I wrote what follows (minus a few edits) shortly after my ‘deconversion’ (which happened in 2009, if I’m remembering right). Having reread it, I think it still captures my basic outlook. The fact that I felt the need to comment on the person of Jesus reflects where I was coming from, but since I don’t think humanists should shy away from appropriating what’s of value in the world’s religious traditions, I think those reflections are still valuable.
The universe as we know it began some 15 billion years ago in a ‘big bang’. As far as I can tell, we have no way of knowing what or who (if anything) came ‘before’. Nevertheless, the fabric of reality (in our corner of the cosmos at least) is dynamic. While big rocks and monstrous suns collide and spin, that peculiar phenomenon we identify as biological life is possible under certain conditions because of the effervescence of all things at the quantum level. Fortuitous conditions (from our perspective) have obtained on the planet we call Earth for some time, and biological life has evolved here as a result. Quantum indeterminacy makes possible genetic mutation, which drives massive biological multiplication, which runs into ecological limits, which results in the ‘natural selection’ of organisms optimally suited to their local environments. This push and pull of life, which has been both beautiful and bloody from the get-go, has produced the world we know today and human life. If there is some god(dess?) behind it all, she, he or it is indiscernible apart from these dynamic processes that have brought us into existence. We can be struck by the fact that there is something rather than nothing, and that the something that there is is what it is, but I don’t think we can say much more than that. In a sense, there is a creative force which has brought everything into being, but since that creative force is woven into the fabric of the universe, it seems overeager to separate ‘Creator’ from ‘Creation’. Life is a gift, to be sure. It is a good gift to some, a very bad gift to others. I’m not sure if there’s any value in trying to average those out and make a judgment about whether the cosmos as a whole is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I think the most we can say is that it is good for some of us and bad for others (or maybe partially good and partially bad for everyone whose is aware enough to look around).
As biologically evolved beings, we have inherited the neural complexity and structure of our species’ long history. It has made us into social beings who get along better when we treat each other well. To the extent that we are ‘made for’ life together, we do our best to live in relative harmony. Human beings who violate societal harmony by harming others or living selfishly are rightly judged to be ‘bad’ human beings–they make life together more difficult. That being said, all of us have drives and desires that are at least sometimes difficult to reconcile with life together. These selfish desires can pull us apart and cause us to harm others. Call it ‘original sin’ or what you will, there seems to be an unavoidable struggle that comes with being the kinds of beings we are. Good human lives are those that find ways of harmonizing selfish drives with the conditions of common life (which is what the Golden Rule seems to be getting at). We do not have non-material ‘souls’, and we do not in any way survive the deaths of our bodies–we are fundamentally mortal. There is no ‘salvation’ from this condition, though there are certainly better and worse ways of being what we are, and it is certainly appropriate to talk about being saved from our more harmful desires and harmful existential outlooks. (Although we should resist the self-aggrandizing attribution of that salvation to God. Good luck and other people typically deserve the credit.)
MEANINGS OF LIFE
There is no predetermined or given ‘meaning’ to human life. Our biological nature and cultural conditioning of course means that some things will be good for us and others bad, but a large part of a responsible human life involves choosing a calling for ourselves–finding a niche for ourselves in the world. This is not given to us from on high, but is rather something we choose in light of our skills and strengths, and in light of our socio-cultural and economic environments. The world is what we make it (so let’s be creative!!). Because human beings have limited foresight, and because we tend to be selfish, we have created economic and cultural systems that have been devastatingly harmful to fellow human beings and other animals. As we become aware of these harms, we realize that we are responsible for rectifying them as much as is possible. We cannot consistently devalue the lives of others and yet claim to value our own lives and the lives of the ones we love. Therefore we seek to be consistent valuers of life, and of human and sentient life in particular.
