion, is this a sign of the end-times?"
My biggest struggle as an aspiring historian has been to learn how not to be so dismissive of these people. As I explained to my wife once, it's easy to point the crazy finger at the snake charmers and get angry with the Mormons who occasionally knock on our door, because we are used to these things. Were we, on the other hand, witnessing an ancient tribal custom where some remote indigenous tribe danced in loincloth around a fire, we might be humbled beyond our opinions of what doesn't and doesn't make sense, and even honored by the opportunity to observe or even participate in something so alien. "Honey...sometimes, you've just got to put on your loincloth on and dance around the fire."
My professors urge me toward concilliarism and academic objectivity, for the sake of my own integrity as an historian. For the most part, I agree with them, but I am often drawn back, in spite of myself, to those oblivious years of hazy thought, horrible answers, guilt, paranoia, and psychological disorientation before I grew up and realized I was an atheist. I often feel a sense of loss, as though many of those experiences were unnecessary, and this is painful. With this feeling, I couldn't help getting the sense that there is something of victimization in this part of our culture, whether deliberate or otherwise, like an assault. Is it wrong to teach children that an angry, omnipotent father figure watches over their every move, looming high above, always, waiting to condemn them for sins they haven't yet comprehended, let alone considered? I used to be afraid that my thoughts were dangerous. Would my own sexual fantasies or angry thoughts betray me to an eternity of hellfire and suffering?
Unlike many in my community, I was at some point intellectually stable enough to outgrow this delirium, and that is when life got even worse. I was alone, all of a sudden self-exiled. Once the realization that it was all an ignorant lie perpetuated by centuries of manipulation, repression, and cruelty, I could no longer have honest and open conversations about anything else with my religious peers. I felt suffocated and claustrophobic, knowing that nineteen of twenty people I would meet for the rest of my life would still somehow be trapped in that old fog. My own liberation became my scarlet letter.
But for reasons perhaps best explored in some other forum, I was not one to live comfortably with fear, or quietly in exile. I kneel to no man, though I am awed by many. Self expression demands courage, and I still had a whole life to live, and more importantly, an identity to rebuild. Somewhere among many countless hours of thought, I began to associate these two conditions, and I realized that I had a significant opportunity. I was a blank slate, effectively, and there in the palm of my hand was the world's greatest problem! (My vanity is beyond intimidation...) I had concluded on my own that the Christian Rapture was not a good enough ending to the human narrative, and decided right then and there in that moment of realization that something MUST be put in its place.
That is when i set myself into a dialectic autopiltot, totally withdrawn from all other concerns. Finally, I had a question worth answering: What will become of the human race if Jesus isn't real? That sounded like a pretty important question to me, and not one for which society seemed to have any readily available answers. I would refer to something Mr. Tyson said in the ninth episode of Cosmos: "We just can't make scientific statements about the future." Well, gentlemen, after a great deal of reading and reflection, I have done just that! Though I have poured through tens of thousands of pages on astronomy, philosophy, biology, I wish I could say my answer came from something more heroic than five minutes of honest thought. As Ayn Rand might have said, once I had all the right premises in place, the conclusion simply jumped out in front of me. In truth, what I have "discovered" is not more than the most simplistic deductive reasoning. It is only truly impressive by virtue of its unfamiliarity on a planet given to the likes of such great minds as Issac Newton and Charles Darwin. While I have enough sense to never dare to compare myself to such giants, Plato might forgive me for trying to stand on their shoulders to get a better view of the grand design.
So, without further need for narrative, I humbly submit my "Five Destinies of Mankind" for your esteemed consideration.
All the human species shall inevitably perish from one of five possible categories of potential extinction events. They are
I. Agricide: Naturally occurring events such as super-volcano eruptions or highly contagious viral epidemics render this planet uninhabitable.
II. Terrescide: Mankind causes irreparable damage to the planetary ecosystems, such as by unrestrained pollution or other harmful interference, rendering this planet uninhabitable.
III. Genocide: Mankind is rendered sterile, or systematically exterminates itself beyond the capacity for successful re-population, as by nuclear war or other means.
IV. Celestiacide: A non-terrestrial event, such as meteor or local supernova, causes catastrophic damage to the human race and/or the supporting ecosystems.
V. Terminus: The ultimate fate of the earth is disintegration by the sun, whereupon all of human history and knowledge shall be erased forever.
