El Dorado and the Meaning of Life

What would happen if all the agnostics, skeptics, and atheists out there were open and vocal about their secular lives? Would would happen if the vast majority of people admitted that their sense of morality came from internal and communal reasoning rather than from a religious text?

My best guess is that we’d recognize the United States as not very different from parts of the Middle East. A religious war would break out.

We saw what people did to America’s #1 sport just because players wouldn’t kneel to a flag and song. Imagine people no longer pretending to kneel to others’ made-up god.

I think most of our politicians pretend to have religious beliefs because of this fear. It means that many of us participate in a great ruse because we are scared of a minority of heavily armed theists who have a history of promoting and celebrating violence against minorities and women. We’re scared of what they might do if we stopped giving fealty to their deities.

Imagine if we taxed their houses of worship. Or if we demanded that they follow the Constitution by getting religion out of politics (no more mention of gods by elected officials, and no more national religious holidays). Imagine if we started treating all religions as equals in this country. Again, I think we’d see massive outbreaks of violence. These are people who lose their minds over Starbucks cup designs and the harmless words “Happy Holidays.”

If it’s true that violence would erupt if we pushed Christianity to the side, then it means we are living among an ISIS-like group of crazy people who only remain calm because we go along with their fantasies. We are in thrall to this minority of hardcore true believers. We are their intellectual captors.

It’s something to think about as demographic trends point toward a more secular future. Kids aren’t as religiously affiliated as their parents, who weren’t as religiously motivated as their parents. We lag behind Europe in our secularization, but it’s still happening.

Monotheistic religions are necessarily violent. They begin with a claim that there is only one god, which leaves little room for other beliefs. Look at the first four Christian commandments:

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything.
  3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

These are rules from an insecure God, not rules about being kind to one another. You have to get to number 5 on this list before you touch upon morality. That’s crazy. And it’s even more crazy that this doesn’t seem crazy to everyone all at once.

While polytheistic religions have historically been more welcoming by simply adding new gods and beliefs to their pantheon, true moral progress has come from outside religion altogether. Religious beliefs tend to lag behind cultural movements, only catching up when membership numbers are threatened. Gay marriage is just one recent example. Religious leaders fight moral progress until they are too far on the wrong side of history, and then they slowly, begrudgingly relent.

When you look back at the course of human history, it is one of moral progress. Our spheres of empathy keep expanding, wrapping around larger segments of the population, and more recently to non-human members of the population. Animal rights and environmental protections were fringe concerns in my lifetime; now they are mainstream. Looking back, we can see how many white populations of immigrants were considered terrible minorities to other established whites (the Irish, for instance). Our hate keeps narrowing while our love expands, however haltingly this progress seems.

The same subset of people seem to be on the wrong side of history on many issues, all having to do with an inability to expand spheres of empathy. Often, these people point to religious texts as justification for their backwards beliefs, which makes sense; those beliefs were written a long time ago. When a child molestor was running for Senate, they pointed to Mary’s similarly young age when she was forcibly impregnated by their god. The same group use the Bible to justify persecution of homosexuals. Before the two American political parties flipped sides (due to race relations), these same people pointed to the Bible to justify slavery.

The same people who get their morality from a dusty book, which was a poor translation from a poor translation, also get their political ideas from an old parchment. There may be a reason that the twin loves of god and gun go hand-in-hand.  A recent study into the difference between conservatives and liberals found that there is a high correlation between conservative views and fear. If you reduce a person’s fear, their opinions become more liberal. Makes sense. Conservatives want walls, guns, prisons, the death penalty, Gitmo, and they fear Muslims and immigrants (who combined kill fewer Americans than lightning). These people are afraid. Their religion spreads through fear, starting when they are in the crib.

I contend that our religiosity is more to blame for our outlying violence among modern societies than our guns. Our guns are just a symptom of our religiosity. People need them because they are in constant fear. A small portion of people own most of our guns. They are terrified. It makes me sad to think about what’s going on in their brains. I have family members who used to send me emails about Muslims taking over the world. The thought kept them up at night. Or the idea that white people will be a minority in the United States one day. This thought fills them with anger.

