Friday, March 27, 2015 8:52 PM
To speak against the local religion was a good way to get yourself dead, back in the day. That still holds true for some parts of the world—even some parts of America. But if we exclude the slimy backwaters of the world and of our country, one could reasonably state that atheism is a much safer subject for public expression. Sure, ISIS might behead you in some areas. Down in Texas, some good ol’ boys might decide to drag you behind their pickup. Even here in New York, there’s always the possibility that a rifle-toting extremist will come a-hunting for any outspoken advocate of atheism.
But by and large, it’s no big deal these days. There are so many ‘practicing atheists’ (people who don’t pray or keep the Sabbath) among the supposed Christians that the few who go to the trouble of being positively-professed atheists appear as more or less just extremely-lapsed Christians . And the rise of Humanism adds to that impression by collecting most atheists into a group that still searches for things like good, evil, meaning, and purpose.
I have a Humanist tendency, myself—but I find it takes a little care to go searching for a replacement for religion without transforming that search into a new cult of its own. I see morality and community, the two greatest benefits of established religions, as important to society. But I would beware of trying to justify goodness, badness, etc. on any more ideal, less practical grounds than their providing a friction-reducing framework for society.
Charity, for instance, has in many cases been analyzed by economists and found to be more cost-effective than austerity. It’s just good business—counterintuitive, yes—but still the right way to go. The benefits of that modern rarity, Honesty, aren’t even counterintuitive, they’re just very unpopular—even considered by many to be a sign of immaturity. But those who have fallen to temptation are always eager for company—it justifies their choice. How many of us felt pressured to lose our virginity by being made to feel childish while it remained intact?
My point is that God is completely unnecessary when choosing between good and bad. We are all familiar with con-artists, we are all warned that if someone offers us what seems too good to be true, it will surely be untrue. Ask anyone, they’ll tell you—there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Well, the universe works the same way. Humanity, as a species, as a civilization, requires socially healthy attitudes. Fat cats may not feel the universe’s kick-in-the-ass for being selfish and greedy—but we, as a group, are punished for allowing wealth to concentrate so greatly in individuals, merely for the remote chance we could become one of them.
And rich people, like lap dogs, are specially bred to their bizarre environment. Just look at lottery winners if you want to see the effect of great wealth on the average citizen—most of them have their lives destroyed, their families broken—some even go bankrupt. Some go mad and a few of them actually kill themselves. Sound like a dream come true? Only rich people, born and raised to take their wealth for granted in a world full of poverty, can handle sitting on a huge pile of cash—not that most of them are the picture of mental health, either.
But that’s a special case—the separation of the wealthy from the rest of us obscures the cause-and-effect of their follies. In general, we can see that taking advantage of others, whether by crime, betrayal, lies, or violence, will come back to haunt us eventually. Karma may not be a spiritual force, but there is symmetry in nature, and it applies to society as much as to physics. In cases of a ‘perfect crime’, so to speak, where the payback is difficult to trace, we still find that society as a whole is damaged by anti-social behavior. And since we live in society, we are in some way affected as individuals, too.
As individuals, we can make the case that society is not our problem. My theory that morality is socially healthy could be described as idealistic, in that sense. But again, as members of society, we can abrogate our responsibility if we wish, but we can’t deny our inclusion in whatever future we help to bring about. If evil predominates, society will self-destruct—an end that seems all too likely, and in the not-very-far-off future, to boot. If so, the good will perish along with them. If however, we somehow manage to save ourselves, I think I’ll enjoy having been on the winning team.
Okay, presentation over. I hope I got my point across. My ideals, if you want to call them that, are based on practical evaluations of the conditions of my reality—I don’t feel obliged to bring them all the way round to axioms of faith. They work well enough, and any further progress would involve greater knowledge than humanity has at present, or may ever have, or may be capable of having.
Someone recently made a point of humanity displaying an innate ‘sense of purpose’ and hung on that the premise that purpose must exist. He was arguing that atheists seem fixed on defining themselves by what they are not. He was arguing that today’s atheist is fixated on the big bang theory and other such mechanical aspects of existence, and ignoring the great mystery that still infuses all of observed reality. And he has a point.
