Culture and Religion

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Why Are We Here? Who Am I?

In different contexts (often from a teenager), this question of "why are we here?" is certainly a common one (or its singular "why am I here?" or "who am I?"). At some time in one's emotional and intellectual development, everyone must come up with an answer to this question. The answer helps to serve as a foundation for the development of behaviors and relationships with other people. I believe that every religion also attempts to provide an answer to this question for its followers. After my answer, I have a few comparisons between my perspective and that offered by some religions. Unlike the other pages in this web site, the following uses the word 'you' as this subject can be treated as an answer to the question by the reader.

Each person is a member of a community. Each person is unique, with their own strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. The wonder of our human communities is that each person can find something that they enjoy and in that endeavor they can also contribute to their community. Therefore, you are here because you are needed for your contribution to your community.

You must find your role in your community. Every person is unique and every community is also unique (the obvious extension to the fact that each member is unique and the community's environment is in a unique physical location with a unique combination of neighboring communities). In ancient cultures, a person's class or gender often decided the role for the person. In past generations in America, sometimes these roles were not so voluntary. In the agricultural communities, often the women managed the households while the men managed the farms. However other roles also had to be fulfilled in these rural communities, such as teachers, doctors, preachers and the gender or family did not always dictate who would perform the service. Our human culture continues to advance in complexity. In our current urban communities, with high literacy rates and equal rights for all (at least as a goal), there are few roles that are dictated to anyone, leading to wide opportunities for many to choose. Also, even those that are handicapped in any way (physically, mentally, etc.) can still make a contribution.

The main criteria for this role search is finding how to contribute to the community. While a paid service is an obvious example, money changing hands is not a critical aspect. Even in today's economy, that often requires both spouses to work to sustain a family, it is still acceptable for one spouse to stay at home to manage the development of the children and/or household while the other spouse provides the income to sustain the endeavor. A volunteer effort is very admirable, as the contribution is made with effort based on meeting a need, not on obtaining a monetary gain. Our society is much more complex than just one hundred years ago, and there are many needs to be met in the social organizations (including schools and churches), businesses and the various level of governments. Whatever role is sought, the end result should be the continuation of the development and/or advancement of the community.

It is important that this is a personal decision as to the chosen role in the community. People are intelligent beings and each person has the mental capacity to make intelligent decisions; each will also have a set of morals, the simple sense of what is right or wrong. The community will have to deal with the decisions made by its members. Therefore, some people might choose to take from the community and not give anything in return (thieves are an example). Others might appear to contribute but those contributions exact a cost (businessmen that seek only their own wealth at the expense of others with little concern for how that wealth is obtained; the years of 2000 to 2003 have seen too many stories of such business criminals in the U.S.). The government of the community (with its impartial judicial system) must regulate such behaviors, so those that violate the trust of the community are properly punished.

The concept of community also has several levels, from local, to city, to state, to country and to world. At any of these levels, the government itself must be monitored also as those in power can behave unethically. The monarchies of Europe in past generations concentrated their wealth to the detriment of their peoples; these practices led to most of them being overthrown by a set of rulers that have been selected with a democratic election process. In the 20th century, there were a number of military regimes in various parts of the world that eventually succumbed; a number still remain but the peoples of the world are aware of the consequences of such rule (more than in past generations). Most recently, the rulers of Iraq and North Korea are both seen to build large palaces and live very extravagantly while their peoples starve and live under harsh military rule. As the model of democratic rule becomes more widespread, which enables the people to have more control over their leaders, the number of such brutal governments in the world continues to decrease.

The main emphasis in 'why are we here' has been on a positive contribution to the community. If a contribution takes a cost on someone else, then the contribution is suspect. The 'end' will not justify the 'means'. Developing a new chemical or medicine that has apparent benefits but is toxic to the environment is not a worthwhile contribution. If one community (or country) takes on an effort that will be to the detriment of another community (or country), then that effort is to the detriment of the global human community. A war where one people seeks to subjugate another (such as killing others and/or taking their resources) is not an ethical endeavor within the global context.

In my opinion, there should be nothing in the above discussion that relies on any religious beliefs. A human being is a social creature and, as such, is always in a state of interaction with other human beings. A person in isolation is one that will not survive very long. A community is a group of people that more or less work together and it takes on characteristics almost like being an organism of its own (where its members contribute to the personality or attitude of the community).

The very question of 'why are we here' implies that the universe exists and there must be a reason why an individual is inserted into that universe. The question implies an inherent disconnect - at the heart of nearly all religions. We are here because we are a part of the process that is the universe (a point made in certain religious philosophies like Zen and Tao). The universe must exist to create life just as an apple tree exists to create an apple. The question of why does a particular apple exist is never offered philosophically because it does not make sense. We are each an extension of the universe just as it is an extension of us. 

Religious connotations

Many of our religions add their own interests on top of the above explanation of 'why are we here'. The continuing changes in our cultures have stressed the existing power structures and (as described in my 'war on terror' page) those stresses have led to violence on the part of those unable to deal with these changes. The monotheistic religions make up the most influential in Western society, including the Christian, Islam and Jewish religions. Each of these had its roots in ancient mythology where a single God ruled all (as described elsewhere on this site). This God takes on an attitude of the dictator above us. These religions suggest that God has a Master Plan (so we don't decide what we choose for our role, it was already decided) and that God knows what we will do (so our life is predetermined, so less meaningful). In the current (2001-2003) tensions in the world (especially in the Middle East), God is said to be on 'my side' not on 'their side' so 'we' will be victorious. This is somewhat reminiscent of the ancients that prayed to different gods, hoping to find one that will provide victory. These religious doctrines are bringing humanity to the brink of its own extinction. This is unfortunate as the current technologies and continuing social reforms offer hope for better living conditions for humanity. For example, age expectancies and literacy rates continue to rise in many countries and both indicate that human actions are improving the conditions for those living in those communities.

Birth control also takes on religious tones. For people to breed like rabbits (with no birth control) is not good for their community. In many communities around the world, there are too many people for the amount of natural resources. Too many people results in starvation and poor living conditions (as well as too high a demand on the food supplies so any drop in that supply (such as bad weather) will result in even worse conditions). Each community (up to the national level) must work toward improving its own health. Many years ago, the practice of medicine was not efficient, low life expectancy was common and the lower levels of population usually lead to larger families just to maintain the community. Now, the opposites are all true so smaller families should be more common in most parts of the world. Each person, as well as the community, must recognize that they are part of the (larger) environment and their actions will ripple beyond what is readily apparent.

We are not alone and we should not behave as if we are. We are an important part of a larger social group, our community, and we are ultimately responsible for our actions, just as we expect respect and recognition for those actions.

created - Jan. 2003
last change - 03/09/2003
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