Curiosity as a Purpose of Life

One of the most common questions religious believers ask atheists is where we find purpose in life, what makes our existence meaningful and worthwhile. I've written about this subject on Ebon Musings, but I want to add to my answer. Both atheists and theists can give the usual answer of wanting to do good in the world, helping our fellow human beings and so on, but I've realized that atheists can offer another answer, something that believers genuinely can't say: atheists are inspired to go on living by curiosity. We want to know who we are and why is it that we're here.

In a proximate sense, of course, we do know the answer to this question. The evidence tells us that our species arose several million years ago, descended from hominid forebears. Through excavating fossils and comparing DNA, we can trace our evolution back through early mammals, through therapsid reptiles, through the first tetrapods, almost all the way back to the origin of life. Our family roots aren't in doubt. But in a larger sense, we want to know: is there a reason why the universe exists? Is there a reason why it's the way we experience it, and not some other way - was there any necessity to the whole scheme, or was it just chance? What else (or who else) is out there in the cosmos that we haven't yet discovered? What will be the fate of humanity, and what role will we play in whatever's to come?

These questions must have answers, and they may be answers that we can find out. But in the meantime, they're great mysteries, tantalizing us with the promise of unseen truth, awaiting discovery like hidden treasure. We're motivated to live because we want to witness the joy of finding out. We want to see what the answers will be, and when it comes to our own future, we can even help create them. In the atheist worldview, the universe is like a wiki, and it's our task to cooperate in writing it - to uncover the truth, tell the as-yet-untold story of existence, and define our place in it for ourselves.

Members of organized religion, by contrast, can't say this. They believe that they already possess final truth about the reason for the universe's existence: God created it to glorify himself, and humans to worship him and have fellowship with him. They believe that nothing else we could learn, nothing we could ever find out, is as true or as important as these central dogmas. And they believe that the future, if not already foreordained, will inevitably unfold in accordance with God's omnipotent will, and nothing we can do will change the outcome. To them, the universe is a final draft, a closed canon; we're just characters in a script, and the ending has been written since the beginning of time.

But even if we don't know the true answers yet, we can be certain that these ancient, anthropomorphic religions clearly aren't them. These beliefs are too human-centered, too small; they reflect the narrow, provincial perspective and overblown self-importance of their creators in according humanity a privileged and central place in the workings of the cosmos. Even more ridiculous, they postulate not a creator worthy of the vastness we observe, but a pathetic and irrational creature that thinks and acts just like the alpha male of a chimpanzee tribe: benevolent toward his obedient servants, violent towards strangers and outsiders, jealous and obsessed with whether everyone is paying him sufficient homage, constantly fearful of competition. These primate instincts don't define the universe.

But then, what does? What's the deeper meaning that underlies it all? Is there some sort of intentionality, some incomprehensible sentience that constructed the universe for a purpose unimaginable to us? Or is nature truly blind and insentient, and it's simply inherent in the nature of complex and dynamic systems to give rise to local condensations of complexity like us? Is our cosmos the only one there is, or do we live in a quantum multiverse where our world and our lives are just one winding pathway in an infinite set of ever-branching ramifications? Are we someone else's dream, simulation, or science experiment? Is intelligent life common in the cosmos, or incredibly rare and precious?

These questions are staggering, but I don't find it inconceivable that someday we, or our distant descendants, will be able to answer them. Even if we'll never know, I want to be able to say that we gave the attempt our greatest effort. This curiosity, the urge to reflect, to explore and to know, is a sort of hunger, and trying to sate it is part of what gives my life meaning and drives me onward.

March 9, 2011, 6:57 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink42 comments
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There Is No God-Shaped Hole

In A Shattered Visage, a book-length emotional rant against atheism, Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias puts forth the following assertion:

The words of Augustine are most appropriate: "You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee." Or, as Pascal put it, "There is a godshaped vacuum in the heart of every man, and only God can fill it." [p.89]

Although they probably don't realize it, apologists who say this have committed themselves to a testable prediction: even after controlling for all confounding factors, believers, on average, should be happier than atheists. After all, that's just a more precise restatement of what they've always claimed: that belief in God fills an emotional void that can't be quenched by other means, that it's a source of strength and contentment that atheists can never match, etc., etc.

