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June 25th, 2010
07:24 PM ET

Documentary attempts to answer life’s biggest questions

Roger Nygard was seven years old when he first realized he was going to die.

He had found the entry on tuberculosis inside his family’s medical encyclopedia one day and it appeared that he was exhibiting all the symptoms noted in the book: coughing, fatigue, and sleepiness.

The young Nygard aptly put on his winter suit on that cold Minnesota night and went outside by the lake across from his home to wait for death to come. After twenty minutes though, his feet got cold and he decided to go back inside to have dinner.

You can see a trailer for the documentary here.

Six years later the death of his father from multiple sclerosis would impact him profoundly by reawakening his questions about mortality. But it wasn’t until the events of September 11 where Nygard was propelled into action.

He began to ask his friends what was the point of everything and from that his documentary, “The Nature of Existence” came into being.

The documentary is Nygard’s personal journey and inquiry to finding answers to all of life’s biggest questions. But what he found was an existential onion, where every question led to another set of questions.

“We’re searching for answers to explain why we’re here. Sometimes the simple answers are in a fable and much more complex answers are in science,” said Nygard.

170 people were interviewed from around the world spanning across multiple religions, ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities. He asked them eighty-five questions on topics ranging from religion, sex, mortality, existence, science, God, faith, sin, truth, suffering, prayer, free will, afterlife, prayer, the supernatural, soul, life, and doomsday.

The documentary offers a wide range of opinions from the conservative to the controversial.

When asked what the punishment of sin was, Magnus Peter H. Gilmore, a high priest of the Church of Satan in New York City said, “The punishment for sin is enjoyment.”

Contrast that answer to confrontational evangelist Brother Jed Smock, who claimed that the most loving thing God could do to a non-believer was to cast him to hell and you get an idea of the diversity of opinions in this film.

“There’s a whole spectrum of emotions, I guess it has to do with when you tread in these waters, where you’re asking these serious questions anything can happen,” he said.

On the concept of God, Nygard feels that using that as an answer stifles inquiry, much like frustrated parents telling their children because I said so to stop succession of “whys” and “how comes”.

When asked whether he believes in God, Nygard says that before he can answer the definition of God needs to be clearly stated.

“There’s an assumption that everyone believes in the same thing. Seventy percent of people of America believe in God, you see the statistic, except which one? The multiple gods of the various Hindu gods, or the Daoism gods, or the monotheistic god of the Old Testament?” he questioned. “Most of the time people haven’t even thought about it so they can’t even answer that question for themselves.”

At screenings around the country, Nygard is also often asked what the answer actually is.

“The answer is in the search, it’s in the journey because once you stop searching and learning you start dying,” he said.

At the end of the day, the filmmaker hopes the documentary sparks curiosity with audiences.

“If it just makes people curious to learn more about our universe that’s enough,” he said.

- CNN Video Assistant

Filed under: Atheism • Buddhism • Christianity • Confucianism • Culture & Science • Faith • Interfaith issues • Traditions

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soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. Luke Myintthu

    Once you have learned the basic lessons taught to you by your own body, you are ready for a more advanced teacher: the universe. You will be presented with lessons in every circumstance that surface in your life. When you experience pain, you learn a lesson. When you feel joy, you learn a different lesson. For every action or event, there is an accompanying lesson that must be learned. There really is no way to avoid the lessons you are presented with, nor is there any chance
    that you will be able to skirt around the learning process.

    June 28, 2010 at 11:06 pm |
  2. Luke Myintthu

    Why are you here? What is your purpose? Humans have sought to discover the meaning of life for a very long time. What we and our ancestors have overlooked, however, in the course of this endless search, is that there is no one answer. The meaning of life is different for every individual.

    Each person has his or her own purpose and distinct path, unique and separate from anyone else’s. As you travel your life path, you will be presented with numerous lessons that you will need to learn in order to fulfill that purpose. The lessons you are presented with are specific to you, learning these lessons is the key to discovering and fulfilling the meaning and relevance of your own life.

    June 28, 2010 at 11:06 pm |
    • illlisten

      how do you know there's not one answer?

      June 28, 2010 at 11:40 pm |
    • Luke Myintthu

      Hey, illlisten,

      When a child was conceived in a mother's womb, no one knows whether who this child will be. I don't mean that knowing a boy or a girl ahead of time. I literally mean, no one knows who the child in mother's womb will be.

      If you read the sentence, the words – who the child in the mother's womb will be – mean what his/her life will lead him/her into becoming which kind of human, that is, what kind of temperament, attitudes, talents & gifts, and such that human will have.

      Here is a quote: I forgot who said that.

      When I approached a child, s/he inspires me in two sentiments: tenderness for what s/he is, and respect for what s/he may become.

