Archive for the ‘Atheism’ Category
By Valerie Tarico, author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light
“It probably will not be long until the churches will divide as sharply upon political, as upon theological questions; and when that day comes, if there are not liberals enough to hold the balance of power, this Government will be destroyed. The liberty of man is not safe in the hands of any church. Wherever the Bible and sword are in partnership, man is a slave.
“All laws for the purpose of making man worship God, are born of the same spirit that kindled the fires of the auto da fe and lovingly built the dungeons of the Inquisition. All laws defining and punishing blasphemy—making it a crime to give your honest ideas about the Bible, or to laugh at the ignorance of the ancient Jews, or to enjoy yourself on the Sabbath, or to give your opinion of Jehovah—were passed by impudent bigots, and should be at once repealed by honest men. An infinite God ought to be able to protect himself without going in partnership with State Legislatures. Certainly he ought not so to act that laws become necessary to keep him from being laughed at. No one thinks of protecting Shakespeare from ridicule, by the threat of fine and imprisonment. It strikes me that God might write a book that would not necessarily excite the laughter of his children. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that a real God could produce a work that would excite the admiration of mankind. Surely politicians could be better employed than in passing laws to protect the literary reputation of the Jewish God.”
Robert Ingersoll, quoted from, Some Mistakes of Moses, Section III, “The Politicians,” in Works, Dresden Edition, Volume 2, 1879
From Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Natures,” pp. 695-96:
“Though our escape from destructive contests is not a cosmic purpose, it is a human purpose. Defenders of religion have long claimed that in the absence of divine edicts, morality can never be grounded outside ourselves. People can pursue only selfish interests, perhaps tweaked by taste or fashion, and are sentenced to live lives of relativism and nihilism. We can now appreciate why this line of argument is mistaken. Discovering earthly ways in which human beings can flourish, including stratagems to overcome the tragedy of the inherent appeal of aggression, should be purpose enough for anyone. It is a goal that is nobler than joining a celestial choir, melting into a cosmic spirit, or being reincarnated into a higher life-form, because the goal can be justified to any fellow thinker rather than being inculcated to arbitrary factions by charisma, tradition, or force. And … it is a goal on which progress can be made—progress that is halting and incomplete, but unmistakable nonetheless.”
From “The Limits of Secularism,” by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks:
(HT to Andrew Sullivan)
Think about it: every function that was once performed by religion can now be done by something else. In other words, if you want to explain the world, you don’t need Genesis; you have science. If you want to control the world, you don’t need prayer; you have technology. If you want to prosper, you don’t necessarily seek God’s blessing; you have the global economy. You want to control power, you no longer need prophets; you have liberal democracy and elections.
If you’re ill, you don’t need a priest; you can go to a doctor. If you feel guilty, you don’t have to confess; you can go to a psychotherapist instead. If you’re depressed, you don’t need faith; you can take a pill. If you still need salvation, you can go to today’s cathedrals, the shopping centres of Britain — or as one American writer calls them, weapons of mass consumption. Religion seems superfluous, redundant, de trop. Why then does it survive?
My answer is simple. Religion survives because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? We will always ask those three questions because homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal, and religion has always been our greatest heritage of meaning. You can take science, technology, the liberal democratic state and the market economy as four institutions that characterise modernity, but none of these four will give you an answer to those questions that humans ask.
After ticking off the ways in which religion is no longer the sole supplier of goods that humans value—knowledge, control, prosperity, health, and salvation—the Rabbi claims to have found three that secular culture cannot supply: identity, purpose, and moral direction.
This is simply incorrect. Does the Rabbi imagine that a secular humanist cannot know who she is, why she is here, and how to live her life? The answers she discovers through her lived experience and her secular education may not be as readily available or as facile as those that religious institutions offer, but they are nonetheless valid.
And more than just “valid.” The answers she discovers may also be more truthful and more conducive to human flourishing. What is the good of believing that one is a child of God and that one’s purpose is to serve Him if, indeed, there is no God? What is the good of obeying God’s laws if, in fact, God’s laws are unjust?
I won’t dispute that the goal of serving a fictive god can give one’s life meaning and purpose. But I do question whether such purposes are always healthy for human beings to have. More important, I question whether God’s laws should provide a moral compass for 21st-century human beings.
There are “other” purposes, “other” meanings, and “other” moral priorities that might serve us better than those offered by religion. And they are humanistic ones.
Where do we find them? In literature, in film, in poetry and music, in philosophy, psychology, and the hard sciences. We may also find them in religion, but religion is not their only source.
So, here’s my own quick-and-dirty answer to the Rabbi’s three questions. (I am breaking his second question into two parts, in order to address the two meanings of “purpose,” i.e., proximate and ultimate).
Who am I? I am a human being.
Why am I here? (proximate) Because I was born out of the Earth’s biosphere.
Why am I here? (ultimate) To fulfill my full potential as a human being: to love, to create, to struggle, and to understand.
How shall I live? In harmony with other human beings and with the environment that sustains us all.
I don’t see nihilism in any of that, nor any cause for despair.
A reader writes,
The Manhattan Declaration’s list seems a bit frivolous. Sure, we love the architecture and the art and the great music, but one doesn’t need religion, much less Christianity, for those things. Artists can always find their inspiration somewhere. Why didn’t they mention the Quakers’ opposition to war and slavery, or the efforts of the Protestant churches to civilize the American South and West in the 19th century? They could have also cited the churches’ roles in the Civil Rights movement and in South African reconciliation movements. The list of real, solid achievements would be long, so I’m disappointed that MD focused so much on superficialities.
Your list, on the other hand, was much too harsh and biased toward the negatives. Would have us believe that Christianity has contributed nothing to civilization? Can’t you take a more balanced approach?
My list was an application of force majeure. There was just SO MUCH artillery lying around unsecured! But maybe my riposte was (and not just about) overkill. It was an attempted deicide in retaliation for many successful democides.
But I maintain that Christianity has never been a consistent force for peace. Despite its claims of divine provenance, it has historically been shaped by social and intellectual movements perhaps more than it has shaped them. The Catholic church was, as Martin Luther King, Jr. would have said, “the tail-lights when it should have been the headlights,” changing its positions on slavery, geocentrism, scriptural literalism, marriage, anti-semitism, and a host of other issues only after prolonged intransigence. The same church cooperated with Fascist regimes in Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia during the 20th century.
The record is mixed, and we could all throw lists at each other until the cows come home. My own inclination is to try to avoid bias. Realism doesn’t mean serving equal portions but recognizing that sometimes the portions are already unequal.
[Hat tip to Sarah Posner at Religion Dispatches]
The pious folks at the Manhattan Declaration website must have been short on Christmas-themed content this year. So they came up with this doozie. I can see them sitting around the table brain-storming. Only trouble is, their meeting was scheduled to begin immediately following the annual Christmas party at Joe’s Tavern down the street. To make things worse, there were a couple of jokers on the committee, so this is what they came up with:
If Jesus had been aborted, …
- There would be no great cathedrals in Europe.
- Michelangelo wouldn’t have painted the Sistine Chapel. In fact there wouldn’t be a Sistine Chapel. Or a Vatican!
- Bach and Mozart would have been lesser composers.
- America might not have been discovered.
- There would be no Declaration of Independence and no U.S. Constitution.
- Israel would have no strong allies and there would be no reason to travel there.
- There would be no wine.
- We wouldn’t have a Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Martin Luther King Day, or Columbus Day.
Yes, the world would be a very different place. Please feel free to send your own ideas about how different the world would be.
Coming Soon: What if Hitler Had Been Aborted?
Also see: the continuation of this post.