Well, the test has been done. As reported in a recent issue of Free Inquiry, Michigan psychology professor Luke Galen conducted a personality survey of members of the Center for Inquiry Michigan, using members of two local churches as a control group. Some of the findings weren't too surprising:

One area of identifiable difference was that the churched participants perceived themselves as having a greater degree of social support from their social network relative to the CFI/Michigan members.

The dimension that showed the greatest distinction between religious and nonreligious was the previously mentioned "Openness to experience" [according to the study, this personality trait "involves a high need for cognition, intellectual engagement, and interest in new experiences" —Ebonmuse]... nonreligious individuals reported being more intellectually oriented and unconventional.

Another personality dimension that distinguished the religious from the nonreligious was "agreeableness" (a quality of being amiable or nonconfrontational as opposed to skeptical of others). The church sample was higher in agreeableness.

But the real meat of this study is its findings on life satisfaction and emotional well-being. Prof. Galen makes the point that previous studies, which often found that higher religiosity is correlated with greater life satisfaction, are methodologically flawed. They treated all the nonreligious as a single group, lumping together strong atheists with people who are doubters, who are unsure, even some who are weak believers. This study clearly differentiates among those groups by correlating people's confidence in their beliefs - from those who are absolutely certain there is no god to those who are absolutely certain there is - with their self-reported levels of happiness and satisfaction in life.

The relationship that emerged from the data is best described as curvilinear. Rather than a straight line of rising satisfaction linked to increased religious belief, the survey found that the highest life satisfaction was found on both ends of the spectrum - the confident atheists and the confident theists. The happiness and emotional stability of these two groups were statistically equivalent, exceeding that of the general population. It was the doubters and the seekers, the people in the middle who weren't sure either way, who were worse off.

From what we know of human psychology, or from the personal experience of many happy and contented atheists, this is no surprise. But it does provide us with some concrete, rather than anecdotal, data to vanquish the apologists who implausibly claim that, over billions of lives throughout thousands of years of human history, members of their particular sect are the only ones who have the true key to happiness. The truth is that atheists can be, and are, just as happy as the most devoted of religious believers.

September 16, 2009, 6:53 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink45 comments
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Getting a Philosophy Under Your Feet

I recently read a Christian book that's more interesting than the usual anti-atheist apologetics: Not the Religious Type, by Dave Schmelzer. Its author is a theologian and self-proclaimed former atheist who now pastors an evangelical church, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, in the Boston area.

This book is in large part about the New Atheist movement, and unlike most Christian authors, who have nothing but anger and scorn for outspoken atheists, Schmelzer actually shows our viewpoint a measure of sympathy and understanding:

So in this world where the conversation between secularism and faith is such an important one (read, for instance, the first chapter of The End of Faith - Harris says what, at that point at least, no one had said so directly, and good for him), I say three cheers for thoughtful atheism, which did such a service during the Louis XIV era in moving us past theocratic bigotry, warfare, and suppression of thought... and brought us such profoundly helpful things as modern scientific advancement and made a few key contributions to, say, the U.S. Constitution. I like those things! (Whatever the downsides of modern atheism.) [p.153]

Although Schmelzer has to throw in that sop to his Christian audience, his willingness to acknowledge freethinkers' contributions in moving humanity past the era of theocracy and ushering in the Enlightenment is unique, as far as I know, and certainly praiseworthy. I don't think I've ever read anything by a prominent Christian writer who had anything good to say about atheism, much less "three cheers" for it. So I say, kudos to him for that! It's rare to find a religious person with such a commendably open-minded attitude towards atheists, which makes it all the more welcome when it appears.

I'll say some more about this book in future posts, but for now I want to focus on a different aspect of it, which is Schmelzer's own account of how he, in his words, became a "turncoat atheist". There are some lessons worth taking away from his story about what most commonly makes people turn religious.

