Green Fields

[Author's Note: This piece is dedicated to the memory of my grandmother, who passed away last week. The last time I saw her, several months before she died, she told me that she was not a "god-fearing" person. Freethought evidently runs deeper in my family than I had guessed, and in this small way, as in others, I'm glad I can carry on after her.]

For those who are grieving, for those who mourn, and for all those who are burdened with the weary weight of sorrow, I have a prescription.

Find a quiet, peaceful place, a green field of grass where great trees grow and gift the world with their shade. Let it be just before sunset, at that golden hour when the heat of the afternoon is past, when the sky is blue as a pearl and the setting sun hues the world in its last, richest and most transitory light.

Sit against the trunk of an old and massive tree, one that's lived through summers and winters untold. Lean on its rough, moss-clad bark and feel the slow, patient pulse of the life in the green heart of the wood. Try to clear your mind of thought, and listen.

Put your hand on the earth, tangle your fingers in the soft blades of the grass, and hear it whisper to you. It knows about death, about loss; it dies each winter, when the snows and frosts come. But that isn't the end of its story: it's born anew in the spring, remade each year, playing its part in the mystery of eternal renewal that our ancestors knew intimately.

Hear the wind's call as it passes by, rustling across the grass. It teaches that nothing is permanent, everything is transitory. Life is a pattern of change, of ebb and flow, loss and renewal, death and rebirth. Like the wind, all things arise in their time, sweep by us, and pass on.

Hear a trill of birdsong float down from the green and golden branches of the trees. Their singing should remind us that life itself is music, a great unbroken symphony, and if they do not scorn to play their part, neither should we. In truth, we are not the singers: we are the notes of the melody. There, a birth, a joyous rising chord; here, a death, a plaintive falling note. Each life is a brief theme in the choral harmony, and like every musical theme, it has a beginning and an ending; but if played well, it may inspire exuberant new bursts of music that transcend the original.

Look up to the high boughs of the trees. Look up, because most of us don't do it often enough, and see their branches rise like pillars through endless halls of green. Look past them to the sky beyond, where the stars glimmer unseen beyond the blue haze of our atmosphere, and reflect on how small we all are in the ultimate accounting, how low we stand in the grandest scheme of things. In a way, our insignificance is strangely comforting. It reminds us to look beyond our day-to-day concerns, beyond the small glories and the small sorrows, and to keep in mind the whole vast cosmos that dwells beyond the private walls of grief. And when our gaze returns to earth, when we descend from that lofty plane back to our own small circle of warmth and light, let it be with a renewed sense of our own purpose in living.

No matter what happens after death - whether we are reborn, go on to another place, or simply cease - there is beauty in this life, as much as we could ask for. There are green fields and peaceful waters, the hush of the dawn and fireflies in the summer evenings, the glory of sunset and the silent, holy falling of snow on dark clear nights. If there is any complaint we might justly make, it is not that this life lacks meaning, but rather that it has so many meaningful things to do and to explore that one lifetime is not enough for all of them.

It's true, as an old book says, that we live in the valley of the shadow of death. But that should not be a source of fear to us. That proximity is the very thing that makes our lives meaningful, that makes them sacred. The knowledge of our own mortality should imbue each day with an ocean of significance; it should be the signpost on the trail, pointing the way for us to live life to the fullest, with the most awareness, and the deepest joy.

Someday we, too, will slumber under green fields. Our story will be told, our journey will be complete. But in the interim, in this time and this place, we are alive and free. We have a long way left to walk before the evening falls, before the time comes to lay our burdens down. Let us choose our path wisely, and find worthy companions to accompany us along the way. And one more, personal word of advice: take the time to explore the side trails and detours. You'll find secrets and wonders that will make the effort worthwhile.

June 10, 2009, 6:49 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink28 comments

Some Have Entertained Angels

In the New Testament book of Hebrews, there's an exhortation to believers reminding them to show hospitality to their guests:

"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

—Hebrews 13:2

The implication is interesting: that Christians should be hospitable to visitors, not simply because they are fellow human beings who need food and shelter, but because some might be angels in disguise who would, presumably, grant blessings to any person who showed them kindness. (The ancient Greeks had similar legends about gods in disguise visiting human beings and richly rewarding the humble souls who treated them well.)

When religious proselytizers claim that only their faith provides a solid basis for morality, the usual atheist retort is that their religion doesn't actually teach people to be good - it only coerces them to commit certain deeds out of a desire for reward or a fear of punishment. In other words, it keeps people in line with appeals to greed and fear, rather than encouraging goodness for its own sake. And in this verse, the Bible confirms that this is the model of behavior it's trying to inculcate.

