Thursday, March 15, 2012

Atheists learning from theists (and the other way around)

Most weekdays, I listen to the 10:00 AM broadcast of Q* on CBC Radio 1—or at least, most of it, as I generally have to leave the house before the show's over. I'm not sure I could call myself a fan of Q, but I certainly do like listening. I always enjoy Jian Ghomeshi's opening essay; I may not always agree with what he says (RoBu indeed!), but whether he's being silly or serious, what he says is usually interesting, and he often makes me think. (I must say that I particularly appreciated one essay last week which was about International Women's Day and the reasons why, despite the gains made by women in Canada and in the rest of the world, International Women's Day is still a sadly necessary thing.) And I certainly enjoy most of the interviews that are conducted on the show, as well as the debates, and especially Elvira Kurt's hilarious mostly-weekly inductions into the "Cultural Hall of Shame."

Last week, Ghomeshi interviewed Alain de Botton, an atheist who argues that atheists can learn some valuable lessons from various religions. Being a rather eclectically spiritual person with some agnostic tendencies and influences, I'd been looking forward to this interview since Ghomeshi first announced that he'd be conducting it.  It was far from disappointing, and de Botton made many good points.  These points, paraphrased, of course, are the ones that resonated the most with me:

*While we don't necessarily need religion to provide a guide to morality, most of the world's religions have put hundreds of years of thought into defining what's right and what's not, and sometimes it might be a good idea for atheists to pay attention to what they have to say, if only because they've had a very long time to figure out what works and what doesn't.

*People are ritualistic animals, and when it comes to major life moments like coming of age or getting married or the death of someone you love, there's really no one set atheist way to acknowledge these milestones, and without some kind of general idea of how to approach them, they can be a bit difficult to deal with properly.  Looking to how religions deal with them can be very helpful.

*Religions tend to be very good at creating communities, and modern secular society doesn't tend to be quite as good at that.  By and large, atheists need to learn how to connect more with each other and the world in general.

*Religious or not, we need reminders that humanity is not the Superior Pinnacle of All Existence.  Without the awareness that there's something greater than us in existence, whether it's nature itself or one or more supernatural entities, we humans can be egotistical little buggers.  That kind of thinking, the idea that the Earth is ours to exploit as we will because we're the most important species on it, is precisely what's gotten us into so much trouble.  Again, looking at how religion taps into this need for such an awareness can be very useful.

Before hearing this interview, I hadn't really considered that atheists might be able to learn much at all from those of us with religious or spiritual inclinations, though I do now think that it might be a good idea for theists and atheists to have considerably more honest dialogue (as opposed to the usual "YOU ARE WRONG BECAUSE I AM RIGHT" arguments, of course) between each other, because there really is a lot that we can learn from each other.  Of course, I don't necessarily mean that we can learn much from those atheists who consider themselves to be intellectually and morally superior to those of us who aren't atheists and aren't afraid to make total asses of themselves in proclaiming that superiority, of course, because all we really learn from them is that closed-mindedness doesn't limit itself to religion.  But the ones who aren't quite so abrasive and self-righteous—sometimes they do have some excellent ideas.

First, it's OK—and I'd even argue that it's necessary—to be skeptical even of your own beliefs.  Unless you're a member of a new religion that's just gotten its start in the past seventy years or so, chances are that you weren't around when the central stories and tenets of your religion were being formed and decided on.  Unless you're a character in Radio Free Babylon's Coffee with Jesus comic strips, an honest-to-goodness physical-world here-and-now face-to-face conversation with Jesus just isn't possible.  No living Muslim has met Mohammed.  No living Buddhist has met the Gautama Buddha.  And so on.  All we have are the stories that are told about them and the things that we are told that they said about life, the universe, and everything.  When belief gets in the way of compassion and logic, it needs to be re-evaluated.  I don't think that this takes away the beauty, meaningfulness, mystery, or comfort that so many people find in their religions; I think it can only add to them because it's a more active way of believing.  It's deciding what you'll accept and what you won't.  It's a matter of consciously choosing what you believe and being truly aware of why you believe it.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: when people feel threatened by the prospect of testing and examining their beliefs, it's often a sign that they're feeling insecure about those beliefs in the first place.  Untested faith cannot be strong.

Second, it's entirely possible to be a compassionate human being without belonging to any specific religion, or any religion at all, really.  Some people do not become better people when they subscribe to religious beliefs; some people become self-righteous, judgemental people who prefer to revel in their own salvation rather than do good works to help those in need, so arguably their religion hasn't done them (or anyone else) any favours.  Religions can and do offer useful moral guides, but they're all far from being the only source of ideas on the subject of morality.

Third, science is as flawed as the scientists who practice it, but it's the best tool that we have for understanding the natural world and our place in it.  To some people, the knowledge gained, tested, and either rejected or built upon, is the only way to understand ourselves and the world—and that's OK.**  The world isn't going to end just because somebody disagrees with you.  The fact that someone believes that science is the source of the only rational and correct kind of thinking does not in any way mean that your faith is diminished.  (Mind, your faith doesn't mean that you have to abandon any and all acceptance of the empirical evidence that science has provided to us about the world either, but that's another matter.)  Without science, the lives of millions of people would be quite a bit worse.  And science, if we're very, very lucky, can provide us with the means to deal with climate change and all that it is bringing with it.  So learn how to read about science, don't undervalue it, and don't ignore it just because acknowledging the knowledge that it brings might be inconvenient to your faith.

And last, even if there is no Heaven or Hell or Everlasting Life, even if the Gods are a delusion and strange phenomena nothing but hallucinations or stories we tell to children, that doesn't mean that humans are free to be assholes to each other or to deplete the planet's resources and pollute it into lifelessness.  If this really is the only shot we get at life (or even if it isn't), we ought to do each other, and future generations of people, the favour of doing our best to leave this world even just a little better than it was when we arrived.

It is, after all, the right, and maybe even the logical, thing to do.

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*Even if you don't listen to CBC Radio or any of the American radio stations on which Q airs, you may have heard of this show and its host before because of Billy Bob Thornton's extremely rude and awkward behaviour during an interview that Ghomeshi conducted with him and his band, the Boxmasters, in 2009.

**Of course, for some people, scientific knowledge is not the only way to understand ourselves and the world, and that's also OK. True to form, I've decided that the best way for me to know and experience the world is through a middle way: a mix of scientific and spiritual exploration, because I have a deep appreciation for science and technology, but I find that I have questions that can't always be answered or even tested entirely through the scientific method. Even then it helps, and I don't necessarily cling to the idea of the existence of Gods and Goddesses—as I said, I do find myself influenced a little by agnosticism—but I also find that sometimes I nonetheless need to consider what the writers of The X-Files sometimes referred to as "more extreme possibilities," even if I may ultimately end up rejecting those possibilities.

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