The Nature of Existence is a new documentary from Roger Nygard, who visited people all over the world to ask them the hardest and most important questions he could think of, about our purpose and the nature of existence. His interviews included Indian holy man Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (The Art of Living), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), 24th generation Chinese Taoist Master Zhang Chengda, Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind (co-discoverer of string theory), wrestler Rob Adonis (founder of Ultimate Christian Wrestling), confrontational evangelist Brother Jed Smock, novelist Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game), director Irvin Kershner (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back), Stonehenge Druids Rollo Maughfling & King Arthur Pendragon and many more. The DVD will be released tomorrow.
He was kind enough to take time to answer my questions:
Why are we here?
It took me four years, interviewing over a hundred experts, collecting hundreds of hours of footage,and tons of airline miles to find my answer. The most common answer I got from people was religious, variations on, “To serve God,” “To know God,” “To praise God,” etc… But then that begs the question, what is God? I found that definitions varied widely. As Gandhi said, “there are as many religions as there are individuals.”
We also seem to have this notion that as a goal in life we should be pursuing happiness. But as Julia Sweeney told me, happiness is a false goal, you can’t pursue an emotion — happiness comes as a byproduct of having a purpose in life. So the real question is, how do we find purpose? You can’t give somebody else a purpose, they have to arrive there themselves. But you can give clues; you can help show people where to look, which is what my film is about. I believe the answer is in the film — it’s part of the experience, the journey we’re all on. In the film, you get to see my journey; you see what I learned from Christians, Muslims, Jews, Jainists, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Confucianists, Taoists, Atheists, Pagans, Native Americans, Baba Lovers, Satanists, everyday people, scientists, and more…. And now I have collected in one movie all their answers to the biggest questions.
What unexpected similarities did you find in the different ways people have of making sense of the world?
I was surprised to discover that religious and scientific motivations stem from the same drive within us. We all share a curiosity about the world, and the Universe. Where we look for those answers is what’s different. I’ve heard the religious describe it as being born with a God-shaped hole in your heart. As you grow and mature you fill that space with something…religion, spirituality, drugs, adventure, sex, or some other pursuit, God being the most perfect fit. The scientists fill that space with questioning and learning. They describe humans as pattern-seekers making connections between things in their environment as they attempt to exert control in their lives. But control is an illusion. There is an old joke, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Quantum mechanics has made it even clearer that we exist in a Universe that is variable and unpredictable. But we have made great strides in the thousands of years that our species has existed. Where religion used to be the exclusive holder of cosmic explanations, science has been encroaching on religion’s domain, providing more and more answers for how things are the way they are. Who’s right? Whenever I asked a scientist, “Why do we exist?” They would often correct me and say the proper question is, “HOW did we come to exist?” They leave the why question to the religious and the philosophers. I think conflict between religion and science occurs when the “why” and “how” domains get confused as the same thing. To each it’s own. Render unto Caesar….
Did you find some approaches more hopeful than others?
Some approaches are more tolerant than others. I find proselytizing to be destructive. Our best hope for the future is to accept the fact that we will NEVER all agree. Given that, our most hopeful course is to allow others to have different beliefs. Jesus (and others) preached the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is somewhat invasive, however, in that it assumes that everybody else would want the same thing as you. Confucius is known for a negative version of this, also known as the Silver Rule: Do not do to others that which we do not want them to do to us. Essentially, live and let live. To quote Julia Sweeney again, I also like her rewrite of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but ask them first if it’s okay.
What do people understand least well about those with other beliefs?
Most people (including myself before I began this journey) are unfamiliar with the fact that there are so many other belief systems. There are over a thousand active religions on the planet. How do you know that you were lucky enough to be born into the right one, unless you investigate the others? The whole point of this journey for me was to get to know people with different beliefs, ask them what they believe and why they believe it–without trying to change them into what I think they should believe. I found there are more similarities than differences. As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
What have you learned about the importance of laughter?
Even though The Nature of Existence deals with some very serious subjects, to me they are comedies. People are fascinating, surprising, and funny. Life is absurd and if you don’t laugh you go insane.
What are some different ways people have of dealing with grief?
Grief, sadness, and loss are necessary to know joy. As one young man says in my film, “We exist to experience emotions.” There has to be a balance, you can’t have only happiness in life. But when we are in the downward part of the cycle, laughter is our strongest tool for coping with setbacks, for combating the infinity of death. The more serious a topic, the more jokes we tell about it.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by great art, great movies, great writing, great musicians, great speakers, great teachers, greatness in human endeavor… And on the contrary, bad movies, bad television, bad art, bad music, I find it depressing that somebody at some time thought that terrible work was good. If you want to be inspired, expose yourself to greatness.
How is your journey continuing? Where will you go next?
I have continued to learn from people at question and answer sessions and post screening discussions. This movie makes people want to talk. A lot. Only half kidding I sometimes announce before a screening, “I should warn you all not to see this film because it will mess with your mind. — But if your mind is already sort of messy, you’ll be fine. If your mind has everything stacked in nice neat piles, they may get jostled though.” Taking on the most challenging questions is a self-perpetuating process, because the result is so rewarding. After finishing the film I was faced with a bit of a dilemma, however: what to do next? What topic could be even more challenging than the very nature of existence itself? I finally found one, a topic even more perplexing and inexplicable: The Nature of Marriage. Check back in a couple years for some answers on that one….