We find life to be worth living only under certain conditions. Not having to constantly struggle for food, shelter and security is of course one of the most basic conditions. Others include being surrounded by beauty, seeking (and finding!) truth, having friends, having meaningful work and so on. Most of what we do aims at making us happy, and this is all well and good, so long as we remember that we’re all in this together, and that we therefore have a stake in each other’s flourishing. One of the most important dimensions of happiness is contentment. Particularly in the consumeristic culture we’ve created, we sometimes believe that stuff buys us happiness, but this is often untrue. Both because things only have relative and relational value and because we value what we create more than what we buy, contentment can’t be bought. If we want to flourish, be happy, be content then, we need to stop clinging to things. In fact, the best kind of ‘wealth’ is actually found in fulfilling relationships of all kinds (rather than things). Solid friendships are essential to a good human life, as is a properly functioning and dependable social order (it can be difficult or impossible to flourish under excessively oppressive political regimes). Sex is deeply intimate and pleasurable and as such should be seen as an important ingredient in a good human life (though it isn’t strictly necessary of course, and other things might be judged more important). Because of the strength of human sexual energies, we of course have to be careful with how we handle sex. Monogamous marriage (or partnerships more broadly) are one (but not the only) way in which this can be done responsibly. Contemporary advances in biological knowledge (especially as embedded in birth control technologies) should be seen as massively helpful in limiting the possible harmful side effects of sex. Sexual taboos impede self-knowledge and responsible decision making. Having children is always a gamble, but many find it deeply rewarding. It can also cause a lot of harm and suffering. The most fundamental point to be made about human happiness is that happiness doesn’t just ‘happen’. We must become certain kinds of people in order to enjoy life. Happiness takes work and self-discipline. Being open-minded, slow to anger, quick to apologize, eager for knowledge, willing to laugh… all of these are skills that make us both enjoyable to be around and happier (which is part of why it is important to be educated about these things and to educate others about them).
On some accounts of his life (and there are many conflicting accounts, both ancient and contemporary), Jesus of Nazareth was an extraordinary human being. He was profoundly Jewish and believed the nation of Israel was called to be a light to the nations. He also was convinced that the Jewish nation as a whole was, in his time, being unfaithful to its calling. He therefore prophesied, in a spirit similar to that of John the Baptizer, that Israel was on a broad path to destruction. If Israelites continued to be unfaithful, the pagan oppressors they decried would trample their holy city and destroy their temple. Israel’s unfaithfulness, on Jesus’ view, consisted in mistreatment of the poor, monopoly of the means of divine grace, and a refusal to take seriously the radicalness of YHWH’s commands. He therefore taught compassion, advocated and practiced confrontational non-violence, and commanded his disciples to love their enemies. He was first and foremost a political resistor and was murdered by the state and by Jewish leaders as such. He also predicted his vindication using heavily charged and ambiguous language drawn from the prophets (Daniel in particular), speaking about a ‘coming of the son of man’. It seems likely that he associated the destruction of the temple with this apocalyptic vision, since it would entail the end of Jewish life as they all knew it. He may also have believed in a final resurrection and made claims about his own resurrection, but the narrative cultural and mythological overlay makes it hard to get at the ‘historical’ Jesus, especially in this regard. In any case, Jesus became an iconic and inspirational figure for many (much like Socrates, who likewise never wrote a single word and who was likewise unjustly murdered by the state for confronting the political powers), and his disciples, on top of spreading some of his teachings, also told increasingly metaphysical stories about his significance. The metaphysical stories (about his being ‘God’, his Spirit recreating the world and defeating ‘Death’, and his so-called ‘Second Coming’) are false, as best we can tell. His political example remains compelling, primarily insofar as he refused to cling to life itself in his devotion to a greater good.
I believe the best of all cultural and religious (or non-religious) traditions get at these basic human truths. Otherwise, claims about God or gods, or about the ‘ultimate nature of reality’ overreach our cognitive limitations. There is much that we cannot now (and probably ever) know–or at least, that’s what the evidence strongly suggests, as far as I can tell. An important part of life is coming to terms with all that we’ll never know. One of the central problems of religious claims is that they are dogmatic–there is no room for reasoned disagreement. While various scientific projects and theories are often flawed, incomplete and imperfect, they have the virtue of being, at least in principle, open and revisable. And this is by far the best way of developing an outlook on the world. Claims about what has been ‘revealed’ generally create a canon of ‘Truth’ handed down ‘once and for all’. Revealingly, much of what religious believers have claimed is true seems, from our present perspective, to be false (e.g. the age of the Earth and the universe, the position of the Earth, the existence of souls, spirits, demons, the ‘wrongness’ and ‘perversion’ of homosexuality, etc.). This is a strong reason to mistrust any and all claims about purportedly ‘revealed’ truth. Though there is much to be valued in religious practice (e.g. meditative exercises, the social cohesion it fosters, the altruistic behavior it sometimes commends), in a lot of ways it can be a distraction from present life, especially insofar as it posits an eternal ‘heaven’ or a future ‘kingdom of God’ where every tear will be wiped from our eyes. We have no good positive reason to entertain these hopes, and many good reasons not to. There’s no heaven, no hell–it’s just us. So let’s make the best of this finite, imperfect, sometimes painful, sometimes blissful human existence, and be content with that.