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Why Not Naturalism Instead of Atheism?

January 6, 2013

In the wake of one of the most horrible tragedies in recent memory – the Newtown school shooting – author Susan Jacoby argues in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times that

We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for…

Just to be clear: I am an atheist; and I agree that, if we nonbelievers are ever to feel “at home” in our own country, then we need to provide a viable alternative to faith-based religion. There are signs that the hegemony historically enjoyed by Christianity in America is slowly but steadily crumbling (e.g., millennials turning away from fundamentalist faith), and nothing could make me happier. But I believe there may be insurmountable problems with trying to promote the term “atheism” as a counterpoint and ultimately a replacement for a traditionally religious worldview.

We nonbelievers have to admit to ourselves that “atheism” is a dirty word in our culture. I wish it wasn’t, but it is. I understand the desire to change that perception, but I think letting it go in order to promote and achieve the kind of world we want to live in is more valuable.

Trying to convince or persuade religious believers that “atheism” is innocuous, or even positive, is a losing battle, psychologically-speaking. Having been finally extricated from a fundamentalist Christian milieu myself in my twenties (I’m now 40), I know the emotional revulsion or sense of taboo that word can elicit in a believer.

So, promoting things like A+ and Ethical Atheism, while clever and well-intentioned, is misguided and a waste of valuable time and energy. Why not promote “naturalism” instead? Michael Nugent writes in the above-referenced manifesto, “Promoting atheism over supernaturalism”; but the opposite of “supernaturalism” is “naturalism” – so why not say so?

I’m aware that the term “naturalism” may carry connotations of “materialism” and “physicalism”; but who besides academic religious believers would make those connections? And which term, atheism or naturalism, would the average believer on the street respond to with more negativity?

I realize that this is a plea that will most likely fall on deaf ears. But take a moment to consider the work of The Center for Naturalism, and listen to the description of “naturalism”:

The naturalist understands not only that we are not exceptions to natural laws, but that we don’t need to be in order to secure any central value (freedom, human rights, morality, moral responsibility) or capacity (reason, empathy, ingenuity, originality). We can positively affirm and celebrate the fact that nature is enough. Indeed, the realization that we are fully natural creatures has profoundly positive effects, increasing our sense of connection to the world and others, fostering tolerance, compassion and humility, and giving us greater control over our circumstances. This realization supports a progressive and effective engagement with the human condition in all its dimensions. So we can justly call it worldview naturalism: an overarching cognitive, ethical and existential framework that serves the same function as supernatural worldviews, but without trafficking in illusions. By staying true to science, our most reliable means of representing reality, naturalists find themselves at home in the cosmos, astonished at the sheer scope and complexity of the natural world, and grateful for the chance to participate in the grand project of nature coming to know herself.

I believe that presenting atheism/secularism in these terms will do far more in achieving our shared values and goals.

A Fistful of Sand

December 30, 2012

What makes a man
a man? – not distinct from
woman, but a person
with its singular plan,
a sketch or diagram
revealing a fervent yen.

Can he just open up
a can, and thereupon
hold his self entirely in
his own hand, and believe
what’s in his palm
must be one, and whole,
and sound?

Yet even as his fingers close
in a gesture of control,
his calm turns suddenly
into alarm, as the insight
hits him with a soul-splintering
pang: what he thought was all
of a piece turns out to be
merely a fistful of sand.

On Meditating

December 22, 2012

Early this morning, before dawn, I had the impulse to meditate, after an almost 4 year hiatus. I’m not exactly sure why I decided to do it this morning; but I have been thinking about meditation for the past couple weeks.

The kind of meditation I used to do is mindfulness of breathing, where I would sit or lie comfortably in a comfortable, largely distraction-free place, and focus my attention solely on my exhalations. I would simply count each exhalation up to 4, and then start over from 1.

It’s still astonishing to me, this overwhelming deluge of thoughts, mental images, aural perceptions and physical sensations every time I attempt this meditation; and how easily it is to get caught up in and carried away by even the most feeble stream of consciousness, without even realizing it.

To me, meditation (especially mindfulness meditation) is a simple yet rigorous (and difficult!) means for strengthening one’s will. Each of us has within us multiple “streams” of will, or drives, if you like to call them that; our “will” is not the well-defined, unified monad we normally believe it to be. An exercise as simple as mindfulness of breathing puts the lie to that.

Although most Western meditators have traditionally utilized meditation for its physiological benefits – which is why I first began to practice it – I have come to see it as a means to educate our wills, to fashion a master will that can bring together the disparate drives that make up the majority of our conscious experience and, as the Existentialists might say, to truly create ourselves. Even without contra-causal free will, we can still take responsibility for who we become via this education of our will.