These people don’t know that their guiding superstition will also be in the minority one day, that it is becoming smaller and smaller with every new birth of an open mind and every funeral for a closed one. Despite how news media coverage works, their fear isn’t spreading faster than hope. Their hate can’t win over love. They might have a book full of fear and hate, but we have millions of books and stories that inspire us with hope and love. Our ideas of how to treat each other are objectively better. And they are improving over time because we dare to have a discourse about how to treat each other, rather than looking in an old text for justification for our darkest thoughts.

I am an atheist. A proud one. I think every good action should exist for its own benefit, not out of fear of punishment, or hope for reward. I don’t fear death. I think life is full of meaning, and it’s meaning that we place there, that we build from scratch, not meaning we hope to stumble upon like some El Dorado in the jungle. Rather, the meaning of life is something that we have to build over the course of our lives. It starts on the rubble of an older meaning, just as cities are built upon each other over time. We piece it together terribly at first. Painful as it might be, we have to disassemble large swaths and start over again throughout our lives. But this meaning is more reliably assembled than discovered. It happens quicker the more we discuss our plans and copy from our neighbors. Our designs are far more accurate through discourse.

What we build will be different for each of us. Service to community, the aim to simply do no harm, the herculean task of having and raising members of humanity who are better than their parents in every way, simply paying taxes and living in a just society, voting our conscious, running for office, showing compassion for strangers, loving far-flug tribes more powerfully than our close circles of friends, inventing something of use, solving problems, providing entertainment or laughs or hope. The meaning of life is what we make of it, but it has to make sense; it has to be built where all can see and any can critique.

Most of all, the meaning of life has to be built on level ground and on solid foundations. The tall sharp spires of religion get in the way of that for many. I think one of the upcoming cultural revolutions that will make the world a better place will be a secularization of the two most violent pockets of religious thinking in the world: the United States and the Middle East. Both will gradually lose their gods as we put them in coffins and feed them to worms.

In their place will come heroic non-believers who are courageous enough to be open about their doubts, who approach the accumulation of knowledge with joy rather than see any gap in understanding as an admission of weakness. For these people, blind faith will not be something to celebrate. Nor will blind obedience, or unconditional love, or unwavering fealty to elders. Ideas will have to win people over, just as trust and love are earned.

It will be difficult to do, to admit that we don’t believe what our parents believe. It will be difficult to build meaning from scratch rather than cast about, hoping to find it already built and waiting for us in the jungle. But the reward for our honesty and hard work will be something to be proud of. And it will bring an end to the pervasive and unfounded fears that power backwards, conservative thoughts. It’s only a matter of time. The arrow of history has always pointed this way. Every day is a great day to choose which side of that arrow to be on.



12 responses to “El Dorado and the Meaning of Life”

  1. I gotta disagree with you here. I think fear motivates some religious people, but I’ve known plenty of terrified atheists. The problem with a strictly atheist view of the world is that you ignore the existence of a gray area. People in every culture experience events of high strangeness that may not correlate to a specific religion, but which make impossible the notion that the world is spiritually flat. I’m sure your being certain of your ‘proud atheism’ is in some ways as assuring as a religious certainty. Me, I’ve experienced more than one miracle, and so I don’t have the luxury of disbelief. Nor do I have the certainty that any religion has a full accounting for what I’ve experienced. It’s a much murkier position and I envy your piece of mind. But you’re just a miracle or two from being me:)

    1. I’d urge people to read the book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, which I’ve just finished and which I think explores this issue pretty well. He is an atheist. His premise basically is that faith is a social construct all in our brain, but has been essential to our humanness. But where it gets interesting, is that discussion about, for instance, the existence of God, is about to be rendered meaningless, because his vision of the future is a world where all the god-like attributes will become reality in human beings – humans deux. We will seek divinity and immortality thanks to the progression of technology. At that point we, or some of us at least, will be like real Gods. As an atheist myself, that is what occupies my thinking – that will likely happen in my lifetime, whereas God will never show himself to me.

    2. Robert,

      I don’t think you absorbed any part of Hugh’s post beyond the extremely narrow slice that matters to you. This would be perfectly fine, but you’ve taken that tiny slice and generalized inappropriately.

      Rejecting belief in a God for which there is more conclusive evidence (conflicting religions and the tendency of the popular to get more popular) of a made up story than of divine intervention is not the difference between having experienced a miracle and not having so. The difference is in how the unlikely or seemingly impossible event you call a miracle is assessed.

