“Like if you agree there is a war on Religious Liberty in America.”
That came across my Facebook news feed this morning and forced me to stop and think. My first reaction was anger, followed closely by pity. The people sharing such things are the same ones proclaiming “Sharia Free Zones”, telling Muslims to go home, and practicing religious bigotry on a daily basis. They confuse “Religious Liberty” with promoting a single, nationally sanctioned religion.
What, specifically, is wrong with limiting the public influence of religion in the United States? Is there something fundamentally wrong with keeping the ideology of the Judeo-Christian faiths from intertwining with policy and public life? Inflammatory rhetoric seems to be a common mechanism by which some of the faithful try to defend the intertwining of religion and life. For example: “The decline of religion in schools caused the rise in prison populations,” “Ladies, your man can’t love you if he doesn’t love Jesus,” and “There are no Atheists in foxholes” are just a few of the common weapons used to correlate religion with order and goodness in society and life. Common clichés for sure, but what is the true message being sent?
Those people who choose to spread these misconceptions are not defending their religion but stepping on the beliefs of others, invalidating their personal ideologies in an attempt to make themselves seem better. The overwhelming majority of prisoners are Christian, Love is not based upon religion, and there are, in fact, Atheists in the military and in foxholes.
Can a man be good without God?
I was born an Atheist, as were all of us. Our religious affiliation came about, at least initially, because of the family we are born into. Parents impose their religious beliefs upon their children, hoping to instill the same values and ethics they have carried through life. We bring our children to church, temple, mosque or synagogue in an effort to teach them our own ways, to gain conformity to our ethos. Growing up, I never doubted the existence of an all loving and all powerful God. I knew it to be true because I was told it was so by my parents and grandparents. I carried that belief through high school and into college. It wasn’t until then that I began to think for myself, to become a “free thinker”, and doubt the stories I’d been told.
A new exposure to science began to unfold some of the mysteries of the Universe and to unravel the myths and legends contained within the Bible, those I’d been told anyway. I wasn’t suddenly a non-believer, since that just isn’t the way it works. I still believed in a God, but my faith had wavered. I thought surely the answers must lie somewhere! Of course, I did what a majority of people here do not do. I read the Bible. Cover to cover, page by page, chapter by chapter, verse by verse. I even read some of the footnotes.
I became an Atheist because I came to understand that the Bible was written by men, translated over and over, edited and revised, and sculpted to become the book widely circulated today. I recognized the hypocrisy of it all, and understood where it came from. The Bible is a book that attempts to explain things man was incapable of understanding a few thousand years ago, borrowing pieces and parts from other religions and beliefs in an attempt to assimilate people and control them through their devotion. I understood the Bible for what it is, an interesting read and a testament to the cultures and values of the men who contributed to writing it. It was not, in fact, a guide that should in any way teach me to live my life. I no longer feared Hell or looked for reward in Heaven. Instead, I understood one universal truth: We all have just this one life to live, and once it is over, we’ve lost our chance to make the most of it. There is no God with a master plan, and no amount of prayer will make a difference. We are all free to see the wonders of this world and the universe we are a part of. I controlled my life, as much as possible, without interference of some divine power or master plan. I am unshackled by beliefs that condemn curiosity and hinder progress. It is OK to experience awe in the beauty of the world AND to seek an explanation for it. If a difference is to be made, we must come together and make it.
I began to think differently, and the evolution of who I am truly began in my early twenties. Just as in the evolution of our species, it has been a long, slow process filled with mistakes and nearly disastrous missteps. The core of my being began to change, and I began to look at the world a little differently. I understood that perhaps I’d never truly had any faith in a supreme being, trusting my entire life to a master plan only he could understand. Instead, I had to develop faith, and to find out what was worth having faith.
First, I looked within myself. I had to develop the self-confidence to know that I’d be alright and that I was making the correct choices in life.
Second, I had to have faith in the people I chose to surround myself with, and that is the part of life I found most satisfying.
Given that there is no master plan, I realized that my choices had put me where I was and helped to dictate who I chose to include in my life. I had no idea what Humanism was, but I associated with values I’ve come to realize form the basis for that value system. When pressed, I simply explained to people that I needed no faith in a God to act as a crutch in my life. I accepted blame for my mistakes, praise for my successes, and believed in my fellow human beings and the inherent ability of our species to rise above our problems to move forward together.
The very definition of Humanism is as follows (from Merriam-Webster): a system of values and beliefs that is based on the idea that people are basically good and that problems can be solved using reason instead of religion.
I can look to life and the universe with awe and wonder, but I seek to understand rather than accept. When something new is introduced, or a scientific breakthrough announced, I am truly amazed at how far we’ve come from our origins, and still how far we have to go. Life is the result of such incredible coincidences, and the confluence of each of them resulted in us. I occasionally step back and attempt to comprehend the very scale of the universe and the time it has taken to develop and I cannot help but be awestruck. Looking at a clear sky at night and staring back in time at light reaching us now that originated before our beginnings millions of years ago. I need no God or divine power to see the wonder of life. I need only to look to the stars and know how unlikely we truly are.
I dislike religion for the harm it has done and continues to do in the world, but I do not dislike the followers of religion. I choose to help others because it is the right thing to do, and our capacity to empathize as a species is part of what sets us apart from others on this planet. I can love my wife and children just as fully as anyone else, perhaps more so because I don’t see them as things that need subjugating, as most religious texts espouse. I choose to believe that the key to moving forward in this world and bettering it for future generations lies in compassion and science. If society is to move beyond our petty differences and truly “save the world”, it will be done simply, by people just like you and I, a few acts of kindness at a time. The way will be filled with pitfalls and mistakes, for we are not yet perfect beings, but we will act more responsibly towards each other and our planet. I can’t change the world, but I can leave it a better place simply be improving my little corner of it.
Yes, I can be good without God. Can you, without the promise of Heaven or threat of Hell, do the same?
Photo: Hartwig HKD