The Contributions of Freethinkers: Wole Soyinka

I wasn't familiar with Wole Soyinka, the first African author ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, until I got a Google alert for his name the other day. You can probably guess why - it turns out he's an atheist, as I learned from this article in the Nigerian Tribune grousing about it:

Although I might not be able to quote him verbatim, Professor Soyinka had replied thus. "The reason why I don't believe in God is simple. I simply cannot imagine that somebody (emphasis mine) will be responsible for the action of billions of people. I think everybody should be held responsible for his actions and inaction."

That I was taken aback by his response was to say the least. How on earth could Professor Soyinka give such an absymally poor answer? However, since Professor Soyinka has stirred the hornets' nest, I will like him to answer the following questions: Who is responsible for the phenomenon of sleeping and wakefulness? What about the mystery of day and night; who is in control?

As simple as this may sound, can the Professor explain the process of hair growth on his head? Who created him or even if he is a believer in the evolution school of thought, who created that creature that he evolved from? Who created all the wonderful things we see around us - the mountains, valleys, oceans seas etc. What about the phenomenon of birth and death?

The ignorant writer of this column, so blinkered by his own worldview, can't even conceive that an atheist's answer to these questions doesn't involve a "who". Nor is it a surprise that he has no counterargument to offer, other than an exceptionally shoddy presentation of the god-of-the-gaps argument.

But religious griping aside, Wole Soyinka is a man we should be proud to claim as one of our own. In addition to his prodigious poetic and literary output, he's consistently been a champion of peace and democracy. During the Nigerian civil war that began in 1967, he was imprisoned for 22 months for writing an article that called for a cease-fire. Later, in the 1990s, he spoke out against the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha (who was tied to "The Family", the right-wing American political group). The Abacha regime responded by convicting Soyinka of treason in absentia and sentencing him to death, forcing him to flee the country. (He returned to Nigeria in 1999 when civilian rule was reinstated, and continues to write muckraking articles about rampant political corruption.) His Nobel acceptance speech was devoted to Nelson Mandela and was a strong critique of the apartheid South African regime.

I also came across an interview Soyinka did with Free Inquiry, titled "Why I Am a Secular Humanist". Some excerpts:

Humanism for me represents taking the human entity as the center of world perception, of social organization and indeed of ethics, deciding in other words what is primarily of the greatest value for humans as opposed to some remote extraterrestrial or ideological authority. And so from that point of view, I consider myself a humanist.

I have nothing but contempt for religions that kill in the name of piety.... If they believe passionately in their deity, they should reserve to that deity the authority to exact vengeance. They shouldn't make themselves the instrument of imagined wrongs. That applies to any religion, it applies to the insanity between the Hindus and the Muslims in India, to the Jewish extremists in Israel. It applies to any kind of religion in the world.

Are there other African freethinkers I should know about? Post your suggestions in the comments!

Other posts in this series:

September 30, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink17 comments

How to Create (Not Find) the Meaning of Your Life

Guest post by Samantha Eliza Benten

A friend recently paraphrased a statement from The Nature of Existence (the documentary, I believe, though I haven't seen it) as follows: "People should spend more time thinking about the meaning of their own lives, than the meaning of life in general." This strikes a chord with a notion I've held since at least my senior year of high school. (That was when I came up with the BLT theory of the purpose of life, which is to say that a purpose is a goal that's chosen and striven toward and that most people strive toward some combination of beauty, love, and truth. ... More on that in another post, perhaps.) I'm very happy that the statement got me musing, and I'd love to get feedback on my initial reaction.

I suspect that people often prefer contemplating "big picture, god-given meaning" because 1) it doesn't require them to critically examine their lives or change their behavior, 2) if their lives feel unimportant, it helps them to think of themselves as being part of an important "big picture," and 3) the natural state of the world being coincidence, it's pretty easy to come up with incidental "meaning" in any given event.

Regardless, this is actually a huge pet peeve of mine: people claiming that everything in life "means something." There isn't inherent "meaning" in anything. Meaning itself is a function of perception and reaction. If you pay attention to something, and especially if what you learn by paying attention to it causes you to change an opinion or a behavior, then that observation is meaningful to you. The very "meaningfulness" of a person's life can actually be increased if they are willing to scrutinize the causes and effects of their own feelings and behavior — and if they're willing to use that knowledge to guide their future thoughts and actions, that creates not only a more meaningful life, but a life of more focused and purposeful meaning. And then, if you manage to affect the thoughts and actions of others through your conscious behavior, that's yet another layer of meaning. But without at least an effort toward self-awareness, life isn't "meaningful" at all — it's just a series of actions and reactions. So the only way to create a truly meaningful life, imho, is to live the most self-aware life possible.

