Why it is the Non-religious Who Can, and Must, Save the World


(The text of my talk at the Cleveland Sunday Assembly held two days ago.)

I must say that when I got up this morning and got ready to come here, I felt a strong sense of déjà vu. When I was a young man I was ordained as a lay preacher in the Methodist church in Sri Lanka and many a Sunday would find me dressing up to go to a church in the region to inflict my sermon on some hapless congregation. And now, decades after I became an atheist, here I am doing something that seems surprisingly familiar. Let’s see if I still have my preacher skills though if some people are getting a little worried, you can relax. Even in my heyday I was never a fire-and-brimstone, you’re-going to-hell-and-damnation-if-you-don’t-repent kind of preacher, and so am not going to be that way today either.

The creation of the Sunday Assemblies suggests that humanists have reached an interesting stage. Nonbelievers used to be denounced as heretics and many had to hide their disbelief for fear of persecution and even death. We have passed that stage in many countries though in some, especially Islamic ones, apostasy and blasphemy are still punishable by death. Since I personally find apostasy and blasphemy to be a lot of fun, it is fortunate that I have lived in countries where atheists no longer have to hide and can quite proudly proclaim who they are.

After being treated as heretics, we then reached the stage of being seen as oddities who were not taken seriously and were largely ignored. We have passed that stage too. We have gone beyond feeling the need to loudly asserting our presence to now having it taken for granted. Like the LGBT community’s great slogan “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it” says, we too are now here to stay and people know it. The LGBT community also has the wonderful rainbow symbol and it struck me that the creative types in the secular community need to come up with an equally catchy slogan and cool symbol for us.

The arrival of the Sunday Assembly can be seen as the final stage of progress for nonbelievers, a maturing so to speak, where we move from an intellectual movement to a practical one and claim our rightful place in the public square. Nonbelievers should not concede the public square to the religious. The religious do not own it even though they think they do. We have to establish our presence in every niche of the public space, from elected office to community work to political action to social activism, and the Sunday Assemblies can provide a vehicle for doing so.

And we have to do so because that is the only hope for the world.

The writer-philosopher Albert Camus begins his essay collection The Myth of Sisyphus by saying “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

That Camus, such a kidder! He must have been a barrel of laughs at parties.

But he raises a good question. Of course, all of us here think that life is worth living because, well, we are here, aren’t we? But why? Religious people will often say that it is belief in god and immortality that gives meaning to life and that nonbelievers must be a sad and despairing lot who just drift along without any purpose. Of course we know that is not true. The nonbelievers I know are not that different from the believers in how they live.

Given that the motto of the Sunday Assembly is to “Live Better, Help Often, and Wonder More”, it is good to ask questions such as: What does it mean to live better? Why should we help often? What is there to wonder more about? If it all ends with our own deaths and the eventual inevitable death of the Earth and perhaps the universe, then what’s the point?

I am not of course claiming that I have the answers to such weighty questions that great thinkers have struggled with for centuries, let alone deliver it in the next ten minutes or so, but I want to use the occasion of the inauguration of the Cleveland area Sunday Assembly to get us to think about these things. And I have some help to get us started. First up, here’s Stephen Fry pointing out that how we think about death has important consequences for how we think about life.

Bertrand Russell also addressed this question in his 1925 essay What I Believe:

“I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end, the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.”

As Fry says, it is the finite nature of our existence, not immortality, that actually gives life its shape, structure, meaning, and purpose. That is what drives the desire to live better.

The central idea that we need to spread is that we have only one life, which means that that life has to be lived to the fullest. There is no second chance, no opportunity to have a do-over. There is no afterlife in which wrongs are righted and cosmic justice meted out to evildoers. There is no heaven where those who live under wretched conditions today later get to enjoy themselves. The realization that there is only one life leads naturally to the slogan of “Live Better.”

It is important to realize that to “live better” should not be interpreted purely in personal terms of our own lives but that everyone has the right to a good life. And that is where the “help often” part of the Sunday Assembly slogan comes in, because we need to better the lives of others too, not just our own. We live in a world of indefensible inequality and monstrous injustice. We see a greedy transnational oligarchy grabbing as much of the world’s riches as they can while pushing increasing numbers into poverty and misery.

We know that we can feed the world. We know that we can provide clean water to everyone. We know that wars destroy the lives of ordinary people and benefit only the wealthy and powerful. We know that we can reduce diseases and childhood mortality by great leaps. And we can do all this with just the existing science and technology.

What is also becoming increasingly clear is that we need science and rational, evidence-based thinking to address these problems What holds us back from doing so is a combination of the greed of a few, the opposition to science of more, and the religious dogmas of many.

