Part Thirteen: The Human Condition
I want to discuss some emotional issues that religious beliefs serve to address and accommodate. Although it seems obvious that a belief should be concerned with the truth, it is less obvious to some that a belief's implications help determine its worth. It is even less obvious that a belief needs to conform to one's emotional needs and nonrational convictions. I hope that I have at least suggested in my discussion about faith that nonrational convictions do play a role in our spiritual and mental lives. I now want to offer a cursory survey of some emotional needs and desires a good belief-system ought to address, and then see how well the belief in God and the denial of the belief in God meet those needs.
Since the emotional concerns we have about the world help dictate the nature of the beliefs we will or will not accept, let's discuss some of those concerns more specifically. Our beliefs are supposed to help bring order to our lives; good beliefs will serve this capacity with as few drawbacks as possible, and bad beliefs won't. I also mentioned in the section about afterlife the fear we as humans have of death. The fear of one's demise is pervasive to the human condition and death's grand mystery, as well as its looming inevitability, weighs on most of us to some degree or another. A belief system has to address both the practical concerns of death and attempt to appease our emotional concerns about it well.
Problems akin to death are those about the nature of evil and disorder. Evil is a vague notion in most people's vocabulary, but there is nonetheless a strong emotional recognition of it by many people. Evil, badness, or negativity (or whatever one may choose to call it), is cause for concern for many of us, and a belief system should try to define it, fend it, and guide our activities with it in mind. Likewise, disorder is an unsettling and disconcerting state in the world that humans try to keep under as much control as possible. We as humans desire cogency and organization; a good belief system should both work for order, and in itself be orderly.
Just from a cursory consideration, humans seem to desire health in their lives, goodness in the thoughts and actions of both themselves and those of others, and order in the state of things. It is with these three basic principles that we combat death, evil, and disorder. On top of these are more minor but still important ideals that many of us strive for. We certainly seem to strive for simplicity, accuracy, control, hope, and beauty in our world-view. Let's talk about how theism and atheism addresses each of these points.
It is not enough to have our thoughts and actions try to directly avoid death, such as by avoiding hazardous situations or doing less harmful things. Indirectly, our religion also has to make some precautions against the mental anguish the notion of death can cause. Younger people don't seem terribly plagued by death and its inevitability, because it often seems too distant to worry about. But as we get older, we face not only the eventuality of our own deaths, but maybe more importantly, the deaths of the loved ones around us. Losing our parents, spouses, peers, and even children are among the most unsettling of events in our lives. Some deaths are easily anticipated, such as when an older parent sinks deeper into sickliness. But some deaths strike suddenly and unpredictably. The depression and mourning that result from such tragedies have unsettled the best of us, and a good religion should try to account for some ways of handling it.
I have already discussed how theism addresses this issue. According to most Christian theologies, there is a life after death that awaits whomever dies. During our lives, we ought to make great efforts to earn a favorable afterlife over an unfavorable one. The atheistic assessment, however, is mixed, because the atheist may hold that an afterlife exists, but many atheists do not. I am among the latter kind of atheist, so I will attempt to defend that position accordingly.
A problem I have with the Christian conception of how to address death is the value it places on life itself. Religions have constantly changed their positions about how important this life we live is. The basis of this ambiguity is that if a perfectly blissful, eternal heaven awaits us, the present life we lead which is not blissful and is quite finite looks rather unattractive. Many responses to this made in the past centuries have been to live as minimal an earthly life as possible, as simple as it can be, to both wait out this life of ours and in turn earn entrance to heaven through prayer.
This is not a common lifestyle for modern Christians, however, and I believe rightfully so. Christians are increasingly emphasizing that good deeds must accompany devotion in order to live a holy life, and living a normal life is perfectly acceptable. How do they defend this change of heart? The Bible makes reference to that fact that believers ought to seek active venues of spreading the word and its message. But many theists nonetheless revere the rather ascetic lifestyles of certain biblical figures, like the prophets. It is one lifestyle to feed the poor and preach about God, but it is an entirely different one to meditate by yourself in the desert or eat locusts and honey like John the Baptizer did.
So how is one supposed to lead their life under the Christian system? Naturally the answer differs from sect to sect, and even from person to person. But my concern remains this: perhaps there is too much focus on the afterlife than there ought to be, and not enough emphasis in the here and now. First of all, afterlife, however reassuring a concept, has some negative emotional consequences. It places the heart of the problem of death upon the ethereal ledge of this otherworldly realm we really take completely on faith. There's nothing wrong with faith in itself, but I still worry that someone might postpone serious consideration of the nature of death only because they have this belief in an afterlife to rely upon.
Yet I see Christians mourn and become every bit as depressed as atheists over someone's death. Why is this? I have often wondered about what true emotions these people are feeling; do they cry because they fear that the person will be going to hell? That seems extremely doubtful. Does their faith in the afterlife temporarily waver during these times of emotional crisis? That is also doubtful. If this is their response to death, is the concept of heaven really all that reassuring? Or are they mourning simply because they will miss their dying comrade? I cannot say for sure (though I suspect that they cry because they miss the person), but let me describe my personal method of dealing with death as an atheist who does not believe in any afterlife.
