SO Close, Yet…….A Perspective on Atheist Morality
First, let me say that I don’t speak for the Skeptics and Atheists of Durango group, let alone the wider community of non-religious people. I just bloviate here, trying to make sense of the din inside my head. The use of the word ‘church’ in Andy Braner’s blog as a descriptor for our plucky little band of Atheists got me to pondering about the actual difference/similarity between a Christian church and our small gaggle of non-believers.
A BRIEF HISTORY…
The Durango Atheists group is ecumenical in its disbelief: the membership doesn’t believe in gods of any type or description. This would include ‘God’, ‘gods’, ‘saints’, ‘demons’, ‘angels’, etc. The entire pantheon of heavenly beings is a non-starter for non-believers. However, beyond this common belief (that is, our non-belief) we Atheists otherwise run the gamut of political, social, educational human possibilities.
The group was formed several years ago by a few friends, who gathered on occasion to drink a beer and discuss topics of mutual interest. Non-belief in religion seemed to be a common thread and the gatherings became a regular thing. One day, John Peel of the Durango Herald wrote an article about the ‘atheists among us’. Suddenly dozens upon dozens of people crashed the group’s next meeting! I was one of those. We came because we were feeling isolated and marginalized by the politics and general social tenor of the Times. We were thrilled to find a ‘flock’ of intelligent, questioning, receptive and friendly people right here in our little town! Who’da thunk?
That we meet once a month (more often if you count the Book Club meetings and the special Member’s Talks) is the only similarity there is to a Christian ‘church’. Like the words ‘temple’, or ‘mosque’, ‘church’ implies a community drawn together for the worship of a Deity. Worshipping, hymns, prayers, devotions, missionaries…these are activities commonly associated with a ‘church’. While we recognize and envy the sense of community and ‘belonging’ experienced by Christian church-goers, we Atheists do none of those things that are the heartbeat of a thriving church community. We are a Social/Discussion Group, not a ‘church’. In addition to conversations, our leadership has arranged for us to sponsor a stretch of Hwy. 550 at Coal Bank Pass (look for, but don’t shoot at, our road sign!), we donate to food banks, participate in Project Merry Christmas (ironic, I know) and engage in other activities that enhance the communities in which we live.
Which brings me to the commonality that Christians and (most or, at least, many) Atheists share. Aside from the fact that Christians and Atheists alike flock together, we all also believe strongly that Humans matter. Human Life, the quality of that Life, what happens when that Life is over, our place in the Universe are all mutual concerns of both groups. So far, so good, right?. Our perspectives on these issues are widely divergent, however.
THAT WAS THEN…
Christians posit a Creator God who brought the Universe into existence with Human Beings at the center of it all. Human Beings: the Pinnacle…the ultimate, intentional Result and Beneficiary of Creation. From an early age, this perspective seemed arrogant to me. It’s a self-satisfied sentiment neatly summed up in Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel…” My view, as an Atheist, also starts with the notion that we Humans are pretty special. But not at all for the same reason as my Christian friends and extended family.
A review of History (especially the history of religion) reveals that all humans through the millennia viewed themselves as special, privileged beings. Unable to make sense of the threatening and lethal environments in which they found themselves, they intuited some version of a comforting narrative to the effect that everything must have been created just for them by a Creator. Not surprisingly, this supernatural being was usually imagined to take the form of the familiar power-brokers of our ancestor’s daily experience: an all-powerful King or all-wise Father. These memes stuck through the ages even as Humans began to explore and slowly comprehend the world around them with diminishing fear and superstition.
THIS IS NOW…
Today, our increasing knowledge of how the Universe evolved through unimaginable spans of time inevitably clashes with our ancient ancestors’ creation tales (the Book of Genesis, for example). Happily, this becomes an issue only when Christians choose to believe the stories in the Bible as literally true and demand the same from the rest of us! The insistence of teaching Bible stories as Science curriculum comes to mind. Sadly, an alarming number of Americans subscribe to this sort of belief.
And so, here in the midst of the developing story of our evolution, many of us have come to believe that we are not the privileged darlings of Creation after all. Instead, we (and everything else) appear to be the result of billions of years of convoluted and unguided evolution on many levels. It is literally almost incredible! Startling! It is also Awesome and Beautiful!
Our journey to consciousness began when our component parts were forged in the stellar furnaces of the first stars. Countless eons passed as those components were shaped by a succession of events that, today, has resulted in each of us becoming little bits of the Universe that have become self-aware. The Universe has come to life and is pondering itself through our eyes. It took 14 billion years to produce today’s world and it continues to evolve, unguided and with no promises. Humans are not angels at all, but are just part of the continuum of evolution!
We living humans are conscious for a tiny speck of time (relative to the 14+ billion years it took for us to be ‘created’) only to ultimately surrender our bodies back to the Universe that spawned them. Our blood will cool, our synapses will stop firing and our personalities will wink out. We will die, having enjoyed a spectacular, improbable few decades of Life. And that’s it. This is what the evidence, stripped of wishful thinking, tells us.
I realize that this life-perspective isn’t especially cheerful, but it is consistent with the evidence we have so far gathered. And I admit that this view was easier to digest when I was in my 20’s instead of my 60’s. No one wants to die, but I don’t fear it. Rather, I just regret (very much!) that I won’t be around to witness so many amazing events yet to come!
Not wishfully hoping for a better deal in an ‘after-life’, the Atheist focuses on the NOW, the only precious Life we have. Christians discount the Now and concentrate their efforts on an imagined after-life. I’ve seen this attitude in members of my own extended family. It seems to me that a lot of energy is wasted worrying about ‘salvation’ of souls (from what?) that could be spent improving the human condition in the here and now.
WHAT ABOUT ATHEIST MORALITY?
This naturalistic perspective leads me to view Humans, and all life, as incredibly precious and rare…worth nurturing and protecting. It values Human Life and all creatures for their own sake, not for the sake of pleasing some ethereal, vengeful spirit. This reality-based philosophy forms the foundation of my personal sense of morality as a human being who happens to not believe in the ancient gods. Instead, I strive to live a life which honors the unlikely chain events that has resulted in all of us who share this moment in time together. For me, this inevitably leads to feelings of awe and reverence for the Web-of-Life of which we are only a part. It gives me a sense of satisfaction, a feeling of knowing my actual place in the scheme of things.
After the infamous Ken Ham vs Bill Nye ‘debate’, audience members posed questions to visitors at the Answers in Genesis website by displaying hand-written messages on placards. One question, in particular, captured my attention. A young woman had written, “Are atheists afraid to live in a universe created by a loving God”? In response, I would say, “Certainly not! Show me the evidence! But now that you mention it, you seem to be afraid to live in a natural universe without God”.
No, Skeptics and Atheists are not ‘afraid’ of God…we just don’t see a good, evidence-based reason to worship such an obvious human construct. Over the years my relatives have become ‘born again’ and I have gradually become estranged from them. My evangelical extended family is fed up with life on Earth and is ready to be raptured from this miserable planet any day…they’ve been assuring me that they’ll go missing any day now for over four decades.
I have dealt with issues of Christianity and Atheism since I was confirmed as a ‘soldier of Christ’ at the age of 11. But that’s a topic for another 1000 words on another day!
Thanks for reading; I welcome your comments.