Clarence Darrow, the celebrated and slightly infamous atheist from the last century, was asked what he would do if he died and found himself at the Pearly Gates confronted by the 12 apostles.
He replied that he would bow to the apostles and say, “Gentlemen, I was mistaken.”
Would that all skeptics could be so mistaken. After all, most nonbelievers would probably rather have an unexpected afterlife than end up with nothing more than ashes to ashes. (However, using your own personal ashes to replenish soil that grows potatoes and flowers and trees is a noble and useful way to spend eternity.)
Nonbelievers must wonder about the justice of death that is truly the end – a useful occupant of this planet thrown out of this existence like a moldy bag of trash.
Sometimes it’s hard to argue with Darrow. As much as I enjoy life on this big rock, the hereafter may be overrated. If there is a god, he must be some nice, well-intentioned old guy like Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter – a clumsy administrator who is not very good at his job, a superbeing who keeps stumbling over the furniture and accidentally killing people.
Perhaps there is something tangible for us besides sudden, permanent death or an endless afterlife. Even if I die ignominiously one day like a squashed toad on Route 66, even if there is nothing after this, our true purpose on this planet is entirely real.
And it is eternal.
With all due respect to cats and dogs and chimpanzees, who are taught a few tricks by instinct, they don’t normally teach what they learn to their offspring.
Humans pass on much of what they learn to the next generation. And that generation passes what it knows onto its children. That’s how knowledge multiplies and compounds itself among our kind.
My great-greats, my grandparents and my parents (along with teachers in the schools) have given me much of what they have learned. And I (with today’s teachers) now load what I acquired from the elders and from my life into the minds of my children and grandchildren.
Even if not all knowledge is brilliant or useful, passing it on is what we do. That is our job. Our job isn’t to live forever. Our job is to secure the beachhead of knowledge acquired during our lifetime.
We are part of a timeless layer cake. At first in our lives, we are the top of the cake. And then we become the foundation for the next leap of learning. That’s why we’re here. That’s what we were born to do.
This wasn’t all nothing but living our one life and dying without any ongoing service to humanity. It’s true what they say – that anything new we create comes from standing on the shoulders of others. Our purpose is to create new knowledge and then get our own shoulders ready for the next layer of learners.
We are part of a continuum. With or without a plan, we add up, one generation after another, layer on layer, higher and higher, part of an eternal whole, never unbroken.
The escalation of knowledge would be impossible without all the contributions of all the generations. Our current level is an eternal part. Accidentally or otherwise, our contribution to humanity is part of a living historical whole. Who we were and what we did will last long after we are deader than a doornail or singing hymns in heaven.
We are the people of the Earth, and this is what we do.Contact columnist Bill Hall at email@example.com or 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501.