Lightbringers

In the World in Shadow series, I have written about some of the terrible natural evils that afflict humans. My primary purpose in writing this series is to illustrate the strength of the atheist’s argument from evil, that the existence of vast amounts of undeserved and random suffering disproves the existence of a powerful, benevolent deity.

However, there is another reason I write this series, and that is so I am not accused of excessive optimism. I am, as I will readily admit, an optimist, and I have a great deal of hope for the future of humanity. The vast amounts of moral progress our species has already made through its history, combined with the existence of many devoted and dedicated social reformers who are ahead of the curve of conventional wisdom, working to raise awareness of moral errors not yet generally recognized, give me confidence that human beings have great achievements still ahead of them. In addition, the fantastic and gloriously complex beauty and enlightenment that are to be found in this world already convince me that it is a good thing to be alive, and give me reason to believe that existence can be meaningful and desirable even without supernatural fantasies.

But optimism must always be tempered with reality, lest it become mere dangerous naivete. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that everything will turn out well no matter what we do, as many varieties of theism believe. There is still a truly vast amount of pain, suffering and horror in this world, and it will never be alleviated without our compassion or our diligent effort. We must do it, for if we do not, there is no one else who will.

It is all too easy for a person who cares about others to take the weight of the world on their shoulders. We would not truly be human if we did not respond with compassion to the suffering of others, regardless of whether those others live in one’s own neighborhood or on the other side of the world. All human beings are of equal intrinsic moral value, and the suffering of all people counts for the same, so it is only natural to wish it all eliminated. But there is a great sea of need out there, far more than any one person can alleviate, and no moral demerits accrue for not trying to do it all. It is only rational that we cannot be morally obligated to do what we are not capable of doing. A person who tried to eliminate all the evil and suffering in the world would necessarily have to spread their effort and resources so infinitesimally thin that they would make no perceptible difference to any one area, and would therefore achieve less actual good than a person who chose one task or one cause specifically to focus on, though there may be others equally worthy.

There is an important lesson here, which is that instead of trying to do everything and failing, and thus achieving nothing at all, we should choose one or a few areas in which we can do the most good for our fellow human beings and concentrate on those areas. And I firmly believe that one of the best and most important things any person can do is to set a positive example for others, so that they will be inspired to do likewise in turn.

We all know people of the kind I am speaking of: the noble and generous souls who would help a stranger in need and ask nothing in return; the bold and principled leaders who labor for us and ask only our happiness as reward; the steadfast friends and loved ones who fill our lives with light and laughter and bear our troubles with steadfast strength. We all know people like this, people whom we love and welcome as the weary traveler welcomes the inn where they can take refuge from life’s troubles; but we should strive to be people like this. We should want to live the sort of life that touches the lives of those around us and fills them with joy and love, because multiplying the happiness of others is good for its own sake as well as for the happiness it brings to us.

Despite the moral progress we have made, we have a very long distance left to travel through the night before the coming of a greater dawn. As yet, the world sleeps in darkness, and only the faintest glimmers are visible on the horizon. But in the meantime, in a world of shadow, we can create sheltered oases of light where travelers can take refuge. We can fill our own corners of the world with light, beauty and music, in order that it may shine out the more brightly and kindle a new light in the lives of others in turn. It will take many torches carried forward to bring on the dawn, but each one of us has the potential to light at least one new one.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Speed

    When I was younger I was optimistic about a brighter future. But now, with global warming, peak oil, mass extinction, exploding debt, overpopulation, WMD proliferation, etc, it’s hard to feel positive about the future. I really feel that homo sapiens will become extinct sometime in this century, or wind up reduced to a state similar to the novel A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ.

    By the way, I loved your article “Ghost in the Machine.” It explains the workings of the brain in a more understandable way than any book or article I’ve ever read.

  • Alex Weaver

    Speed: Humanity survived the Medieval plagues, the collapse of the Roman and other uniting empires and subsequent dark age, the ravages of the Mongols and similar raiders, and all manner of horrific natural disasters. Meanwhile, these are all problems that people are working hard to fix, and the capabilities of our technology and society are less dwarfed by what we face than at any time in the past. Don’t be so quick to write us off.

    As for the rest…eh. I try. x.x ^.^

  • Petrucio

    I am an optimist too, and I, like George Lucas, think that “This is it. This is the revolution, and I’m in the middle of it. It’s a great time to be alive.”

  • anti-nonsense

    I am optimistic by nature but I find it hard to remain optimistic when it seems sometimes that all I ever hear about is doom and gloom about how we are destroying the environment and AIDS, and avian flu, and starving people in Africa, and Iran’s nuclear program, and Israel and Palestine fighting each other, and the religious right gaining more power in the US……you get the idea. I worry that the world may get turned into nuclear slag within my lifetime. My dad thinks that the terrorists are going to get hold of a nuke and nuke a major US city within the next decade.