      The first problem with assessing the world around us is that our senses and ability to assess the incoming information are unreliable. Doctors make diagnoses of a patient’s condition that are always inaccurate to some degree. This happens because their understanding is imperfect, their instruments are imprecise, and they taint the evaluation with their expectations. These failures open up the possibility to completely misinterpret what is likely or even possible.

      The second problem is with our ability to assess how special a circumstance is. For instance, one might think that for the chance of two people in a group having the same birthday to be over 50%, the group would have to be 365/2 = 186. It is actually only 23 because one has to consider all of the possible pairings which increase exponentially rather than linearly as the group grows.

      Our learning systems operate in a manner that compounds the problems caused by these limitations. Associating the circumstances of an outcome with the outcome is effective when one is able to sense the actual causes of the outcome and when there is repeated exposure to a class of situations and outcomes. It completely falls apart when causes are hidden or infrequently encountered.

      It’s actually worse in reality, because every physical phenomenon, and there is no good evidence on non-physical phenomena, is driven by underlying mechanisms that we aren’t privy to. When we know something to be true, there are bounds to our certainty.

      Most humans are bad at assessing certainty and even those that are good at it fall into the trap of too much certainty. This is why there is so much panic and mania around extremely uncertain events. The risk of being shot are vanishingly small unless you are the wrong person living in the wrong place and doing the wrong things. Likewise, winning the lottery or becoming the next mega best selling writer are unlikely fantasies.

      The human brain’s response to these outlier events leads to belief systems. There are in fact known cases where unwarranted belief systems emerged under these sorts of circumstances within artificial environments. In the early days of the MMO Everquest, much of the most desirable equipment came from rarely spawning creatures in the world. The spawning of these creatures was governed strictly by a random roll on a specific place holding spawn location. There were no other contributors to the chance of a favorable spawn. Despite this, individuals that camped these creatures would engage in outlandish behavior within the game to replicate the circumstances of previous successful spawns. This did not change when they would get a later spawn under different circumstances, either. There was a religion of the means to get rare mobs to spawn and it was very difficult to stop people from believing.

      The point is that in the absence of useful evidence, humans are strongly inclined to make up an explanation that has no basis in reality. We are really bad at dealing with uncertainty.

      There is no inconsistency between an acceptance of our not knowing and understanding that all of the belief systems (including many of the pseudo-scientific ones) are intrinsically unreliable and to be avoided because of their belief component. That search for a feeling of certainty is what is intrinsically wrong with belief systems.

      All of our scientific understanding is only partially right and most of the time the focus is on what we don’t know. The point of the scientific enterprise is that we are continuously challenging what we think is correct. We aren’t going outright refute Newtonian physics, but the physics of the 20th Century revealed that the underlying systems are quite different than what we normally experience. There is even more wiggle room with how evolution works exactly. Many of the dumbest retorts against it come from the “humans didn’t evolve from monkeys” crowd. Maybe someone in evolutionary biology thought that once, but only because they did not consider that modern monkeys have changed as much as we have since the time of our common ancestors.

      The pertinent difference between science and religion is that most of the change in science comes from within while the changes in religion come from the outside. Science is the process by which humans with flawed capabilities and tools overcome those limitations to improve their understanding of the environment. Belief is the means by which those flawed humans make themselves think they understand. None of us are perfectly immune to belief, but some of us try and do our best.

  2. There is certainly a very strong correlation between religion and fear. I have always felt it through my days as a young Christian and now still as an Atheist as I see it through those members of my family who still practice their faith. I always had the mind of a skeptic, questioning it all. Questioning of faith is a non-topic. Completely taboo in the world of faith. But it has been in that questioning where growth of humanity has risen.
    Religion doesn’t offer much in the way of solid truth. Sure, those like Jordan Peterson do a fantastic job at dissecting archetypal stories out of the myths and rituals, but few take that path towards their view of it, that they are stories. Just stories. Unfortunately most who follow religion take it as a tribal tenant, which it technically is considering that religion was a guiding force for early civilization determining customs and answering curiosity long before the tools of science caught up with it. Only religion didn’t disappear after better answers came out.
    But people are afraid. Especially in this country. Afraid, alone, and disconnected. Religion used to be the answer to that problem, and it still is to many. Let’s just hope that our optimism, our messages can permeate through the shouts and screams happening in our society today. That voice is growing. So maybe it will be possible to finally move us past this archaic way of thinking.
    Great post. I enjoyed it.