To hear Schmelzer tell it, he was an atheist up until college; in fact, he "was tagged as the dorm atheist" [p.13] after getting in an argument with three Christian students his first week. What provoked him to change his mind was this:

A professor mocked me in class for something I thought I'd done especially well. Another teacher moved up a deadline on a paper and suddenly I saw with new clarity how close I was to failing the class. And those two things were enough to make me question the whole basis of my life... [p.14]

As he explains it, his entire goal in life was to get good grades, get a good job, and become wealthy and successful, and the possibility of doing badly in school put all of that at risk and left him feeling frightened, depressed and rudderless. In his distress, he says, he prayed that if God was real, he would reveal himself. That night, while he was out driving, he got lost and veered off the road while trying to drive and read a map, bumping into a post - which turned out to be a giant cross set up by a local church. Still trying to find directions, he pulled off the road into a lit parking lot, which turned out to be the parking lot of another church, with another giant, floodlit cross. At this point, he says, he had a strong impression that God was speaking to him, saying: "I'm here to tell you that there is a God, and I care about you" [p.32]

Leave aside the silliness of what actually precipitated his conversion. (He lives in 85% Christian America. What other religious symbols did he expect to see while randomly driving around town? If he had come across two mosques in a row, that would have been a far more unlikely coincidence.) Schmelzer himself admits, "Looking back, my reasons seem superficial" [p.13]. Like Francis Collins, he converted as the result of a sudden emotional experience, not because an accumulation of evidence finally persuaded him.

But focus, instead, on what precipitated Schmelzer's initial crisis: He was worried about getting bad grades in school. This upset him because, up till then, he had only envisioned the good life in terms of material success: landing a high-paying job, being wealthy, being a famous author. The prospect of losing all that threw him into turmoil.

In effect, Schmelzer fell for two illusions, one right after the other. First, he bought into our capitalist, consumer-driven society's message that happiness is achieved through acquiring money and possessions. He found out for himself that this was a false ethic, but then fell right into a second trap, the religious message that happiness is achieved only through worshipping God. Atheist though he was, what he was lacking was a real philosophy of his own. Without a solid ethic under his feet to ground him, he fell prey to one false creed after another, like a leaf being blown around by the wind.

This story shows why we, atheists and freethinkers, should promote a positive ethic of our own: one which counsels that happiness is found in the simple pleasures of life, in the company of others, and in experiencing the world and all it has to offer. We need to broadcast this philosophy far and wide, emphasize its good aspects, and encourage others to adopt it. A person who's rooted in this philosophy, who knows how to find happiness for themselves, will not be so easily diverted by fluctuating winds of dogma as Dave Schmelzer was.

August 5, 2009, 6:40 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink34 comments
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To Those Who Doubt Their Religion

This post isn't for confirmed atheists, nor for confirmed theists. It's not for people who've already made up their minds, one way or the other.

No, this post is for the seekers, the in-betweeners, the tormented doubters. It's for the uncertain agnostics, people who aren't certain what they believe; it's for people who feel like they no longer belong in their church, but don't know of an alternative; and it's for people who are experiencing a full-blown crisis of faith and don't know where to turn. If you found this post through a web search, it's probably for you.

There are countless reasons why you might have come to this point. You may feel rejected or unwelcome at your church or your religious community, perhaps because you hold some views that are different from the orthodoxy. You may feel betrayed by a religious leader who turned out to be a hypocrite, or who abused the trust he was given. Or you may feel disappointed with God himself, perhaps because faith doesn't offer the comfort you thought it would, or because promised miraculous help didn't come when you needed it most. You may feel that your prayers aren't being listened to, that there's no one on the other end of the line. But however you came to this point, I'm almost certain that you feel like the only one who's different, the only one who doesn't fit in.

If you're one of these people, I have a message for you: Atheism is an option. You don't have to believe. You don't need to belong to a religion to lead a fulfilling, moral, and happy life. You can be an atheist, and you don't need to feel guilty about it. On the contrary, being an atheist can be a positive achievement to celebrate and take pride in.