The conservative columnist Cal Thomas offers another example of this belief that's truly incredible in its bluntness:

If results are what conservative evangelicals want... they already have a model. It is contained in the life and commands of Jesus of Nazareth. Suppose millions of conservative evangelicals engaged in an old and proven type of radical behavior. Suppose they followed the admonition of Jesus to 'love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and care for widows and orphans,' not as ends, as so many liberals do by using government, but as a means of demonstrating God's love for the whole person in order that people might seek Him?

For Cal Thomas, doing good deeds is just a means to an end. He urges Christian evangelicals to do good for the needy and the downtrodden, not because they are human beings who need help and giving it is the right thing to do - that's the ideology of "liberals" - but because those poor, miserable people might be induced to convert to Christianity if Christians are the ones who help them out. (This passage speaks volumes about why conservative Christians try to slash government-run social programs while boosting handouts to churches that have free rein to proselytize.)

Presumably, Thomas and others like him would view their effort as wasted if the recipient of their aid chooses not to convert, and Christians who follow the admonition in Hebrews would be disappointed if their guests turned out not to be angels. That's the difference between them and us, as Robert Ingersoll wrote in an essay explaining the meaning of secularism:

Secularism means food and fireside, roof and raiment, reasonable work and reasonable leisure, the cultivation of the tastes, the acquisition of knowledge, the enjoyment of the arts, and it promises for the human race comfort, independence, intelligence, and above all liberty. It means the abolition of sectarian feuds, of theological hatreds. It means the cultivation of friendship and intellectual hospitality. It means the living for ourselves and each other; for the present instead of the past, for this world rather than for another.

Ingersoll's focus on this world and the good things it has to offer shows what our moral motivation should be. As atheists and humanists, we welcome guests because we want to bring ease and comfort to our fellow human beings, not because we secretly hope to flatter angels. We put fantasies aside in favor of what is real and meaningful, and live for this world, rather than dreaming of one to come.

May 19, 2009, 6:42 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink14 comments

Book Review: The Atheist's Way

(Editor's Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: A worthy effort, but at best a shallow draught from a spring that can sustain much deeper drinking.

I've often said that atheism, to succeed as a movement, needs to do more than just criticize belief in gods: it needs to offer a positive, appealing alternative to religion, a depiction of the happiness and fulfillment that can be obtained by living a superstition-free life. For this reason, I was excited to read Eric Maisel's The Atheist's Way, which promises to offer just such an alternative. As its prologue says:

...the atheist's way is a rich way, as rich as life itself. [p.2]

Maisel spends little, if any, time criticizing existing religion or offering reasons to be an atheist; this book takes that as a given, and then goes on to ask what the next step is. His answer is that atheists can lead a rich and meaningful life by choosing our own purpose and making our own meaning, which we accomplish by participating in the activities that matter most to us.

So, as I said, this is exactly the kind of book we need, and I had every reason to thoroughly enjoy it. And yet, I was disappointed. In my opinion, it fell short of what it could have been. Too often, Maisel skims over his subject material, engaging in only cursory exploration of topics that have far deeper and richer veins to be mined.

A case in point is chapter 1, which argues that atheists have historical traditions to feel connected to. "As far back as thousands of years ago, sensible people like you and me were seeing through religion" [p.13]. So far, so good - without a doubt, this is an area where there's a wealth of historical material to survey. There have indeed been many freethinking sects through history, from the Carvakas of ancient India to the Epicureans of Greece, as well as many lone nonbelievers who bravely fought against the prevailing superstitions of their times. But we don't hear about any of this. Instead, all we get is a smattering of quotes, most of which are presented with little or no historical context - no more than anyone could find for themselves with a cursory web search. Here's a typical example:

"Petronius Arbiter (c.27-66 CE): 'It was fear that first brought gods into the world.'"

If you didn't know anything about these people or the schools of thought they represented before reading this chapter, you wouldn't come away enlightened. (He even quotes people who were manifestly not atheists, such as Giordano Bruno or Thomas Hobbes, without making any distinction about their actual views.) I found this frustrating, because there really are historical traditions of atheism from which we can take courage and inspiration, and I wanted this book to say more about them. Upon reaching the end of the chapter, I found myself thinking, "Is that it? Doesn't he have more to say?"

The next several chapters, and the majority of the book, are taken up by Maisel's argument for how we can make and maintain meaning in our own lives. Most of the (many) other books that he's written are self-help books, and it shows. Again, there's nothing wrong with his argument, but it feels flat, relying more on platitudes and vague exhortations than on examples that awake the sense of the transcendent. Consider passages like this:

...our lives are the sorts of epic projects that require work and attention. It is a central tenet of any authentic person's life plan to work at the project of her life, since that work is life: it is the way we justify ourselves, create ourselves, and make ourselves proud. it is the way we love our lives and love life itself. [p.75]

As editors often say, don't tell, show! Instead of long explanations on how we can create meaning, which inevitably start to sound cliched, it would have been better to give more specific and detailed examples of atheists who do create meaning, demonstrating what makes our lives valuable to us. Trying to explain why this works is never going to be as powerful or as compelling as showing how it works.

