7.28.2011

Ask A Humanist, Vol 6: Isn't It Sad To Live Without Faith?

(Part 6 of an ongoing, meandering stream of undefined scope.)

Sad Panda has no religion.
Many people of faith have a hard time understanding what it's like to live without religion. On many occasions, I have heard believers express pity. "That's sad," they might say, about someone who does not engage in a relationship with a deity.

Many find it inconceivable that someone could find happiness without God and everything that accompanies belief in God: the promise of eternal life, the assurance that events in our lives are occurring in accordance with God's plan, and the feeling that an all-knowing, loving entity is looking over us and protecting us. Certainly, they think, without these assurances, life would be joyless, meaningless, and cold.

Much of these insinuations are due to misunderstandings about the nature of non-belief. There is a common misconception held by the religious in which non-theists are viewed as people who have known God, but have rejected him due to anger or impatience. Another common misconception is that non-theists rejected God due to the hypocrisy often found in organized religion.

I can assure you that the relationship between most non-theists and God is nothing like a relationship between two long-time friends that has soured. In this latter scenario, these former friends still exist and go about their lives, apart from each other. Non-theists, by and large, either never entertained the idea of a supernatural being, or were brought up religious and later realized they couldn't entertain with honesty the idea of a supernatural being. God, to most non-theists, is simply not part of the fabric of their reality.

You're doing it wrong.
The best way for a believer to understand a non-theist's relationship with God is by reflecting upon their own relationship with, say, Zeus. It would be silly to assume that religious people lead sad lives because they do not have a relationship with Zeus. They simply don't go about their life with Zeus informing their daily actions or thoughts. As difficult as it may seem for the religious to view the Zeus example as a parallel, it is as accurate as any. Most non-theists simply characterize current religions as an extension of a religious lineage that contains Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, and countless others. A Christian's atheism towards Mithra is not much different than the non-theist's atheism towards the Abrahamic God.

Even if the believer understands a non-theist's relationship with religion, it does not explain why a lack of religious faith is not accompanied by feelings of sadness and emptiness. While letting go of religion can certainly be an emotional endeavor (any time we no longer entertain a long-held belief there is emotional fallout), ultimately it can be one of the most liberating experiences one can imagine.

A few of the ways in which letting go of religion has led to happier, more fulfilling lives for many non-believers:

This life has to be enough: When we come to terms with the fact that there is no evidence for an afterlife, we can focus on the limited time we have in this life. When we accept that our time is finite, we place a higher value on every minute that we have. When we let go of the concept of final judgment, each decision we make must be based on the effects our actions have on this life, on the lives of our fellow humans, and on our environment. We are lucky to be alive, and it is this realization that fills us with wonder, joy, curiosity, and gratefulness. The world is filled with so much beauty and joy that none of us will be able to experience even a fraction of its offerings in our lifetime. While non-believers are not without a sense of gratitude, we choose to spend our days focused on this life and making the most of it. Our acknowledgment of our finite existence is not a source of sadness.  It is a reminder that each day is a gift.

Death: While death will always be a source of anxiety and sadness, the longing associated with separation from our loved ones is less painful when we no longer view it as a separation. When we reject the human constructs of heaven and the afterlife, we can accept that the deceased are not aching with longing, regret, or separation. In fact, they are not feeling anything at all. 150 years of neuroscience has taught us that consciousness, memory, thought, and any sense of self whatsoever require a physical brain with electrical impulses and biochemical activities occurring in and between our neural cells. When a loved one dies, they simply cease being, period. Sure, the end of life is never a jovial affair, but to remove the supernatural concept of a reunion in the afterlife is to remove the longing and heartache that accompanies this anticipation. We also remove any and all anxiety associated with our afterlife destination when we reject the constructs of heaven and hell.  Our 'afterlife' is achieved by living a life that reverberates beyond our death -- affecting lives still being lived, and lives that have yet to be lived. Our legacy is our afterlife. We live on through those we have affected, through the changes that we have helped bring about (good or bad), and through the values and wisdom that we impart on those we leave behind. When we understand that our legacy is our afterlife, we are driven to ensure that the lives we lead resonate beyond our deaths, and we take time to explore, along with our families and friends, the legacies of those who have gone before us.

A life free of metaphysical baggage: In societies steeped in religious ideology, it seems even the most banal occurrences are fraught with metaphysical baggage. Humanists reject the assignment of meaning to coincidences, statistical anomalies, natural occurrences, and random events. When someone overcomes a lethal form of cancer, it's not a miracle. This does not make it any less remarkable, but if we must credit anyone or anything, we should credit a complex constellation of factors, including modern medicine, human perseverance, environmental factors, diet, genetics, the support of medical staff and loved ones, and the evolved, complex inner workings of the human body. When a catastrophic earthquake causes death and destruction to a region of the world, it is not divine retribution. It is the unfortunate result of sufficient stored elastic strain energy driving fracture propagation along a fault plane.  Certainly, events in our lives can be meaningful -- any event can awaken us to larger truths -- but it is silly to assign metaphysical meaning to things which, however remarkable, fall within the confines of the laws of nature.  This understanding helps to shed the anxiety that accompanies tragedies both personal ('Is God punishing me?'), and universal ('Are these catastrophes a sign of the End Times?').