The second most important thing I want to say to you, the seekers and the doubters, is this: You are not alone. There are others like you. In fact, there are more of us than you probably think. I've heard from other people who feel the same way, and nearly every prominent atheist I know can say the same. There are people in the pews and even behind the pulpits who no longer believe, but can't say so because they don't want to lose their major source of community, because they fear reprisal, or because they know no other way of making a living. I'd wager it's more common than people think. Like an iceberg whose depths lie below the surface, the number of visible, outspoken atheists might well be dwarfed by the number of those who are still counted as religious only by default.

I have no doubt that you've heard plenty of gloomy and frightening stereotypes about atheists, and I can assure you that they are not true. Atheism is not incompatible with morality, nor does it require hating religious people, nor does it mean a life lacking happiness or meaning. In fact, the journey to atheism can be a wonderful, exhilarating liberation, as many who've walked that road can tell. The only thing being an atheist means is that you don't believe in any gods. In every other respect, you can live your life however you want and be the same person you have always been.

If you're intrigued by these words, or if you're merely curious, there are plenty of resources where you can read and learn more, and numerous online communities - such as this one! - where you can participate.

If you choose to take the plunge and become an atheist, I can't promise that you'll never face misunderstanding, hatred, or prejudice. In fact, depending on where you live and how open you are about it, it's likely that you will. But I and many others can testify that, in the long run, being true to yourself is far more satisfying than trying to live a lie. You don't have to shout your nonbelief to the rooftops, but if you're doubting your religion, consider atheism. You may find it far more fulfilling and liberating than you expect.

July 1, 2009, 6:47 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink82 comments
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Thoughtful Iconoclasts: A Response to Madeleine Bunting

I last mentioned Guardian columnist and Templeton Foundation fellow Madeleine Bunting in 2007, in "On Being Uncontroversial". She's recently written another column attacking atheism, alleging that the New Atheists are drowning out, in her words, "real debates" about religion and faith.

Personally, I don't see the basis of her complaint. I think we've been provoking some very good debates - about the proper role of religion in society, how much influence it should have, whether and to what extent its claims deserve respect, how to judge between the various religions' competing truth claims, and so on. This is a welcome change of pace, I would think, from the dreary repetitions of orthodoxy and the polite, embarrassed silence that's so often prevailed in public conversations about religion. But none of these are the kind of "real debates" Bunting is talking about.

What many argue is that the New Atheist debate has ended up down an intellectual dead end; there are only so many times you can argue that religion is a load of baloney.

In one sense, this is true; there are only so many ways to say "there is no evidence for God". But what Bunting appears to be arguing is that we've said all we have to say and should therefore stop talking. Needless to say, that isn't going to happen. As she is surely aware, religious faith is still causing evils in the world today: oppressing and persecuting women and homosexuals, providing the ideological underpinnings for terroristic violence and theocratic rule, and motivating attacks on toleration, science, and separation of church and state. Under these circumstances, it would be morally wrong for atheists not to speak out, and we intend to continue doing so until our message sinks in and the world turns toward enlightenment.

And if Bunting's critique is that atheists have run out of interesting things to say, that same critique applies with redoubled force to her own religion. Faiths like Roman Catholicism have spent millennia preaching from one book, endlessly rehashing the same tedious stories. Does this mean Christianity has hit an intellectual dead end? If not, then how much wronger is this claim in regards to atheism, which is not limited to one holy text or tradition but has the whole wide universe from which to draw its stories and moral lessons?

Just this week, AN Wilson announces in a thoughtful cover article for the New Statesman that he has apostated, abandoning his fellow atheists.

If I'm not mistaken, that would be the same A.N. Wilson who said that Darwin's Descent of Man is "an offence to the intelligence" and added that "the jury is out" about whether evolutionary theory is true. Whether he ever was an atheist or not, this shameful and disgraceful ignorance gives us good reason to doubt his credibility in other areas, and to suspect that his statements about his past position are driven by apologetic necessity. Bunting might as well quote Lee Strobel saying he only became an atheist because he wanted to do whatever he chose and live free of morality and accountability.

In the Third Way, a Christian magazine, the poet Andrew Motion reflects wistfully, "I don't believe in God - though I wish I did, and I can't stop thinking about it so who knows what might happen one day?"