The last few chapters are better, but overall, I still came away feeling let down. I wanted this book to be more than it is, and it didn't live up to my expectations.

March 16, 2009, 6:46 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink14 comments

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Ann Dunham

Past entries in "The Contributions of Freethinkers" have discussed nonbelievers and dissenters whose lives made a direct and lasting impact on the world in any number of ways: in politics, in science, in the arts and culture. But it's worth remembering that sometimes - in fact, often - our greatest effects on the world are indirect, in the ways our lives influence the lives of those we come in contact with and those who come after us. Today's post is meant to be a reminder of that. You may never have heard of Ann Dunham. But I bet you've heard of her son, whose name is Barack Obama.

The following is an extended excerpt from President Obama's The Audacity of Hope, from the chapter on religion and faith, discussing his own religious background:

I was not raised in a religious household. My maternal grandparents, who hailed from Kansas, had been steeped in Baptist and Methodist teachings as children, but religious faith never really took root in their hearts. My mother's own experiences as a bookish, sensitive child growing up in small towns in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas only reinforced this inherited skepticism. Her memories of the Christians who populated her youth were not fond ones. Occasionally, for my benefit, she would recall the sanctimonious preachers who would dismiss three-quarters of the world's people as ignorant heathens doomed to spend the afterlife in eternal damnation — and who in the same breath would insist that the earth and the heavens had been created in seven days, all geologic and astrophysical evidence to the contrary. She remembered the respectable church ladies who were always so quick to shun those unable to meet their standards of propriety, even as they desperately concealed their own dirty little secrets; the church fathers who uttered racial epithets and chiseled their workers out of any nickel that they could.

For my mother, organized religion too often dressed up closed-mindedness in the garb of piety, cruelty and oppression in the cloak of righteousness.

This isn't to say that she provided me with no religious instruction. In her mind, a working knowledge of the world's great religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites. But I was made to understand that such religious samplings required no sustained commitment on my part — no introspective exertion or self-flagellation. Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its wellspring, just one of the many ways — and not necessarily the best way — that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives. In sum, my mother viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist that she would become; it was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well. Moreover, as a child I rarely came in contact with those who might offer a substantially different view of faith. My father was almost entirely absent from my childhood, having been divorced from my mother when I was 2 years old; in any event, although my father had been raised a Muslim, by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition.

And yet for all her professed secularism, my mother was in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I've ever known. She had an unswerving instinct for kindness, charity, and love, and spent much of her life acting on that instinct, sometimes to her detriment. Without the help of religious texts or outside authorities, she worked mightily to instill in me the values that many Americans learn in Sunday school: honesty, empathy, discipline, delayed gratification, and hard work. She raged at poverty and injustice.

Most of all, she possessed an abiding sense of wonder, a reverence for life and its precious, transitory nature that could properly be described as devotional. Sometimes, as I was growing up, she would wake me up in the middle of the night to have me gaze at a particularly spectacular moon, or she would have me close my eyes as we walked together at twilight to listen to the rustle of leaves. She loved to take children — any child — and sit them in her lap and tickle them or play games with them or examine their hands, tracing out the miracle of bone and tendon and skin and delighting at the truths to be found there. She saw mysteries everywhere and took joy in the sheer strangeness of life.

It is only in retrospect, of course, that I fully understand how deeply this spirit of hers guided me on the path I would ultimately take. It was in search of confirmation of her values that I studied political philosophy, looking for both a language and systems of action that could help build community and make justice real.

Although President Obama did eventually come to hold a more conventional Christian faith, he states clearly that it was the values instilled in him by his freethinking mother that first set him on the path his life would ultimately follow. His empathy, his self-discipline, his progressive values, his concern for poverty and injustice - all came not from religious texts, but from the teachings of a loving parent who considered religion just one more human cultural phenomenon. And yet her wonder and reverence for life, in his own words, surpassed those of the more conventionally religious people he's known.

For the foreseeable future, America is unlikely to have an atheist president. The situation we now have may be the next best thing. I'm not suggesting that Obama is likely to do us any favors - we don't yet have the political power to demand that, and no politician, Obama included, is likely to stand up for an unpopular voting bloc unless they see benefits to doing so. But, having been raised by a nonbeliever, I think he may understand our viewpoint as well as we could have any right to ask - and that may be a benefit to us when we do need to put pressure on him to respect our views.

Other posts in this series:

February 25, 2009, 6:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink28 comments

The Story of Atheism

In my previous post, I wrote some thoughts on the power of storytelling and how atheists can use it to our benefit. In this post, I intend to apply those principles to tell a story: the story of atheism.