Educating our wills in this way can accomplish what University of Warwick philosopher Keith Ansell Pearson noted about Nietzsche’s attitude toward fate:

…people who believe in fate are “distinguished by force and strength of will,” whilst those who let things happen, “allow themselves, in a degrading manner, to be presided over by circumstances.”

In other words, instead of allowing ourselves, through ignorance, to be carried away by each seamlessly successive stream of will during every waking moment of our lives, and thus “presided over by circumstances,” we can teach ourselves to be aware of these streams, and our variegated nature; and what’s more, we can cultivate a stronger, more unified will that enables us to create ourselves and take responsibility for our own destinies.

It’s an ennobling, Übermensch-kind of approach to life.

What is Holy

December 9, 2012

If we’ve lived right,
then in life
as in art
the part is
the whole. In-between
our finest
hour and our
closing finale,
every treacherous step
in doubtful territory,
each day, each
moment is
final and holy.

Enter the Serpent

December 3, 2012

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Today’s American evangelicals fail to realize just how troublesome the Genesis account is for their faith. Aside from the classical myth-like motif of a talking snake, and the problem of who recorded this dialogue in the garden, and the discrepancy with our scientific understanding of how the world came to be, there are other questions that are just crying out to be asked.

These questions either aren’t asked, or they are glossed over with an approved set of talking points. The most common talking point is: God created human beings with free will so that we would choose to love Him freely. I can certainly understand the appeal of a creature choosing to love you, as opposed to a mere robot who is programmed to love you, who is incapable of not loving you. A man appreciates the fact that, of all the other eligible men out there, a woman chose to love and marry him. That mean she’s evaluated the options and has decided that he is most valuable to her. She is willing to forgo other options in order to be with him.

Most if not all evangelicals stop at this point: it’s obvious we have the kind of free will they imagine God gave us. But let’s put aside the fact that it’s also “obvious” that the sun orbits the Earth. So, for the sake of argument, I’ll agree on this point. I agree that human beings have the capability to weigh options and voluntarily choose what they feel they value most. But most evangelicals also approve of the flip side of God’s design; that is, eternal punishment for making the wrong choice.

Let’s recap for a moment: God created everything, including human beings, the crafty serpent, and two potentially catastrophic trees; God also chose to put these people, the wily serpent, and the two most important trees ever created all in the same place; and God gave humans the ability to freely choose to disobey commands. That’s quite a powder keg. Let all that sink in for a moment.

The facts above should lead you to the questions I alluded to in the beginning. Why did God put immortality and apparent omniscience in the form of two trees within reach of his creations in the first place? Why did God create a being like the serpent, and why was he so crafty? Doesn’t the presence of craftiness – that is, achieving one’s aims by deceitful means – imply that sin was present even before the Fall? Would Eve still have disobeyed God’s command if the serpent hadn’t existed?

Even without answering these questions directly, they seem to imply that God wanted us to disobey. It was a setup; he set us up to fail. If, as evangelicals believe, God is perfect, then we know he didn’t simply make a mistake. And he knew that the serpent would plant the invidious seed of doubt in Eve’s mind, and that she would be swayed that God didn’t really know what he was talking about when he said she would die for eating the fruit of that tree.

The implication above should cause some cognitive dissonance within you. If God set everything up, including our propensity for disobedience, is it really fair that those of us who make the alleged wrong choice should suffer eternal punishment? However, you may be tempted to say that the garden scenario was simply God’s way of getting things started, His actual final act of creation, in that he needed to nudge the first humans in the direction of disobedience in order to ultimately get the voluntary love he desired. But this should lead to a still further question: why does a perfect being, wanting for nothing, want to be loved?

The philosopher Daniel Dennett is famous for saying that Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection is a “universal acid,” meaning it is a concept that could eat away at all of our cherished beliefs and convictions. I would modify that sentiment a bit by saying that the real universal acid is skepticism itself.

It would seem to me that skepticism is as much a part of the Divine nature as anything else. The serpent wasn’t so much crafty as he was skeptical, the very incarnation of skepticism. He was there from the beginning, a necessary component of the ecosystem of that paradisal garden. In a way, he fulfilled God’s will in a manner humans seem incapable of. He is God’s shadow-side, to put it in Jungian terms, that side of Him that is neither good nor evil, but simply essential for the sake of completeness, for the sake of perfection.

It is my sincere hope for evangelicals that they come to embrace the serpent within themselves, that it may work its way into every fissure and tissue of their being, into every secret garden of thought.

Praised be that shadowy, skeptical, sibilant serpent.

Why I Didn’t Vote

November 11, 2012

I am a healthy, intelligent, educated, white male au courant with current events who doesn’t believe in God, human souls, free will, or anything supernatural, and who, on most political issues, leans largely liberal - yet I didn’t vote in the 2012 Presidential Election. I’d like to tell you why.

