Free Will, Fate, and Destiny: A Humanist Perspective

Free Will, Fate, and Destiny: A Humanist Perspective August 1, 2013

Human religions have always been built upon foundations of the best available science of the time. Sometimes that science said that the middle earth sat in a large tree. Sometimes science said the earth sat on a turtle’s back. Ezekiel knew that the earth had four corners and was held up by pillars–heavens above, Sheol below. Upon these foundations, human beings built views of how the world worked.

An important reason that I became a Unitarian Universalist many years ago was the movement’s tradition of incorporating reason and science into religious understanding. When science finds that the earth moves, Unitarian Universalists don’t have to deny science. We say, “Hmmm. That’s interesting!” That’s why I’m a humanist and religious naturalist, standing in awe inside the great cosmic show.

Nowadays we know that our fate lies within the unfolding of the Big Bang. We still don’t know whether that fate lies in a universe that will expand forever, eventually succumbing to heat death, or if there might be a Big Crunch in our future, one that might even lead to another Big Bang. Whichever way the future may pan out, our ultimate fate is sealed in forces considerably larger than primate consciousness.

Similarly, carbon-based creatures have a predictable trajectory, from our constituent elements created in the explosion of stars, to the momentary cohesion that we call life, to our decomposition, and, eventually, that aforesaid fate at the end of the Big Bang.

So, what of this consciousness we experience now, in this fleeting moment we call human life? What better way to spend those brief moments than in awe and gratitude?

Is there free will or fate? Whether or not there’s a deity that has the hairs of our heads numbered, bad things keep happening to very good people. Observation indicates that a lot of chance is involved. After all, for each of us, our genetic material has more immediate and local origins than that birth in the explosions of stars. We arise as individuals in hemispheres, nations, regions, tribes, genders, and economic situations, all at specific times, all with measures of power within us and over us.

For example, a recent study shows that where I was born, in the Southern United States, only four percent of people become professionals. Four out of one hundred. That’s fate . . . Created not by the gods, but by very human decisions. (Don’t get me started on the sequester!)

Is there free will? Yes–it’s all up to us. Except when it’s not. A fact of our realities is that the fate of each of us belongs not only to you or me, but ALL of us.  All of us.

That’s why I’m a humanist. In this very human world, it’s all up to us. We create problems; we can solve them, if we work at it. That’s the beauty . . . and the challenge . . . of how it is, according to science and reason.

It’s just how it goes in the backwash of that really Big Bang . . .

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