Because gods are fundamentally human creations, this is also a story of humanity. It opens in the time when the human race was newborn, when we had first come of age as conscious beings who could look around and conceptualize the world. I don't know the exact nature of the beings in whose minds these ideas first appeared - they may not have been modern Homo sapiens, but they were undoubtedly our ancestors and deserve to be described as such.

The end product is somewhat similar to my atheist psalm, "The Gods", somewhat similar to treatises on the origins of religion like Dennett's Breaking the Spell. In the name of narrative convenience and brevity, some details have been omitted from this story. Nevertheless, I think it captures an adequate, if simplified, account of events in our past that actually happened. Editorial suggestions are, as always, welcome.

In the beginning, Humanity was lonely and afraid. We had tremendous potential, but we were still simple creatures, knowing only the rudiments of survival, and at the mercy of a world that was chaotic and full of danger. Like children lost in the wilderness, we knew that we existed, but not where we had come from, nor what happened to us when we died.

To ease our loneliness and fear, in our imaginations we filled the world with other people: people who lived in fire and water, in earth and trees, in sun and moon. From what we knew then, this was reasonable: after all, the only other things we knew of that reacted to us with as much complexity and inscrutability as these natural phenomena were our fellow human beings. And if the natural events that governed our lives were personified, then perhaps those people could be supplicated in times of trouble, perhaps they could be persuaded to have mercy on us. But because these other people were invisible, we called them spirits; and because we could not control the seasons or the weather, we reasoned that these spirits must be more powerful than us.

When agriculture was discovered, our population expanded and we became sedentary. But this meant we were even more dependent on nature's favor, and staying in the good graces of the spirits became even more important. Thus, in our eyes, they became more powerful still, and were elevated from spirits to gods - invisible beings who had power over our lives, and who had to be appeased above all else. This was the birth of religion, as our duties to the gods became formalized, crystallizing from folk superstitions about what had seemed to bring prosperity in the past.

These ideas stayed with us, and as our knowledge and our civilization expanded, they too began to grow in scope. As tribes merged into nations, the gods ran together, like drops of water merging. When war was kindled, the rulers sought to fill their people with courage by assuring them that the gods were on their side and would see that they prevailed over the enemy - or, at worst, that their spirits would end up in a pleasant afterlife. And as human power continued to grow and nations were forged into empires, the gods of the victors grew ever more powerful, the success of their worshippers tangible proof of their expanding dominion over the earth.

At first, the gods and the earthly ruler were one, and the voice of the king was assumed to be the voice of the divine. Through assertions of power both earthly and in the afterlife, their sway was initially absolute. But as the gods grew in power and influence, it became more advantageous to claim the right to speak for them. This was especially true when disaster struck a society, when the rulers had made bad decisions and their link to the gods could be doubted. Small wonder, then, that prophets began to appear who preached that the existing authorities were corrupt, that the gods wanted something different of us, and that they had had an insight into this new path. And small wonder, too, that the more persuasive of these prophets attracted followings of their own.

What this led to was a decoupling of religion from the state apparatus and a flowering of religious creativity as new sects of every kind arose, expressing all the creativity of which the human mind is capable. Wherever there was a human need unmet by the existing society, new religions sprang up promising to fill it. Of course, the state-run religions still existed and often lashed out harshly at their competitors. In other places, new religions grew in power until they became the established authority, or were coopted by an existing state whose rulers found their tenets to be useful. And old religions that had become bureaucratic and impersonal were often outcompeted by younger, more vibrant faiths and dwindled away, their gods' voices fading to nothingness as their followers died out and their temples crumbled.

All this was the pattern of human society for millennia. Belief in differing gods led to bloody wars between societies, but also sustained a shared cultural identity within a society, leading to a stable equilibrium. Every era had skeptics and doubters of the established faith, but few of them gained any great following, since they had no alternative religion to offer on which they could build a power base. But in one society in particular, there came an era of enlightenment, when great thinkers dared to ask questions of the world... and in at least one time, at least one place, there were enough skeptical minds put together to fan the embers that had been smoldering throughout human history into flame. The scientific age had dawned.

At its essence, the scientific era was underlain by a simple, revolutionary idea: statements about the world should not be accepted on the basis of faith, but proven by open and systematic testing. But simple as it sounds, the advances it brought us were immense. Fired by the thrill of discovery, the heralds of the scientific age sent their new paradigm sweeping out over the world like a universal acid, dissolving the superstitions and dogmas that had for so long impeded our thinking.