Bunting here provides further evidence for the thesis which I advanced in "Respectable Infidels": that the only atheists considered "respectable" by apologists are those who concede the superiority of religion and wish they were believers. An atheist who is proud to be so, and who speaks their mind honestly and frankly, will always be judged as disrespectful by theists whose only goal is to silence us.

Anyway, what exactly does Bunting think the New Atheists are doing wrong? We get a glimpse at her answer, what she calls the "key mistake", and it's truly bizarre:

Belief came to be understood in western Christianity as a proposition at which you arrive intellectually, but Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has also infected other faiths. What "belief" used to mean, and still does in some traditions, is the idea of "love", "commitment", "loyalty": saying you believe in Jesus or God or Allah is a statement of commitment. Faith is not supposed to be about signing up to a set of propositions but practising a set of principles.

...the modern distortion was to make God into a proposition in which you either did or did not believe.

With this passage, Bunting places herself firmly in the rarefied, academic fantasyland inhabited by so many of her fellow theologians. She alleges that it's crude and simple-minded to say that you have certain knowledge of what God is like, what he commands, and what we should do to fulfill our duty to him. In its place, she promotes an "apophatic" theology which claims that God so far surpasses our understanding that we can say nothing definite about him at all.

If that's the tack she wants to take, fine. But the glaringly obvious rejoinder which she steadfastly refuses to mention is that this position is a minority report. There are billions of theists worldwide who do exactly what she decries, bluntly proclaiming their certainty in an anthropomorphic god whose wishes are known to all. They use this belief as a justification to tyrannize others, and they are loud, well-organized, and belligerent. That is the kind of faith that the New Atheists have risen against; that is the kind we oppose so vehemently because of the ongoing danger it presents to the liberty and well-being of humankind. Bunting's apophatic faith, which has been been so carefully excised of substance, is a tiny minority opinion and always has been.

This piece is a perfect example of the Courtier's Reply: religious apologists who decry atheists for not attacking the vague and allegedly more sophisticated creeds held by a handful of theologians, refusing to understand that we are responding to religious faith as it is actually held and practiced by the overwhelming majority of religious people today. Yet somehow, it's always the atheists who get blamed for attacking this crude and over-literal faith - never the believers who actually hold it and put it into practice.

Bunting demonstrates her failure to grasp this with her closing argument:

So the media has been promoting the wrong argument, while the bigger question of how, in a post-religious society, people find the myths they need to sustain meaning, purpose and goodness in their lives go unexplored.... By junking the Christian myths, the danger is that the replacements are "cruder, less tested, less instructive".

First of all, many atheists have devoted significant effort to explaining where we find meaning, purpose and goodness in a life free of superstition. Richard Dawkins wrote an entire book about it, for truth's sake: it was called Unweaving the Rainbow. If Bunting doesn't know this, maybe it's because she's so consumed with her own stereotypes of those awful New Atheists that she hasn't made the effort to find out what we really think. The debate she wants has been happening all along - she just hasn't been paying attention.

It's true that any replacement for religion will be "less tested". But that statement implies that religion has been tested and has passed. Much the contrary, we atheists believe that religion has been tested and has failed. The reality is that we atheists are not thoughtless iconoclasts, tearing down the altars of religion without thought for the consequences. We've made the decision to attack religions precisely because we've concluded that the hate, intolerance and division they cause is too high a price to pay for whatever comfort they offer. We believe that we can find sources of meaning and goodness that work just as well, without all the baggage that religion brings.

April 13, 2009, 9:56 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments
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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
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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
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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
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Down to Earth

I had rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family and a few old friends, dining on simple bacon, and letting the world roll on as it liked, than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give.

—Thomas Jefferson, letter to Alexander Donald, 7 February 1788

What should we seek to get out of life? To a secular humanist, what is the goal toward which our labors should point?

As atheists, we don't believe in a heavenly reward, so that path is foreclosed to us. There are no gods we can please through our piety. Likewise, asceticism seems a pointless, even self-contradictory pursuit: since there is no life other than this one, and no good karma to be accumulated through self-denial, there is no sense in forsaking happiness now in hope of later reward.

