Since I’m both a minister and a humanist, I’m asked—often in rather shocked terms—if I am an atheist. Many humanists use that label as a way to use a description that is positive rather than negative. After all, being labeled an a-theist implies that theism is somehow normative and that being outside that norm is an important qualifier. I don’t identify as an atheist. I’m a post-theist.
Here’s an analogy to clarify what I’m thinking: I recently bought a new Ford truck. I bought a Ford because it’s good, solid, relatively efficient transportation. I also bought it because I have fond memories of Ford trucks—both my grandfathers had Ford trucks when I was a kid. Both had started buying Fords with the Model T.
I bought a new Ford truck, not a Model T. Why? Because a Model T, even though it revolutionized the automobile industry, is no longer an efficient mode of transportation in the contemporary world.
Does that mean that I don’t “believe” in the Model T? Am I an a-Model-T-ist? Not at all. I’m a post-Model T-ist. I have no doubt that my new Ford truck is built upon knowledge gained in the manufacture of Model Ts. The Ford I drive today could not exist as it does without the Model T.
This is how I view “god.” It’s not that I don’t believe in the god concept. It’s that I don’t think the concept is good transportation in our contemporary context.
Yet, my analogy also “proves” just the opposite of my point, doesn’t it? Because we could also say that my Ford truck is merely the latest version of the Model T, isn’t it?
I’m not an a-theist. Nor am I an a-Model-T-ist.
Then there are always Subarus . . .
Philosophers Know What They Need
The story goes that a rich man asked the Greek philosopher Diogenes why it was that rich men do not follow philosophers but philosophers follow rich men. Diogenes replied, “Because philosophers know what they need; the rich do not.”
What I know for sure is that we human beings need meaning and purpose in our lives. The question is where and how to find meaning and purpose. For me, a poet, meaning is generated in the creative act of noticing the moment and using the human creation of language in an attempt to communicate that.
There are other methods.
Let’s consider: what if I decide that life has meaning and purpose because I believe Martians invaded in 1865 and formed a sleeper cell that has now come awake in the guise of a popular reality television show. By watching this TV show, I believe, I receive messages from our Martian overlords, instructions as to what I should do.
Such a belief could without question give my life meaning and purpose. Each commercial break, for example, might indicate by the number of individual commercials how many bridges the Martians wish me to blow up. I have my marching orders; I have meaning and purpose.
That such a belief system gives me meaning and purpose is not debatable. Even that this belief system gives me MORE meaning and purpose than others I might have might be the case.
What IS debatable is whether or not this particular form of meaning and purpose has value to the larger human community. This is the interface between my subjectivity and the objective world of others. Where the rubber meets the road, if you will.
Sure, if every human being on the planet agreed with my belief in a Martian sleeper cell, all of humanity would have meaning and purpose. So. Is mass delusion a positive good? Is it preferable to finding meaning and purpose in a more thoughtful way?
Is delusion “better” than relying upon more reliable methods that perhaps will fail at delivering a common meaning and purpose to large groups of people?
Here’s another thing I think is true: meaning and purpose are human constructs and therefore can be constructed only by human beings. Why ever might we want a god or gods to construct meaning and purpose for us?
It’s also pretty clear from a cursory peek at human history that meaning and purpose take different forms at different times.
Henry Ford didn’t stick with his blockbuster Model T. He didn’t arrogantly insist that what he had already found was successful enough. Instead, Ford shut down his factory and retooled to manufacture the Model A.
It is true that religion and philosophy and art do not “progress” in the same way that automotive design does. Religion and philosophy and art are in in some way timeless, with a good anecdote from some thinker or other proving to be just the ticket for grappling with a contemporary issue. The human need for meaning and purpose remains. Nevertheless, it changes as we adjust to new realities.
The Model T demonstrated the need for paved roads. The multiplicity of human cultures in our shrinking world demands that we build religions and philosophies that will be positive, be roads and bridges, not muddy ditches.