In the light of science, the natural phenomena that had once seemed so inscrutable, so humanlike, lost their mystery as the hidden rules underlying them were laid bare in all their grand, mechanical glory. We peered into the dark and discovered that the cosmos was not a place of thundering spirits or leering devils, but a vast machine, one whose guiding principles meshed with all the harmonious elegance and regularity of great gears. Even life itself, so long thought to be supernatural, was revealed to be another machine, albeit a particularly complex and subtle kind. The deities and demons that had once dwelled the interstices of our ignorance washed away like sand in water, as we learned about the origins of the world, of the human species, of the mind. At least in part measure, we have grasped the truth, and learned that it was far more intricate, more satisfying, and more wondrous than the imaginings of our youth. Science does not have every answer, nor does it offer guidance for every aspect of life, but when it comes to finding out how the world works, it has no equal.

The reverberations of this era of change are still with us. We live in a time, one ongoing since the Enlightenment, when the old certainties of faith are shifting underfoot. Every sect has dealt differently with these changes, but none have entirely avoided them. Some people are moving their gods into ever more rarefied realms to escape the relentless probing, crafting deities whose existence is indistinguishable from their nonexistence. Others, more militant, are reaffirming the old creeds with fiery zealotry, denouncing scientists for their godlessness, and boasting and cheering one another for their stubborn clinging to faiths that are childlike in their ignorant simplicity. Still others, probably the majority, have come to a reluctant accommodation with the scientific outlook, but banking their hope on finding tangible traces of the gods in the shrinking areas we haven't investigated - an unsustainable compromise, whether they know it or not.

And now, into this new world, come those who did not grow up in the shadow of gods, and who have taken the simple, revolutionary step of asking why we should believe any proposition for which there is no evidence. The crude fundamentalisms of humanity are all alike in their falsehood; the unfalsifiable beliefs are all alike in their irrelevance. In place of chasing these shadows and clutching at these mirages, this new generation of free thinkers has come to the realization that we should turn our attention to the things that are real, that are verifiable - the only important things. In place of trying to appease phantoms of our imagination, we should turn our attention to bringing goodness into this world and easing the burden of our fellow creatures.

The atheist view can seem cold and comfortless to novices, for it does not promise that all our hurts will be succored. Nor does it give us guardians hovering above to guide our steps. But where atheism requires us to abandon the consolations of childhood, it brings in their place the maturity of adulthood. Instead of clouded sight, it brings clear vision. Instead of gods and angels to watch out for us, it brings the realization that we must look out for each other. We live in a vast and uncaring cosmos, but we have each other to depend on, and the freedom to succeed or fail by our own efforts.

This is our story, and we are all characters in it, as well as the storytellers. But unlike any other character, we see the story we are in, and our choices will write the next chapter. In spite of everything, the darkness of our past may come sweeping back, and our future may be a fall back into the same precipice we have been painfully climbing out of. Or the slow, frustrating, yet upward trajectory of history may continue, into a bright future that surpasses our imagination as far as the truth surpasses the imaginings of the past.

January 5, 2009, 10:47 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink19 comments

All Things in Moderation

In last month's post "Down to Earth", I discussed Thomas Jefferson's ideal of rich simplicity, what Buddhism calls the Middle Way. Rather than the vain pursuit of happiness through the acquisition of power or material possessions, the true source of contentment lies in the simple pleasures of life that are available to everyone, regardless of social status.

Some of the comments mentioned Epicurus, a person I should write about more often. Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who taught a system of values that was more like modern secular humanism than any other philosophy of the past (with the possible exception of the Carvakas). Although he believed that the gods existed, he taught that they were material beings who took no interest in human affairs, or in anything besides their own blissful contemplation. He also taught that death was not to be feared, because the person who is dead no longer experiences anything and therefore is not suffering.

Epicureanism put the emphasis on pleasure, not as mindless hedonism but as reasonable indulgence in the good things available in life. Valuing intellectual pleasure more highly than sensual pleasure, it recommends the cultivation of friendship, an ethic of simplicity, and an attitude of tranquility in the face of life's trials. Ironically, "epicure" in popular parlance has come to refer to a connoisseur of food and drink, which Epicurus arguably considered the least important of life's pleasures.

The Epicurean view stands in opposition to the religious idea of imaginary crimes, where certain activities are forbidden not because they cause any harm to human beings, but solely because they're believed to displease God. I consider that, when it comes to attracting people, this is an advantage for atheism: we don't have to teach excessive self-denial, nor demand that people abstain from things they would like to do just because an ancient dogma says not to. Nor do we have to teach, as many religions do, that happiness is frowned upon and that the proper attitude toward life is one of renunciation or constant repentance. We should not promote thoughtless indulgence, but we can teach that people can partake responsibly in the good things of life.