The short answer is that neither party was offering a candidate I felt comfortable voting for. I’ll first describe my problems with both Obama and Romney, and then I’ll respond to common criticisms and objections I’ve heard from friends, acquaintances and co-workers from all over the political spectrum, as well as from the media at large.

Barack Obama

  1. Individual (Constitutional) Rights: I have three words for you: Obama’s Kill List. As the NYT puts it: “Could he order the targeted killing of an American citizen, in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial? Mr. Obama gave his approval, and Mr. Awlaki was killed in September 2011, along with a fellow propagandist, Samir Khan, an American citizen who was not on the target list but was traveling with him.” Despite Awlaki’s ideology and intentions, this isn’t a precedent we want to set. Unfortunately, it already has been set.
  2. Human Rights: While I applauded Obama’s decision to pull the trigger, so to speak, on the mission to get bin Laden, agreeing that it was wise to act unilaterally as well as to avoid using a collateral damage-inflicting JDAM to obliterate the compound, I am unequivocally against Obama’s so-called “drone war.” It’s one thing to raid a compound with a small group of armed men who are exquisitely trained to kill bad guys while at the same time exercising restraint in an eye-blink when they come upon noncombatants; it’s another thing to remotely fire off a missile that seems to frequently kill innocent women and children (e.g., Pakistanis), even if it succeeds in killing the bad guy.
  3. Religion: Conservative Republican and Evangelical calumniations notwithstanding, Obama is a Christian. In addition to his own assertions attesting to this fact, Obama still pours millions of taxpayer dollars into faith-based organizations. But in addition to having the federal government providing direct financial support to religion, Obama also encourages faith-based thinking and attitudes by having someone like Donald Miller serve on the President’s Task Force on Fatherhood and Healthy Families. Miller is a man who has written things like “I would die for the gospel because I think it is the only revolutionary idea known to man.” Donald Miller, primarily in his book Blue Like Jazz, which I’ve read, typifies exactly the kind of “thinking” that needs to be eradicated from human consciousness, and most of all from a federally-funded pulpit. I encourage you to read Blue Like Jazz; if you are not already in thrall to the delusions of the Christian faith, you will be shockingly underwhelmed by his “evidence” for the reality of Jesus.

Mitt Romney

  1. Character: Mitt Romney is the archetype of the politician par excellence: lying, pandering, inauthentic. I expect politicians to lie, but Romney (and Paul Ryan) was just too false, and too audacious in his falseness. It was simply too difficult to ascertain from his campaign what exactly he would do in office. As the late Adam Yauch, aka MCA of the Beastie Boys, might have put it: “You’re flippin’ and floppin’ just like a flounder.” Aside from the mercurial nature of his campaign persona, his pompous Ayn Randian view of human nature is not only wrong, but potentially devastating. A Randian view of the human being rests primarily on the notion of free will: a person has both the capability and the responsibility to choose her life’s path; every person “could have done otherwise” than they did in a particular situation, so therefore they deserve their lot in life. I agree with that, to some extent. However, this notion of free will, of “could have done otherwise”, is a philosophical and empirical non-starter: it is simply logically and scientifically impossible to have that kind of free will. For a readable and concise presentation of the arguments about why this is the case, check out Sam Harris’ Free Will. Also, The Center for Naturalism has some excellent articles on the topic, including my review of Sam Harris’ book. To be sure, most liberals, including Obama, undoubtedly believe in human free will; but Obama seems to have a more naturalistic understanding of the constraining factors imposed on a person by her parentage, environment, and life experiences. A naturalistic understanding of human nature shows us that a human being is the sum of her genetic heritage, upbringing and experiences. One of the best expositions of a naturalistic understanding of success in life is to be found in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. I’ve summed up his hypothesis with the acronym T.O.P.; that is, to be exceptionally successful in life, one needs Talent, Opportunity and Practice. It is all too clear that Mitt “47%” Romney doesn’t countenance a naturalistic view of human beings. He fails to see, or doesn’t accept, that “opportunity” is the biggest factor in whether or not one becomes a computer software icon, or a frustrated autodidact.
  2. Religion: Though most Christians might view Mormonism as patently crazy, I consider it only a few notches crazier than its Middle Eastern cousin. Remember, Christianity and Mormonism share the same basic beliefs; it’s just that Mormonism, just like Mitt Romney, has changed like a chameleon throughout its brief history. And as Sam Harris noted, “Mormonism is the product of the plagiarisms and confabulations of an obvious con man, Joseph Smith, whose adventures among the credulous were consummated (in every sense) in the full, unsentimental glare of history.” Romney’s credulity with regard to the literalness of his religion’s sacred texts also speaks against his character. In my view, it’s a character flaw to believe, not only without good evidence, but actually in the face of counter-evidence, in such extraordinary claims: it’s a failure of judgment. I can’t vote for the potential leader of my country – and the putative Free World –  if he or she holds those beliefs with conviction. If you’re skeptical as to whether or not Romney really believes this stuff, check out this video on YouTube.
  3. Conservatism/Evangelicalism: I reject pretty much the entire rigid platform of the Republican party – its means if not its ends; and I consider the unholy alliance of conservatism and evangelicalism to be shameful for evangelicals. Never has it been more apparent to me how wedded these two ideologies are than in this Presidential campaign. For Romney to get the endorsement of Billy Graham, the patriarch of the evangelical movement for as long as I’ve been alive, is the last straw with regard to my respect for American Christianity. And I haven’t heard this just from the prominent evangelicals. Almost every evangelical Republican I’ve encountered in coffee shops, on Facebook, and elsewhere in the blogosphere, has exemplified the Conservative/Evangelical/Republican persona: über-patriotic (with an almost uncritical love of all things military), “pro-life” (I put the term in scare quotes to highlight the irony), skeptical of scientific theories and hypotheses (and not in a good way), bigoted (primarily regarding homosexuals and secularists), Constitutional purists (as if the U.S. Constitution were hand-delivered by Jesus himself), and generally lacking an appreciation for the subtlety, nuance and ambiguity of life.