  • Speed

    Alex – Yes, but until recently humanity never had the ability to destroy itself completely or to make its nest (the Earth) unliveable. We are clearly doing both today. I used to be a great believer in the growth-and-technology-will-save-us line back in my 20s (I’m 40 now). But the more I learn, the more pessimistic I am. It took a long time for me to realize that alternative fuels will never provide the energy equivalent of oil (which most of the earth’s population growth has been based on).

    Meanwhile, we’re busy destroying the oceans by creating seas of plastic

    http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Ocean/Moore-Trashed-PacificNov03.htm

    and watching the extinction of whales, sharks and other sealife. The tsunami that killed so many in Indonesia was made deadlier by the destruction of coral reefs and mangrove trees. And we continue to pollute ourselves with toxins and chemicals in our food, water, land, etc. I could go on, but you get the idea.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Speed, I don’t think the issue is one of survival. Humanity’s existence as a species is not at risk, not even from potential global disasters like climate change. Nor is there any possibility that we will make the planet unlivable, though we have damaged it greatly and caused the extinction of some large, charismatic species.

    We are not going to destroy life on this planet. The question is how badly we will degrade it and impoverish our own living environment. If we stop the unwise things we are doing soon, we stand to inherit a future with much biological richness and possibility for peaceful, sustainable living. If we don’t stop, we will disrupt many more ecosystems, wipe out more species that can never be replaced, and give our descendants a polluted, damaged, far less beautiful and glorious biosphere. Either way, we’ll still be here and so will the Earth. It’s just a question of what kind of Earth there will be.

  • http://ellis14.wordpress.com evanescent

    Really well written! Great post.

    I agree with you I have great “faith” in the human race, and I think we will “get there” one day, but it won’t just happen by sitting back and hoping. I think the human race has great things in its future, but only if we strive to make the world a better place. It’s a long journey, but the smallest step etc etc. Living our own lives the right way is a great place to start.

  • Vicki Baker

    Ebonmuse, I very much appreciated this post. It is a good reminder to be the change you want to see in the world.
    Further musings: I remember a few weeks back there was a discussion about whether altruism “really” is due to selfish motivation. When I think of examples of “noble souls” that I have come in contact with, I think for them the duality of selfish/altruism barely exists. For example, they don’t dwell on having sacrificed a lucrative career in medicine to work at a clinic in some poor country, instead they appreciate the richness of their experience and the feeling of doing something meaningful. And I agree with your last comment too. It is not about sacrificing our goodies, like cars or whatever, in order to altruistically “save the earth,” but instead a question of how unpleasant we are going to make it for each other.

  • Matt R

    Hello all,

    I tend to agree with Ebonmuse in doubting that we will make Earth uninhabitable any time soon. I also am very sad to see the beauty of nature continually consumed by the ever-growing appetite of humanity. I think that it will take several generations of hard work to make our existence more compatible with a healthy natural environment. I think that some key components of this change will be:

    1) Educating children before they develop habits which are unhealthy for the environment

    2) Making ecologically healthy living economically accessible for the common person

    3) Fostering a love of the natural world so that people naturally want to protect it

    Those are the “top three” that I can come up with off of the top of my head. Thoughts?

    I agree with you I have great “faith” in the human race, and I think we will “get there” one day

    I am not sure that there is a “there” to “get to”. I think that as long as there are people trying to survive, there will always be struggles of various sorts to overcome. I think it is reasonable to think that there are individual problems we will overcome, but I do not see a time when there are no challenges or problems.

    Cheers,

    Matt

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    There is an important lesson here, which is that instead of trying to do everything and failing, and thus achieving nothing at all, we should choose one or a few areas in which we can do the most good for our fellow human beings and concentrate on those areas.

    Very inspiring :)

    I am not sure that there is a “there” to “get to”. I think that as long as there are people trying to survive, there will always be struggles of various sorts to overcome. I think it is reasonable to think that there are individual problems we will overcome, but I do not see a time when there are no challenges or problems.

    Agreed. It would be difficult to find meaning in a life with no challenges. Still, I think it’s possible to create a world with far less poverty than we currently have. And I think utopian visions are useful, even when they’re unrealistic, because they can convey ideas about what’s important and give us inspiration for ways to improve.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Lynet,

    Agreed. It would be difficult to find meaning in a life with no challenges. Still, I think it’s possible to create a world with far less poverty than we currently have. And I think utopian visions are useful, even when they’re unrealistic, because they can convey ideas about what’s important and give us inspiration for ways to improve.

    I agree with what you have said as well. I believe that the concept of utopian visions will continue to change as humans overcome current challenges, then new ones crop up. I also think that this progression will not necessarily be linear. I think that there will perennial challenges that crop up from time to time, and I also think there will always be conflict between unscrupulous people and society.

    Cheers,

    matt