Now, am I saying that people who "just live their lives" without thinking about the causes and effects of their actions have a "meaningless" existence? No — at least, not if we're treating the word "meaningless" as a synonym for "worthless," which is how I think a statement like that could easily be misinterpreted. I do not in any way mean that people have to be philosophers in order for their lives to be worth existing. (Though I do side with Socrates on that issue myself, I get that it's not the most important thing to the vast majority of people.) I'm simply pointing out that without conscious interpretation, there isn't any such thing as "meaning." Meaning itself IS interpretation and reaction. How can something have "meaning" if no one is aware of it AND no one is affected by it?

It bothers me how many people treat the phrase "everything has a meaning" as something passive, as a given. Frequently, they treat it as a god-given. They figure every moment of existence, no matter how trivial or how horrible, must be part of the "bigger plan" that God has for everything. To some extent, I understand the desire to be part of a bigger picture — to feel like your day-to-day existence is key to the unfolding of human history. And yes, I can understand why some people wish to "find meaning" in tragic events. If that consoles them about the loss of their loved ones, I would never try to take that away from them. But for me, the idea that the death of a loved one is "justified" by its role in the "big picture" is to see God (if he/she/it exists) as a chess master — willing to sacrifice the happiness and safety of billions upon billions of people in human history in order to ... what? Give the final generation of humanity a utopia? I'm not one who believes in the "end times," so what in the world would a deity be "working toward"? And if he is building toward something, why are we so much less important than those who'd come after us? Or, why are we supposedly more important than so many who suffered and died, for example, in the Black Plague? If I genuinely thought that human tragedy was compelled in order to flesh out some grand scheme, I wouldn't be consoled — I'd be furious. But hey, that's just me, and obviously there are uncountable numbers of people who'd disagree. So, what do I know?

Still, I feel like it would be more liberating if people focused not on "finding meaning" in tragedy, but on "creating meaning" out of tragedy. Instead of looking for signs of the person who's passed on or simply assuming they were a pawn whose sacrifice was necessary (again, not something I see as consoling, though they obviously don't interpret their view in these terms anyway), what about making a beloved's death meaningful by talking to those who knew them, honoring them by changing our lives in ways inspired by them, or even doing good deeds in their honor? What about bringing their memory and their feelings into our own lives and the lives of others in any way we can? Isn't doing something to honor someone who's died a fitting way to keep them in our hearts? Isn't that "meaning" enough?

September 6, 2011, 5:37 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink24 comments

The Value of Autonomy

I've been following this debate between Ross Douthat and Kevin Drum about the morality of assisted suicide. In his latest post, Douthat made a telling, though apparently unintentional, statement:

The slippery slope that I discussed in the column doesn't amount to much if you don't disapprove at all of people deciding to take their own lives. Absent that disapproval (and an accompanying, even-stronger disapproval of the people who assist them), you won't be bothered by... people taking lethal prescriptions in Oregon because they're worried about "losing autonomy" or "being a burden" (both of which are more frequently cited reasons for choosing assisted suicide under Oregon's law than are concerns about physical pain)...

Douthat takes it entirely for granted that the fear of losing autonomy is an insufficient justification for desiring to commit suicide. But why should we believe this?

Not all suffering is purely physical. For a person who's severely disabled, such as with a disease like ALS, to the point of requiring 24-hour nursing care - the point of being unable to speak, to get dressed, to eat, to use the bathroom, even to sit up or roll over in bed without assistance - I would fully understand if that person decided their life had become intolerable and requested help to end it. In fact, it doesn't surprise me at all that people who commit assisted suicide cite loss of autonomy more than pain. Pain can be controlled with drugs, but loss of independence and dignity can't be controlled; and for many people, those things might well be worse than pain.

It's also true that some people who seek assisted suicide aren't "terminally" ill, in the sense that they can be kept alive indefinitely with life-support technology. But there's no reason why the only allowable justification for suicide should be a disease that's inevitably lethal. If the disease itself doesn't kill, but so alters the sufferer's life as to completely preclude future happiness, why shouldn't people be permitted to decide for themselves that they no longer wish to endure it?

Take the case of Edward and Joan Downes, which I wrote about in 2009. Joan Downes had terminal pancreatic cancer; her husband Edward was going blind and deaf, but unlike her, wasn't at imminent risk of death. Nevertheless, he decided that he didn't want to go on living without the woman who had been his love, his caretaker and his constant companion of over fifty years, and the two of them elected to commit suicide together so that they could die in each other's arms. (My eyes still sting a bit when I type that.) That was a poignantly beautiful, even heroic, death, and I hope, when my time comes, that I have one anywhere near as good. If this is the kind of conclusion that Douthat would prefer to see outlawed - if he would take away people's right to write an end to their own stories like the one Edward and Joan Downes did - then his view is cruel and senseless sadism.