Take climate change. Some global warming deniers are flatly anti-science. They think that god will not allow the world he created and the people he shaped in his image to be destroyed. These people occupy positions of power and are dangerous.

Another issue is women’s rights. It is pretty clear that much of the objections to things like contraception, equal rights, freedom of choice in what to wear and behave, is rooted in religious objections to granting women full political, economic, and sexual equality and freedom.

When one looks at the sources of opposition to equal rights for the LGBT community, the only reason is a religious one, though opponents might try to hide the fact using bogus secular arguments.

Little needs to be said about the menace of religious intolerance around the globe. We have currently the massive conflicts between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, the killings and retaliations by Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. We have the attacks on Muslims by Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. We see the rise of violent Hindu nationalists in India. It is always the same with religions. When they are in the minority, they appeal to the virtues of tolerance and mutual respect and the freedom to practice their beliefs. But as soon as they become the majority, they seek to make their own religion the only one.

When I look at all the obstacles to a better and more just world that arise from religion, I sometimes think how nice it would have been if, when religious authorities ‘closed the canon’ and created what we now know to be the Bible, they had said to themselves “You know these books Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are pretty weird and hateful. What do you say we destroy them along with the other books that we think should be excluded”? But we are stuck with them and now have to fight their pernicious ideas.

And finally, the call to “wonder more”. There are those who think that if we stop believing in gods, we lose that sense of wonder and awe. I could not disagree more. In fact it is religion that strips people of the true sense of wonder, trapping them in a way of thinking that prevents the full flowering of the intellect, by replacing curiosity with pat answers that imprison their thinking.

Robert Ingersoll put it well:

“When I became convinced that the Universe is natural – that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, of the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust.”

As Charles Darwin said at the very end of the first edition of his epic work on evolution On the Origin of Species:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Darwin had only the vaguest glimpse of how that process from simplicity to complexity might have happened. But we know much more now and here is a video about the history of the universe as revealed by science.

The universe is very old (13.7 billion years) and huge (46 billion light-years to the horizon). What could be more awe-inspiring than the fact that even though we humans have lived for just a tiny period of time in a tiny portion of the universe, we have been able to discover so much about our entire history? The story provided by science as shown in the video is so much more wonder-inspiring than the religious stories where god is supposed to, with just a snap of his fingers, create light here and the Earth there and Adam and Eve and dinosaurs (though for some reason he kills the last ones later).

Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion said:

“The here and now is not something to be endured before eternal bliss or damnation. The here and now is all we have, an inspiration to make the most of it. So atheism is life affirming in a way religion can never be. Look around you. Nature demands our attention, begs us to explore, to question. Religion can provide only facile, unsatisfying answers. Science, in constantly seeking real explanations, reveals the true majesty of our world in all its complexity. People sometimes say, “There must be more than just this world, than just this life.” But how much more do you want?”

Live better. Help Often. And Wonder More. And while doing so, save the world.

Sounds good to me.

Comments

  1. exi5tentialist says

    The problem with Stephen Fry’s piece, apart from the fact that he seems to be deliberately trying to impersonate the narrator for the Clangers, is that there is a fundamental difference between objective death and subjective death. We can see and experience the death of other people. We can’t see and experience our own.

    Given this – what is the justification for saying that our lives are finite? If we can’t experience the end of them (or, for that matter, the very, very beginning of them) then what’s so controversial about saying our lives won’t have an end? The end is an abstract idea, not a real experience – so is it really real? Our lifes may have extreme illness, and we may experience that, but the end – our death – never.

    And moreover, as we can only understand other people’s experiences in terms of our own, if we can’t experience our own death from a subjective perspective, how can we possibly experience anyone else’s? This is a conundrum to which clumsy answers are very easy, but if you accept the logic, a life without end – or eternal life – doesn’t look philosophically that unreasonable.

  2. SuzyW says

    Thank you, Mano! I truly enjoyed your talk at the 1st “Sunday Assembly!” It’s always good to see you. 🙂

  3. leni says

    Even in my heyday I was never a fire-and-brimstone, you’re-going to-hell-and-damnation-if-you-don’t-repent kind of preacher, and so am not going to be that way today either.

    I did not know that, it would be interesting to read about led you off that path. Have you blogged about it and I missed it?

    And thanks for the transcript, I would have liked to see it. Stephen Fry and Bertrand Russell are two of my favorites, very nice choices. And Richard Dawkins when he’s not being a jerk 😉

  4. rq says

    exi5tentialist
    Once you are dead, doesn’t matter what you experience – you no longer exist to observers, and you no longer influence the world left behind. So, in the observable world, your life is finite.
    Do you perceive it as finite? Doesn’t really matter, except to you, but no one else will know or care.

    +++

    This was a great speech, Mano. Thank you for putting up a transcript!

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