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 to the perceived purposeless, and meaningless emptiness, of the philosophy. At least, according to religious minds. Those needing a God and an afterlife to add meaning.
The truth is, though, while atheism provides a definition of non-belief, It’s not a philosophy. For a personal, substantial philosophy to rise up from a 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. (I’ll explain 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 again question those things about human morality, that religious believer’s would presume to claim exclusive dominion over. Let’s not forget the words of Arthur C Clarke, inventor of the communications satellite, and author of 2001: A Space Odyssey:
“The greatest tragedy in mankind’s entire history
may be the hijacking of morality by religion.”
– Arthur C Clarke
I have long maintained a number of moral values are innate to the human condition – and underlie the interactions of people everywhere. And 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, on the other hand, is nothing more than the codified rules of one particular group’s espoused beliefs, for the sake of political power and control over members, and their extended congregations. The added salt of sin being immensely useful in assisting the coercive effect of eyes and ears – both internal and external – in maintaining this particularly pervasive and unrelenting form of control, over the hapless saints.
So that, while believers can be kept busy swatting at imaginary flies – their own and each others – they often take some serious hits to their overall sense of human connectedness. Towards any others who fall outside the locus of their own particular brand of religion.
Wherefore, also arises our biggest 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 experience – and having already bought into the sect’s promise of rewards in 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 marked skepticism that itself can only be seen as perverse by most others.
‘Others’ being equally defined as anyone and everyone espousing either a differing belief – or a disbelief – concerning what are ofttimes meaningless points of superstitious doctrine. Ones that even a God would surely have to find laughable.
19th Century social philosopher Auguste Comte, who founded the discipline of sociology – and coined the term altruism – offers 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.” – Auguste Comte
Until finally, we are left with that unholiest of all 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 grasp the psychological rationalizations that found root in the minds of Nazi officers – and led to 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 Inquisition of Father Urbain Grandier, commonly referred to by the appellation that became the title for this work – The Devils of Loudun – he observed that:
“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.” – Aldous Huxley
God is NOT great, 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 free ourselves of the horrible, spiritual, human evil, 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 need to recognize that this break with belief has to be accomplished individually, before they or anyone else can be expected to pick up the shards of genuine morality – based on those human interactions that support 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 our planet, and its Eco-systems.
We can all feel a responsibility – and a solidarity – with being about the honorable work of preserving this earth. Not just for ourselves, but for the future of mankind. For those yet destined to live 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.)