I see death as inevitable, as most people do, but I cannot place my faith in an afterlife because it is simply not a "living" belief for me. For all I know, there could indeed be an afterlife waiting for me, but I still live my life as if there wasn't. I predict that when my body dies, this person that I call "me" will die with it. I mourn for people when they die because I wish that they had more time to live. I believe there is only one life we can be sure about, so when that life ends, there's a real sense of loss. I certainly will miss them, but that is not primarily why I cry for them. The truth is, I cannot mourn for long about anyone's death because, to be frank, I saw it coming. Every single living person I know has a good chance of dying at any particular moment, so I've prepared myself for that fact. The human body is frail and can be injured at any given time, destroyed by accident or natural events, or by degenerating internally. It happens too often to ignore.
This does not send my life headlong into disorder and constant fear. Death happens, it's a reality, and that's all there is to it for me. I have to deal with it myself, and so I am choosing to deal with it for what it is. I sometimes see the concept of an afterlife as a way of avoiding the issue for some people by settling one's fear by placing it somewhere else. Emotionally, this is easier to do. But in the long run, I feel a healthy personal understanding of death will ward off depression and keep one's perspective on life in healthy check.
One needs to think about death and try to resolve whatever problem it presents at soon as possible. I would recommend that no one wait until a death occurs before they start dealing with it, because again, this is postponing the inevitable. Build up your emotions now so that when the problem does come along, it won't be as much of a problem anymore. When someone dies and you're unprepared to deal with death, there's often a lot of denial or depression that takes place. That doesn't need to happen if you prepare yourself.
Believing that this life is the only life might also seem to make a loved one's death especially sorrowful. I don't believe that at all, though. If you come to grips with death now before someone dies, you begin to change your views about life. Life is more valuable, more precious, and your actions will reflect that. Tell someone you love the way you really feel; why hesitate? We've all heard terrible stories of people saying about their dead loved one, "I never got the chance to tell them that I loved them." We all have a chance right now to speak our minds and hearts to those who are still living. If we are too embarrassed or afraid to speak our minds, then we should think about what would happen if one of these loved ones died today. If you could live with that, then there's not really a problem; but if you couldn't, why set yourself up for such heartache?
I am also concerned with the potentially negative conceptions the Bible and Christians sometimes make of our present lives. Life is sometimes made out to be this ultimately flawed, sinful endeavor that shackles our souls and tempts us into evil. I have also heard it said that humans are born sinners, which seems rather strange to me. Life is certainly imperfect in many ways and bad things go on all around us, but life is also much richer than just that. The tragedies and evils in our lives are natural and they inspire some of the strongest emotions in us. They complement the good things in our lives, and make us respect and strive for what is better. Who wants to live a life that is perfectly simple and good? That sounds very nice, but it is often the negative things in our lives that stimulate our greatest feelings and achievements.
Many Christians feel exactly the way I do, or at least they feel similarly. I just want to make it clear that atheism can at least rival theism's answers to the problem of death. I personally believe that atheism surpasses theism on this count, which is obviously why I believe what I do. But for your sake, I hope I have made atheism to look at least a little less grim a response to death than it might have been originally seemed.
There is also the issue of order and chaos that a world-view must deal with. I don't use these terms in this case as a scientist might when talking about chaos and order in physics. When I say order, I mean something more general in manner: a general organization to one's life and world. Chaos is simply the opposite of this order.
There is usually a human aversion to disorder in a worldly sense. To think that the universe moves randomly and that its result is an unpredictable life for as human creatures is unenviable by many people's standards. Yet many aspects of our lives seem very random, and there is a sense in most of us that our life is only marginally within our orderly control. Therefore, many religions seek to account for this fact and remedy those problems disorder may provoke.
Theism makes a proper accounting for order and disorder. There exists a God, who is in most cases a sentient entity who is all- powerful and all-knowing. God is behind the steering wheel of the universe, so to speak, because he made it and he has every power to control it. So despite this disorder we perceive in our lives, many Christians feel that God is actually moving it in a very orderly manner, abiding by his own sort of cosmic plan. This plan often makes little sense to us, but regardless, theists can be assured that there is some kind of order in the scheme of things.
As an atheist, I can both respect this opinion and yet find it very dissatisfying. The idea that although the world seems disorderly but is really quite organized does not offer much solace to me. The reason order is desirable is not only to mentally reassure us, but to give us a better indication of how to gain more control over our personal lives and predict what might happen next. If God exists, then we are clearly incapable of knowing his infinite thoughts and his plan is not made known to us in its entirety. So when a tornado strikes a town and kills half of its population, we might hear the typical response, "It was God's will" or "God moves in mysterious ways." In such cases, I find the mystery of God's will a bit disconcerting because it gives us little control and understanding, and actually creates a submission on our parts to some mysterious higher power.
