He was a worshiper of liberty, a friend of the oppressed. A thousand times I have heard him quote these words: “For Justice all place a temple, and all season, summer.” He believed that happiness is the only good, reason the only torch, justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest.
The above passage is an excerpt from a eulogy given by the famous American freethinker Robert Ingersoll for his brother, Ebon. It’s one of my favorite passages from Ingersoll, showing the sublime depth and beauty of his humanist views, even in times of sorrow. But behind the poetic language, there’s an important truth.
The commonly accepted etymology of the word “religion” derives from the Latin ligare, meaning “bind” or “connect”. Religion, then, is the system of obligations that connect human beings to the gods. Sensible enough – except, I have to ask, how exactly are you supposed to form a meaningful connection with an invisible, unseen, unknown, and very likely non-existent supernatural power?
No god has ever offered even the simplest tangible comforts one human being can give another: the contact of a hand, a thoughtful favor or a gift. No god comes to us, speaks to us or reassures us in the ways we all do for each other. No god answers our questions or responds to our petitions. Believers send their prayers into the void, and maybe – maybe – if they’re lucky, they’ll get a vague warm feeling in their hearts as answer, or a random event that works out in their favor which they take to be a sign. This is not the stuff of a deep and meaningful bond, not in the way we bond with our friends and loved ones. With our fellow human beings we exchange secrets, we share laughter and old jokes, we form memories together, we challenge each other and learn about each other. None of those things ever happen between humans and gods.
Rather than trying vainly to form connections with the uncaring blue sky, we can find a better kind of religion down here on earth. What we need is a religion of humanity – a secular belief system that does unite us in meaningful ways, by teaching the astounding truth that we are all part of the same biological and mental tribe.
On the human family tree, we are all cousins. Though the actual paths of the connections may be lost in the misty past, every human being on the planet is united by ties of blood and kinship every bit as real as the ones that bind us to our parents and our children. Our genes, our bodies and our brains are all nearly identical. And with that biological relationship comes, as well, an emotional and rational relationship. We all occupy the same place on the cosmos’ hierarchy of scale; we all look at the world alike, we all experience the same emotions, and we are all rational beings, trying to make our way as best we can through the vast and glorious universe. We share an outlook, a perspective, that gives each of us a deep and intuitive understanding of how all the rest of us think and feel. How could we not desire interconnection with each other? There is every reason in the world to seek it out.
This religion of humanity is not one that will teach us to agree on every issue, for we are too diverse for that. Rather, it will teach us the truth that our similarities are so deep and so pervasive as to completely overwhelm the comparatively shallow things that divide us from each other. And it will encourage us to build on that shared similarity to reason out the issues where we disagree, doing our best to proceed in a spirit of open and communal inquiry and a shared desire to know what is true.
Regrettably, the smaller religions that currently predominate have prevented this from coming to pass. Supernatural religion will only ever divide us, never unite us. In fact, the theist Andrew Sullivan last year put it as well as I’ve ever seen it put:
…the content of various, competing revelations renders them dangerous. They are dangerous because they logically contradict each other. And since their claims are the most profound that we can imagine, human beings will often be compelled to fight for them. For if these profound matters are not worth fighting for, what is?
Sullivan’s proposed solution to this dilemma is that we bear in mind our own fallibility, and never believe that we have discovered the final and absolute truth about God’s desires. This, as he must surely know, is naive. In a system of inquiry based on self-correction, such as science, this could work. But religion is not based on this principle, but rather on the opposite: that it is a virtuous and praiseworthy trait to believe, firmly and unshakably, even in the total absence of evidence. (As atheists know, the fact that religious beliefs never change and never compromise is often trumpeted as a selling point by their evangelists.) In fact, in the eyes of many sects, the more strongly a religious belief is contradicted by the evidence, the more virtuous it is to believe it – this constituting a sign of the believer’s trust in God over the foolish wisdom of man.
Since there is one world, there must be one true description of it. If religious beliefs were based on the evidence of that world, then we might expect them to converge eventually. But, again, this is not the case: religious beliefs are explicitly not based on evidence. Instead, since they arise from people’s wishes and imaginings, they reflect the full range of diversity that can arise from the creativity of the human mind. For this reason, the chances that they will ever converge on the same form are effectively zero.
These shallow supernaturalisms will not bring us together. Even the briefest glance out over human history should make that obvious. At best, some believers have learned to paper over their differences in the name of amity; but those differences still remain, irresolvable, and will inevitably flare up wherever they are put to the test. Their desire for a greater human brotherhood is laudable, but the road they have chosen is unlikely to ever lead to success. As long as people continue to hold belief in dogma as the highest moral value, division and conflict will remain. The highest moral value, in fact, is our common humanity and the obligation it confers on us to be good to each other. When this is more widely recognized – when, not if – then, and only then, we will finally have a religion worthy of our worship.