I am a gnu atheist and as such I feel it is important to show that, on issues that matter, all of us as people share far more than the beliefs (or lack of them) that so often divide us. And what matters most, I think, is compassion (‘com’ meaning ‘with’ in the sense of something shared, and ‘passion’ meaning suffering). We are in this world together and what brings us closer is this sense of sharing the trials and tribulations and triumphs of human life, what John and many others call ‘love’.
I can appreciate because I’m fully human what it means to another to suffer like I do – whether that suffering is an artistic expression that falls just short, unrequited love, personal loss and tragedy, pain and injury and betrayal, even a child advancing to some new endeavor leaving a part of childhood behind forever (tough not to cry when the child heads off to school for that first time filled with such excitement and courage and armed with nothing but optimism).
But so too can I share the passion that infuses all of human life with so much potential meaning and purpose through love and adventure and excitement and common achievement. We share all of our humanity even if we share only some of what our different ideas of what that life should look like.
When I come across this sense of shared suffering – our common humanity expressed a zillion different ways – undermined by particular religious beliefs, I feel compelled to speak out. Not always well, not always effectively, not always kindly, but with an intention that is good, an intention to bring people back to what we share. In the same way that criminality is determined by intent to cause harm, so too do I criticize beliefs whose intent is to divide, to reduce human welfare and human well-being in the name of obeying and pleasing some other-worldly agency. Too often this attempt to impose one’s religious belief on others – no matter how heartfelt the case may pretend to be – is done to raise one’s lesser self to a more elevated place in the belief hierarchy, as if piousness itself is more precious to whatever creator agency is believed in than the actual welfare and well-being of others. Those individuals who are willing to sacrifice the welfare and well-being of others in the name of promoting them selves in the metaphorical eyes of some deity need to be confronted for their selfishness, stupidity, for their lack of empathy, for their arrogance and effrontery, for their misplaced priorities, and worst of all for their intentional perversion of that which binds us together: compassion – of shared suffering with other people in this life, in this place, in the here and now. In its place comes this belief-twisted caricature of compassion that is equivalent to becoming god’s jackbooted bully in order to share the deity’s suffering. It’s a form of illness of human spirit, one that is so blindly extended into the world through misogyny and bigotry and intolerance for what is just, what is right, what is good. We know better. And we can do better.
Religious belief opens this door (and often makes these divisive acts into virtues) as much as it opens a door to community and love and good works and to sharing beliefs of like-minded people. I think religious belief is unnecessary to achieve the same positive results (for what I think are better reasons) under different secular enlightened banners and ends up causing more harm than it does good in the conglomerate. I also recognize that the choice to hold religious beliefs is not my call (I’m not the one promoting the idea of the Thought Police). Each of us (but only in a secular liberal democracy let us remember) has the legal right to believe whatever we want that juices our religious engine but we don’t have the right to impose those beliefs in any way on others without undermining exactly that same right! (It’s a mystery why so many fail to recognize the importance of this very point when it comes to one’s primary worldly allegiance between a specific religion and the state, especially those who denigrate enlightened secularism in the name of extending their religious beliefs into the world.) Sometimes that fact needs to be pointed out to those who seem to be so willing to sacrifice it on their religious alter.
Finally, I have come to the conclusion that religion and all its negative effects can be all but eliminated if each believer holds true to keeping the positive beliefs they cherish wholly private (especially from children). We can be just for the sake of equitable justice and fairness, do what’s right for the sake of being ethical, be good for the sake of our common morality. Religious belief is not a better foundation (nor the only foundation) upon which to justify these goals and their achievement, nor is it central to determining and exercising what is just, right, and good. We can gather compassion in our hearts regardless of our beliefs and spread it like seeds through compassionate action as our testimonial to having lived honest and full human lives.
I don’t need to believe in deities. I can seek my answers – even if they include the ever-popular “I don’t know” – without any religious baggage. And that’s both empowering and freeing.