For a large part of human history, a major component of religion has been the worship of one’s ancestors. We’ve looked back on those who preceded us, and concluded that they were much better people than we were, and therefore they deserve reverence if not actual worship. The presumption is that they are still out there somewhere, and in a position to intervene on our behalf if we ask nicely. Even if we don’t actually ask our own ancestors for intervention, religion tends to ask other people’s ancestors for help. Jesus, Mohammad, Abraham, Gautama, Zoroaster – all human beings presumably real at some point in time – are invoked as models or guides toward correct human conduct. In all cases, the assumption is that the older you are or at least the longer you’ve been dead, the more worthy you are of reverence.
I come from a rather select population – those who actually have a pretty good idea about their real ancestry, at least for the last few hundred years. We are largely confined to those of primarily Western European descent, where records have been kept and maintained and lines of familial connection can be effectively traced. For a large part of the world, this is simply not true. The kinds of records necessary to trace ancestry are pretty fragile, and tend to run out fairly quickly. On the other hand, for those of us with ready access to something like ancestry.com, with its access to large numbers of databases, it can be a lot of fun to chart out one’s family. I’ve been able to trace my mother’s family back to at least a knight who participated in the Norman Conquest (1066 CE), and my father’s family through one line that apparently goes back to Ragnar Lodbrok, or at least his slightly less mythical son Ivar the Boneless, around 840 CE. Obviously, these lines of descent represent only one small part of the overall families, but it’s those who managed to get themselves documented. I’ve even been able to determine that both my mother and my father were descended from the same man, a preacher who lived in Springfield MA about 1620 ; Mother was a descendant of one of his sons, Father a descendant of another. I also had one Native American ancestor sometime in the 1740s or so. Other than that, almost all were Anglo-Saxons of one form or another, or Rhineland Germans.
The interesting point is that there really isn’t much interesting about any of them. None of them apparently committed either great evil or great good in their time. A few of them were moderately distinguished – a couple of early governors, for example – and there are entertaining stories about a few of the others, but none of them had any great impact on human history, let alone enough standing to warrant being worshiped. Undoubtedly virtually all of them shared the common prejudices and erroneous beliefs of their time, even though a couple may have pushed the envelope a bit. My grandmother, for example, was in the class of 1903 at Colby College, at a time when relatively few women were involved in higher education of any form. But other than shaping my personality in some strange ways, she did not have a lot of impact on the world at large. All in all, my ancestors were mostly farmers and petty bourgeois, with a sprinkling of lawyers. Probably a pretty typical sampling of the people of their time.
When I was young, I had “great potential” – as Linus once noted, a great burden in itself. But I certainly didn’t really have much to recommend me. At 20, I hadn’t done anything; I had a lot of thoroughly useless knowledge but hardly any practical knowledge or experience of any form; I had no particular talents or qualifications – no music, no athletics, minimal math. I did have a fairly adequate acquaintance with Latin, an extremely quirky sense of humor, and a pretty endless curiosity about just about everything, but I had very little self-awareness and only minimal sensitivity to other people. Through a combination of a good deal of unconscious privilege, a substantial portion of basic good luck, and the goodwill of most everybody I ran into, I managed over the next 50 years or so to put together a career of modest professional accomplishment, to be appreciated by a large portion of the people I dealt with, to alienate relatively few people, and to enjoy an interesting and varied life. I also made an enormous number of mistakes and misjudgments, false starts, violations of basic common sense, and fundamental social gaffes, and still live with the consequences of many of them. But all told, I think there’s little doubt that I am a better person now than I was at the age of 20. And I’m certainly no worse a human being than most of my ancestors, if not particularly any better.
I do have hopes for the future. As Steven Pinker has noted in his new book Enlightenment Now, we live in many ways in the most positive and fulfilling kind of world that humanity has ever experienced. As always, the unknowns are terrifying, both now and for the future. But there is reason to believe that if we can overcome some of our present crises, that things may get even better. I certainly won’t be around to see that happen, and since my only current descendant is my daughter, my direct influence on the future is likely to be minimal. But I do believe that humanity has within itself the capability and capacity to do great and wonderful things.
It is in the spirit that I propose that in place of worshiping our ancestors, we think about instead worshiping our descendants. You might immediately object on the grounds that they can’t do anything for us – but then again, neither can our ancestors. And if certain physicists are correct that at the quantum level, there may be a principle of retrocausality under which future events may shape the current events, then there may be hope. In any event, posterity seems at least as worthy of our worship as any of the weird Gods that humanity has dreamed up at one point or another. At least posterity hasn’t demanded that we kill or otherwise damage each other’s lives – more than can be said for most of our gods throughout history.
I’m willing to assume the burden of Archbishop of this new Church of Posterity (“Hello, posterity!”). But I’m also willing to take applications for bishops, for a small processing and handling fee. Any takers?