Saturday, March 22, 2014

An Atheist's Beliefs

Many people make the mistake of thinking an atheist doesn't believe in anything. I had a professor who told me one reason for holding to a religion was that without a religion one could not have any sort of moral compass.

He was one of the best professors I ever had. He was also wrong.

What do I believe?

I believe in myself, that I exist, that I am unique, that I am utterly transient.

I believe in human beings, who are complicated, messy, inconsistent, and the only things worth my belief.

I believe this is my one shot.

I believe in now. I believe in the universe, in galaxies and stars and planets. I believe in Earth and the little patch of ground on which I stand. I believe in these two hands.

I believe we have to figure it out. We are without guidelines, save for those our ancestors have invented, which gives them no special priority whatever. We are each of us alone and we are all in it together. I believe this is our only boat, ours to sink or steer.

I believe we are so fascinated by pattern and order, we will go to extraordinary lengths to see them, whether they exist or not. Even to the extent of inventing gods.

I believe the only possibility of finding a way to smile, is to be an atheist. To believe in people rather than in gods. To believe in the universe, not in heaven. To believe in life rather than the afterlife.

I believe, along with that great philosopher William C. of the fields, that I shall have another drink.

Against all of this, the beliefs of any and all religions are pale and silly things.

Friday, April 05, 2013

The last stone

"Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest."
--Emile Zola

True dat.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Atheist in the Church of Capitalism

Why do I not worship in the Temple of Capitalism?

I am not anti-money or anti-business. I'm not even anti-corporation, though corporations need to be treated like predatory animals and a close eye kept on them. No, not a predatory animal; rather, like a sociopathic human. But economic activity is normal and healthy and eminently human. It's one of our cleverer tricks.

It is Capitalism the ideology, Capitalism the faith that I abstain from. Treating it as some absolute truth is as dangerous and pernicious as treating a mythology as an absolute truth.

Capitalism, you see, is an invention, just like any other religion. People have always worked to make money. People have always engaged in enterprise. So why do we speak as if once upon a time there was no Capitalism and then there was? What are we talking about here?  As we can do with other religions, we can break this one down into component parts.

First, Capitalism pretend to something called the Free Market. This imagined entity operates according to a mysterious law known as the Law of Supply and Demand, but it is no law. Economists have observed a relationship between supply and demand, and they theorize some force at work. When they measure actual economic transactions over time and place, of course, it turns out that this so-called law bends and flexes and sometimes behaves in quite contrary ways. Then the economists reference mitigating factors and outside forces, the evil influence of governments and the regrettable ignorance of the consumer--in short, the economist's version of demons. Oh the world would be restored to a state of purity, were it not for these demons. But look again: what we see are humans behaving in human ways. Sometimes we discern a pattern, sometimes another pattern, sometimes no pattern at all. This is the historical reality, and the Free Market is as much a myth as Eden. By inventing these laws and these mystical states of being, though, Capitalists thereby create tools for influencing society to their own ends. The man with money invents an ideology that serves to keep him in money. The man without money adheres to the ideology in hopes of also gaining money. It is the same racket engaged in by priests.

Second, Capitalism justifies wicked behavior. It enables a man to call himself a "self-made man".  What an absurd phrase!  What an arrogant phrase!  No man is self-made; every one of us lives in and because of society. When I call myself a self-made man, I absolve myself of responsibility to my fellow human beings. Anything I do for or with them thereby becomes a favor, an act of philanthropy, instead of what it really is, which is an act of neighborliness. Capitalism would have us pretend we are all islands, every one of us; blind, grasping bacteria who can think no further than the edge of our cells. The Capitalist is a ravening beast, devouring all he can for the mere sake of devouring, until he should either die or society should in its horror restrain him. I do not worship in such a house.

Third, Capitalism denies our humanity (as does every religion) and profoundly misunderstands our relationship with the universe. It does not recognize that we are frail creatures standing in the face of titanic forces that can sweep us away in a heartbeat. Our one and only chance, the chance we have played since we strode through jungles and trudged across glaciers, is that we might survive if only we all work together. When we do this, when we cooperate, when we form a society, then we are at our best. Alone we are weak or vicious or merely dead. In every society and every time and every place, the most terrifying and awful fate is to be left alone. Capitalism would have us believe and behave as if we are always alone. The Capitalism invokes not society but self-interest, and in so doing leaves us less than human. I will not enter that temple.