Or take Terry Pratchett, who's been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's itself doesn't kill, but the end stages aren't pretty: mood swings, delusions, incontinence and paranoia, ultimately progressing to the complete loss of memory and even the capability for speech. Pratchett has announced his intention to end his life on his own terms, if necessary, when the time is right rather than suffer all this. But in Douthat's criteria, this would be outlawed, and people with Alzheimer's would be required to live as long as possible, regardless of the emotional pain and humiliation caused by loss of identity, regardless of the suffering inflicted on their family by watching a loved one's mind slowly disintegrate. (This, I presume, falls under the heading of "not wanting to be a burden" which, again, Douthat scoffingly dismisses as an illegitimate reason to commit suicide.)

To decide these cases and others, the only real question that needs to be asked is this: Who owns our lives? The humanist view is that we are the owners of our own lives, and we are entitled to end them when we choose. If a person is suffering from mental illness that deranges their reason and gives them an irrational desire to die, we should prevent that, just as we'd (hopefully) prevent a person in the throes of mental illness from taking any other rash and irreversible action. But if a person of sound mind genuinely desires to exit life, we have no moral grounds to stop them, nor to criminalize the actions of those who compassionately help them on the way.

For Douthat and those like him, however, their moral system is built on the basis that a being called God exists, that they know what this being wants, and that they're authorized to act on his behalf. In the name of these beliefs, they would force people to remain alive, force them to endure all the agonies of incurable illness, force them to endure all the humiliations of a disintegrating self, for no gain and no purpose. You couldn't ask for a better proof that religious morality is fundamentally anti-human in its outlook and its spirit.

June 9, 2011, 5:39 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink40 comments

Another World Creeps In

I'm an atheist, in part, because I'm a moral person.

When I first read the books that are called holy, what I found were countless passages that are abhorrent to the conscience: God drowning the planet in a global flood, massacring the innocent firstborn of Egypt, ordering Abraham to murder his son as a test of faith (and rewarding him for being willing to do it!), commanding the Israelites to wage genocidal war on other tribes, promising to torture nonbelievers in a burning hell forever, ordering the subjugation of women and the killing of gays, and so on and so forth. I find myself unable to give my allegiance to any text that praises such atrocities as virtues, much less to believe that these books were written by a perfectly good and benevolent being.

Liberal and moderate believers tend to deal with this by mythologizing these stories beyond all recognition, but I find this approach to be fundamentally dishonest. However many layers of allegory you bury these tales under, their brutal, violent message still bleeds through. What's worse is that millions of theists go to church every week and read from scripture that still includes these stories unaltered. Why not release a new version of the Bible, one edited to reflect our evolving moral understanding, that omits them altogether?

But whatever the flaws of this approach, at least it tacitly concedes that these stories are immoral, their messages unacceptable. Other believers, some of whom I've been talking to in the last few days, take a different approach. They say that there's another life, by comparison with which everything in this life is inconsequential, and any action God takes - up to and including the violent killing of children - is justified if it ushers souls to a better destiny in this other existence. Here's one shining example from a recent post of mine:

...according to Christianity, death isn't the end of the story. What if, instead of "God ordered the Hebrews to kill the Canaanites", we read it as "God ordered the Hebrews to teleport the Canaanites from the desert to a land of eternal happiness where everyone gets a pony"? Does that change the verdict? Granted, the particular mechanism of teleportation in this case is downright unpleasant, but compared to eternity, it amounts to stubbing your toe while you step onto the transport pad.

The problem with this apologetic is that it has no limits. It can't be contained to the handful of troubling cases where the apologists want to use it; like a river in flood, it inevitably bursts its banks and starts to rise and sweep away all firmly rooted moral conclusions. After all, what act could not be justified by saying that it creates a greater, invisible good in a world hidden from us? What evil deed could this not excuse? The same reasoning that's used to defend violence, killing and holy war in religious scripture can just as easily be used to defend violence, killing and holy war in the real world.

Garden Lantern

Image by lapideo.

To a humanist who takes this world as the standard of value, morality generally isn't difficult or complicated. There are wrenching cases where real and significant interests collide and force us to make painful choices, but for the vast majority of everyday interactions, it's perfectly obvious what the moral course is. In the light of rational humanism, we can see morality bright and clear, like looking out at a beautiful garden through a glass patio door.

But when you introduce another world, one whose existence must be taken entirely on faith but which is held to far surpass our world in importance, your moral system becomes weirdly distorted. That other world seeps in like smoke, like fog beading on the windowpane, obscuring our view of the garden outside and replacing clear shape and form with strange and twisted mirages. Like a universal acid, it dissolves all notions of right and wrong, and what we're left with is a kind of nihilism, a moral void where any action can be justified as easily as any other.