What, then, is left? The riches of the world are the obvious answer, and an ever-present temptation. If this life is all we have, hadn't we better get while the getting's good? Should atheists be hedonists, chasing after wealth and fame whatever the cost? Should we seek worldly power, the flattery and approval of our fellow human beings? Is it true, in the final accounting, that he who dies with the most toys wins?

Well, no. A simple example suffices to show why this is false. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that my net worth is a million dollars. (It's not.) Now consider a man who's been far more successful than me, with a net worth of a billion - a thousand million - dollars. If money or possessions buy happiness, then that billionaire must be a thousand times happier than I am. But this, as I hope we all agree, is absurd.

From what we know of human psychology, it's extremely unlikely that people have such a wide range of emotional variation. Of course you can be happier or sadder than another person, but not to such a grossly incommensurate degree. Rather, comparing millionaires to billionaires provides a clear example of the theory of declining marginal utility. When you have no money, a little money can make you very happy indeed. But as basic needs are satisfied, the amount of happiness bought by each additional dollar declines steadily, until you reach a point where no amount of additional wealth would make you any happier. (Incidentally, this is part of the reason I'm not a libertarian - since money is not closely tied to happiness, I don't consider it at all outrageous for the state to implement a program of reasonable redistribution.)

And even this analysis leaves out something crucial: acquiring such extreme wealth is a pursuit that by definition only a very few can succeed at. Most people who set out to become billionaires will fail, and have nothing to show for all the labor and effort invested in the quest. Even for those who succeed, life won't become a bed of roses: if anything, wealthy and powerful people have a whole new range of challenges and problems in their life which ordinary people never have to confront. Material possessions don't bring happiness; we get that from the love and friendship of our fellow human beings, and ironically, due to the isolating effect of wealth and power, the rich and famous have less opportunity for that than the rest of us. It's far more difficult to relate to someone when there are such vast disparities in status between the two.

If happiness in life comes neither from piety, nor asceticism, nor wealth and indulgence, what's left? The answer, as Thomas Jefferson knew, is a life of rich simplicity - what Buddhism calls the middle way. Rather than always chasing after more, we should learn to be content with what we have.

Trying to gain happiness by acquiring possessions is as futile as trying to get somewhere by running on a treadmill. When happiness consists only of getting more and more, then the quest is its own undoing. As soon as you successfully acquire something, it will no longer bring you any satisfaction, but will only remind you of what you still don't have - and so on, ad infinitum. This endless striving brings no contentment, only misery.

Instead, I believe that goodness in life consists in gaining experience, having love and friendship, the acquisition of knowledge, the pleasure of creating things through artistry or craft, the practice of virtue toward others, and participation in meaningful and satisfying work. Accumulating possessions plays no part in this (although, I admit, I may have to make an exception for books: I don't think you can ever have too many books.) There's nothing wrong with owning a big house in the country, but I would rather live in a small and cozy home filled with warmth, light, laughter and the fellowship of good friends than live in the largest and grandest mansion on earth and be alone.

Some people seek to acquire wealth and fame so they can stride the earth like a colossus, but humanist philosophy leads me to conclude that they are misguided. They are staking their lives on an all-or-nothing gamble, and when you only have one life to wager, that sounds to me like a foolish bet. I'd much rather live down to earth, seeking the simpler pleasures that are available to everyone. They're far easier to come by, and yet, ironically, they are by far the ones more worthy of acquiring.

November 19, 2008, 7:52 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink33 comments
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On Atheist Janitors: Followup

Around this time last year, I wrote a post titled "On Atheist Janitors", addressing an e-mail from reader Serban Tanasa that asked whether atheism has something to offer to people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. The other day he wrote back to me with a follow-up post addressing some of the issues first discussed here, and I wanted to offer some further thoughts.