      Since no one in this world does not have any one answer for every single child in the mother's womb about whom the child will become, there is no one answer for the nature of existence, especially humans.

      Thanks,

      June 28, 2010 at 11:54 pm |
  3. Luke Myintthu

    Why are you here? What is your purpose? Humans have sought to discover the meaning of life for a very long time. What we and our ancestors have overlooked, however, in the course of this endless search, is that there is no one answer. The meaning of life is different for every individual.

    Each person has his or her own purpose and distinct path, unique and separate from anyone else’s. As you travel your life path, you will be presented with numerous lessons that you will need to learn in order to fulfill that purpose. The lessons you are presented with are specific to you, learning these lessons is the key to discovering and fulfilling the meaning and relevance of your own life.

    Once you have learned the basic lessons taught to you by your own body, you are ready for a more advanced teacher: the universe. You will be presented with lessons in every circumstance that surface in your life. When you experience pain, you learn a lesson. When you feel joy, you learn a different lesson. For every action or event, there is an accompanying lesson that must be learned. There really is no way to avoid the lessons you are presented with, nor is there any chance
    that you will be able to skirt around the learning process.

    June 28, 2010 at 11:05 pm |
  4. Luke Myintthu

    You are enrolled in a full-time informal school called “life.”
    Each day in this school you will have the opportunity to learn
    lessons. You may like the lessons or hate them, but you have
    designed them as part of your curriculum.

    June 28, 2010 at 11:04 pm |
  5. Annette

    Riverrunner : I think you are a bit dramatic. Clearly you owe youself a certain quality of life if you are capable of giving it to yourself. For example, you don't go around starving yourself. Try making your life the best it can be for one day.

    June 27, 2010 at 2:44 am |
    • illlisten

      i assume are calling me a bit dramatic, not river runner. i really disagree lol, i don't intend to be dramatic at all, i just dont like fluffy answers, and when it's discussed on a blog about the nature of existence, i feel it's ok for me to really try to explore. you seemed to speak with authority to riverrunner, on calling him or her somewhat correct. and you're telling me that i CLEARLY (sorry about caps, id use italics if it were available) owe myself a certain quality of life.

      you didnt explain why, which is what i asked you, you just added the word clearly. clear to you, i'm sure.

      so again, what makes this so clear? where do you get your authority to tell me the meaning of life?

      June 27, 2010 at 10:32 am |
  6. Annette

    Why do I have to surrender to Jesus Christ ? A gift is not considered to be free if you'll only hand the gift over in exchange for worship.

    June 27, 2010 at 2:41 am |
    • illlisten

      i appreciate this question because i've dealt with it myself. i don't agree that it is free, and i don't like the term surrender, because both are terrible descriptions. the way i would answer this question, and i don't expect it to be entirely satisfying, since some of it is simply a faith issue. but Jesus tells a parable about a person taking a walk in a field, stumbling upon a treasure of extremely high value. so the person hides the treasure, goes home, gets everything he owns, sells it all to raise as much money as possible, and goes and buys the field where the treasure is hidden. and he does this joyfully, because he knows fully well that the treasure is worth more than everything he owns. hopefully this answers it a little bit?

      June 27, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
  7. I surrender all

    The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of His hands.
    Surrender all to the true and living God (Jesus Christ) and HE will give you the free gift of eternal life.

    June 27, 2010 at 1:33 am |
    • Eric G

      Good.... You can start by surrendering your computer.

      June 27, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
    • illlisten

      eric, i think you've confused Christian with amish?

      June 27, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
  8. HeIsGod

    There are many Ex-Atheist that has given their lives to Christ.

    Richard Wurmbrand says: "I was an atheist, but atheism did not give peace to my heart. I convinced myself that there was no God, but I was sad that such a God of love did not exist." One day, being a very convinced atheist, I prayed to God. My prayer was something like this, "God, I know surely that You do not exist. But if perchance You exist, which I contest, it is not my duty to believe in You, it is Your duty to reveal Yourself to me.” A bible was given to me and I read it out of cultural interest many times before. As a couple prayed for me, I found myself weeping over the Bible, comparing it to my bad life with the life of Jesus Christ, my impurity with His righteousness, my hatred with His love and He accepted me as one of His own.

    Hatred is what’s keeping atheists from accepting Christ! As Pastor Wurmbramd said, Atheism doesn’t give peace in the heart of atheists. I have even noticed by the way they speak through their comments. Only a miserable person can speak with so much hate and bitterness.

    June 27, 2010 at 1:11 am |
    • Reality

      Pray on brother or sister, your words are wasted in the hot winds of Christian brainwashing!!!

      June 27, 2010 at 11:15 am |
  9. HeIsGod

    AMERICA, WAKE UP! YOU WILL BE SHAKING WITH A SHAKE LIKE NEVER BEFORE!!!

