Ted Turner on the Meaning of Life, the Trouble with Religion, and His Revision of the 10 Commandments
“Our reason for being here is to have a productive, good, long life and to experience the truth that we’re in paradise right now.”
By Maria Popova
For more than half a century, media pioneer and philanthropist Ted Turner (b. November 19, 1938) has been earning his reputation not only as an extraordinary businessperson but also as a man of exceptional integrity, conviction, and goodwill in an industry so permeated by ruthlessness and unethical conduct as matter of course. (It speaks to his character that his arch-nemesis is media villain Rupert Murdoch.) Turner founded CNN, turned his massive library of animation into the Cartoon Network, and donated $1 billion to the United Nations to start the United Nations Foundation. Intensely invested in the environmental movement, he even co-created the beloved 1990s environmentally-themed children’s series Captain Planet and the Planeteers.
In 1991, Turner participated in The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here (public library) — a wonderful collections of reflections on the essence of existence by a humbling roster of luminaries, including Carl Sagan, Rosa Parks, John Cage, Annie Dillard, George Lucas, Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, and more.
Turner’s short essay, reminiscent of young Jack Kerouac’s memorable clarion call — “Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now.” — is essentially a case for spirituality without religion, delivered with his penchant for the punchy and with a heartfelt dose of concern for our planet:
There is nothing wrong with thinking there’s a next life, a dream-world, a happy hunting-ground, a paradise over the rainbow, salvation. But don’t go to church on Sundays to pray to some unknown being who hasn’t shown up in thousands of years to come save you. You need to get off your knees and roll up your sleeves and save yourself. Our reason for being here is to have a productive, good, long life and to experience the truth that we’re in paradise right now. In the Old Testament paradise was, at one time, here on this earth. Native American Indians consider earth as paradise. Go into the Adirondacks, assuming you’re not in an area where acid rain has killed the trees, go into the Alps, go into the jungle: Paradise is just hanging out, waiting for you…
The problem with all the world’s religions is that they have commandments engraved in stone, and none speaks about achieving paradise [now]. Christianity had a couple thousand years to try to solve the world’s problems, and we’re in a bigger mess now than we ever were as we go on killing the planet, destroying our home, devouring the host. How can Christianity address the problems of air pollution and nuclear proliferation and overpopulation when it’s geared toward the issues of Jesus Christ’s day: the domination of Rome and grinding slavery? Jesus tried to give his contemporaries hope in the next world because he could see there was no hope in the current one.
In place of the ten commandments, Turner proposes “ten voluntary initiatives” — updated versions of those timeless aspirations, geared for the problems of our time:
I suggest trying these on for size, as a way of helping foster the idea that our purpose while alive is to make a heaven here.
- Love and respect the planet and all living things thereon.
- Treat all persons with dignity, respect and friendliness.
- Have no more than two children.
- Help save what is left of our natural world and restore damage where practical.
- Use as few nonrenewable resources as possible.
- Use as few toxic chemicals, pesticides and other poisons as possible.
- Contribute to those less fortunate than yourself to help them become self-sufficient and enjoy the benefits of a decent life.
- Reject the use of force, military force in particular.
- Support the total elimination of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and, in time, that of all weapons of mass destruction.
- Support the United Nations.
Turner ends on an optimistic note about how the field in which he built his business could help cultivate these “voluntary initiatives.” Citing Marshall McLuhan’s notion of the “global village,” Turner writes:
I believe mass communication has helped make us all closer today than we’ve ever been. And I believe that the gathering and dissemination of worthwhile information to all the peoples of the world is the most important tool we have for achieving the end of realizing that our planet is the address of paradise.
Two decades later, much of Turner’s television business might be paying the price for his partially correct prophecy — indeed, we are more connected than ever, but in large part thanks to web video ecosystem that is cannibalizing TV. The disorienting thing today is that because scarcity is no longer the problem — abundance is — the true challenge of mastering these ten aspirations, or any set of aspirations for a meaningful life, is one of wisdom rather than information, and that is vastly harder to cultivate.
The Meaning of Life is, sadly, out of print but is very much worth the used-copy hunt. Sample it further with contributions by George Lucas, Carl Sagan, and other icons.
Published November 19, 2014