This is what Sam Harris means when he says moderates give cover to violent fundamentalism; this is what Christopher Hitchens means when he says religion poisons everything. At one moment, these religious apologists seem like perfectly normal, civic-minded, compassionate people. But ask the right question and they instantly turn into glassy-eyed psychopaths, people who say without a flicker of conscience that yes, sometimes God does command his followers to violently massacre families and exterminate entire cultures, and the only reason they're not doing this themselves is because God hasn't yet commanded them to.

These beliefs have wreaked untold havoc on the world. This is the logic of crusade and jihad, of death camps and gas chambers, of suicide bombers detonating themselves on buses, of inquisitors stretching bodies on the rack, of screaming mobs stoning women to death in the town square, of hijacked airplanes crashing into buildings, of cheering crowds turning out to see heretics being burned at the stake. They all rely on the same justifications: God is perfectly in the right working his will through intermediaries; God is not subject to our moral judgments and his ways aren't to be questioned; God is the creator of life and he can take it away whenever he chooses; and if any of these people were innocent, God will make it up to them anyway. These are the beliefs which ensured that most of human history was a bloodstained chronicle of savagery and darkness.

Only lately, and only through heroic effort, have we begun to rise above this. Only in a few rare instances have people come to the realization that this life matters most. And still we humanists, who see morality as a tangible matter of human flourishing and happiness, must contend with the fanatics who shrug at evil, or actively perpetuate it, in the name of the divine voices they imagine that they're obeying. They rampage through the world, killing and burning and insisting all the while that they're doing God's will. And the crowning absurdity of it all is that they insist not just that their beliefs make them moral, but that they're the only ones who are moral, and that we, the ones who value and cherish this world, are the nihilists!

Here's another apologist from the same thread I quoted earlier, the one comparing ancient Hebrews impaling Canaanite babies on spears and chopping them up with axes to the slight pain of a stubbed toe:

What is at issue is that atheism per atheism does not really allow for things such as morals at all...

What in the world is so bigoted about stating the incongruity between atheism and morality?

The black-is-white, up-is-down audacity of this claim shows how severely religion can warp a believer's moral compass, to the point where they're willing to defend genocide as good and condemn those who don't share that opinion as evil. I say again: I'm an atheist, in part, because I'm a moral person, and because I value human beings and the world we live in more highly than the dictates of ancient, bloody fairytales. Come what may, I see the garden of human value in the light of reality, and no apologist for genocide and destruction will ever convince me that I should instead look for guidance in the fog.

April 15, 2011, 5:47 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink21 comments

An Atheist's Yule Sermon

I woke up at 3 AM earlier this week to see the lunar eclipse. Dressing in the dark, my wife and I went out into the freezing silence of the winter solstice to see the moon: a small disc high in the sky swallowed by the planet's shadow, glowing coppery-red with the reflected light of every sunset on Earth.

I'll admit, it wasn't the most spiritual experience I've ever had (being fully awake tends to facilitate those transports of awe and wonder). But I'm glad I saw it, nevertheless. If nothing else, it was a rare opportunity: the next few lunar eclipses won't be visible from North America, and the next time a total eclipse coincides with the solstice, it will be in 2094. By then, I think it fairly safe to say, none of us reading this now will be around.

And the rarity of this conjunction got me thinking - about how fortunate I am to be alive in this time, in this place. If I had been born a thousand years ago, it would have been into a nasty, brutish world wallowing in superstition and feudalism. If I had been born even a hundred and fifty years ago, it would have been into a world where the wealthy and the powerful classes ruled everything, where science and medicine were rudimentary at best. Even today, there are millions of people who live in brutal dictatorships or absolute theocracies, who subsist in grinding poverty or live in tribal cultures that haven't changed appreciably since the Stone Age.

I could have been born in one of those times and places, but I wasn't. And I recognize that being alive when and where I am was an enormous stroke of good fortune. To be born in a country where there's no official religion or state church, where human rights are protected by law, where the people are free to speak their minds and their votes determine the government - considered over the span of human history, that's a rare and exceptional privilege.

But even within the circle of citizens of First World democracies, I can't deny that I've been extraordinarily lucky. I wasn't born into crushing poverty or abuse or neglect, but into a loving, well-to-do middle-class family. I wasn't raised in a fundamentalist household where my mind was poisoned with dogma and indoctrination, but into a secular home where my parents let me make up my own mind. I've been fortunate in qualifying for - and being able to afford - an education in a world-class university. In the midst of a severe recession, I have a stable, well-paying job. I don't deny that I've worked for what I have - but I also can't deny the major role that chance played in my being born into a life where I'd have the opportunity to achieve all these things. The vast majority of people who've ever lived wouldn't have had any of those opportunities.

