Recently I ran across this article about Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and author of Why Darwin Matters. Shermer is an agnostic (a term he chooses instead of "atheist") who, in the Salon interview, articulates many of the points I've tried to clarify for myself and others on the issue of God.
As a non-believer and member of the group more despised by Americans than groups such as Muslims or homosexuals, I'm well aware of how against-the-grain my non-belief is. My husband is also a non-believer, and we did not teach our children about God other than to explain that most people believe in a God, with the accompanying attempt to give them a reason for such belief. My granddaughter recently announced that she doesn't believe in a God, either. The familial trend continues.
This has been a source of pain to some of our family members. Not only are they convinced that we will all go to hell, they feel we are missing out on a source of peace and strength. Many people can't understand how atheists/agnostics can go through life without feeling cheated of mystery and bereft of a higher power from which to seek help when we need it most. And how do we deal with mortality, the fact that this one life is all we get? (This last point is one that is frequently raised at funeral services as the minister gives comfort by assuring the believers that one day they will again see their loved one, while we unbelievers will never again see that person.)
Their pain is, I am sure, sincere and, taking their point of view, understandable. It's discomfiting at times, but at least it beats the attitude of those who feel that without God and religion, people have no reason to behave morally. Shermer puts it this way:
They fear the Darwinian worldview is the liberal worldview, which says that if there is no God, there is no absolute right and wrong. And without an Archimedean point outside of ourselves that says this is right or wrong, then anything goes, there's no basis for morality. Therefore America will go to hell in a moral handbasket.
To that, Shermer replies:
I say you don't need religion, or political ideology, to understand human nature. Science reveals that human nature is greedy and selfish, altruistic and helpful. Conservatives can find family values in nature. We are pair-bonded. We practice serial monogamy. Human infants are helpless for such a long time that it's better to have two parents rather than one to raise them. That's what Darwin gives us. He showed us how we evolved to be cooperative and altruistic within our groups, and competitive and avaricious between them. Within groups, amity; between groups, enmity. That explains a lot about the good and evil in our nature.
I read once on a right-wing blog (and I wish I could find the link) that if the writer didn't believe in God, he would flout all the rules, rape, steal, do whatever he wanted. I thought that was rather telling (he wants to rape and steal?). Which is more moral: the behavior of someone coerced by punishment and reward to do good and refrain from doing bad, or the behavior someone who is not coerced by the threat of hell and the promise of heaven, but who does good and refrains from doing bad anyway, out of a sense of altruism and rightness?
Many religious people are quite sure that for us non-believers, life is meaningless and empty; that if this life, this universe came about at random and was not created, that it would consign us to a spiritual void. Related to this is the idea that if this mortal coil is all there is, what's the point? If we can't live eternally in the bosom of God, why be here at all? What does it all mean? Again, I agree with Shermer:
There is no natural meaning in the universe. Nobody, Christian or otherwise, would look at a star and go, What's the meaning of that? It doesn't mean anything. It's a bunch of atoms. Believers and non-believers alike are comfortable saying human life has meaning because we make it so. That goes for Rick Warren and Dr. Phil. They say, hey, look, man, you got to go out there and do it yourself. You got to volunteer and help the poor. We give our life meaning by being helpful and sociable.
In the end, you don't need a top-down entity to give life meaning. If anything, if nobody is out there, it is much more important to find meaning ourselves. Instead of this world being a mere staging for the next world of eternity -- meaning it doesn't really matter what we do now -- it's better to realize there is no eternity, that this is it. In that case, we better be careful what we do, make our choices consciously, treat people kindly and be moral because this life is what really counts.
Those of us who live without God find meaning in our relationships with the people we love, in the natural world, in struggling to make this life better and more just for more people. We find meaning when we contemplate the interconnectedness of life on this planet, and when we contemplate the vastness of the universe on a starry night when the moon is new. To be a part of this vast, complex cosmos, and a part of the human family; to create something, to cook a meal, to write a poem, to do the work we do--there is nothing meaningless about any of this just because the concept of God is absent.
Living without God, without a sense of a Supreme Being, is not, as some would have it, a morally anchorless and spiritually impoverishing experience. Asked what he believes in, Shermer replies:
I believe in the indomitable human spirit and the amazing capacity we have for understanding the world; for love, joy and happiness. Science not only does not take away any of those things, it adds to the sum of human knowledge. When I look through my little telescope in my backyard at the planets, moon or Andromeda galaxy that is 2.9 million light-years away, I can enjoy the beauty of the night sky and appreciate it on an emotional level. Then I can think that the photons of light that are landing on my retina left 2.9 million years ago, when we were just barely bipedal hominids in Africa, and are just now arriving tonight. Boy, that's just awe-inspiring.
To me, that's what it means to be spiritual -- what makes your spine tingle. It's what gives you a sense of awe and wonder and transcendence. It doesn't matter to me if you call it God or the cosmos. We're all talking about the same thing, whether it's religious people or New Age spiritual people or Buddhists or scientists. We're all talking about having a sense of awe and wonder at something grander than ourselves.
Much later I realized that being an atheist is the best way to approach this life. It's like un-wrapping the cotton swaddling from your skull and seeing the bright, beautiful world as it truly is. Our planet, each other, our lives, our universe, they are all so incredibly and wonderfully exciting - all on their own! Why gild the lilly, you know? Isn't it enough to see the mind-blowingly beautiful fog of stars on a clear night - and knowing that our tiny little envelope of air and dirt is embedded in this small part of one of the spiral arms of our galaxy - without attributing it to Jojo The Great God Of The Congo's B.O. or something? I mean, why diminish it like that? I'd rather understand it the way it really is - and not the way that I wish for it to be.