    You flaunted yourselves above the world; you flaunted yourselves above your neighbor and your neighbors: brother against brother, kingdom against kingdom, people against people, Christian against Christian in your ungodly attempt to self-glorify yourselves. Both in the church and throughout America your leaders religiously, politically and economically are vain, corrupt and amoral. You are fast losing the salt, the purity that has held you together; that has made you great, if not the greatest of all nations.

    But, I will bring you down; like the wind brings down the tree, so I will bring you down.

    You will not escape my wrath; for it is an expression of my love, my deep love that will do all it can to get your attention before my eternal wrath, to remove all those who do not and will not love thy neighbor, will fall.

    Some say, many say, 'Oh, we will escape. It will not happen to us; for we are your elect; we are God's chosen.' But, I say, you have blinded yourselves with your own vanity. My elect are not the people, the church in America; but my elect are the people of the world that are called by my name and do my will on earth as it is done in heaven. Not people with a false tongue of divination of thy heart, but of divination of my will.

    For you are a thankless, godless, amoral generation that has been raised by the philosophies of the heathen and I will challenge your philosophies till you hate me and my people. My people will not escape your wrath - the wrath of the world as some falsely teach; for only the world's wrath will open their eyes clearly to what I am saying so they are prepared to meet me.

    I am coming quickly for a people, a church without spot or wrinkle; a blood washed, blood soaked people who are really called Christian; not the hypocritical, self-righteous, self-taught, self-educated fool who propitiates his own dogma today.

    June 27, 2010 at 1:10 am |
    • Reality

      It is the 21st century, OT and NT guilt trips no longer work!!!

      June 27, 2010 at 11:13 am |
  10. larmanius

    I saw this! It's really quite good. Some really great bits of cinematography, but the real story is the tremendous interviews. The subjects are actually allowed to talk...there is a lot of humor, but it's not a set-up or snark. Unbelievable interviews with various spirtual people...but for the nerd the sci-fi and science "gets" are amazing. Director of "The Empire Strikes Back", Irvin Kershner. Sci-fi author Larry Niven from "Ringworld" and "The Mote in God's Eye" and the whole "Known Space" series. Leonard Susskind of string theory fame. Tremendous treatment given to the Asian and SE Asian beliefs. Very fun. If you were disappointed with the depth of "Religulous" this is a movie you should see. I hope it runs a bit in theaters or at least gets out on DVD soon...would love to hear a commentary track on the various interviews.

    June 26, 2010 at 10:25 pm |
  11. Reality

    We are born, we live, we die. So what is so new?

    June 26, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      Heaven or Hell, which one will you pick?

      June 27, 2010 at 1:09 am |
    • Reality

      Heaven or Hell, which one will you pick?

      Reincarnation!!! Some unfortuantely will be continually recycled as "mythicians" doomed for all eternity wallowing in the myths of fortune telling, angels, global floods, magic trees, resurrections and ascensions!!!

      June 27, 2010 at 7:43 am |
    • Reality

      eaven or Hell, which one will you pick?

      Reincarnation!!! Some unfortunately will be continually recycled as "mythicians" doomed for all eternity wallowing in the myths of fortune telling, angels, global floods, magic trees, resurrections and ascensions!!!

      June 27, 2010 at 11:11 am |
  12. January

    Uneducated opinion about the "nature" of anything can only be for entertainment. In the old radio days, one program would look up a fancy word in the dictionary and then interview the man/woman on the street to ask they about it. When asked, people will come up with an answer, even when they haven't the slightest idea what is being referred to. I trust Nygard had an enjoyable time, but I am of the opinion that to kill time is to kill oneself.

    June 26, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
  13. Don J Voss Missouri USA

    It's about time a film such as this arrived on the scene. Roger Nygard, sir, I admire and respect you for deciding to bite off more than anyone of us can chew. As I've said on here previously – science and religion do not conflict, there is no paradox.
    It is our imperfect understand of the two that makes it appear they do. Other than a belief in a higher intelligence, or quite possibly multiple higher intelligences, I can only surmise and speculate. I have no other set parameters on religion. I admire aspects of the major religions of the world, but wonder if they are not much different than Scientology – designed and contrived by people who would have in later times been like Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer, who wants to see civilized order and peace of mind in place to replace possible chaos.

    June 26, 2010 at 10:34 am |
    • cyberdyne

      Interesting that you should mention scientology, because a google search of Nygard's name turns up links that suggest he is a promoter of said 'designed and contrived' religion.

      As for a conflict between science and religion, in theory there does not need to be, but in practice there is. It would be entirely plausible for science to concern itself only with the observable and natural and for religion to concern itself with only the transcendental. However, in practice, religion uses its supposed knowledge and makes claims about the natural world, sometimes in conflict with what science says. So, indeed, they conflict particularly with their statements about the natural world.