And that knowledge, that I've been the beneficiary of incredible privilege, gives me the uneasy feeling of possessing something I haven't earned. Why should I have been the fortunate one while so many others were left behind? I didn't do anything to deserve it - I couldn't have, since it came to me from the moment of my birth - and I can't repay it since there's no one to whom such repayment would be due. There's only one other response that eases my conscience, and that's to turn and offer a helping hand to those who didn't get the same opportunities I've had and who could do well with them, given the chance.

That's why, this holiday season, I've been making donations through sites like Kiva and Global Giving, which allow you to choose which projects to donate to and show exactly what your money will be used for. Of course, there's an ocean of need out there, more than any one person could ever alleviate - just browsing these sites will make that plain. But even if no one can do everything, everyone can contribute something, and if we all joined in that effort, the amount of good that could be accomplished is enormous, and I, for one, intend to do my part. If you feel as I do that you've been the recipient of undeserved good fortune, why not join me in extending that hand, and help in the effort to make those same opportunities available to all members of the human race?

December 25, 2010, 9:57 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink9 comments

This Holiday Season, Consider Atheism!

I was happy to read that this week that atheist groups are launching a new ad blitz, with ads extolling the virtues of atheism on billboards, buses, trains and print media. Significantly, atheist ads are also hitting the airwaves for the first time ever - thanks to a $150,000 donation from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, which is underwriting a TV ad campaign by the American Humanist Association.

And the very best part of the AHA campaign is that the ads aren't just saying that atheists can be good people too. They're hitting the religious where it hurts - by quoting some of the more notoriously evil verses from the Bible and contrasting them with positive quotes from famous humanists and freethinkers. (See the quotes here - I'm pleased with their selections.)

The most important reason for advertisements like these is that we still have a lot of low-hanging fruit. Most atheist groups have membership only in the tens of thousands - not an insignificant number, to be sure, and many of them are growing rapidly. The FFRF, for example, has tripled its membership in just the past few years. But the number of Americans who explicitly identify as atheist or agnostic is in the millions, and the number who are nonreligious is in the tens of millions. Clearly, if we can reach even a fraction of these people and convince them to join up, we could be much larger and more influential - and we'd punch much harder against the incursions of the religious right.

Granted, when it comes to organizing, religious groups have a built-in advantage: they already have a hierarchy which they can use to communicate with their membership. This means we have to work harder to catch up with them, and both positive and negative ads have a place in this effort - positive, to emphasize the benefits of atheism and show our neighbors that we're good and moral people. But ads highlighting the cruelties and violence of the Bible are just as important, for the simple reason that they puncture the claim made by religious people that there's a single source of morality and that they have sole custody of it.

After all, just look at how absolutely terrified the religious right is of this campaign:

"They are trying to show that they can be good without God but that's ridiculous," said Dr. Craig Hazen, founder and director on Biola's MA program on Christian Apologetics, in an interview with The Christian Post.

...Although Hazen said humanists have no business interpreting the Bible [my emphasis], he concluded that the ads may have some resonance due to the biblical illiteracy among Christians today.

I find it vastly amusing to see religious bigots petulantly complaining that we're not allowed to be good and decent people if we don't believe in their god. Of course, they define "being a good person" as "believing in our religion", so in their eyes, atheists are immoral by definition. But that definition is what you'd call a "term of art" - a specialized meaning that's very different from the way people ordinarily understand the word.

And this is a fight we should be glad to have. I welcome the religious right's claims that they're the only moral people. After all, it will only increase the cognitive dissonance when people see our ads contrasting the vicious and bloodthirsty verses of the Bible with famous nonbelievers advocating conscience, reason, compassion, and other good things. It will make our ads that much more effective. So, to the apologists for superstition and prejudice, I say bring it on! And for everyone else, I have this friendly reminder: This holiday season, consider atheism - and if you're inclined towards our side, then please join one of these worthy groups, and help us spread the joyous and liberating message of reason.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation

The American Humanist Association

The Secular Coalition for America

November 17, 2010, 7:49 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink27 comments

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Gene Roddenberry

As a wedding present to ourselves, my wife and I bought the DVDs of the original Star Trek, and these past few months, we've been working our way through them. For myself, it was a test: I hadn't seen most of these episodes since my childhood, and I was curious to see if they held up. I'm pleased to say that, for the most part, they more than hold their own. There's plenty to criticize, but after all this time, it hasn't lost its charm.

Despite everything that makes me roll my eyes about Star Trek - the dated special effects, the hammy acting, the hackneyed plots, the ludicrous science - there's a powerful heart of optimism beating beneath the surface of the show. The idea that human beings have conquered our own divisions and become united as a species, that we're setting out to explore the universe purely for the sake of exploration, that we've become members of a galactic civilization of intelligent life - for all these reasons, the world of Trek could be fairly described as a utopian vision of humanist philosophy. And that's why it's no surprise that Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, was himself a humanist and a nonbeliever.