Let me offer my atheistic alternative. I do not know if there is a metaphysical order in the scheme of the universe, for that knowledge would require far more intelligence and power than I could ever possibly possess. Rather, I try to take what I can know and make a decision as best as I can based upon that. On the area of order and chaos, I admire the work and accomplishments of science on this matter. Though we can't always use their discovered laws about order and chaos for more personal applications, their findings are nonetheless illuminating. What can be derived from some of their discoveries is that chaos naturally abounds in the universe; most things that exist are either in a state of chaos or are moving toward chaos. Despite that fact, orderly things do exist, and though they invariably become disorderly, they are remarkable in themselves.
I think that jibes with what most of us see around us in our everyday world. We are all alive, but we know we are going to die; we drive our cars knowing that eventually we'll have to buy a new one because the present one will break down. Our hair grows thinner and grayer; after young adulthood, our bodies gradually begin to perform less effectively. These things that I note are not causes for alarm, because they are as pervasive in our lives as the air we breathe. We learn to deal with them. Things break down, and people get old; it's just a fact of life.
In a wider sense, we also see nature move in its own mysterious ways. Some acts of nature can be predicted, but many cannot, like earthquakes. Strange things happen all the time, but again, this is no catastrophic revelation; I doubt my observation just now concerning the unpredictability of nature either surprised or disheartened anyone. Why? Because we as humans have learned to deal with much of the general chaos in our world. There seem to be definite scientific laws that nature simply cannot break. With these laws and with observations of the world, we have been able to scientifically predict and manipulate our lives better as time goes on. Despite the fact that chaos ultimately prevails, we're doing quite well in spite of it. We aren't perfect orderly beings, but we are far from being entirely chaotic creatures as well.
One particular problem that has arisen from the discussion of order and disorder has been the nature of the creation of human life. Theists make human life out to be a well-designed, planned creation of God's will with a purpose and a destiny. Similarly, some Christians are creationists who believe that the very birth of the universe and the world is just like the creation of us as individuals: designed and orderly. Our scientific knowledge of evolution and biological human conception is far less orderly than the theistic model. Life itself seems to be a random event. DNA certainly has a code for us as individuals, but that is susceptible to disorderly changes, such as birth defects. The origins of species themselves rise from the blind way genes get reproduced, unpredictably making small changes in one physical trait or another, some traits allowing the strongest organisms to survive while other traits killer the weaker specimens off. But though evolution incorporates chance in its model, it uses it with such success that we can actually make better predictions about animals and lifeforms; it actually turns out to be more useful despite its lack of conscious design.
This all touches upon what was said earlier about the teleological model. For many theists, life seems too orderly and designed to be a mere act of randomness; the pattern of life in its beauty and symmetry is too strong an indication against what science is telling us. Order grants these theists some kind of emotional assurance and a great respect for God's power and good will. But I think we can take from science a shrewd lesson about how we as humans ought to regard order and chaos. Chaos has its own role in our lives, and not just technically speaking on a physical level. I feel a great wonder and awe to think of all the little (and big) things that randomly had to happen to make the world the way it is. I too have a healthy respect for the order that does exist, and yes, I am surprised that the world is as orderly as it is. But I am still quite aware that chaos is far more rampant than these theists seem to give it credit for. They think that the world is too orderly to not be of someone's doing and design; I think the world is still too chaotic.
Do we really have an ideological stand-off here? Perhaps we do. Theists might say that atheists are underestimating the power of God, but atheists might say that theists are underestimating the power of chance. Though science can settle certain physical elements of the issue, it cannot settle more macroscopic ones. This is a question of personal choice to some degree, and that is why I have brought it to this section about emotional convictions. You must ask yourself, emotionally and personally, whether the case of the theist or the atheist is more in alignment with your own.
But before I leave it at that, please understand that atheism's treatment of disorder does not preclude mental anguish or disaster. There is disorder in the world and sometimes the way nature manifests itself is quite enigmatic and unpredictable in its violence. But we do the best that we can, and that effort is an honorable one. We are making great scientific progress in understanding our world, and this understanding will lead to a greater maturity in our attitudes about chaos and order.
Emotionally, the role science is taking as opposed to some theistic approaches is that of the active participant. I dislike the image of an omnipotent figure carrying out this mysterious plan while we simply wait and try to passively make the most of it. Scientists are not these cocky people who are trying to make gods of humans; they are simply trying to make human life better. Science is making a real effort to go out into the world and learn from it in active ways, and I find that fact invigorating and remarkable.
The way humans have made so much order out of this often chaotic world, even at times creating and thwarting disorder when it normally would have occurred, instills in me a great respect for the human condition. We are puny compared to the universe, but we are striving to prosper within it nonetheless. Atheists strive not because someone like God told them to, but rather because they know that doing the best they can do is all they can do. We who are atheists still enjoy a great deal of happiness and hope for the order of things, although that enjoyment may demand more effort than perhaps some alternative religious beliefs. We work for order despite disorder, and we keep a healthy admiration for the role of chaos while we're at it.