Views on Voting

Some people consider voting a right; others call it a duty. Some people think voting is pointless or irrelevant. I don’t think voting is worthless, but I don’t consider it a “duty” either. As you know, Presidential elections are different from Congressional elections; the former utilizes the Electoral College, whereas the latter employs a win-by-popular-vote method. Since that is the case, it seems to me that an individual citizen can have more impact on Congressional (and local) elections than on the Presidential election. For example, I live in New Jersey, and my state leans decidedly Democratic; therefore, my single vote, even if I voted for Romney, wouldn’t make a difference in the outcome of the election. However, my vote may make more of a difference in the Senatorial race between the two leading contenders, incumbent Robert Menendez (D) and challenger Joseph Kyrillos (R).

But I digress. Now I want to give my response to the various criticisms leveled against not voting which I’ve heard this election season. They are in no particular order, and they can be summed up by the following 3 categories:

  1. Duty: I’ve been told I have a duty to vote. However, with regard to voting, the only duty I recognize is the obligation not to deny others their right to vote. It is not a condition of my citizenship that I must vote in any election. The U.S. Constitution does not command me to vote. No law compels me to vote. After all, African-Americans and women only obtained the right to vote relatively recently, no?
  2. Patriotism/Veterans: I’ve also heard that our soldiers have died to protect my right to vote, and are still fighting to defend it; it would be un-American for me not to vote. I think it’s unarguable that America has fought unnecessary or even immoral wars. The soldiers who fought in those wars weren’t necessarily fighting for “my right to vote”. Typically, they’ve fought against a dictator’s aggression towards his neighbor, or the spread of a pernicious ideology into other countries, or for economic interests. Soldiers may believe that they are fighting for our “freedoms”, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so.
  3. Lesser of Two Evils: This objection never made any sense to me. It comes in other forms, too, such as “Cast a vote against the party you despise,” or even “Write yourself on the ballot and vote for yourself, so at least your voice is heard.” To put it bluntly, the lesser of two evils is still evil. Now, every person has his deal-breakers; and there may actually be cases where I would vote for the lesser of two evils if those evils weren’t deal-breakers for me. In this election, however, Obama’s assaults on Constitutional and Human Rights are deal-breakers for me.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is this: I consider myself independent in every sense, and independence presupposes self-reverence. Since I have reverence for myself, I consider my judgments, to the extent that they are informed judgments, to be valuable. I honor by choosing, and I don’t choose frivolously, especially with regard to instances that exhibit a high degree of complexity, such as a governmental election.

No amount of guilt, coercion, intimidation or specious reasoning will convince me to violate my principles in this regard. Based on their records, ideologies and intentions, I deemed neither candidate for POTUS to be worthy of my acclamation and honor; therefore, I didn’t choose either of them.

Passion

September 7, 2012
  1. A lack of passion, or an otherwise stunted or suppressed passion, is like a dying star: it offers a subdued glow and a tepid warmth that gives nothing to its planetary system, and thus can no longer sustain life.
  2. Unrestrained passion is like a supernova: it quickly engulfs or vaporizes its planetary system, and thus destroys any life it has previously sustained or scorches any opportunity for nascent life to grow.
  3. Passion that is properly harnessed is an ideal star like our own sun: It may at times burn and disrupt life, but it is a boon to its planetary system, not only providing the precondition for life itself, but allowing that life to endure and flourish.
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