As Susan Sackett, Roddenberry's longtime personal assistant, put it to a humanist group in Massachusetts:

Ms. Sackett said that Star Trek, like humanism, promoted ethics, social justice and reason, and rejected religious dogma and the supernatural.... She said Mr. Roddenberry, who lectured in Worcester in the 1990s, strived in his Star Trek ventures to affirm the dignity of all people.

"Rationality was the key... There was no recourse to the supernatural," she said.

Ms. Sackett said Roddenberry was so resolute about religion that he refused suggestions to add a chaplain to the crew of the starship Enterprise.

And Roddenberry himself said:

"I have always been reasonably leery of religion because there are so many edicts in religion, 'thou shalt not,' or 'thou shalt.' I wanted my world of the future to be clear of that." (source)

Brannon Braga, one of the original writers and producers, expressed similar thoughts at a 2006 atheist conference in Iceland:

STAR TREK, as conceived by Gene Roddenberry, portrays the epic saga of humanity's exploration of space and, in turn, their own struggles as a species. Every episode and movie of STAR TREK is a morality tale in which human beings find solutions to conflict through enlightenment and reason. Through science. Through wit and intellect. Through a belief in our potential as animals that can supercede our baser instincts. In Gene Roddenberry's imagining of the future (in this case the 23rd century), Earth is a paradise where we have solved all of our problems with technology, ingenuity, and compassion. There is no more hunger, war, or disease. And most importantly to the context of our meeting here today, religion is completely gone. Not a single human being on Earth believes in any of the nonsense that has plagued our civilization for thousands of years. This was an important part of Roddenberry's mythology. He, himself, was a secular humanist and made it well-known to writers of STAR TREK and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION that religion and superstition and mystical thinking were not to be part of his universe. On Roddenberry's future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.

Star Trek's humanist ethic comes through clearly in several classic episodes, including "Who Mourns for Adonais?", in which the crew of the Enterprise is confronted by an alien being who claims to be the god Apollo and demands their worship; or the Next Generation episode "Who Watches the Watchers?", in which the crew's existence accidentally becomes known to a primitive society, and they must convince those people that they are not gods.

With all that said, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Star Trek has spawned its own devotees who follow and imitate the show with an almost religious fervor. But even this, I think, is testimony to the hunger for an optimistic, humanist vision of the future, one not based on the supernatural, and that's the kind of thing that all atheists should be doing our utmost to provide.

Other posts in this series:

August 13, 2010, 5:45 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink29 comments

Thoughts on the Occasion of My Marriage

If you're a regular reader, you probably know that I got married last month. Until now, I haven't said much about the event itself on Daylight Atheism. But now that I'm back from my honeymoon (slightly sunburned, but happy!) and I've had some time to reflect, I wanted to put into words some of my thoughts on what marriage means to me, as an atheist, and explain why I chose to enter into it.

But first of all, let me address the most obvious question: Should an atheist even want to get married? Isn't marriage an intrinsically religious ceremony? After all, weddings usually take place in churches (yes, ours was in a church) and are conducted by clergy (yes, we had a minister - more on this in a minute). Doesn't that mean that a committed atheist should refuse to enter into one?

I do acknowledge that, for most of Western history, marriage has been performed in a religious context. However, I don't concede that this makes it an intrinsically religious ceremony. Rather, it's because organized religion has always tried to take exclusive possession of whole areas of human life, and proclaim that it alone owns these experiences which are common to everyone. Just so in this case: marriage is fundamentally an expression of love, and religion doesn't have a monopoly on love. Atheists seek companionship, fall in love, and pledge our commitment just as theists do. Why, then, should we not mark the occasion with a marriage ceremony? Why not take the ritual, strip out the religious trappings we don't accept, and reclaim it as a secular, human rite of passage that nonbelievers also participate in?

And that's just what my wife and I did with our wedding. We planned the ceremony to match our beliefs, keeping the traditions we accept, omitting or changing the ones we didn't. We've been attending a Unitarian Universalist church for the past year, an entirely dogma-free religion that emphasizes ethics and community and has no requirement that its members believe in God or anything supernatural. The ceremony was at Shelter Rock, a huge, gorgeous UU congregation on the north shore of Long Island, and was performed by our minister, Hope, a wonderful woman whom both of us respect deeply.

So then, back to my original question: Why did I, as an atheist, choose to get married?

First, there are the practical reasons. It sounds tactless to mention, but I'd be lying if I said I never thought of it: Marriage isn't just a religious rite, but a civil ceremony that brings considerable civil and legal benefits, including many that are impossible to obtain any other way.