For instance: We do not have to believe, as some religions do, that certain foods are off-limits and may not be consumed no matter what. I respect the opinion of people who abstain from eating meat on ethical grounds, but the arbitrary nature of religious dietary restrictions - demanding that foods be prepared only in certain specific ways, forbidding the mixing of foods that are perfectly allowable individually, or banning the eating of some animals but not others that are equally sentient - is nothing but irrational self-denial. An atheist can be a true gourmet, sampling all the different flavors and cuisines of human culture, and tasting the full palate of sensory experience.

We do not have to believe, as many religions do, that alcohol and other intoxicants are sinful or forbidden. Again, there are people who abstain from these substances for valid reasons. But a mature and rational adult is certainly capable of making responsible use of them, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. The quest to alter one's consciousness for pleasure or ritual is as old as humanity, and in moderation, is a source of harmless relaxation and enjoyment.

We do not have to believe, as nearly all religions do, that sex is a mysterious and dangerous thing that must be practiced according to strictly prescribed rules. Everyone is familiar with the arbitrary and irrational restrictions that religious belief places on sexual expression: that sex should never be simply for the sake of pleasure; that you should only have sex with one person over the course of a lifetime; that women should not exercise sexual autonomy; or that sex is always immoral unless a member of the clergy gives consent. None of these rules are grounded in reason; they spring from ignorance, superstition and fear. Sex has real power to form (or shatter) emotional bonds, and if practiced irresponsibly, to lead to the spread of disease or unintended pregnancy. But sexual expression is enriched by diversity just like every other area of human culture, and an atheist knows that there is more than one way to have a healthy sex life.

December 29, 2008, 7:59 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink17 comments

The 30th Humanist Symposium

In the fireplace, the flames are burning down to embers, casting flickering patterns of light and shadow on the walls and the wreaths of holly and evergreen that hang there. Outside the windows, the last snowstorm of the year is flurrying down, burying the slumbering earth in a peaceful carpet of white. The falling snowflakes glitter in the dark like tiny stars as they fly past and catch the light from the dying fire.

Most of the guests from the day's gathering have already departed, leaving only a few sitting in the armchairs before the warm tranquility of the fireplace. As seasonal cheer fades into quiet contemplation, the gathering's host, Ebonmuse, clears his throat.

"Thank you, friends, for being here. I have a few more words to say before the last of us seek the comforts of home. The new year is almost upon us, and if you're the kind of person who makes resolutions, we have some things for you to think about tonight. It may be that one of these essays will remind you of the importance of the goals that lie ahead, or give you renewed motivation to strive for the cause of humanism. Here they are:

We begin with Greta Christina, who writes on how to live a meaningful life despite the knowledge that our lives are small and fleeting in a vast and ancient cosmos, in Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen.

Next, Mansur Ahmed argues that we should replace divisive dogmas with a broader conception of love for our fellow human beings, in The Great Religious Divide.

Orna Ross calls for a freethought movement that defines itself in positive terms, in How Free is Your Thinking?

Spanish Inquisitor praises an Australian public school that's planning to offer humanist instruction as an alternative to religious education classes, in Teaching Humanism.

Andrew Bernardin criticizes science journalism that draws unwarranted moral conclusions, in Moralizing Science.

Phil for Humanity calls for a more community-oriented outlook on life, in Less Me, More We.

Alvaro Fernandez interviews Dr. Andrew Newberg on the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, in Meditation on the Brain: a Conversation with Andrew Newberg.

Chris Hallquist writes about the measurable value of people in a society trusting each other, in Faith and trust.

Asmoday looks back on the long, strange, beautifully unlikely trip each of us has taken, in Why You Should Love Yourself.

Burak Bilgin writes on how to find joy in life, in Joy: the Key to Wisdom.

Vjack discusses how Christmas has become a secular holiday, in How Christians Have Secularized Christmas.

Vihar Sheth has some encouraging news about the growth of religious tolerance, in Your God's Cool Too. muses on why atheists care about a future we'll never personally witness, in Some thoughts about this life.

And finally, Michael White discusses the core belief of humanism - that our morality is innate within ourselves and can be discovered using reason - in A Humanistic Outlook.

That's all for now, my friends! We'll reconvene in 2009, when the next Humanist Symposium will appear at An Apostate's Chapel. Until then, good wishes and good health to all of you, and may the new year see the spread of humanism far and wide!"

December 28, 2008, 7:45 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink3 comments

What I Want For Christmas

In 1897, Robert Ingersoll wrote "What I Want for Christmas". This short essay was a holiday wish list for humankind in the coming year, one that showcased both the great freethinker's wit and his compassion.

All well and good, but we can now look back at this piece from a century later and see how it's fared. Happily, some of Ingersoll's wishes have been fulfilled, but others are still awaiting fruition. This being so, I think it would be worthwhile to update Ingersoll's wish list, to highlight the areas where we've made progress and call attention to those where we still lag behind.

