World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

Why I Am Not An Atheist

In the November 26th Munk Debate in Toronto, Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens squared off on either side of the resolution that religion is a force for good in the world. Former British Prime Minister Blair was introduced as a recently converted Roman Catholic; Hitchens, not surprisingly, as an atheist.

The Munk Debates

Of course, Hitchens is one of the better known “new atheists”, along with Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. I respect Hitchens’ work—most recently, his reasoned and humane reflections on his experience with oesophageal cancer, but also his writing on religion and atheism, in particular God is Not Great. I haven’t read much by Harris, but I have just cracked open his latest, The Moral Landscape, and look forward to it.

Of the three, I’m most familiar with Dawkins’ work. I’ve especially enjoyed his brilliant writing on evolution, but also respect his views on religion. And I admire his Out Campaign encouraging individuals to openly declare their atheism; I’ve long believed that the presence of religion in society today is all out of proportion to the actual belief (or non-belief) systems of the population and, hence, inflates religion’s influence and significance. In our national anthem, we sing “God keep our land”; during times of public calamity we are enjoined to say a prayer; newscasts cover papal visits and pronouncements as if they meant something to the majority; we mostly get married and buried, regardless of our worldviews, in the “presence” of a god; and the holiday music that has just begun to fill our airwaves and stores is often about “baby Jesus”, angels and three wise men. If atheists “came out”, we might collectively ask: why are we doing all these things?

The OUT Campaign

Nevertheless, there is no “coming out” for me—because I am not an atheist.

You might not expect this, judging from my tweets, the posts on this blog, and my longer non-fiction. And it’s true, I don’t believe in any supernatural gods; I don’t believe in the existence of any supernatural or pseudoscientific entities or forces that lie outside our scientific understanding of the natural world—not gods, ghosts, angels, aliens, heaven or homeopathy.

In fact, I’m with Hitch. Not only don’t I believe in any gods, I don’t believe that religion is a force for good in the world. In the debate, Blair conceded that bad deeds have been perpetrated in the name of religion, but so have good deeds and we should base our judgment on the latter. Hitchens countered that he is not arguing about people doing good things in the name of religion; he is arguing about the bad deeds that are done “as a direct consequence of scriptural authority”—and there are many bad deeds.

Religions are inherently and fundamentally autocratic, dogmatic and opposed to reason. Religion holds us back from attaining a more enlightened, civilized, prosperous and humane existence. One of Hitchens’ most powerful assertions during the debate—“The end of poverty is the empowerment of women, and what religion stands for that?”

Still, I am not an atheist. I am a secular humanist.

Why? Because atheism is a worldview based, not on what you believe, but on what you don’t believe. And while this may seem a technicality, a question of semantics, I think it points to one of the biggest challenges facing those who share and advocate a worldview of non-belief: the flawed perception that this outlook is without values, meaning and wonder.

When a person is raised in a religious home, they are taught from a very early age that the Universe comprises the natural world with its rocks and animals and planets and stars—and a supernatural being that is greater than all of that natural world, a being responsible for all of our morality and all that is good. They are taught there is a vast, spiritual realm that is the inspiration for all that is truly meaningful, that there is a supernatural realm that dwarfs the natural.

Atheism asks the believer to subtract all of that from the Universe. Not surprisingly, to a believer, the natural world that is left feels bereft. In the introduction to The Moral Landscape (that much I’ve read so far), Harris writes: “The defense one most often hears for belief in God is not that there is compelling evidence for His existence, but that faith in Him is the only reliable source of meaning and moral guidance.” Why would any believer abandon their god for an existence devoid of meaning and moral guidance?

The Moral Landscape: How science can determine human values

What’s more, as much as I respect and have learned from the work of the “new atheists”, atheism and belief together create a stark, static dichotomy. Read the comments on any blog or social media site discussing belief vs. atheism, or similarly, intelligent design vs. evolution, or listen to a discussion between two debaters less well-informed, respectful and humane than Blair and Hitchens. You will find two exclusive views, separated by a great gulf which cannot be crossed. Any resemblance to a rational discourse is false; the two sides won’t even agree on the meaning of individual words. (Ask both to define the word “proof”.) With regard to their faith, believers aren’t persuaded by reason; and atheists can’t be made to experience a revelation.

So, I am a secular humanist, with a worldview based, not on non-beliefs, but beliefs. It is a worldview that is not empty, but one that is rich with meaning and morality.

Of course, at the core of secularism is the idea of the separation of church and state, and of religion and public affairs; it is not so much anti-religious as non-religious. Thus, you can believe in a god and still be a secularist. And, as British philosopher A.C. Grayling writes in his Ideas that Matter: A personal guide for the 21st century, secularism opposes the “acceptance of views on the basis of faith, tradition, authority or superstition.”

Ideas that Matter, A.C. Grayling

But my focus is on the positive values associated with secularism. Grayling also describes secularism as an outlook based on “reason and evidence…celebrating individual autonomy and enjoining the responsibility to think for oneself and to base one’s life and outlook on rational and empirical grounds…[with a] commitment to science, humanist ethics, and democratic institutions.”

Of humanism, he writes: “…ethics and social policy must be based on our best understanding of human nature and the human condition. It is a concern to draw the best from, and make the best of, human life in the frame of human lifetimes, in the real world, and in sympathetic accord with the fact of humanity in the world.”

And the Humanist Manifesto, among many principles, states: “Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.” From this perspective, it is easy to paraphrase Hitchens: if the end of poverty is the empowerment of women, what form of humanism doesn’t stand for that?

In fact, Hitchens himself did not identify himself as an atheist during the course of the debate. And when speaking of non-religious worldviews, he referred not to atheism but to secularism and humanism. For example, when asked whether he thought the world’s religions might find common ground and use that as a force for good, he replied, “Then why not a common humanism?” Not a common atheism.

Nor does Grayling self-identify as an atheist. As one who believes that the Universe is a realm of natural laws, he uses the term “naturalist”. Atheism as a worldview, he says, leads to a flawed discussion because it begins in the wrong place. He is like the man who, when asked for directions to a location, replies, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here.”

“The world is full of wonders, but they become more wonderful, not less wonderful, when science looks at them.” Sir David Attenborough

A Universe of natural laws, without gods, is one of meaning and morality. Without gods, the natural world is not diminished; the Universe and the human consciousness that resides within it remain beyond our complete grasp. Without gods, we experience transcendence and ecstasy, but there are no religions to “steal” these experiences from us and claim them as their own. Without gods, we are free as individuals to experience this world of wonders with our senses and our minds, and make the most and the best of it that we can in our lifetimes.

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