Let’s begin with a story. This one comes from In the Dark, Season 2, which outlined the stark injustice visited upon a man named Curtis Flowers, tried an historic six times for the same crime: the murder of four people in a furniture store in Winona, Mississippi on July 16, 1996. With no direct evidence tying him to the crime, a dogged prosecutor used a range of other approaches to get his convictions, each one then overturned. With the help of evidence uncovered by the investigative team behind this American Public Media podcast (which undermined a host of supposed eye-witness accounts; poked massive holes in the firearm discourse; quantified clear racial bias in jury selection; and gathered evidence indicative of an immense amount of law-breaking by authorities on the case), Flowers finally went free this week, 23 years after his initial arrest.
A lot of people surely feel vindicated by this momentous event–if not also tired, and angry about the absolute waste of it all–while those who committed so much energy to a belief in Flowers’s guilt probably feel furious, disoriented, and maybe even vengeful.
(I do wonder, too, if Flowers will be lynched in the wake of this whole, awful affair. Human beings, when confronted with the possibility that they made a mistake, sometimes deflect in the worst possible ways.)
But more crushingly still, when I was listening to this podcast I found myself cycling through all the other instances of racialized U.S. injustice I have read about, listened to, and watched over the course of my life. I thought about how full-on genocides also continue in Yemen, China, Myanmar, Sudan, South Sudan, Iraq, and Syria; and how indigenous violence traumatizes peoples in cultures as distinct as Colombia and Canada.
I though about how everywhere, it sometimes seems, we’re just… awful to one another.
And the really frustrating thing, for me as a humanist, is knowing exactly how religious nihilists and New Atheists square this awfulness away.
For the religious nihilists, it’s because the world doesn’t have enough “religion.”
For the New Atheists, it’s because the world has too much.
Ah yes, because if we all join the same religion, or all abandon religion entirely, either end-point will somehow cure humanity of its baseline tribalism. How silly of me.
Now, as I often do, I’m going to leave the religious nihilists for religious folks to deal with. But today I’d like to challenge the idea that we atheists are really enacting our atheism (or even atheism+) to its fullest.
Does fixating on religious/non-religious differences really best reflect a life lived as if there is no one else to help us?
No one, save ourselves, to fix the problems that we humans relentlessly perpetuate?
The Comfort of Critique
It’s a common refrain among atheists: that the way theists act on a daily basis shows they don’t really believe in a god. If they did, many of us argue, would they really risk eternal separation from their creator for a bit of gossip, cruelty, betrayal of their loved ones, and negligence of duties to the divine?
I’m guilty of this refrain myself. I often find it easier to assume that spiritual people are just using the vocabulary of faith because it’s familiar; because religion is the language of kindness and moral order they were raised in, and still speak most comfortably as adults.
And… this is an empathy gap on my part. This conviction speaks to my fundamental inability to believe that anyone could actually look at this cosmos and see divinity at its heart, except as an expansion of their own, deeply emotional and hopeful selves.
So, as with any empathy gap, I work to fill it by paying close attention to people who articulate genuine beliefs, then trying my best to put myself in their shoes. If I had been told as a child that there was a god, I remind myself, and if I had been raised up to have positive memories of a space where my family and others gathered to pay tribute to that god… If I had been trained from infanthood on to align my deepest inner convictions with the notion of an all-powerful and all-loving spirit also capable of great wrath and disappointment… If I had been taught to associate my every concrete action with notions of karmic imbalance or in fear of the bardo, or to see how patron demi-gods, aligned with me from day of my birth, were acting in my life every day…
But the truth is that I don’t need to go as far as all these what-ifs, because sometimes the sheer fact of my incredulity about others’ beliefs is its own proof that I’m also not living my truth as perfectly, as immaculately as I could be.
After all, to turn our question to theists back on us, dear fellow atheists: If we really don’t believe in a god, and if we really believe that our time in the cosmos is fleeting and precious and up to us to use as well as possible… what in blazes are we doing wasting so much of it sniggering about others’ individual beliefs?
None of This Matters, But…
In my own family, there is someone who strenuously engages in anti-theistic discourse… and someone who is deeply, evangelically religious. Meanwhile, I came of age amid the throes of New Atheism, so I know how much a life dedicated to anti-theism can feel… like a life dedicated to angry theism. I completely understand why some people feel comfortable making the claim that atheism is a “religion,” when all they really saw of atheism-in-action in the early 20th Century was… more spokespersons on massive platforms, gathering followers through shows of charisma and wit.
(Now, these spokespersons were never making the same sorts of claims, granted; and not bilking people out of money in the same manner; and not propping up whole institutions of child-molestation and the fetishization of worldly suffering in the process. But still, switching out rather than eliminating many of the public spotlights that prop up unhealthy hero-worship… isn’t the most conducive way to train people out of a propensity for thinking tribally, and thereafter joining cults.)
And quite honestly, how utterly baffling this fixation can often feel, when set against the vast cosmos to which we all belong, with its richness of wonders and abject wells of unchecked suffering.
Why are we secular folk still wrestling so often with religious people’s beliefs?
Why aren’t we more prominently known as the community that is so fully aware of how small and brief and precious life is, it simply can’t help but try to maximize everyone’s experience of wonder within it for as long as any of us gets to live?
After all, the universe might be value-neutral, but…
…We Still Matter.
