When it comes to competing with religious belief, atheism would appear to have a problem filling out the dance card for hopes and dreams. Or coming up with answers for the apparent purposeless, meaningless, emptiness of the philosophy. At least, that is according to religious minds. Those needing a God and afterlife to fill the gap.
The truth is, Atheism is a definition of non-belief – not a philosophy. For any kind of personally substantial philosophy to rise up from that clean plate of disbelief – if you will – we first have to ask ourselves just what it is folks think they are giving up, in order to lay aside their storybook caricature of God – and the threat of an afterlife. (Which I’ll get to later.)
The first, seemingly ubiquitous charge - we hear from all quarters – is how can you possibly expect people to be ‘good’ without God!? In order to answer that, we must first question those things about “morality” that religious believer’s would presume to have exclusive claim to. To quote Arthur C Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey:
“The greatest tragedy in mankind’s entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.”
I have long maintained that certain moral values – as codified into the cultural moralities of people everywhere – are what gives center mass to our common humanity. Regardless of the sock-puppet figure one wishes to assign otherworldly oversight to, at the top.
Organized religion, then, is nothing more than the codified rules of an espoused belief, for the sake of political solidarity and power over individuals and communities. The added salt of sin being useful for the coercive work of eyes and ears – both internal and ext. – for maintaining complete control over the hapless saints.
So that, while believers can be kept busy swatting at imaginary flies – their own and each other’s – they often experience a serious loss, to their overall sense of humanity, towards anyone falling outside the locus of their particular religious brand.
Whence-forth arises a major problem, in trying to introduce any kind of objective skepticism into the thinking of “true believers.” Having convinced themselves of the seminal and uniquely singular nature of their religious sect – and it’s promised rewards of an afterlife – they are wont to view any skepticism as a personal crisis of faith. And – given the marvelously human ability to turn things about – view any such invitation to mere credulousness, with a skepticism itself, that can only be seen as perverse by many others.
‘Others’ being equally defined as everyone and anyone espousing either a differing belief – or a disbelief – concerning what are ofttimes meaningless points of doctrine. Ones that even a God would have to find laughable.
19th Century social philosopher Auguste Comte, who founded the discipline of sociology – and coined the term altruism – offered this remarkable insight:
“As the mind spontaneously stays with what seems true to it, the irritation of doubt ceases, [once] belief is fixed; what is [left] in need of justification, one might say, is not the belief – but the doubt.” (emphasis added.)
Until finally, we are left with that unholiest of human evils. That all but complete negation of our common humanity, in a cauldron of invented, self-serving anxiety. If it was Hannah Arendt who coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ – in attempting to get a handle on the psychological rationalizations that held good in Nazi officer’s minds, and enabled the atrocities of World War II – it was Aldous Huxley who was able to put his finger on the very mechanism that spawns such inhumanity. In his analysis of the quasi-religious-political intrigue, that surrounded the historical 17th century French witch trials – that gave name to his work - The Devils of Loudun:
“The idolatrous transformation – of the relative into the absolute, and the all-too-human into the divine – makes it possible for man to indulge his ugliest passion, in the firm belief that he is working for the highest good.” (emphasis added)
God is NOT good, as Christopher Hitchens was wont to say. And Satan is not the mechanism of human evil.
What I would have hoped by now – that anyone might see – is that there needs to be a conscious, concerted effort, by both individuals and society. to break free of – and escape – the horrible, spiritual Iron Maiden, of organized religions of all kind. That we owe it to ourselves, and each other, to abandon the false promise of another life – and the miserably defeatist expectation that this world should perish.
But we have to recognize that this break needs to be accomplished individually, before anyone can be expected to pick up the shards of genuine morality – based on normal human interactions, and our common humanity – and stand ready to carry them over the threshold to a newer and higher morality.
One based on our common humanity and our responsibility towards each other - not God. To reclaim, for ourselves and for all of the other living plants, animals, and organisms on it, the care and husbandry of this planet. Which is all any of us can do to pay it forward, as part of the best hope we can have, for assuring the ongoing survival of this planet, and our place within its Eco-systems.
We can all feel a responsibility – and a solidarity – with being about the honorable work of preserving the earth. Not just for ourselves, but for the future of mankind. Yet destined to live out their lives on it.
Photos: Auguste Comte, Aldous Huxley, and Arthur C Clarke – creative commons licence. (Click to see Nalaka Gunawardene’s article – about what Arthur C Clarke last envisioned for the world.)
~ Copyright © 2013, D R Hosie and The Salt Lake Daily Issue ~