Over the years, I’ve often heard those of a religious background preach about the “sanctity of life.” They do so as if their membership in a religious organization gives them some special insight into what “sanctity of life” means. To a certain degree, I suppose they’re right. After all, sanctity means, in essence, holiness. But to the layman, what it means is that you shouldn’t take it lightly, you shouldn’t corrupt it, and you screw with it at your own peril.
Now, if you don’t believe in God, or any particular god, sanctity is probably best replaced with a more apt term. Something akin to rare, though it fails to capture the essence of the idea on a colossal scale.
See, religious folks seem to think that you need to have religious morals to appreciate the sanctity of life. But that’s simply not so. Let me explain my point of view to you.
We’ll start by putting things in perspective. The age of our universe is currently calculated at somewhere between 12 and 14 billion years old. That’s about 2 years for every single person living on this planet in the year 2010 (6.91 billion, according to the US Census Bureau). Our sun, however, has only existed for 4.5 billion of those years. So we have more people on the planet than we have years for the sun. Further, human beings have only existed as a genus for a few million years. We have way more people on the planet than years that people, in general, have been hanging around.
So what does that mean? What it means is that the universe is ancient. You, however, will live, at most, if you are extremely lucky and blessed with very long life, good genes, and a phenomenal health and dental plan, 120 years. Get that? 120 years compared to the 4,500,000,000 that mark the age of the sun alone. 120 compared to the 14,000,000,000 that mark the age of the universe.
Don’t ever tell me you feel old again. There are dust particles floating in orbit that were around during the Triassic period.
You get 120 lousy years. Billions of years the universe has been around, and you get, at most 120. Most of us won’t ever get anywhere near that. We’ll be lucky to hit 70.
Now, let’s leave our age out of the picture, and consider not just the age of the universe, but its sheer size for a moment.
Our nearest neighbor is a lovely little star named Proxima Centauri. It’s a paltry 4.2 light years distant. Now, as anyone knows, light travels at the mind-numbingly slow velocity of 186,000 miles per second. Here on earth, that’s so fast that it’s virtually instantaneous. But when you start travelling across interstellar distances, things change, and quickly.
Imagine, for example, that you had a colony on a planet circling Proxima Centauri. Then, imagine, that you wanted to send a text message to the folks on Proxima Centauri, updating them about the latest episode of Glee. (Hey, someone’s gotta keep them updated.) It would take 4.2 years for the message to arrive, and 4.2 years for the response to get back. Total round trip: 9.4 years.
The vast majority of our universe is cold, vacuous space. It’s empty, with the possible exception of solar wind. Stars and planets are so far removed from each other that the distances are measured in either millions of miles, astronomical units, or light years. They have to be. If they were any closer, gravity would have smashed them together, and they’d no longer exist.
So think about it. The night sky is filled with countless millions of stars that you can see. Turn a telescope at it, and you can see BILLIONS of stars. A mind-boggling number of them turn out to be galaxies, or star clusters composed of billions of stars. Every star has a chance of hosting its own system of planets. But (and here’s the gotcha) the planets must be located within a certain “safety zone” for them to harbor life. Too far, and everything freezes. Too close, and everything’s incinerated. Or, its atmosphere is blown right off. Or it might not have the right chemical makeup to support life. Or it could be so volcanic that there’s no way in hell (pardon the pun) that anything could ever exist there. Or, a rogue comet or asteroid could smash into it and obliterate whatever life had managed to begin evolving.
You see, the universe craves life, but goes out of its way to destroy it. It surrounds it in the death grip of the cold vacuum of space, but once it gets going, life flourishes and evolves in myriad ways and in surprising environments that constantly amaze even the most diehard skeptic.
For me, this is a simple idea. When I look at the night sky, I see tiny pinpoints of light, separated by millions and billions of miles of empty dead space. Most of them don’t have planets. Most of those that do can’t support life. And of those that can, they’re so far away that I’d never be able to have a full on conversation with them from earth in real time. We are so far removed removed from any other form of life in the universe that may exist as to make us alone.
Couple that with our catastrophically short life span, and you should be able to see where I’m going with this.
I don’t need God to explain the sanctity of life to me. All I have to do is look at the night sky.