  3. Brilliant Post! I find myself contemplating this issue often these days. My better half and I recently moved to the country, to a very religious area. We love where we live but the natives are slowly learning about us. Most people are very nice, but when a discussion moves towards religion they seem fascinated when they find that I am an Atheist. Often I try to mitigate the issue by stating at the beginning of the conversation, “Well I am a Science Fiction writer, and all that applies.” I then let them try to figure out what that means. But I do not budge if pressed, I simply say I am an Atheist in a way that lets them know there is no wavering in my stance and oddly enough they leave it at that. However, I agree with you that the time will come when they will try to force their dogma back into the forefront of our society. We see it now of course with politicians and peddling influence but I feel that their breaking point of losing patients is quickly coming to head.

  4. Very powerful. The “feed them to worms” made we say “wow” out loud. The connection between guns and Christianity baffles me, but this actually put it into perspective. I think you’re right.

  5. What is that feeling, Hugh, when you cast off on a long journey, happy to aim yourself into an unknown adventure? Emotions play a huge part in human lives, I don’t think the “Prozac religion” is much of an answer. I’ve written a poem called “Deliver Us From Oil” because it seems “rational thinking” of economists (and those “NOT Believing” in climate change”, but “believing” in Eternal Growth), have your beloved oceans (beyond saving?). Human emotions are not yet ready for “artificial intelligence”. “Faith’ is sometimes just knowing (or guessing) that the sun will rise, like the Almanac says it will, or what squiggles of writing (totally symbolic) and sounds (we imagine into words) and all the emotion in this opinion of yours is just a message in a bottle, that you/we have faith will find a reader.

  6. My biggest beef with organised religion in general, and the Catholic Church is particular is wealth. They are the single richest entity on the planet, by a long, LONG way. If the Catholic Church set a nice example by telling their worshippers, “Look folks, religion is about your personal connection to the divine, so do it yourself at home, however you want, or get together to do it, but you don’t need to come to a church for it.” Then sell off all the lands, properties, gold and jewels, liquidise their assets and give it all away. In one stroke they could end world poverty, hunger, most disease – pretty much all the world’s major evils, including any religious conflict that had Christians on one side. It blows me away that they (the church) sit there professing their morality and goodness, when at a stroke they could solve most of the world’s problems. Just think what hundreds of billions of dollars injected into the poorest countries in the world would do. Rather unlikely, alas – which is strange, given that such a thing would align exactly with what the core values of Christianity supposedly are…

  7. I’m an atheist, and I agree with you, except for a couple of things.

    First, my husband is an atheist, and he’s a gun guy. Gun control is probably the number one issue we disagree on; he’s not terribly fearful otherwise.

    Second, the outrage at the football players was because they were kneeling to the flag/anthem, not because they wouldn’t. Nobody habitually kneels to the American flag, or when the anthem plays. I think it’s that much more insane that the ultra-conservatives were howling because a bunch of athletes were kneeling for the anthem, which is arguably a more respectful position than standing. But hey, nobody ever accused those folks of being rational.


  8. Very well said.

    I wanted to point out one small error. “…players wouldn’t kneel to a flag and song.” should instead be “wouldn’t stand at attention”. They were kneeling in protest.

  9. Viewing the deity worshiped by Christians as fearful and insecure certainly hangs together well as a narrative, but I think that there’s another way of looking at those four commandments.

    We humans are awfully prone toward worship. If it’s not one thing that serves as the focus for our reverence, it’s another. Money. Power. Sex. Gambling. Success. Fame. Alcohol. Spouse. And on and on.

    We cling to various pieces of the human experience in quest for a sense of wholeness and safety and joy. But most human things just don’t provide what we seek, or only do so for a short time. The high wears off and repeated dosages to create quite the same high. Or, worse, as we descend into addiction, our quest leads us into destruction, taking those around us down with us.

    Better to worship something big enough for our needs. And I think we need a lot of reminding. :D My opinion.

    Regarding the idea that Christianity leads to hatred and anger and cruelty…I would posit that there is another way to approach that as well.

    A wise woman once said to me that Christianity could be summed up in two simple sentences:

    Love God. Love your neighbor.

    All else is mere detail. And someone who uses those details to twist that around into “Fear God. Hate your neighbor” may say that they are practicing Christian faith, but they are not. They are merely practicing good, old-fashioned human fear and human anger and labeling it as Christianity.

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