103. sucre

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Let dreamers dream what worlds they please;
Those Edens can’t be found.
The sweetest flowers, the fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.

We’re neither pure nor wise nor good;
We’ll do the best we know;
We’ll build our house, and chop our wood,
And make our garden grow.
— Richard Wilbur, Candide (based on Voltaire’s work of the same title)

The past few months I’ve had chats that begin like this, or include questions like these:

  • “Can you be good without God?”
  • “Without absolute truth, you can’t really believe in good and evil.”
  • “Doesn’t that just mean that you define what’s ‘right’?”

The first thing that pops into my head when dealing with questions like these is—did I sound like that when talking to atheists back when I was a Christian? Not that I really ever recall talking to nontheists that much, but I’m sure that discussions like that were had. There were several times when we went out witnessing or having “spiritual conversations” with non-Christians, and I’m sure that something like that came up.

This brings up the issue of what I actually believe now as a non-theist – as a post-theist. In blog post 99, I expressed my frustration with the current flavor of atheism, which can best be described as neo-atheism: the sort of aggressive, in-your-face, denialist movement that has characterized atheism as more of a negative worldview than a positive one. It’s the kind that loudly denies the existence of any supernatural being under any circumstances, and seeks to destroy all belief in god or gods the whole world over. It’s also the kind the kind that has no qualms insulting the religious faithful by calling them weak, small-minded, superstitious, gullible, and… well, you get the picture. [Insert insult here.]

And, of course, the two high priests of atheism – the Anti-Popes, if you will – are Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Or rather were, since Hitch is no longer with us. But their voices defined the movement in ways that few others have. Their vehement, shrill and oftentimes rude confrontations with monotheists (and fundamentalists specifically) and their call for all people to throw off the shackles of belief in favor of reason, science and intellect has been persuasive for many, and off-putting for others, including many atheists.

So some of us are left wondering: All right, now what? Rather than stand and define ourselves against a whole belief, what do we stand for?

Well, for starters, the first Humanist Manifesto, followed by the second manifesto (more fleshed out and developed than the first), is a good starting point. As the authors of the second manifesto wrote in their preamble, “Traditional moral codes and newer irrational cults both fail to meet the pressing needs of today and tomorrow. False ‘theologies of hope’ and messianic ideologies, substituting new dogmas for old, cannot cope with existing world realities. They separate rather than unite peoples.”

Religion, as I have come to realize (and let me be clear—I’m talking about the extremist and fundamentalist varieties that I’ve known, that I grew up with, and that most people associate with “religion”), is a distinctly anti-human enterprise. It puts human beings at the bottom of a hierarchy of importance, existing at and for the pleasure of a supernatural deity. It grants other human beings who supposedly hold the “Truth” permission to use and abuse others for their own benefit—or, for the truly devout, for the sake of “God.”

Why would I want an “absolute morality” like that—of a beneficent, celestial dictatorship? Hitch was fond of calling it a celestial North Korea in his talks, where “the real fun begins after you’re dead.” (“But at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea,” he says in that video. “Does the bible or the Koran offer you that ability? No!”) Why would I want to pattern my life around such a system in terms of what I do and don’t do?

But that’s getting sidetracked slightly away from the original question: “Can you be good without God?”

The answer is: Yes. Millions of people do it every day. Is the only reason that you don’t rob, cheat, rape, lie and murder because of your fear of divine punishment? And is that the only reason for a theist to do good—because God’s watching? If so, that’s a pretty bankrupt morality, in the opinion of myself and other nontheists.

Morality seems to be a strictly human invention. While there is a rudimentary morality among some of the higher primates, the rest of nature seems to be a completely amoral place. It’s survival of the fittest. “Nature, red in tooth and claw,” as Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote. Our human morality seems derived from our deepest, most tribal, and most primal being that values getting along and cooperating over total anarchy. As tool-wielders, and through trial and error, we’ve worked out a code of immutable “laws” for human survival:

  • Don’t kill other humans.
  • Don’t steal from other humans.
  • Being selfish is bad.

It seems to come from our ability for empathy, which evolved from emotional connections that were necessary to form bonds with other members of our tribe. We learned to see things “from the other chimp’s perspective.” We realized that if we don’t like the other guy beating us up, he probably doesn’t like me beating him up either. And it’s that ability to see through another person’s eyes that gives us our “moral” code.

I see morality as being essentially a complex equation of sorts. Most of the calculating we do automatically, as one segment on “chimp morality” shows on an episode of WNYC’s RadioLab that was about morality. In fact, if you want to really know what I believe about morality, stop reading this and go and listen to that. Then come back and read.

It’s a sort of three-dimensional cost/benefit analysis, where various potential choices are compared side by side, and the possible outcomes are weighed against each other. The solution is usually the one that does the least amount of harm to everyone, and carries the most benefits for everyone involved. It starts with the individual, then moves outward to others in the immediate circle of influence, and then goes further and further out until we can look at the potential benefit/harm done to something as large as the planet.

Doesn’t that sound like a better alternative than blindly following what your 3,000 year-old Bronze Age holy book tells you to do? Such as if it tells you to stone your wife to death for adultery? Or cut the foreskin off a newborn baby boy? Or tells you that homosexuals are disgusting perverts who are going to hell and deserve the abuse they get?

My morality boils down to the line from the closing song of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (lyrics beautifully penned by Richard Wilbur, which is itself an adaptation of the last chapter of Candide’s novel): We’re neither pure nor wise nor good; we’ll do the best we know. Play nicely with others, treat them how you want to be treated, and leave the planet better than you came into it. What reason do I have for believing this? Absolutely none, aside from my own deeply-held convictions.

Supposing these ancient “moral codes” are merely humanity’s first attempts at describing what it means to be human? Explore and examine how we can live together in community? To try and put these deep and primal desires within us into words? We don’t really need a god to have handed those down to us.

Could I be a selfish bastard and try to get as much as I can from life while I can? Sure. But would it make me happy and contented? Would others benefit from my selfishness? No, they wouldn’t. (“What does that matter,” my theist friends will postulate, “if this is all there is?”) My humanity allows me to look at it through the eyes of my neighbors and decide what the best course of action is.

I don’t know if there is a God or not. I can’t disprove it any more than I can prove it. I take the last verse of “Make Our Garden Grow” to heart: Let dreamers dream what worlds they please; those Edens can’t be found. Ultimately, we don’t know, and speculating only makes things more complicated. It’s fun to think and argue about; but if there is a personal god out there, from the sort of universe it brought into being I think it probably considers belief in it—and all of the myriad of locks and fences we’ve built—pretty pointless.

Even ungrateful.

“Go outside!” it seems to be saying. “Get some sun—but in moderation! Enjoy nature! Enjoy yourself. Enjoy each other. Do good work.”

The sweetest flowers, the fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground.

We’re neither pure nor wise nor good;
We’ll do the best we know;
We’ll build our house, and chop our wood,
And make our garden grow.

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