And so, without further ado, here's what I want for Christmas this year:

This year for Christmas, if I could have whatever I wanted, I would have a spirit of reason and tolerance take hold throughout the world.

I would have religious conservatives cease their bigotry and demagoguery against gays and lesbians, recognize that homosexuals are human beings deserving of the same legal protections as everyone else, and join us in supporting civil marriage and adoption rights for all adults, regardless of gender.

I would have churchgoers and theists everywhere abandon belief in angels and devils, witches and miracles, and all the other prodigies which cloud our sight and distract us from the things that are real and meaningful. I would have them recognize that there is only our natural world, and that religion is but myth and superstition which hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

I would have the churches and Sunday schools preach reason rather than faith, compassion rather than intolerance, and the recognition that we are all human beings alike in dignity, rather than dividing the world into the saved and the hellbound.

I would have the Pope admit that he was wrong to oppose family planning and abortion, wrong to exclude gays and women from the priesthood, and wrong to teach that he knows anything more about God's will or God's existence than anyone else. I would have him urge his flock to liberate their women, learn about and use contraception, and sell off his fabulous wealth and use the proceeds for the good of the poor throughout the world.

I would have the absolute rulers of the Islamic world close down their state-sponsored madrassahs, imprison their morality police, and then resign their thrones and teach their people about human rights and democracy. I would like to see a new flowering of science, art and culture among the Islamic people, a rebirth of the wonderful culture of tolerance and exuberant creativity they once enjoyed.

I would like to see the world's billionaires unite and form a massive nonprofit to fight poverty and disease everywhere. I would like to see the world's corporations agree that they will funnel their profits into this trust, rather than paying out further bonuses and dividends to the already wealthy.

I would like to see the nations of the world come together to safeguard the planet's remaining wilderness, agree on a comprehensive plan to stop global warming, and pour their wealth into developing new sources of clean energy.

I would like to see all politicians who have broken the law or abused the public trust resign or be impeached, and see them replaced with true public servants, men and women of honesty and integrity who will consider their offices a sacred trust, rather than an entitlement, and who will fight for reform and social progress.

I would like to see an end to belief in Hell, holy wars, promised lands, chosen people, and all the other dogmas that promote cruelty and sow division.

I would like to see the world's churches reopen as libraries and museums, institutions that teach reason and knowledge rather than faith.

I would like to see all sacred texts and divine commands replaced with a morality of compassion, one that promotes well-being and values human happiness as the highest good.

I would like to see the whole world free - free from injustice - free from superstition.

All this will suffice for this Christmas. The following Christmas, I may want more.

December 24, 2008, 2:31 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink22 comments

On Gift-Giving

Earlier this month, I wrote about how Hanukkah's prominence was the plan of reformist rabbis, seeking to create a Jewish holiday to compete with Christmas just as Christmas was created to compete with pagan solstice festivals. In an ironic sense, this campaign has been both a success and a failure: although the cause of Hanukkah was eagerly taken up by marketers, it failed to dislodge Christmas from public consciousness and has simply contributed further to the commercialization of the holiday season.

And that commercialization is spreading and growing beyond all sanity. People have been injured in retail-outlet crushes before, but this year brought the crowning shame of holiday ugliness: a part-time Wal-Mart worker who was trampled to death by a frenzied mob of shoppers. By many accounts, people continued streaming into the store around the paramedics as they worked on the unfortunate man, and became angry and hostile when police closed the store down after the death.

But incidents like that one are just the most visible outbreaks of an attitude that's taken wider root in our society, and that's led to the current economic crisis: an attitude which holds that every person is entitled to every material luxury, regardless of their income, and that it's perfectly all right to get deeper and deeper into debt to obtain them. To an extent, this attitude flows from the top - from a president who told Americans that the most important thing we could do after 9/11 was to go shopping, and a Congress that financed a ruinous foreign war on borrowed money. But it's also partly intrinsic to capitalism, which by nature rewards greed and rapaciousness. When those tendencies grow out of control rather than being held in check, the result is the market collapse and financial meltdown we're now living through.

All of these attitudes come from the same source, the view that happiness and satisfaction in life is secured through the accumulation of wealth and possessions. This belief is false, and I laid out an alternative in "Down to Earth": an ethic of rich simplicity that takes joy in the ordinary pleasures of life, rather than grasping after luxuries.

What does this ethic have to say about gift-giving? I don't think that it's necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing wrong in giving a person something that they need or can make use of (as I've said earlier, you can never have too many books). I think it's better that it be small, however. Large and ostentatious gifts, feel too much like trying to buy the recipient's affection, or else put them in the position of owing a debt they can't pay back. But small gifts, especially if they're handmade, are a genuine way of conveying, rather than attempting to purchase, good feelings toward those for whom we feel friendship and affection. (If you're not a craftsperson, I also favor consumable gifts - soap, candles, wine or chocolate, for instance.)

