Friday, November 13, 2009

If You Don’t Have Faith, Then What Do You Believe In?

Recently a Christian asked me, “If you don’t have Faith, then what do you believe in?”
She was earnest, and so I replied earnestly:
               I believe in goodness, for which without there could not be kindness. I believe in lending a helping hand to our fellow Homo sapiens, as well as to animal kind. I believe in equality and the active protest of inequality wherever it should rear its ugly head. I believe in peace, freedom, love and the pursuit of happiness. I believe these are the inalienable rights of every person regardless of age, gender, or race.

I believe in human rights, the right for people to choose who they want to love and how they go about expressing that love. I believe in the right for gays to marry and for women to go unveiled. I believe we have the right to take a stand against promoters of dangerous ideologies as well as actively support those ideologies which will enlighten the human race and liberate us from the shackles of antiquated and outmoded belief systems. I believe in diplomacy. I believe in triumphing over cruelty and iniquity, stupidity and ignorance.

I believe in progress, in science, and in the heuristic quest for answers. I believe being erudite trumps being lazy. I believe in patience and in formulating a thought carefully before voicing an opinion. I believe in gaining an educated opinion about somebody else’s cherished beliefs before criticizing it. I believe in a vast expanding universe so magnificent that when put into perspective I am infinitesimally un-important. But I don’t think this is nihilist or defeatist, I find it humbling, even awe-inspiring. I believe not all questions need answers and not all answers require deeply profound inquiries.

I believe in the innate good of humanity, and the struggle to become more than just an animal. I believe we have the capability to transcend out primitive origins. I believe in free thinking. I believe respect must be earned, not doled out because it is simply expected. I believe in striving to better myself and do good. I believe in human solidarity and the eternal struggle against our flawed nature to improve ourselves to the point where pain and suffering are minimal. I believe these things are all achievable, and that with some effort and hard work, we can move towards unheard of echelons of human moral goodness. I believe that all this is true even without the added concept of God.

All these, which I call appreciations, can be understood and achieved without the idea of God.
She then countered with the question, “Well, what are your moral guides then? What are your secular ‘Ten Commandments’? How do you know right from wrong?” Instead of correcting her on the nature of the Ten Commandments (most of which are unethical, if not erroneous, injunctions instead of moral edicts—but that’s a debate for another time) I simply informed that I derive my morality from the accumulative appreciations I have accrued, and that it’s not just one set of beliefs I prescribe to, but an unlimited and never ending sea of ideas, thoughts, principles.  Each of these key appreciations which make up my “belief,” subsequently, compound to form a larger foundation for morality than any holy book could ever provide. And the tools of reason and my moral sense (call it my conscience if you will) help aid me to decipher the wisdom, discerning the excellence from the genuinely rubbish, simultaneously finding merit in the best while disregarding the worst.

Accordingly, by a process of elimination, and proven methods of critical thinking, I allow myself to step back and examine each appreciation in detail finding a common strand of wisdom interwoven into their very fabric, their significance enhance by the awareness of their internal congruity, and with each increasing appreciation their total value and sophistication also increases, as does my benefit from them. For each moral improvement helps me advance morally.
All this sounded fine to her, but she couldn’t quite believe that the myriad of random philosophies floating in my head could come out as anything other than sound bites of sophist opinion. I said I would agree with such a statement, if and only if, I was immoral and an imbecile to begin with, and by my own unfortunate circumstances of being held ransom to my own naïveté, retarded by ignorance, could not find the moral sense enough to unravel the greater mysteries. Only an automaton would be calculating probabilities of the raw data without consideration of the implications regardless of the negative harm it might cause. Nor am I a moral relativist. I believe there is good and there is bad, and what’s more, that we can know the difference. But I am not a cold soulless robot, I reminded her. I am an Atheist, and so too a skeptic, and I could never put my faith into something I knew to be blatantly untrue.

(Note: I do not mean to say I "know for certain" that God does not exist. I think with our current understanding it is impossible to assume God exists or not, and so I remain agnostic on whether such a supreme being exists or could even exist, in which case I  must agree with Albert Einstein who properly stated, “I cannot prove to you that there is no personal God, but if I were to speak of him I would be a liar.” However, when a person says I believe in a specific type of God, i.e. the God of Christianity, which is beyond mere personal knowing and becomes an individualized sort of God--reflected in the cultures which first conceived and championed it, I think this sort of man-made God is disprovable and can be invalidated along with the religious claims which like to accompany it.)

Which is to say, I think,  and I know this much, I’m not a cast iron mechanical contraption without a heart. The Tin Man was without a heart, but as it turned out, he had an innate moral sense all along. We don't need the illusion of God, or some  magical man behind the curtain posing as one, to tell us such things; we can realize them on our own.

I’m a human being, flawed, sure, but whatever else I may be I choose to strive toward goodness, not because I think that it is the ultimate final destination, but because I think that it’s a perfectly fine goal worth achieving simply for all the good it will do us.  And that's the kind of person I choose to be.

She told me that from her perspective the thing which makes me human—or which gives me my humanity—is the saving grace of God. For her, I suppose, God is that final destination. I offered, give me something worth believing in, and I might agree with you—but as a skeptic I’m not just going to take your word for it. As far as I can tell, I told her, the case seems to be the opposite. We are good for goodness sake, regardless of whether or not God exists at all. She demanded I prove such a proclamation of faith by picking the noblest appreciations I could think of which didn’t have anything to do with her notion of God. And although I knew that whatever I gave her she would inevitably set about trying to reconcile whatever secular advice I told her and connect it back to her devotional convictions, in effect reinterpreting them not according to their own worth, but according to the values she perceived through the lens of her faith, only by coming into contact with the issues first hand could she glimpse my understanding of them. In due course, I came down to three appreciations which mean the most to me personally. They are as follows:
Appreciations for Living a Good Life: Which I Try to Follow
1)      Albert Einstein’s remark: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
2)      Kant’s maxim: “Dare to Know.”
3)      Thomas Paine’s espousal: “My religion is to do good.”
In summary, from these appreciations I derived these three reasonable conclusions: 1) Never lose your sense of wonder, 2) always seek knowledge and the truth, and last but not least, 3) always do good.
Whether or not God is real, these are real appreciations I can live by, and they can enhance my life. There is no reason to suppose any supernatural entity or divine being in order for me to glean these morsels of wisdom or put them into practice. Now multiply these appreciations by a hundred fold, and then apply them in a similar fashion, and every one of us has the capacity, indeed, the capability of living a respectably moral and ethical life without God. At any rate, our conversation continued in depth, neither of us trying to convince the other of their belief’s supremacy, neither of us trying to prove our argument superior, but rather, we respectfully listened to what each other had to say and although we did not change the other person’s mind, we agreed to disagree. In other words, we did get to understand each other’s thinking better. And, I dare say, that’s what counted the most.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist