My landscape photography is the visible expression of my spiritual journey; it has grown out of my search for who I am and for the meaning of life. Here, I would like to paint a more complete picture of where I am at this point along that journey. While I have thus far kept these views to myself, I now feel compelled by the urgency of global circumstances, especially by the specter of climate change and its myriad effects, to make them accessible to others with the hope that they will be of some value.
In reflecting on my life, which began at the end of World War II (yes, I am at the leading edge of the baby boomers), I find that I have many things to be grateful for; I have benefited enormously from the influences of others and by living in a period of relative peace and prosperity. I also feel deep chagrin over the fact that we humans -– purportedly the most intelligent species on the planet -– do not possess greater wisdom, and that that lack of wisdom is leading to challenges the likes of which humans have never before encountered.
Over the past century or two, our knowledge about our planet and its place in the universe has expanded exponentially. In that same period, human influences on the planet have also grown, to the point where the global ecosystem, as we have come to know it, is in jeopardy and on the verge of collapsing beneath us. Yet, across the world, our belief systems remain rooted in supernatural powers and imaginative myths that were invented many centuries ago to explain phenomena that had not yet been illuminated by science. Whether there is a way to foster enlightenment and salvage a sustainable existence from our current predicament may be a matter of debate, but we are unlikely to find the solution in belief systems rooted in the distant past. We need a new path to “truth.”
As a child, I was told that “truth” lies in the teachings of the church my family attended. As a young adult, however, I took a close, critical look at those “truths” and discovered that there were very few I honestly believed. Belief, in my mind, requires convincing evidence. Much of what I learned during catechism classes could not be supported by evidence; instead, a “leap of faith” was required. I found I could no longer make such leaps of faith, and therefore came to disbelieve such concepts as: a personal God, original sin, the power of prayer, predestination, everlasting life, Heaven, Hell, miracles, the Holy Trinity, reincarnation, and virgin birth. Yet, what I did get from my religious upbringing was that it is important to be a “good” person with sound values. But if I rejected formal religion, what would replace it as a source of values, my internal compass? It took me years to find a clear, convincing answer to that.
This brings me to what I have come to believe today. I am convinced that we need a universal ethos: a system of beliefs all people can agree on. Of course, that’s a tall order, since groups of people -- tribes, if you will -– have throughout history felt so strongly about the rightness of their provincial belief systems that they have gone to war over them. To put it another way, many people have died in defense of belief systems based on ancient myths, on “truths” for which there is little if any concrete evidence. This shows that there are two sides to religion: while within a particular religion or sect people might be united around a set of common beliefs, between religions defensive walls have been erected on many fronts. Religions therefore tend to be divisive; exclusive, rather than inclusive. They segregate people into camps of “believers,” "believers in something else," or “nonbelievers.” Therefore, I contend that because no religion can claim a hold on universal truth, the net effect of having a multiplicity of religions is that that makes it difficult or even impossible to unite all people in addressing and solving global issues such as climate change. But now that humanity's primary challenge is truly global, we need to put aside our differences and adopt a universal system of beliefs based on objective facts and reality -- on rigorous science -- aimed at promoting ethical behavior and healing the Web of Life.
The term “Web of Life” is carefully chosen. It is a metaphor for the fact that all life is, in one way or another, interconnected; life is a system. You and I are but tiny strands in that web, dependent on each other and on the overall health of the system. Religions tend to be anthropocentric; they focus on human interests, bid us to have dominion over the earth, and largely ignore our interdependence with the myriad other components of the Web of Life. We need urgently to get beyond that, for our own survival. We need to strive to achieve a state in which all components of the Web of Life coexist in relative harmony, in balance, as they did before the Industrial Revolution. And my point is that we need something other than traditional religions to get us there. Let's take a closer look at this:
Religion may offer us a path to spiritual transcendence. But a keen, realistic understanding of how the world works and the role each of us plays in the Web of Life offers us that, too. It will also serve to keep us humble, in awe of the magnificence of the universe and our significance -- or insignificance -- within it.
Religion may provide a sense of community and a venue for mutual support. But a system of beliefs aimed at addressing global concerns can unite all people around common goals.
Religion may provide guidance in being “good.” But so can a science-based ethos. Here is how it works: If we accept the fact that our lives are interconnected with all other lives and with all other components of the Web of Life, and if we look at those interconnections as relationships, we then have a choice: do we want those relationships to be positive or negative? If we accept the task of fostering the health and sustainability of the Web of Life, the choice is obvious. If we constantly strive to make our various relationships positive, we will be living “good” lives, and in a broader sense than just with other humans. But the impetus behind that will be based on facts and reality, not on myths and supernatural imaginings. If we fail in this quest, we need not fear that some god will punish us by condemning us to eternal fire in Hell; instead, our grandchildren and subsequent generations will pay for our ineptitude and lack of wisdom and foresight by having to deal with the profound effects of climate change, the depletion of natural resources, and the extinction of multitudes of plant and animal species. We have responsibility for everyone and everything our lives depend on and for the children we bring into the world. Therein lies our obligation to build positive relationships with other people and with all other components of the Web of Life with which we interact.
So this is what I believe. While I no longer consider myself to be religious or faithful in the traditional senses of the words, I believe more deeply than ever in the value and importance of positive relationships. I think of such relationships as a manifestation of love, but love in its broadest sense, beyond just love between people. Love, fundamentally, is about positive feelings and actions, and it is little stretch to extend it to positive feelings and actions toward everything upon which our well-being depends -- namely, the Web of Life. I believe that religions must either embrace or be eclipsed by the universal need to heal the Web of Life and return it to a condition of relative harmony. To put a finer point on it, religions should lead, follow, or stop interfering (through the dissemination of misinformation and the denial of rigorous science) with efforts to heal the Web of Life, especially in view of the fact that they have tremendous power, collectively and potentially, to unite people in pursuing this goal, for the betterment of all.
Certainly, our planet has changed dramatically throughout its existence and will continue to do so, due to factors beyond our control. Such changes will profoundly alter the nature of our existence and, eventually (when the Sun explodes billions of years from now or, sooner, when an asteroid impacts the planet), exterminate our species from the planet. But there's no sense in accelerating that process. My hope is that we can muster the courage to manage the factors of change within our control, to do what it takes to maintain the health of the Web of Life as long as we can, and unite all people around doing so. Therefore, in view of the extreme speed with which climate changes are now occurring; because those changes are primarily due to human influences; and because of the urgency of joining together to forestall those changes, I believe we desperately need a global ethos -- a set of ethical values -- that is based on facts and reality (meaning science and reason) and that is fundamentally positive in nature. I also believe that the core of such an ethos is contained in the views I have expressed here and is reflected in the spirit of my landscape photographs.
One final comment: Frankly, I realize that the probability of achieving a global ethos is very low, because so many people are deeply entrenched in tradition. But I am not without hope. We can move in this direction if we consider, discuss, adopt and build on these kinds of ideas and share them with others, especially our young people. With perseverence, cooperation and a bit of luck, perhaps we can make this happen. If not, at least we gave it our best shot!
I am open to constructive comments from others regarding these ideas, and to joining with others to further develop and promote them.