James Ishmael Ford
The other day I wrote a brief reflection in defense of atheists. I noted that the high profile of the New Atheists aside, and the misleading concentration of nontheists within both Unitarian Universalist and Buddhists in my circles making nontheists seem more numerous than they are, in reality atheists are a beleaguered minority. They suffer all sorts of insult and injury for their world view and having the temerity to speak it out loud. I observed how often atheism itself, that is the examination of whether there is a deity and the conclusion in a rejection of deity, is ignored in favor of accusing atheists of being bad people. Specifically, I was inspired to my small rant by a recent essay making the rounds in my social media circles. As I read it the argument being presented was the old canard that atheists are obnoxious, and besides that only the affluent can “afford” to be atheists. Said without reference to the truth or not of the atheist proposition. I’ve said what I want to say about that.
Then a friend on Facebook brought up a frequently cited concern about atheism. Without God, where is one’s ethics going to come from? This is a perennial question, of course. People have over the ages made all sorts of comments about how nonbelievers are untrustworthy. Without the hope of future reward or fear of future punishment, why would people be good? You don’t have to look hard to find people who want to exclude atheists from juries for just this reason.
Now, I think it is a second order question. It doesn’t address the challenge of atheism, whether there is a deity. And, I’m sure my friend and most theists wouldn’t want to argue that belief in a deity whether true or not is a moral necessity. It suggests people are wolves, but must be convinced they’re sheep for the common good. It reduces theism to being a mechanism for social control.
But, while I feel this has nothing to do with the question of whether there is a god or are gods, the question itself carries within it something important.
And that is a sense of good, a need for something good, a visceral thing rising in human hearts.
By most common usage I am an atheist. I prefer nontheist as I’m not angry and the word atheism is I suspect irretrievably contaminated by association with aggressiveness. Now, I totally understand why atheists are not always pleasant. And I note that simply saying there is no god, not that I think there is no god, but that there is no god is heard pretty much always as aggression by those who believe. In part, I think, because the theist position stands on very shaky ground. Rather for me on the face of it the idea of a deity with a human-like consciousness intervening in history is an embarrassingly obvious projection of human desire into the sky. This god has ceased to be even vaguely interesting to me.
But without a necessary reference to a deity with a human like consciousness I am fully engaged in the world itself as sacred, as holy.
As are any number of nontheists. As, I’m moderately sure, are people who prefer the term atheist. Atheism does not equate nihilism.
For where I stand, a philosopher might characterize what I believe to be true as pantheism. I freely acknowledge how I am profoundly moved by much of the spiritual literature of the west characterized as mystical. And for me there are traditional uses of the word God that I believe true. But, I also note that as long as there has been pantheism there have been those who say it really isn’t significantly different than atheism.
Whatever, my point here is we don’t need to posit a deity that directs the cosmos to have a sense of sacred, a sense of connection, and a sense of obligation and a call to action.
That said, I’m as concerned with the good as anyone.
So, to my friend who is concerned with the ethics of nontheists, I’d say two things. First, don’t worry. In practice theists and nontheists don’t seem to be a whole lot different from each other. Some are good, some are not.
And, second, if you’re interested in a nontheistic approach to the good, I’d say there are many. My last book If You’e Lucky, Your Heart Will Break spends a lot of time on the questions of how we might best live our lives and the nitty gritty of what that actually looks like.
Here’s how I see this urge for the good. In broadly philosophical terms I’d say we have two great insights as human beings. I like to call them the two truths. One is how we as individuals are unique and precious. As passing as the morning dew, but beautiful and precious. And, we, each of us, you and I and everything else are created out of the whole, which itself is dynamic constantly creating, sustaining and destroying. This great dynamic has no more essential substance than the individual, but exists in a great play of things.
What we do matters. Now, it doesn’t matter in the sense of future reward or punishment. But it does matter in the great matter that can be found when we open ourselves to the movement of the real. Within the mystery of our human presence to what is, we find what in the west we call love. When we really pay attention, what we find is love. In many, many ways, our care for ourselves and for each other is the great work of love, the consequence of seeing the connections.
Which brings me to the how to be good part of this reflection.
A friend on Facebook recently pointed me to an essay titled “Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person,” written by Jason Pargin under his pen name David Wong. (I’ll set aside my discomfort with Mr Pargin’s use of what seems a Chinese surname in our racially charged culture. Another discussion, perhaps.) Mr Pargin is a novelist and Executive Editor of the humor website Cracked dot com.
His essay has had some twelve million page views since its first publication, so there’s a passing chance you’ve already read it.
The content is run through with the obscene, and it is my intent that this blog be G or at worst PG, and so I can’t quote much of it directly.
But, I found it several cuts above the typical self-help article. And, I thought I’d share the general thesis here along with a link to the original and some comments of my own as an example of how to be good without any necessary reference to deity.
The first and larger part of the essay is broken down into a number of sections, but in fact they all, I feel, can be reduced to one assertion. The world is only interested in what you do. The way I would put it is that we are what we do.
What you see is what you get. What we do is what matters.
This can be a harsh message, particularly fi we look at what we’re doing.
Rather than face this bottom line message, we are what we do, we’re really inclined to want to be defined by our attitudes. If we feel like nice people, if we care about others, then we are perforce good.
I, in fact, think there’s more than a nugget of truth in our holding up our good intentions. But, for me, they’re mainly worthy when they’re of use as they goad us into changing behaviors.
He then holds up some of the problems we’re going to have if we do hope to change, if we want to be good.
They are: Intentionally interpreting any criticism as an insult. Focusing on the messenger to avoid hearing the message. Focusing on the tone to avoid hearing the content. Revising your own history. And, finally, pretending that any self-improvement would somehow be selling out your true self.
And true as true.
But, if you want to be good, they make a lot of sense.
To briefly reflect.
First, that intentionally taking criticism as insult. That intentional is, sadly, as natural as breathing. A first order characteristic of being a person, fragile as we are, is defense. Criticism is a challenge, it is at worst an assault and at best a gate to being something new, to changing the stasis, which disrupts the me of things. One old Buddhist text speaks of bowing down to those who criticize us even unjustly, they open doors.
Second, focusing on the messenger rather than the message. The whole assault on atheists rather than atheism is a pretty good example of this problem. The third point is a variation, noticing tone rather than content. Looking to be offended rather than trying to hear.
Fourth, revising history. This is fascinating. We are only vaguely constant, in reality we are in constant flux, and no where is this more true than in our story about ourselves. At worst we revise the story to make ourselves feel okay about what we’re doing. At best, we see the story as re-writable. This is our curse, but it can be our freedom.
And, finally, guarding the moment as if it were something transcendent. We are not permanent. There is no part of us that won’t go away.
Want to be good?
And reach out a hand to your neighbor.
That is the path.
And, as best I can see, its enough…