Atheist forces and their agnostic coalition members have launched devastating artillery barrages against the veracity of the Holy Books. But Abrahamic Religion is not mostly, or even primarily, about the Books. The truth is, religion is a Life. It provides a social network. The conditions for membership can be harsh, but are simple enough that even the dullest can understand them, if not fully live up to the ideological ideals. In some cases, membership provides a sense of community, a sort of family away from home. It can also be a help network. Most importantly, going through the motions provides one with the sense of self-worth and accomplishment, supposedly achieved by getting closer to God.

These are all good points, and I agree. Atheists should keep this in mind: The tenets of religion are not irrelevant, but for most individual believers, they're beside the point. The majority of pew-fillers, I would venture, are there not because of a philosophical or rational preference for the tenets of that particular faith over all competitors; they are there because that church and that religion are the locus of community in their life. They provide a sense of place, of purpose, and of belonging - basic things that all human beings seek. This is a truth that we atheists need to keep in mind if we try to persuade people to step out of the fold. It doesn't make our efforts futile, but it does mean that we're struggling uphill. I agree that we need to offer something more than logic, however eloquent and persuasive that logic may be.

So far, Atheism has offered Truth (well, Doubt). This Devil's Sourdough is a little too bitter for many people (even though most would get used to it if they had to).

I have to say that I just love the phrase "Devil's Sourdough".

Most of us live in capitalist democracies. With the partial collapse of traditional values, materialism has prevailed. In an age of mass democracy and juridical equality, wealth and conspicuous consumption have emerged as the only ways to distinguish oneself from the crowds. What can Atheism offer to the hordes of disenchanted losers, who slowly realize that they'll never make it to the top, or even to the middle of the pack? How can Atheism provide spiritual succor? The joys and awe of science? It takes a curious mind, and even then, it takes patience and skill to be a scientist. Most people have neither.

I agree that most people don't have the traits that would incline them toward life as a professional scientist, but that's a very different matter from saying that ordinary people don't have the ability to appreciate the glories of science at all. That's like saying you can't appreciate poetry unless you're a professional poet. Not everyone can participate in the creative process, it's true, but I do maintain that anyone who wishes can appreciate the fruits of that process.

I think that most people do have the intellectual curiosity needed to learn, not necessarily all the technical details, but the broad strokes of what a scientific theory is about. And I do think that most people, given the proper encouragement, can find awe and mystery in that. I don't consider those emotions to have any correlation to one's level of economic prosperity.

More to the point, I don't think that people who'll "never make it to the top" are "disenchanted losers". That comment implies that the real goal of life is material success, and that understanding the wonders of the cosmos is just a consolation prize given to those who miss out. On the contrary, I think it's the endless pursuit of the mirage of wealth and fame that renders life flat and unsatisfying. True happiness comes not from accumulating possessions, but from more meaningful and spiritual pursuits.

If you think about it, religion is in the same business-branch as computer games: providing users with an alternate reality where they get to be significant, one that users are willing to pay money to be allowed access to. There is no reason why this should not be doable in a far less haphazard manner. Identify the temporal lobe brain centers that endow objects with deep meaning, find a way to predictably generate tunable stimulation patterns, and you blow religion out of the water. You can get people to stack piles of manure and feel that they're experiencing an epiphany with each shovelful.

This idea is disturbing to me, and I think it's missing the point. Our goal shouldn't be to develop brain stimulation so that people can be zoned out and blissful despite leading miserable lives. Our goal should be to restructure the world so that more people can lead the kind of lives that are genuinely fulfilling and blissful.

Studies have borne this out, showing that religious influence wanes as societies become more prosperous and more secure. People who lead good lives in this world don't need to cling to the hope of another.

In terms of community support, we have to get organized. When we can get people to go to 'church' (for lack of a better word) every Sunday, without the promise of eternal life to drag them out of bed, we will know we have succeeded.

This is one point where I do agree. I've written on multiple occasions about building the secular community, and my sketch of a post-theistic world has humanist organizations that serve as focal points of meaning and fellowship. These things are intrinsic aspects of human psychology, not the property of religion. Creating them is an ambitious effort and one that will take a lot of work, but it can be done, and there is no shortcut. To dislodge religion and end its monopoly, we must be prepared to offer people a meaningful atheist alternative.

October 14, 2008, 10:00 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink21 comments
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