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Stephen Hawking's Other Insight

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I am sitting in Oregon, adoring the all-too-brief bouts of sunshine interrupting the more extended periods of drizzle. The sky is clouded, as it apparently often is in this part of the world, and for the first time in a while I feel like the least hipster person in the room.

I am here because I was invited to speak for the University of Oregon's Alliance of Happy Atheists (UO AHA). After my speech, they gave me their first annual "Happy Heathen!" Award and to celebrate, I joined a group of students for dinner. At one point during our dinner conversation I admitted to loving the television program Doctor Who. At least half of the group cheered in agreement, and we proceeded to relish in our shared adoration for the time-and-space-traveling science fiction show.

One of my favorite episodes from last year's season of Doctor Who found the doctor and his companion battling an invisible creature that was terrorizing Vincent Van Gogh. It may sound bizarre, but it was actually a beautiful story that explored both the loneliness and possibility of the human condition.

At one particularly poignant moment near the episode's end, the three of them looked up at the night sky and van Gogh exclaimed: "Hold my hand, doctor. Try to see what I see. We're so lucky we're still alive to see this beautiful world. Look at the sky! It's not dark and black and without character. The black is in fact deep blue. And over there! Lighter blue, and through the blueness and the blackness, the wind swirling through the air, and then shining, burning, bursting through the stars. The stars, can you see how they roll their light? Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes."

The Doctor replied: "I've seen many things, my friend. But you're right: Nothing's quite as wonderful as the things you see."

Many visionaries have looked up at the stars and seen different things. Van Gogh perceived swirls of color; others have gazed skyward and seen the possibility of an afterlife. In a recent interview, famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking made it clear that he is not in this latter camp.

Like Hawking, I suspect there probably is no life following this one. But I don't really care -- life in the here and now demands too much of my attention to give it much thought.

Once upon a time, however, I cared deeply; as an evangelical Christian, I believed that there was a heaven, and that it was a place too impossibly wonderful to envision. But as a closeted queer person, I also believed it was a place that I would never know, so convinced was I that I was doomed to an eternity of suffering for my same-sex attractions.

In my speech for the UO AHA, I shared the story of my struggles and how they led me to do the work I do now in the interfaith, Humanist and atheist movements to advocate for pluralism and understanding. But I ended the speech on a positive note, with a story that I believe encapsulates my conviction that we must find ways to work and live together in spite of our religious and cultural differences.

Last summer, as I was preparing to leave Chicago to start my work at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, I went out with a dear friend so that we could say our goodbyes. We went to a gay bar -- I was his first close gay friend and we had found a small, neighborhood bar just a block from his apartment that we enjoyed visiting because it maintained a remarkably diverse patronage.

While we were there, a Christian man approached us. Admitting that he had been eavesdropping on our conversation, he asked why I, as an atheist, would get involved in interfaith work. We ended up discussing a whole range of topics, from the possibility of an afterlife to our favorite beers, and at one point he posited a question: "OK, but tell me this, Mr. Atheist: Where did we come from? How did all of this get here?"

I answered: "Well, I'm not a scientist," a line I often offer with a chuckle when I'm confronted with a question I don't know the answer to, "but to be honest, that question doesn't matter all that much to me. I'm not especially interested in how we got here; what concerns me, given that we are here, is what will we do?"

I tell that story pretty much every time I give a speech now, in part because I like to own my ignorance about a great many things, but also because I believe that there is a greater urgency to answer the question of "what will we do?" than there is to answering questions about what proceeded our existence and what may or may not follow.

Some may say that we must answer those questions before we can answer the first; I believe, however, that we as a species won't be around long enough to answer those questions unless we can come to some kind of consensus on the first.

There are many -- Hawking among them -- who wish to invest their time in exploring the conditions of our existence, and I believe their work importantly contributes to answering the question of what we should do with our lives. The imaginative inquiry propelling the works of Hawking, van Gogh, religious thinkers and even the writers of Doctor Who have given us insight into our own humanity, and inform how we might learn to transcend some of the divisions that contribute to social inequality and unrest. But we mustn't get stuck with our heads in the clouds.

We look at the stars and can easily become overwhelmed by our seeming insignificance. We squint our eyes and try to assemble meaning out of their grandeur, looking for order somewhere in their grandiosity. We create constellations in an attempt to structure some cosmic meaning. Some have found it in the religious imagination; others in science fiction; still others in scientific study. Each has contributed to our growing understanding of the world, and of one another.

Some look up at the night sky and see swirls of color. Some see the possibility of another life beyond this. Others see a brilliant collection of stars that contain the potentiality to tell us more about our existence through studying them.

But as a Secular Humanist, I most readily find meaning in what is directly around me. I find significance in the absence of meaning; in my conviction that the human task is to assemble meaning through relationship, to come to see the other as more alike than different, and to advocate for inclusion and compassion.

Much will be made of Hawking's secular declaration. But in my mind, the most pivotal moment of Hawking's interview is also the easiest to overlook. In a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sentence, Hawking offered an imperative call to action:

So here we are. What should we do?

We should seek the greatest value of our action.

Given that we are here, what will we do? What is the greatest value of our action? I'm not a scientist, but I believe the answer is as simple as seeking to understand the diverse people who are here with us, and working together to advance equality and justice for all.

The sky in Oregon may be overcast today, but I'm glad for the excuse to keep my eyes fixed on the world around me: on the people of all different faiths and beliefs, who might be my collaborators in the valuable endeavor of creating the kind of meaning and understanding that leads to inter-group action.

Or, as The Doctor might say: "Allons-y!" ("Let's go!")

This post originally appeared on the Washington Post On Faith.

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