Of course, these protections are held out as an incentive to couples like us, even as they're denied to gays and lesbians. That these civil benefits are denied to mature, consenting same-sex couples due to religious prejudice is something both my wife and I feel passionately is a grave injustice. That's why we chose the following passage to be read at our wedding. It's an excerpt from Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, the case where the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to forbid marriage to same-sex couples. Even in the dispassionate language of the court, this ruling was full of poetry:

Marriage is a vital social institution. The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support; it brings stability to our society. For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. In return it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations.

The union of two people is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred. It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects. Yet it is an association for as noble a purpose as any.

Without question, civil marriage enhances the welfare of the community and is a social institution of the highest importance. Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family. Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and a connection to our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life's momentous acts of self-definition.

But there was more to my decision than this. Although the civil benefits of marriage are non-trivial, even without them we would have gotten married anyway, and the last paragraph of that ruling hints at why.

I said that atheists feel love just like everyone else, but I want to say more than that. I believe that love is the quintessential human emotion, the one that most truly defines us, that inspires all our noblest endeavors, and that gives expression to what is best in humanity. But love, by its nature, demands to be shared. If kept secret, it stagnates into mere obsession; but if shared with others, it is multiplied. Like one candle lighting others, it spreads without diminishing its source, and brings greater joy to every person who partakes of it than any of them could have had alone.

This reasoning is both why I got married in the first place, and also why we had a ritual to mark the occasion. I believe that life's challenges are better confronted together, rather than alone, and a two-person partnership is the simplest and most stable way to accomplish that.

At the most fundamental, our marriage isn't a civil ceremony or a religious rite, but a mutual obligation, a promise given freely and in awareness of its weight and solemnity. We pledged to make our partnership an enduring one, to remain faithful and true to each other, to share our happiness and support each other in times of trouble. And it makes this pledge all the more weighty that we made it not to each other in private, but before our gathered family, friends, and loved ones. We invited them to be there because we wanted them to bear witness to our decision, but also because we wanted to share our joy with them!

My wife and I have both found much good in our partnership: we complement each other's strengths, we comfort each other in times of pain and sorrow, we challenge each other to grow and mature, and we've each found that the things we love separately are even sweeter when shared. And that, more than any other reason, is why an atheist like me got married: because when you're in love, you want to tell the world.

And it's in that spirit that I'll close out this post. We wrote our own vows for the ceremony, and if you'll forgive me, I'd like to share mine:

Dear MissCherryPi,

Before we say our vows, I want to tell you why I'm here today.

You know that there are some things I don't believe in. But today, I want to tell you about some things I do believe in.

I believe in sunrises and sunsets.

I believe in hikes in the woods and walks on the beach.

I believe in traveling the world and exploring places we've never been before.

I believe in good books, good conversation and laughing at shared jokes.

I believe in picking pumpkins in autumn, decorating the tree for Christmas and drinking champagne on New Year's.

I believe in watching fireflies on summer evenings and stargazing on dark clear nights.

I believe in all the beauty, the mystery and the wonder of life, and I believe that these joys, like all joys, are multiplied when you have someone to share them with. And I'm here because I want you to be that person.

There's no one else I'd rather spend my life with. I love your shy smile, your sweet laugh, your sense of humor, and your adventurousness. And most of all, I love the way you make me happier than I thought anyone ever could. That's why I'm here, and that's why I'm marrying you today.

June 23, 2010, 5:52 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink57 comments

A Life More Magical

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

The most magical Christmas I can remember happened when I was, maybe, 12 or 13.

It had certainly been many years since I had believed in Santa, and in all honesty I don't actually remember ever sincerely believing in him at all. Maybe it was something to do with not having an open fireplace, or my parents being terrible liars, or perhaps my older brother had something to do with it. Or perhaps, as I am inclined to suspect, a child's belief in Santa is less genuine than we adults care to imagine. A game of make-believe is practically second nature to a child, and if they get presents at the end, I'm sure they'll happily play along with anything.

But in any case, presents still were the icing on the cake of Christmas. But this one particular year, something absolutely unprecedented happened - both my brother and I actually slept right through the night and were woken up by our shocked and bewildered parents on Christmas morning! For the first time we had not been motivated enough to arm ourselves with torches, books, puzzles and coffee (yes, coffee) in a bid to evade our wily sentinel parents and raid the Christmas tree for presents. One year we even oiled squeaky door hinges! There have been bank heists planned with less military precision.

This particular morning, however, the whole family sat in the living room together and shared presents. We didn't greedily claim them like pirate bullion, but shared them, and took an active interest in what everyone had bought each other. We had bought and given these gift because we love each other, and had taken the time, effort and expense to do it. And I can distinctly remember thinking it was the best Christmas morning I'd ever had - Christmas without Santa really is somehow more magical.