By this model, a rational purpose for human life emerges. As Stephen Hawking said, the human race cannot survive unless it goes into space. This much, we all already know, and in this, perhaps no great or novel discovery is made. Our self interest in self preservation is certainly not the stuff of romantic adventurousness, but the imperative is clear. If we don't leave, we die. The difficulty, then, as you both well know, is that we live on a planet very densely populated with people who do not understand this, and who in many cases, would refuse to believe it, and who in some cases, would actively struggle against these simple conclusions.
It is for this reason that I have chosen to share this idea with the two of you. In my avid pursuit of a better way of understanding this strange life, you each emerged as champions of the human capacity for logic and reason. Between Cosmos and The Greatest Show on Earth, I found the confidence to accept and embrace what I believed to be true. Since my first steps on this crazy journey, I have doggedly struggled through some of the smartest (and most difficult) authors in many subjects. From Einstein on Zionism to Bloom on the Super-organism, to Plato's republic, to Darwin's Origin, the closest I've come to finding someone who saw the world the way I did was Aldous Huxley, who contrived a simpler model in the early twentieth century. To his credit, he was not nearly as privileged in his time to many new ideas and discoveries we take for granted in our own. But of all of them, only the two of you seem to have had any luck or success attacking the machine head-on. While I may not be fit to ever share a stage with either of you, I am emboldened by your courage.
It is a strange feeling, as sophomoric as this "model" seems, to suppose one has found the answer to one of our most challenging problems, and to feel alone with it. In a strange way, this experience taught me more about what it might really have been like for Jesus than any Sunday school lesson ever could. To understand the plight of humanity in our world is to be burdened with the responsibility of explaining it to others. For two years now, I have sat with this thing, day in and day out, weighing heavily on my mind. I understand what I have to do. I have to go out into the world with this message and try to save as many souls as I can before I'm cast into the dirt. If nothing else, a well informed planet can make the collective decision to study and prepare for these possible threats in a way that a dogmatically divided planet can not. On the day I decided to write this letter to you, social media informs me it is the anniversary of our last moon landing. I wish I could have been alive for any of those missions, and am thrilled to have been privileged to see the footage from Rover and Curiosity, and to read of Voyager finally leaving our solar system (according to some). But our society has little use for the vast expanses of blackness that stretch from our world to others, so long as they are taught that Jesus is coming back to save them, or that Allah awaits in the afterlife with virgins.
I don't need to explain to you how much distance we must cross in our own technological evolution in order to ever face that abysmal black with confidence, let alone enthusiasm. Without a deliberate, concerted effort on the part of a competent and well informed populous, that gulf will never be bridged. To me, there can be no greater tragedy in the universe than should our noble race be wiped from existence on account of foolish, fearful superstition.
It is with great respect and admiration that I come to you, as an ant comes to elephants. In a year's time, I may reach thousands of people with my websites and twitter feeds and flier printing binges at college. In a few days, you each are capable of reaching millions. While it would be a dream-come-true to have the privilege of your correspondence, what I must beg for is endorsement. I don't seek attention; as atheism tends to favor loners, I am no exception. I love my family dearly, and I wonder what horror might befall them as a result of my life's work. Such thoughts should be beyond a person, but no good deed goes unpunished. I have many strange and unwelcome thoughts about what attention might mean under these circumstances. Thoughts I'm certain people don't normally have. What if the Israeli's decide to assassinate me? What if the quacks that protest abortions and Dan Brown movies through a brick through my window? What if my beautiful son gets picked on because his daddy's the devil? What if my wife loses her job (business here is the domain of the rich white protestant) and we wind up on the street? I lay awake thinking of consequences for actions I haven't even fully formed ideas for. I suppose this too is familiar to you. I do not lack the courage of my conviction, but I do not regard the coming storm with apathy or indifference. I have never written to anyone of interest in my life, but I write you now for council and encouragement. No road is the poorer for companionship. And there are relatively few of us about, far fewer still with your stature and credibility.
Men like you lead our generation forward. So I ask for leadership. What do I do with this thing? Can you help me in my crusade?
Sincerely, and with great regard-
Neil Degrasse Tyson,
In Care Of
Hayden Planetarium & Dept. of Astrophysics
Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, New York 10024
In Care Of
Richard Dawkins Foundation
1012 14th Street NW, Suite 209
Washington, DC 20005
Image Source: http://i.imgur.com/92XviAC.jpg