The media recently has been rich in articles offering atheists strategies to use when confronted by people of religion asking stupid questions. Questions like: if you don’t believe in God, what’s stopping you from doing any old damn immoral thing that you feel like doing? I think that this question alone is sufficient example of the level of stupidity that we’re talking about.
For this question to appear in our discourse at all, the situation requires a sufficient number of people who have given up on the idea of God, and an equally sufficient number of people who are holding on to the concept of God for dear life in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary.
The world is now full of people who have more or less given up on the need for God in their lives. On the “more” side, there are those who assert a strong disinclination to agree with the proposition that God exists at all. Note the careful formulation of the previous sentence. Phrasing that concept as a belief that there is no God leads immediately to specious arguments from the religious. It’s more of a disbelief, actually, a failure to believe in God. Those whose atheism is strong simply find no evidence at all, no evidence that is either compelling, middling, or even slightly persuasive, no evidence to support the proposition that there is a God.
On the “less” side are those people who have simply given up the Hoary Head, the Angry Old Man, the Old Man at the Desk. People who have soured on the thousands of competing versions of God, each supported by a venal earthly religion seeking to monopolize access to the good-will of God, to God’s favor, to God’s grace. Each with its own “revealed text,” its own written book of stories and rules, written down by self-interested human beings hundreds or thousands of years ago, amid feverish claims that the words were dictated by the writers’ preferred version of the True God. These “less” believers are still drawn by the promise of a “higher power” of some kind, but their skepticism over the various administrations of religion has driven them to seek that higher power directly and privately. They feel no need to discuss it with others or to see it written down. They are comfortable with knowing what they know.
What is being lost here is not God, it is belief. No one alive or who has existed in the entire history of humanity can prove that there is now or ever was a God. The entire thing is a fiction based solely on belief. My concise Oxford defines belief as: an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof. Let’s add, “and the persuasion of self-interested others.” We’ve lost the belief and the peer pressure.
Language Note: I’ve been referring to God as “God.” I’ve gone back and forth on this point over the years. My current practice is to use “God” when the subject is monotheism, one supreme, omniscient super-being. When the subject is polytheism, where the super-beings become numerous, I am content to call them gods.
My own feelings on the subject have always been close to the surface of this blog. I see the complete absence of evidence regarding God not only as an absence of evidence that God exists, but also a lack of evidence that God does not exist. I suffer from a lack of information on which it would be possible to form a strong opinion either way. And I’m comfortable with that. I will live my own life the best way that I know how, loving my fellow man and trying to be helpful when I can, and if there be a judgment at the end of it all, I’ll take my chances.
The believers often deploy an argument for the existence of God that I find comically ineffective. They suggest that when one asks all of the “why” questions and all of the “how” questions about the universe and everything in it the point will inevitably be reached where there is no possible answer but God. Even, they say, if the Big Bang was a real thing, where did the singularity come from? All backwards seeking questions must lead back to a question that cannot be answered, and that, according to these religious adherents, must be God. But God is a leap of faith whether you arrive at God early or late in such arguments; the existence of God is unsupported by evidence or facts either way. So it’s about the same leap either way. I am completely content to say simply, “I don’t know.”
And all of the scientists who are in the mood to be honest would give the same answer. They’ve been learning an awful lot for a couple of hundred years now, and they are arriving at some consensus and certainty about things like multiple universes and string theory and a lot of other things that seem to the rest of us only a short step away from magic. They talk a good game now about the sub-atomic world and quantum theory, and cosmology, but the more courageous among them would still admit that there are many questions to which they have no answers as yet. For their own sake, I hope that they are as comfortable with that uncertainty as I am, because that’s where they will be living for at least another thousand years or more. The more that they can understand and prove mathematically, the more unanswered questions they discover. That tracing back series of questions, not to mention the digging down questions, will be confounding human beings for many eons to come.
In the Meantime
Without God to use as a crutch in this ignorance, what, as the question goes, is to prevent immorality and societal chaos? The answer, of course, is our own better natures.
It sounds like a joke, I know, but you must admit that human nature is a very complex thing. We are neither all good, nor all bad. We are a strange mixture of every possible decision in response to any conceivable question.
Putting aside for a moment the upheaval of our current world situation, and the institutionalized violence, and the bottomless oceans of greed and self-interest, and the apparent disinterest in even the concept of the truth, you are left with the full array of emotions and predispositions that represent what is good in mankind. We do care about each other; we do help each other; we tend to deal fairly with one another. It is important to realize that we do not act this way out of altruism, but rather out of our truest self-interest. If things were otherwise, life would not be worth living. Indeed, without these good behaviors, we would all have killed each other a long time ago. A nation of Cains could never have thrived. (Recall your Bible: Cain was the murderous brother.)