I'm not saying I won't tell stories of Father Christmas to my own children, should I have any. I probably will. But, crucially, I would also expect them to grow out of that belief in time. Learning to think, to reason, and to interact with others in an adult way is an essential part of growing up. Stories and make-believe games may help them to learn these lessons, or be a crutch until they have, but eventually these intellectual stabilizers need to come off.

It would be another ten (ish) years before I let go of my belief in God. And yet the feeling when I finally did so was hauntingly familiar. A world in which humans alone have been responsible for our greatest works of art, acts of altruism and acts of love really is, I believe, more magical than one in which these gifts are were dispensed from above like some temperamental cosmic cash machine.

Contrary to the belief of those who will, I am sure, find this incomprehensible, belief in God, like a belief in Santa, needs to be laid aside to truly appreciate the other people around us. He is simply a barrier to a life more magical.

And don't even get me started on Rudolph!

May 23, 2010, 6:08 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink13 comments

What Is Humanism?

I've written on the meanings of freethought and secularism, and in the third entry of this series, I want to discuss humanism. More so than the other two, humanism is a complex and fully formed life philosophy, so it'll take the most effort to adequately define.

Most concisely stated, humanism is the worldview which treats human beings - our lives, our needs, and our concerns - as of supreme importance. Humanism recognizes our deep and profound interconnection with the natural world and with all living things on Earth, yet it values human beings above all else - not because of unjustified bias, but because that humans are the only living beings who are moral agents: the only ones who are able to reason out the consequences of their actions and choose to act based on that evaluation. Other animals lack that moral competence, and so regardless of what considerations we owe them, they are not of equal importance with us.

On the other side of the scale, humanism gives greater weight to human concerns than to matters of faith or dogma. To a humanist, the decree of a religious authority, scripture, or creed can never take precedence over the life and well-being of a conscious, feeling person. This doesn't mean that a humanist must be an atheist; there are theistic humanists, although in my experience, the secular kind is more common.

Statements like the Amsterdam Declaration and the Humanist Manifesto have defined in detail what humanists believe. My interpretation of the tenets of humanism would add the following:

Humanism is strongly ethical. The most fundamental principle of humanism is that all human beings are equal in moral worth and dignity. By virtue of being conscious, reasoning, foresightful beings, we gain the privileged status of personhood that confers us with rights; and we likewise incur a responsibility to treat others in accordance with this principle. Thus, we should refrain from doing harm or oppressing others, and to the greatest degree possible, we should respect their freedom to make their own choices and lead their own lives as they see fit. Humanists believe that morality is not a matter of following the decrees of authority, but of the sense of conscience that every person possesses, guided and informed by reason.

Humanism is rational and undogmatic. Humanists hold that no belief is too sacred to question, and are always willing to engage in self-examination, to revise our prior beliefs in the light of new evidence, and to accept newly discovered truths. More fundamentally, humanism supports free inquiry in all its forms and opposes censorship in all its forms. Humanists recognize the scientific method as the most reliable and effective method of gaining knowledge about the world, though we don't discount the value of art, music, literature and other modes of cultural expression to bring people to recognition of truths they had overlooked.

Humanism is both individual and collective. Although people's freedom to choose their own course is of paramount importance, humanists also recognize that we are social creatures, and that we find the greatest fulfillment by interacting with others and joining communities based on a shared identity or common interests. Although solitary geniuses and entrepreneurs have contributed to human progress, the greatest works of artistic creativity and intellectual achievement have come about only through connection in a shared culture.

Humanism encourages us to turn our attention to this world. As part of respecting the freedom and dignity of individuals, humanists seek to build a society where all people can flourish to their greatest extent. In addition to ethical behavior on the level of individual interactions, then, humanists are willing to contribute to the greater good, to devote their efforts toward creating a freer, more rational, more just civilization. Where we see injustice, we seek to correct it; where we see evil and tyranny, we battle against it; where we see senseless waste and destruction, we work to put a stop to it.

Humanism encourages the full development of human potential. It states that human nature is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically evil, but that we have instincts that tend in both directions. Through education and training, we can learn to encourage the better instincts and rechannel the worse ones. Although the project of moral education is a difficult undertaking, it's a worthy and important one. Humanists recognize that the improvement of society's attitudes benefits all people who live in it, and only through this means can we end poverty, war, climate change and other global threats that demand collective effort to solve.

March 19, 2010, 4:30 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink44 comments

Older Posts >

Now available from Big Think!


MUST-READ POSTS (view all)


SITE CATEGORIES (explanation)




see all >













SSA Speaker Page
Find Me on Facebook Find Me on Atheist Nexus
Kiva - loans that change lives
Foundation Beyond Belief
The Out Campaign
Winner of the 2009 3 Quarks Daily Science Writing Prize