When I became convinced that the universe is natural, that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood the sense, the feeling, the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell. The dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts and bars and manacles became dust. I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave. There was for me no master in all the wide world, not even in infinite space. I was free–free to think, to express my thoughts–free to live my own ideal, free to live for myself and those I loved, free to use all my faculties, all my senses, free to spread imagination’s wings, free to investigate, to guess and dream and hope, free to judge and determine for myself . . . I was free! I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously faced all worlds. – Robert G. Ingersoll
This is the final part of my critique of religious belief.
A Place for Awe and Wonder
A common misconception among believers is that someone who rejects God is destined for a life of depression because his/her existence is rendered meaningless. As a demonstration of how the Bible can be used to support just about any view, I could use the first verse of Ecclesiastes to advance the claim that life is meaningless even if one does believe in God:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’
On a more serious note, I believe that humans, as thinking, conscious beings, are capable of setting their own purpose in life – of deriving their own meaning – all without reverting to supernatural ideas. Indeed, meaning and purpose are constructs of consciousness (and subconsciousness): they are not intrinsic to the physical fabric of nature itself. For me, spending time with friends and family, admiring and studying nature, and performing music, are all deeply meaningful pursuits, but they have no relationship whatsoever to supernatural ideas or sentiments.
The complexity, diversity, and enormity of the universe we live in are constant sources of wonder to me. My short and limited exploration of the world through scientific endeavor has revealed far more strangeness, complexity and majesty than I have ever gleaned from biblical descriptions. Importantly, the self-consistency of nature, the way in which it arises from laws and forces that can be explored openly and transparently without fear of contradiction, is immensely satisfying, and provides an enormously welcome break from the niggling problems and paradoxes of religious dogma, which often have to be hidden beneath the cloak of faith.
The lack of a grand purpose to the universe depresses me no more than the same lack of grand purpose in a pebble or a cloud. Indeed, it fills me with awe that the simple blind processes embodied by the four fundamental forces of physics, and by evolution, are seen to have given rise to the observable universe without any guidance from an overarching purpose. It also makes me aware, in a very humbling sense, of how insignificant I am, both in time and space. To experience this brief moment in the vast history of time, on this small rocky planet floating in the deep enormity of the universe, is an enormous privilege.
Discussing awe and wonder inevitably brings up the subject of beauty. It is a common idea among religious people that God must have created the world because of how beautiful it is. However beauty, like purpose and meaning, is not an intrinsic property of nature, but rather a human reaction to nature. It would thus make more sense for believers to say that God has manipulated our brains into feeling a sense of pleasure when viewing a sunset or a mountain range, not that he has created inherently beautiful sunsets and mountains. So why then did God cause us to see beauty in some things and not in others? Specifically, why is it mostly natural phenomena like colorful birds, rivers, mountain ranges, and sunsets that we find beautiful, instead of the things we usually spend more of our time looking at, like highways, parking lots, and office cubicles? There is no obvious supernatural answer to this puzzle, but biology gives a good hint at an answer, notably that the evolution of our sense of beauty occurred a long time ago when only natural phenomena surrounded us. The fact that certain natural features appear more beautiful than others is likely related to their importance to our survival at the time – consider the mountain stream or shade-giving tree – or perhaps their association with other pleasurable objects or activities (the reward of a hearty meal as the sun sets after a long day of hunting, perhaps). The details of what constitutes beauty are, of course, complicated questions that science continues to probe, and a better understanding of the brain will likely tell us more. But it is important to recognize that beauty, unlike color, shape, molecular composition, etc., is not an intrinsic quality of physical objects. In the same way meaning and purpose are not intrinsic properties of objects, but the concoctions of conscious brains.
While nonbelievers are sometimes seen as leading necessarily meaningless lives, the lives of believers have their own potential problems. Although I believe that humans, in the grand cosmic scheme of things, are relatively insignificant, I also believe that we can be enormously proud of our achievements and our capabilities. Many believers, though, have little regard for their own value or their intrinsic capacity for good. This is because they are taught that they are fundamentally sinful, and that any good thing they achieve is possible only because God enables them to do it. Any bad thing they do, on the other hand, is their own fault. Consider what C. S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity (Book III, Chapter 8): “The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object”. This is an immensely demoralizing, disempowering idea. To escape it is to experience the sense of freedom described by Robert Ingersoll in the above quote.