Man, in his earliest versions, made self-interested decisions to cooperate and place great importance in the well-being of the group. Those early populations were under huge stresses that we can only guess at today. They were in constant danger from predators, sickness, accidents, uncertainties of every kind, and probably from other bands of humans that might have been like them but who might have been from a different branch of our kind. The situation did not lend itself to “every man for himself.”
My official feeling for almost all of the world’s religions is negative. I will admit that I have arrived at an undiluted contempt for all supernatural religions. Here on the blog I have compared supernatural, belief-based religions to the belief in ghosts. That leaves most religions out in the intellectual cold. I only know of one religion where supernaturalism is almost entirely absent. I refer to the branch of Buddhism that is practiced in Thailand. That would be Teravada Buddhism. (“terawat,” not like the electrical term, in this word the R is trilled in the Spanish style.) This branch of Buddhism prevails not only in Thailand, but also in Sri Lanka, Burma, Lao, and Cambodia. Also called “Southern Buddhism,” the Teravada branch is delightfully naturalistic. Buddha was a man, a great teacher, and the practice of this religion is focused on self-development and treating others fairly and well. There is a focus on meditation for self-improvement. It’s a roadmap to greater harmony in our private lives and in our communities, without any interference from supernatural entities and without the promise of any unknown supernatural reward.
Why not support Buddhism in general? I will leave it to you to study all of the branches of Buddhism. Is Buddhism even a religion? Many branches are clearly organized along religious lines, with plenty of supernatural elements in their doctrines and in their organizations. Others are light on the supernatural but also light on the practical advice for day to day life. The Teravada style seems to be the one most concentrated on improving people’s lives while they are alive. There’s no need to adopt any particular religion, however, no need to subscribe to any existing set of suggestions. No need to meditate, or work by any sort of prescribed rules. No need to adopt a schedule of holidays. You can do it on your own. You can simply be a good person.
The Natural Religion
It’s not like there’s any mystery to it. It’s a simple matter of right and wrong. We all know right from wrong, don’t we? My knowledge of right and wrong was not taught to me as a child. That much is certain, since I was raised by wolves who taught me only that size and strength were the only levers of power in the world. I received a great deal of religious training, but that just seemed to reinforce the use of coercion and physical strength that I was learning at home. I intuited, upon careful observation, that treating people well and never imposing my will on others was a better way to go. To be fair, I was probably just trying to avoid a few beatings by acting that way. After the threat of beatings retreated, I began to understand that treating people fairly and decently was a more sustainable path for a harmonious life. That path represented order, and no sane person embraces chaos.
Those religious fanatics who ask us why, in the absence of God, do we refrain from doing terrible things, are bringing a terrible indictment on themselves and their kind: if your only reason for not raping women and killing your enemies is that an imaginary supernatural entity has forbidden it, then you are an immediate danger to yourself and others and should be delivered to an institution with experience in treating such pathologies.
It’s very simple. I don’t approve of rules in general, but the rules in Teravada Buddhism are easy to understand and obviously worthy of being followed. There are only three:
1. Do good things;
2. Don’t do bad things; and
3. Try to improve yourself.
Who could disagree with that?
I was idly thinking recently about what kind of new ethical/spiritual framework should replace old-school organized religion, which is obviously in a death spiral as we speak. I made some notes:
*Try to leave people more comfortable than you found them;
*Offer gratuitous encouragement to people who appear nervous;
*Build self-confidence in the people that you know, brick by brick;
*Think before you speak. If you are at all unsure of the effect of what you plan to say, think three times before speaking;
*You may repeat compliments almost without limit;
*If you must deliver information that is not general knowledge, don’t be obnoxious about it;
*Make your game-face a nice, Mona Lisa/Mr. Rogers smile;
*Be a good guest, whether you are in someone’s home or in someone else’s country;
*Treat others like you would like to be treated, NOT like they treat you. (This is a correction of a common misapprehension.)
These were just good common-sense aphorisms off of the top of my head, but they did start to sound familiar before long. They turn out to sound a lot like those sutras that Buddhist monks are chanting in a dead language up at the temple. There is a great reason for this. Whether you are speaking about now, or 2,500 years ago in Mr. Buddha’s heyday, or even in the way-back, there is no mystery about how we should treat each other. Right is still right, and wrong is still wrong. Do the right things; don’t do the wrong things. How fucking hard was that?
Way too hard for a lot of people these days, evidently.