Last, at least for now, Capitalism is repugnant to me because it is certain. The Capitalist knows how the world works. He knows what humans want. He knows the bottom line. He would reduce all human complexity to a single measure, a single formula. He would simplify the world until it's nothing but a wasteland. Certainty is dangerous, deadly. The man who is certain permits to himself all things. The arrogance of the Capitalists grows from this certainty. There's an ugliness to Capitalism that drapes itself over the very human impulse to make and trade and build. I don't have to sing in that choir. We were doing fine before that religion came along, and we'll do even better if we could rid ourselves of it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Losing a religion

I recently realized that I have overlooked a religion.

I frequently tell my students that we live in a secular society. That's a good word, "secular."  It comes from the Latin saeculum, which literally means "the world" and specifically the world in which time exists, as distinct from worlds of the eternal. Just though you should know that.

Anyway, we live in a secular society, I say, mainly to draw contrast between our modern values and those of the Middle Ages. It occurs to me, however, that I am being somewhat unfair to modern society. We are without a religion of the supernatural, without gods and heavens and hells and afterlife, but we are not without faith in a system. Ours is a secular religion, and its name is Capitalism.

Since this is a blog about atheism, I figure it's high time that Capitalism had its turn in the dock.

First, let me establish in more detail what I mean when I say that Capitalism is a religion, then proceed to the way in which it is our religion, and finally to explain why I do not believe in it.

How is Capitalism a religion? First, it claims to be universally and eternally true. Second, it claims there are unseen forces at work in the world that cannot be measured. Third, it claims to know the True Nature of Man.  Fourth, it claims that all who are not believers are doomed. Fifth, because it's always a good idea to have a fifth, its high priests form a protected caste in society. Sixth, it claims that those who suffer deserve to suffer, and those who prosper deserve to prosper, according to a set of rules that are beyond the reach of Man to alter. Seventh, it claims that its institutions (e.g., banks) ought not be subject to the same laws that govern men. Eighth, we wage war in its name. There's more, but eight is not a bad place to stop.

It can be said that Capitalism is our religion because we have sanctified it in our laws and glorified it upon our tongues. We cling to it as the only possible explanation for the world-as-we-know-it, and condemn all doubters as heretics. We do not worship money, as some claim; these do not perceive fully. Money is a mere object, a manifestation. We no more worship money than a Christian worships an icon. It is Capitalism, the invisible god of the Free Market, that we venerate.

I don't like long blog posts, so I'll stop there. I'll explain why I'm an atheist when it comes to Capitalism in a subsequent post. I'm awfully busy and it may be a while.

We actually worship a second god. Its name is Nationalism, but I'll put that off for another essay as well.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Gospel According to Luke

I'm just standin' in the rain talkin' to myself.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

We are all children

I work at a university. As with many universities we have a child care center on campus. These children have tenders who take them out for expeditions around campus. The babies go in baby buses--something like large wheelbarrows or others like very large wagons, with the kids in there like a pile of bunnies. The older kids, roughly ages three to six, get led around on a long rope, looking like miniature sherpas heading for K2.

Today I saw a line of these children brought to a grassy field that is enclosed by fence on three sides. It's large enough to serve as a soccer or lacrosse field. Plenty of room. Their handlers unleashed the kids and I saw them gesture out across the field:  go! run! 

Some kids took off like rockets. They ran dead-out. If there had been no fence they'd probably still be running. Others were less sure. They ran for a time, looked around and saw that the others were still running, so off they went again. A few tired and had to catch a breather.

By and large, this little selection of little humanity ran in a herd. One, though, had trouble getting out of the starting gate. Everyone else ran, but she just stood there, next to the adults. I don't think they even noticed her for a while. Eventually they gave her personal instructions:  go! run!  and off she went.

Then there was the non-conformist. She ran to the middle of the field and sat down. There she remained while the activity of the others went on around her. After a time she was summoned back by the grownups. Go! Run! She ran maybe ten or fifteen feet. Then, deciding that this did not conform with her vision of the word, she turned around and ran the other direction.  She was quite happy with this. She ran about twenty yards, turned around and came back. She had made up her own goal and achieved it, even as everyone else was doing more or less as told.

At the other end of the field, by the far fence, our human herd had run up against a problem in teleology. They'd been told go! run! but the instructions had left open what to do when there was no more room to run. Some tagged up and headed back toward the adults, but others milled around underneath the soccer goal post. Unclear on the concept. Gradually, enough were returning that most of the herd headed back as well. A handful remained at the far end, deciding that casual conversation and rolling in the grass was more appealing than another long jog. Some of these had to be fetched.

I suggest no profound insight from this. I only offer it as a kind of scatter chart of human behavior; an affirmation of humanity and a commentary on our limitations.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"I don't claim to have a proof that God cannot exist. It's just that I consider the state of the evidence on the God question to be similar to that on the werewolf question."  John McCarthy (1927-2011)