      June 26, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
    • Roger Nygard

      A brief correction: The reference to scientology (mentioned by cyberdyne) on my wikipedia bio was an act of vandalism, and was removed long ago, you are only seeing older cached versions of that erroneous wiki entry. I am not a promotor of scientology.

      June 27, 2010 at 1:09 am |
  14. mohamad burjak

    this artille makes me want to say this; Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are only parts of the same religion.The Qur'an,Bible, and the Torah are just parts of the same book. Religion is a welcomed part of humanity which can be as diverse and unique as the people who believe in it.

    June 26, 2010 at 7:34 am |
  15. Michael Levy

    in life there are but two paths from which we can choose. On the first pathway, truth can be sliced into little pieces and turned into propaganda and lies. Alternatively, on the second pathway, lies and falsehoods can be dismantled by truth so that people can live more authentically. In everyones lifetime, results will speak for themselves._Michael Levy

    June 26, 2010 at 6:56 am |
  16. Andy

    This article is inspiring everyone. I remember the film of Contact, (1997).. At the end, the answer is in our self, not by the acts and words of others.

    I believe that missionary act done by Christian and Moslem is a root of violence in this world.

    Jewish never do a violence because they do not do the missionary act or spreading their beliefs. What they do in Israel is a self defence.

    Overall, the cost of the living ideology of Abrahamics is too much for mankind.

    I never heard that Buddhism, or Confucianism is spread by blood, and sword.

    June 26, 2010 at 2:46 am |
  17. DougR

    If one searches with sincerity, eventually one does encounter answers – answers which transform one's life.

    June 26, 2010 at 2:06 am |
    • phnxrth

      Very nice, DougR. Spoken like one who may REALLY have something to say... So many people have settled for pat answers that don't really address fundamental issues. Pretty tiresome.
      "It has to be the way it's been. It has to be the way I think it is. The thinking of the experts can't be wrong." Hogwash.

      June 28, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
  18. Annette

    illllisten: "...to whom do we owe this duty to make the most of life?" You owe this duty your mother, who birthed you. And without her you would not have life. And, to yourself, don't you think?

    June 26, 2010 at 1:33 am |
    • illlisten

      well, just to be clear, i am thankful for both my parents, i'm a son of priviledge just to have them as parents. but, would i still owe them anything if they didnt want me? or if they died? or if they were abusive?

      and if i have duty to anyone who created me, shouldn't i have more of a duty to the one that made them? and made their grandparents, and the oxygen we breathe, and the eyes we see with?

      why do i owe anything to myself? i didnt ask to be here.

      June 26, 2010 at 10:20 am |
  19. Annette

    Riverrunner: You are SOMEWHAT correct. The movie is telling us that we each need to find or CREATE our own purpose.It's evident in the T-shirt that I saw some of the girls wearing for the movie. It has the word pURpose. Meaning: find or create UR/YOUR pURpose. Please don't go turning this beautiful & intelligent film's message in to some Atheist message of meaninglessness & saying that we are all living for no reason – except to die. Clearly this filmmaker's message is that life is precious and valuable and our duty is to make the most of it.

    June 25, 2010 at 11:19 pm |
    • illlisten

      just asking, but how do you know if riverrunner is somewhat correct, completely correct, or completely incorrect? how do you ask riverrunner to respect the purpose of something as trivial as a movie, when you presume to tell humanity that it is up to the individual to determine their the purpose of something as sacred as life? to whom do we owe this duty to make the most of life?

      June 26, 2010 at 12:00 am |
    • mohamad burjak

      i agree with that statement 100%

      June 26, 2010 at 7:29 am |
    • Tom

      I can tell you that I'm an Atheist and can tell you that i don't spread a life of meaninglessness. I also don't think we live for an ultimate reason but a reason we create every day. Life is full of possibilities as long as you don't let yourself be ruled from an ultimate authority or ultimate book or ultimate wisdom. If you think you've found something "ultimate", think again.

      June 29, 2010 at 10:36 pm |
    • Teddy123

      @tom: Isn't it ironic that your answer smacks of absolutism? There's no "ulitimate authority"? There's no "ultimate book"? There's no "ultimate wisdom"? Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure? Is that your "ultimate" answer?

      July 2, 2010 at 2:55 am |
    • bobross2

      Tom, there is no meaning to life without God and if you are living a life denying his existence then your life is meaningless bc u are bringing him no glory... u must at least be willing to entertain the idea of another worldview... a man centered world view is self centered and therefore u do derive ur own purpose and meaning, but in a God centered world view the meaning of life becomes glorifying God through our own way.... U need to stop trying to come up with your own meanings for life and start thinking about how ur life can affect ur eternity... we're only here for a short while, think about it

      July 7, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
  20. riverrunner

    There is no why.

    June 25, 2010 at 10:51 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.