Perhaps one of the saddest aspects of religious belief is the way in which it actively encourages subjugation of one’s will to another being. In other aspects of life this phenomenon is frowned upon. People are generally encouraged to make their individual voice heard, and to be skeptical of stifling control, whether it be in the work place, the family, or a despotic government. Yet in many religions, it is regarded as a virtue to surrender one’s will entirely to a supernatural being who has never been seen, never heard, and whose influence in the world has never been properly verified. In some cases, the only relief people have from such subjugation is the fact that God’s will is unclear.
It is disturbing that in the case of Christianity, the supernatural being in question is the God of the Bible who, as already described, has a dubious moral record. There seems little justification in deferring one’s decision-making faculties to such an entity. Sadly, such surrender is, in reality, often made to the only tangible entities associated with God, namely leaders of religious institutions, who are free to interpret the will of God as they see fit, and to decree this will from an unassailable position of authority. The Pope is perhaps the archetypical example. Thankfully, there are positive signs recently that fewer people are accepting his self-imposed authority, an authority which is ultimately a mirage.
Although my personal history as a believer was, by and large, a very positive one, I was nonetheless under subjugation to the Christian god. Freedom from this subjugation may explain the immense sense of freedom I felt as I arrived at my current view of religion. Like the U.S. Statesman Robert Ingersoll, quoted above, I no longer felt shackled by the will of another being, I was no longer assailed with guilt arising from every action perceived to be against that will. Instead, I realized that I was my own master, free to make my way through the world.
An important point to make here is that the liberation of freedom does not imply a loss of responsibility. I’m reminded here of the Wizard of Oz. A central theme of this movie is the main characters’ attempt to gain an audience with the great and magical wizard in order to obtain various forms of healing. As it turns out, the supposedly powerful Oz is really an ordinary man generating an illusion of greatness through stage magic. In the end, the main characters do without magical healing. Instead, they come to see that the healing they sought is no longer needed: they have already healed themselves through their own actions. I see the transformation from religious belief to atheism as very much akin to Toto’s discovery of the very human Oz hiding behind a curtain as he operates his machinery. Like Oz, the great gods of the monotheistic traditions do not exist, and cannot perform miraculous healings. Like the characters of the movie, we must take responsibility for our own collective well being. This responsibility is identical to that which all leaders must adopt in order to lead effectively, because without God all of us are leaders. We are leaders with equal footing, and we are required to take responsibility for our actions and their consequences. There is no higher power that we can blame for our mistakes, no god whose will we can defer to as justification for our actions.
Coming of Age
My hope for the future is best described by a child-parent analogy. Every child eventually comes of age and becomes responsible for herself. She starts to decide her own fate, to guide her own way through life, and to depend less and less on her parents’ support. This, to me, is the positive development that is afoot today between humankind and religion. Slowly (and with some exceptions), the human race is coming to see that much of religious dogma and tradition is no longer necessary or that it is even counterproductive. Humankind is gradually shedding its dependency on the supposedly superior source of moral guidance that Bronze Age supernatural gods embody. People are, instead, realizing that the responsibility for good decision-making must come from within. The level of complexity and subtlety required to make fair moral decisions in today’s modern society cannot be provided by ancient religious texts. Furthermore, the resort to prayer for guidance on moral and emotional issues is, at worst, an abdication of responsibility, and appeals to the child’s sense of dependence on his/her parent. Humankind is now growing up and putting aside this dependency. My hope is that this process can proceed with humility and care.
In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins suggests that a life form comes of age when it finally understands how it originated, a sentiment that refers to the discovery of evolution. A further coming-of-age requirement, which I proffer as a final summation to this essay, and the reason for giving my blog its title, is that a mature life form must also understand that its moral pathway through life is entirely its own responsibility, and cannot be laid on the shoulders of another being, supernatural or not.
Many of the ideas in this essay series are not mine, but have been borrowed from the writings of others (including the author of Ebon Musings, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins), and from many discussions I have had online with both atheists and theists. I convey hearty thanks to all.