But best of all is the idea of agreeing, with friends and family, to make donations to charity in each other's name instead of exchanging gifts. After all, for most of us First World citizens, we don't need these gifts: we are comfortable, well-fed and well-clothed and well-housed; we enjoy living standards that are inconceivable to most of humanity. There are places in the world that need assistance far more than most of us ever will, people for whom even a small gift - say, a mosquito net or a vaccination - could represent a genuine improvement in their life and not just a token of affection. If the real purpose of gift-giving is to create happiness for the recipient, acknowledging and addressing the world's need would be a far worthier and more powerful way of doing so.

December 22, 2008, 9:32 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink41 comments

A Solstice Sermon

In past years, I've used the occasion of the winter solstice to deliver a brief homily on an issue of moral importance. This year, I'd like to do so again.

Although nearly every society has put its own religious or cultural gloss on it, the solstice is an event marked and commemorated by all of humanity. In Japan, the solstice festival is Amaterasu, the reemergence of the sun goddess. To ancient Romans, it was Brumalia, the feast of the wine god Bacchus, and to Germanic pagans, it was Yule. To modern Christians, of course, it became Christmas. In every case, though, and accounting for calendrical drift, what this day really celebrates is the knowledge that winter has reached its darkest ebb and that warmth and sunlight will be returning (granted, I'm betraying my northern-hemisphere bias). In many cultures, this rebirth marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

The date of the solstice was no small thing to the agrarian societies of the past, where understanding the cycle of the seasons and knowing when to plant crops was a matter of life or death. Today, a fossil-fuel-powered global economy can grow food wherever it's warm and ship it wherever it's needed, buffering us First Worlders from the vicissitudes of climate. Nevertheless, there are millions of people even today for whom getting enough food is a very real and pressing dilemma.

The numbers are heart-wrenching: this year, the USDA estimates that 36 million Americans will experience "food insecurity", a euphemism for not having enough to eat. This means that an astonishing one in ten Americans, sometime in this past year, have gone to bed hungry, or skipped meals to make ends meet, or haven't known where their next meal would come from. One in ten - and this not in some destitute, drought-ridden Third World society, but in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world.

Could it be your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers among that hungry throng? Statistically, it's very likely. Hunger is a silent problem, because so many people are ashamed to admit that they get food stamps or rely on a food pantry. In our Puritan, capitalist society, being poor still carries a great stigma, as if being hungry is a sign of laziness or lack of motivation. In reality, many of the hungry are people who have a job, or two jobs, or even three; but in an America that's increasingly stratified, where wealth and opportunity are becoming more and more concentrated at the top, and where the social safety net is becoming worn and threadbare, even having a job is no guarantee of earning enough to support a family. And the kinds of food that are cheapest tend to be highly processed, high-calorie, low-nutrition - the kind that nourishes only at the cost of causing other kinds of long-term damage. It's no coincidence that obesity and diabetes are most common among the poor, as well as hunger.

It's not as if America is unable to feed all her sons and daughters. We could do it if we wanted to. Where do the money and resources go? An honest accounting must certainly begin with the half-trillion-dollar defense budget, which very nearly equals the military spending of every other nation in the world combined. Most of this is being spent on weapons programs to prepare for wars we will never have to fight; urban combat and counterinsurgency, not massive conventional conflicts between great powers, is almost certainly the face of war in the future.

It was Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican president and former supreme commander of allied forces in World War II Europe, who famously said that every gun made and every warship launched signifies a theft from those who hunger and are not fed. In our time, that speech more starkly than ever outlines the choices that are available to us. We can continue to spend our future on looking back at the past, making ourselves ever more able to deal death to those we name enemies. Or we could use that money to put an end to hunger and poverty not just in the United States, but around the world as well. We could use our wealth and superpower status to mend the world and sow the seeds of a lasting peace and goodwill, one that would do far more to protect us from terrorism than any number of high-tech weapons systems ever have or will.

For the foreseeable future, though, this outcome is inconceivable. Our politicians and leaders, even the greatest, are enmeshed in the mire of conventional wisdom which holds that spending more on defense is always courageous and patriotic, while spending to feed the hungry is a sign of weakness and foolishness. For the immediate future, the burden to act rests not on the government, but with us, the grass roots. Where the social safety net has failed, we must fill the gaps. (In the medium-range future, I hope that all Daylight Atheism readers are willing to push their own governments to invest more wisely.) There are worthy charities like Oxfam or Feeding America, as well as local food banks, that are taking part in this effort. We, the well-off and comfortable citizens of the First World, have a moral obligation to lend a hand to those to whom our assistance might mean so much. What are you willing to do to help?

December 21, 2008, 4:00 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink22 comments

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