But my point is that today’s atheists are new-comers to the party. Many of them are refugees from extreme fundamentalist families, often within extreme fundamentalist communities, where the madness of unquestioned faith and spurious, oddball dogmas made their childhoods into living hells of unreason and the suppression of feelings and ideas. They have my sympathies, and I welcome them to their new-found freedom to think for themselves.
However, with popularity comes dilution. When Christianity was new, you had to be pretty serious about your convictions—being fed to the lions is not a healthy habit. Then, in the intervening centuries, Christianity became popular enough to foster power, carnage, and corruption. Atheism has enjoyed the same refinement for centuries—it was not for the faint of heart or the only-partially committed. Neither was it a likely end for the uneducated—you have to be pretty comfortable with your brain to have the confidence to question God.
So we atheists were quite a cozy group up until this new century. The idea of activism was laughable—we represented such a small group that we were lucky not to be hunted down by the majority. This is no longer the case. The idea of atheism has become more commonplace and the number of those who self-identify as atheist has exploded. And we old-style atheists, due to the nature of atheism, are not hierarchical—we are not indoctrinating our ‘new converts’. For my part, I’m a little taken aback by the partisan populism such broadening of the field has incurred.
Part of the reason for my misgivings is that atheism doesn’t really lend itself to politics—it is a negative more than a positive position. It is an acceptance of the fact that, while the universe is an infinite mystery, humanity’s just wanting to understand it doesn’t mean we do—or even that we can. And the fellow trying to make the case for Purpose is doing something that it is all too easy for atheists to do—to try an end-run around the limits of human understanding by claiming that ‘human understanding’ has a priori value.
Sure, we have an innate sense of purpose. But we also have an innate sense of self-preservation and an innate sense of continuing the species. These are evolutionary traits necessary to the survival of the species. And what more important evolutionary step can a species that has developed consciousness take than an innate sense of purpose? Once our brains began to analyze and to question, would we not require a sense of purpose to bolster our self-preservation instincts? I see no reason to assume that a sense of purpose is any less a product of evolution than our other instincts.
It is even possible that such an instinct, necessary in an animal with consciousness, may have been the spark for all religions, from the prehistoric to the present. And even if I’m wrong about it being instinctual, I have never been willing to attach absolute value to any natural-seeming notions of the human brain. Who would? So many concepts throughout history, that once seemed like bedrock reasoning, have proved in time to be convenient fictions—the divine right of kings, the flatness of the Earth, the inferiority of women, the evil of homosexuality. There are even ‘intellectuals’ who have rationalized the justness of slavery, the demonization of left-handedness, or the perpetuation of the death penalty. So-called scientists ‘prove’ things like racial inferiority, ‘cures’ for gayness, or creationism.
People are stupid. Not just some people—all people. We have limited senses. We have only the vaguest understanding of physics and chemistry. We have a tendency to infuse reason with wishful thinking. We react emotionally to scientific facts and we use ‘faith’ to give the legitimacy of fact to our anthropomorphic dreams of cosmology and creation. So, when someone claims that a shared trait of humanity, like a sense of purpose, must have some meaning, I can only feel pity for their ingenuous loyalty to the idea of human reason—an oxymoron if ever there was one.
Former VP Al Gore wasted a good title on his climate-change documentary—if there was ever an ‘inconvenient truth’, it is atheism. And that is my concern over this influx of new, anti-religious converts—they have not so much accepted the ignorance of man as they have rejected the ‘revealed truth’ of religion. That is, unfortunately, only half the journey. The atheism that they will produce in years to come will bear striking resemblances to the religions these people have rejected—and the partisanship they bring to the party will facilitate the transformation of atheism into a religion-like structure, with its attendant assumption of the wisdom of humanity. Dogmas will arise that will make fundamentalism seem tame.
In time, atheism will deform itself so greatly that it will rival the enormous gulf between the teachings of Christ and the workings of the Catholic Church. It will go from a backwater for those of us who absent ourselves from intellectual pride, to a fulcrum of power for its political leaders. And if humanity’s past is anything to go by, atheism will eventually create dogmas of its own, easily the equal of any snake-dancing, tongues-speaking cult. When the day comes that the atheist majority begins to persecute people of faith, they will call it Progress. Yeah, right.