Being good for goodness' sake: When we let go of religion, we don't fear that we will start cheating, stealing, and killing. Why? Because cheating, stealing, and killing tend to result in being rejected by our communities -- not because this behavior is sinful (sin, yet another human construct steeped in the supernatural), but because it threatens the well-being of others, and threatens the cohesiveness of society. This has been the case for as long as humans have lived in groups. Our morality evolved -- it was not handed down to us by God -- and it predates monotheism. As societies evolved from tribes to villages to towns and nations, our morality became the basis for many of our laws.  Religion certainly has influenced many of our laws, but many of the laws which crossed over from religious law have no bearing on actual morality (blue laws, for example, are rooted in the concept of the Sabbath). Non-believers are no more inclined to commit crimes than the religious.  In fact, many non-believers are more ethical and compassionate than the religious, especially those who use religion to justify their actions (see: LGBT equality, hate crimes, genocide). We take great care to ensure that our actions cause no harm to others, even if that harm is condoned by a religious text.  In other words, humans don't need God to be good.  We have evolved the capacity for empathy and compassion. Humans are so adept at knowing what is wrong and what is right that we can look at behavior condoned by scripture and conclude that it is immoral.  When we do harm, we feel bad. (We evolved the capacity for empathy.) When we act with the intention of reducing suffering, we have done good, and we feel good.

Embrace the unknown: Throughout history, religion has been used to explain the unexplainable. As we gained knowledge about the natural world, many religious explanations were no longer necessary. We no longer use religion to explain earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, thunder, rain, droughts, floods, winds, or fertility, as we did long ago. And as we learn more about the mind, the earth, and the cosmos, it is inevitable that we will use religion to explain less and less. Non-theists embrace the fact that it's okay to not have an explanation for the mysteries of life and of the cosmos. We are confident that, although perhaps not in our lifetime, science will answer most of these mysteries. Because we don't yet understand does not mean we must assign a supernatural explanation. We remember that even thunder once had a supernatural explanation. Hundreds of years from now many of our current supernatural explanations may seem as silly as Zeus' thunderbolts.  Most non-theists are perfectly fine accepting the unknown. It does not make us uneasy to not have the answers.  It adds to the beauty and wonder of the cosmos, and there is great joy that accompanies this sense of awe.

We give our lives meaning: Many believers think that a life without God has no meaning, no purpose. They may say, "If we just simply evolved over millions of years with no thinking, caring, omniscient being watching over us and guiding us, then life is meaningless."  This couldn't be further from the truth. We must cultivate meaning and purpose through our actions and their effects on the world around us.  No one is born with a purpose, other than to survive. Purpose and meaning are products of our upbringing, our experiences, our wants and desires, and our principles. We have our entire lives to cultivate meaning. This is a gift of empowerment capable of providing a lifelong sense of fulfillment. But that is up to us.

Life, by its very nature, provides a broad spectrum of experiences. None of us are immune to pain or suffering.  All of us will feel great pleasure and joy. Religion comes with no guarantee that we will experience any more, or less of either extreme (neither does a life lived without religion.)  While religion certainly does provide many of its adherents great comfort, those who live without religion find comfort in ways that may not be apparent to those who can't envision life without God.  We find comfort in the understanding that we share an ancestor with every living thing on earth. We find joy in nature, in the beauty of music and art, and in the possibilities afforded by our own (highly improbable) existence. We find meaning in our journey, in which we aspire to better the world for our descendants, so that they may have even greater possibilities than we have been afforded.



More 'Ask a Humanist' entries...



4 comments:

  1. I just stopped believing in All Supernatural beings around the same time like Santa, God, The Easter Bunny, Werewolves, The Tooth Fairy etc... We are ingrained by our families from birth to have similar if not same beliefs as our elders whether if be favorite sports team or holy deity. Only the young who truly think and experience things for themselves ever seem to break from family beliefs. I personally believe that religion is the one thing that has slowed progress down the most. We would have probably been in space or colonizing other planets by now if religion hadn't separated or killed some of the greatest minds that we as the human race has ever had.

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  2. As a "practicing" non theist, I'm continually amazed by the assumption that I (or those like me) have no moral compass or somehow must be ethically flawed. I wouldn't pigeonhole myself as a Humanist but I do believe people are generally good and that whatever beliefs it takes for you get through the day is OK as long as it does not impinge on me. Religion is a tool to control mindshare and manipulate those too weak to critically asses their place in the real world.

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  3. I renounced my faith a mere four months ago. This post explains EXACTLY how I feel and what the transition has been like for me. Finding like-minded individuals is difficult for those of us who are still nervous about "coming out". I happened upon your blog quite by accident but have found it to be an indispensable resource as I try to sort out my new secular life. Thank you.

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  4. Thank you for the very kind words. Part of the reason I am writing these posts is because when I was coming to terms with my own 'coming out' there weren't many resources out there that addressed some of the more emotional aspects of leaving religion behind, or that dealt with the ways in which non-belief affects everyday life (especially here in the Bible belt). If you haven't checked it out, I highly recommend Julia Sweeney's 'Letting Go of God' (it's available on DVD, and as an audiobook). Also any of the Dale McGowan books, if you happen to have children (or plan to have children). Even if you don't, they're great and have a lot to offer. Take care!

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