If all is going well, you should be reading this column at the same time that I am blissfully drifting through the Grand Canyon with family and friends. And with this trip, it seems poignant to dust off a Daily News “Town Crier” column that I penned back in June of 2007. I originally wrote this piece in response to a local evangelist who bemoaned the “secularization” of society and who raised the very tired idea that secularization and atheism lead inevitably to hopelessness and despair.
The evangelist implied that hope from God is what keeps us on course in our daily lives. We hope that God will protect us from harm, and we hope that God will provide us with the chance for immortality provided we believe the “correct” things — and there are plenty of religionists who are ready to tell us what is correct; potential punishment keeps the slackers in line. But neither the requirement for belief nor the coercive nature of this arrangement is remotely attractive to a secular humanist.
Besides a complete lack of evidence for the existence of a God, one merely has to note that airline passengers about to slam into a building get no preferential help (insert tsunami, volcano, war, pandemic, etc.). That also pretty much dispels the notion that there is a personal God unless he has questionable ethics.
Furthermore, no one can prove there is an afterlife of any kind — Christian mythology tells us that only one person ever survived death and that story was written down more than 40 years after it purportedly happened. Wishful thinking is an equally parsimonious explanation.
Apologists claim that God lets tragedies happen to make survivors stronger, but this raises serious questions about His sense of justice and the arbitrariness of His help. In any case, when the pious receive no help, how is this any different from having no god? It is impossible to reconcile these observations with the notion that God is the ultimate source of hope.
Mark Twain succinctly summarized a secular humanist view of death when he said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” That is not to say that a humanist seeks death, but that a humanist fully recognizes the finality of death and this emphasizes the fragility and value of life itself. Emily Dickinson wrote, “That it will never come again; is what makes life so sweet.” You only live once; you only have one chance to make a difference.
Where a religionist sees purpose from God, a secularist sees a universe that is coldly indifferent to our lives and entirely without purpose — therefore, instead of seeking purpose where there is none, a humanist seeks meaningfulness. That is, we pursue that which is meaningful and the recognition, motivation and strength for such pursuits comes from within us and from our families and communities.
As the philosopher Andrew Kernohan has pointed out, the godless use their feelings to identify those things that seem meaningful to them, but they use rational reasoning to identify those things that are truly meaningful.
The trick to life is figuring out what is truly meaningful; the motivation in the end is living a meaningful life because we only have one such existence — why would you choose to do otherwise? Indeed, from this perspective one could have a very unhappy life but be satisfied with having a very meaningful life. One can also have a happy and hedonistic life, but never do anything meaningful; that would be tragic.
At the end of the day, my evangelical neighbor and I share many of the same values — love of family, friends and community, and pursuit of knowledge, music, art, teaching and creativity. We also share many of the same griefs such as loss of loved ones. As such I can also assure my evangelical neighbor that despite our very different world views, we are probably more alike than different.
Humanists have every reason to hope for the betterment of humanity and every reason to look toward a better future. Despair is not in our nature.
Call is a father of three and, at the moment, he and his oldest are running an 18-foot raft down the Colorado River.