So why don’t we show it? Why, when there is so much rampant injustice in the world–when our societies’ major institutions are severely compromised and war and genocide and death by treatable disease are still infuriatingly common parts of the human experience–do we allow ourselves to be carried away by the self-congratulatory semantics of pointing out the flaws in specific beliefs and religious texts?
Oh, and I do it myself, too. We atheists in a Christian-dominant society all have our trigger-points, I think. For my part, I get particularly cranky when I see secular folks act as though Christ is a decent moral figure worthy of emulation even outside the Christian faith. I would emphatically disagree–and do, when atheists smugly pass around Christ-memes to support their politics. Christ’s character in the New Testament is not a guaranteed ally of leftist politics. Nor is his character a guaranteed ally of LGBTQ+ persons and animal rights, a perfect champion against ethnic discrimination, or intrinsically anti-war and anti-capitalism. Indeed, if I were somehow to find the Christian Bible to be “true” one day, I’d have to side with extremely awful evangelical interpretations about a lot of its messaging, because… it really is just that bad.
Thank goodness, then, that it’s only partly historical.
(See, though? I can’t even try to write about how lousy it is to point out flaws in religious texts without ranting anew. Huge personal flaw. Working on it!)
Secular Humanism’s Leap to Something More
That said… as a humanist… I try to get over pedantry like the above by, say, focussing on the positive ways that Christ’s character in the New Testament has been rewritten in the churches that try to see him in the best possible light. Of course they elect not to share with their parishioners the lousier Christ-tales in unvarnished forms, which means of course the average spiritual person is trained to focus on versions that fit better into contemporary mores. I try, too, to focus on how the best parts of the Bible in general can be and by some people are turned into useful rhetoric for better social advocacy. I try to remember that, when whole generations were stolen from their homes into slavery, the slave’s version of the Christian Bible forced upon so many became a nexus for hope, and in time a history of reclaimed strength, irrespective of the truth of the text itself.
I think of it, honestly, in light of what storytelling used to be–like in the medieval period, when a famous Romaunce of brilliantly battling knights and beguiling dragon-women would be rewritten with variation from manuscript to manuscript, because variation was indeed a central feature of narrative over time. So it was with the Bible itself, which is why I even like a lot of the Torah and the Christian Bible–as poetry, in parts, and as the embodiment of another generation’s questing minds, in others.
It’s not even that we became more precise over ensuing centuries (we’ve always had meticulous tendencies), but rather that, with time, our precision became increasingly tethered to forms of empirical study that had far more effective outcomes. We’ve learned about the nature of our planet, and the nature of ourselves, with staggering efficiency over the last few centuries, in contrast with the hundreds of thousands of years in our species’ lifespan prior. Eons, that is, in which we died primarily of tooth decay, pregnancy, and fever for want of the simplest, now abundant medical knowledge.
And, yes, it can be a frustrating now to be on the cusp of so much wonder… but also, still often born into communities that perhaps even treat scientific ignorance as a point of pride. It’s infuriating to live within Plato’s cave, generation after generation after generation, even as our collective intelligence and industry lands robots on other worlds, sees into the fabric of the early universe, and learns how to 3D-print possible cures to diseases that were death sentences in our parents’ lifetimes.
But so many of us in the secular community aren’t even letting our lives become consumed by scientific-literacy campaigns. Rather, many of us while a significant amount of our lives away… building non-religious communities based on a mutual contempt for those whose beliefs we find to be wrong. And in so doing we become something other than humanists, something other than members of atheism+; rather, we become self-congratulatory tribalists, whose greatest excuse for our commitment to relentless mockery is that someone else started it by having the stupid belief to begin with.
Is that really the best that we can do with our one and only lives?
The Take-Away: Improving Our Focus
Because, flawed human being that I am, on good days I really do live more fully aware that ours is an indifferent cosmos, and this, my only life within it. I remember, too, that this knowledge comes with certain responsibilities–because it means that all the justice we let slip through our fingers here and now is lost forever.
Curtis Flowers, for instance, was a spiritual man when he walked into that prison, and possibly remains so even after his agonizing ordeal, hoping for a better justice after death that can make up for the 23 years he lost. But… we atheists know it’s not true–not for him, not for women caged in men’s basements for decades, not for children tortured for someone else’s sexual gratification or because a soldier in their warzone was bored.
“So what?” some theists like to argue. “If we’ll all be dead eventually, what will it matter?”
And they’re right: It won’t. Not when all is truly said and done, and every last one of us no longer exists to bear witness to it all.
But until that cosmic peace settles in full, while there will always be people left behind when a given trauma occurs, it matters immensely, because the trauma we visit upon one another deepens the danger for one another while we’re still alive. It diminishes both the joy of our successes and the worth of our own lives, to live in a society where so much is so plainly meted out unjustly, and where the equivocation of others’ worth is status quo.
So, fellow secular humanists: a bit of homework for us all. This holiday season, this time of hopefully meaningful reprieve with your loved ones… if there are people in your families who irritate you with their religiosity, or perhaps even with their intolerance of your atheism… don’t change the topic to sports or infotainment politics.
Change the topic to worldly suffering, or to the astonishing advances in modern medical technology and natural discovery on their own merits.
Let wonder and injustice be your calling cards. Our calling cards.
Let yourself be seen, in other words, as someone who chooses to live while we yet live… the way a humanist anywhere along the spectrum rightly should.