A few people have asked me recently, "Why do you care about being an atheist?"
The main argument seems to be "why would anyone care about not polluting the atmosphere, or not allowing children to ingest harmful chemicals, or not killing someone, or not eating meat...so why should you or I or anyone care about not having a religion?"
Wait a minute, you ask? Aren't all of those things you just said substantive, constructive examples of the value of NOT doing something?
Yes! I may be a terrible practitioner of sarcasm, so I'm just going to tell you what I'm saying instead. Huzzah!!
People ask me all the time: what's the value of not doing something?
There's plenty of value in not doing something harmful or wasteful or empty. I believe that the practice of religion often falls into one of these three categories.
Sure, there are benefits to practicing religion: a sense of community, the establishment of a moral framework in individuals, and the introduction of some powerful incentives to help others.
One of the problems with religion is that even the benefits of religion can turn out to have extremely negative effects.
Religious communities are helpful until they exclude others. Relgious communities are helpful until they begin to fight over divisions in dogma. Religious communities are helpful until they start to awaken the divisive tribal instincts of humanity.
The religious establishment of a moral framework in individuals is often misguided is sometimes dangerously incomplete. Unfortunately, one of the properties of religious belief is that individuals can often be easily manipulated for nefarious purposes by believing that some act of discrimination or violence is the will of a supreme being. Religions which allow individuals to come through religious training and teaching enabled to harm others in the name of said religion show a dangerous lack in the rigor of their moral framework. Any religion that can be disguised as hate or intolerance probably contains an element of hate or intolerance waiting to be unleashed. A religion of peace can be identified by the actions of its followers: no matter what religious adherents say, if the followers of a religion are peaceful, then the religion is peaceful. Now, I do realize that many religions have a fringe element or two which defies the peaceful teachings and traditions of a religion in order to practice hate. This I understand, and this would not prevent me from labeling a religion as a "religion of peace". However, when the number of fanatics spikes to the range of millions upon millions, then I will have serious doubts as to whether a religion really does represent an agenda for peace, especially if the religion under consideration has established a history of coercion as a method of conversion and political dominance, and if societies founded upon the ideas of a certain religion breed the repression of and intolerance of certain undeserving elements of the population, then it will further be confirmed that a particular religion is not a religion of peace.
It doesn't do much good to establish a moral framework in individuals when the framework itself is much more hole-y than holy.
But in its defense, adherents of religion also tell me that religion is a powerful force for good in our world: examine how religion compels kindness and respect and charity towards others.
Yes, I believe it is positive that certain adherents of religion are motivated to do something. But I do not believe that religion is the most efficient or preferrable way to do good in our world.
Why do we do good which we do? Many religious people do good for its own sake. This is the most admirable instinct of humanity. But I also fear that at least on a subconscious level, many people who are religious are only "good" because they feel that they will be rewarded either in this life or in another possible life eons into the future.
Religious people sometimes like to tell me that we have "free will", and that this is why there is evil in this world. Yes, there's evil because we "sinned", and thus brought evil into the world. The deity in charge (according to the story) allowed us to have a "sinful" nature, allowed us to bring "sin" into our world, because we have "free will". And why do we have free will?
Theists say we have free will, "because it is better for us to love our god of our own accord, and not through force or manipulation, as automatons -- to do so would not be true love."
And yet certain theists tell me that it's OK to do something good because of a forced system of reward and punishment? The concepts of heaven and hell, it has been said, are the ultimate bribe and threat -- eternal pleasure or eternal punishment: the choice is ours.
But is this system of "divine command ethics" really love for its own sake? If we have "free will" because we are supposed to love this creator for our love's own sake, but if we cannot do so because of a forced system of reward and punishment, then we are really incapable of love for its own sake toward any divine creator deity who would construct such a system.
Surely those theists who believe that we have "free will" because it is better to love for the sake of love would hesitate before contradicting themselves and telling me that a system of reward and punishment is really better than loving something for its own sake?
What kind of love is best -- a kind coerced or a kind given voluntarily? Have we still not made up our minds?
But people still say to me, well -- it's better that people are motivated to do good, even if the system is unfair or doesn't make sense.
That is still debatable. I don't know if people would be any more good or any less good without religion.
Personally, I think people would be just about the same. People who wanted to pass on moral values to their children would still do so - people who wanted to learn about morality would still do so. People who wanted to ignore morality would still do that, too, just as they do today. I don't see how much would change. The same things which motivate people to do good or bad now still motivate people to do good or bad whether there is a divine being overseeing us all or not.
Also, there are a lot of people who don't have ties to religion who do good things. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, two of the most important and generous philanthropists of our time, are not religious. Bill Gates said that religion is "inefficient". I agree with him.
As the signs placed in Washington D.C. this holiday season by a humanist group suggest, "Why not be good for goodness' sake?"
I think we can all agree that this is the best kind of love there is.
Yes, sometimes religion does manage to overcome all of these obstacles and ultimately does become a positive force in peoples' lives. Sometimes religious communities form that don't criticize those who have a different interpretation of dogma and don't stigmatize those who aren't members of the community. Sometimes people are able to select the parts of religious tradition which they consider to be good moral guidelines and manage to have a positive impact on society by living through these principles. Sometimes people do good things for the right reasons because that's how they interpret religious teachings: many religious followers see the examples of Buddha, Guru Nanak, or Jesus Christ, and think that it really is more important to do something good for its' own sake rather than to earn a reward or avoid a punishment.
We know the good that religion can accomplish, and I strongly believe that we can still manage to accomplish almost all of this without the aid of religion. I know it will take a lot of hard work, dedication, and perseverance, but I believe we can do this. And I believe we should do this.
We can overcome the negative aspects of religion and we can emphasize the positive aspects of religion in our societies and in our communities and in our families, without serving a specific religious purpose.
I don't want religion to be eradicated. If religion can do the positive things which I mentioned, and avoid the pitfalls which I also mentioned, I believe that it can have a valuable influence on our world and should be allowed to fluorish in that form. However, I also believe that we can accomplish all of the positive things that religion does now more efficiently with greater impact if we're not hampered by a religious message or agenda.
Talking about atheism and the ethics of humanism is something positive we can do. If religion is going to be something we're not doing, it's going to take a lot of effort to do that.
I am absolutely in favor of doing something in order to not to do something so we can instead do something else. I am in favor of promoting reason and rationality and atheism so we can avoid the negative entanglements of religion and instead rely on secular ethics and the morality of empathy to form communities, establish a moral framework, and provide incentives for positive behavior.
What is the value of NOT doing something?
It's infinitely greater than the value of doing something harmful, or not taking something harmful which could be positive and turning it into a positive force, or not replacing something negative altogether with something less harmful and more beneficial to everyone involved.
"Why do you care about NOT having a religion: you wouldn't attend meetings for a non-stamp-collecting group, you don't read non-Twilight blogs, and you don't describe your hair style as a non-Mohawk, so why care about not having a religion?"
The value of not having a religion is measured in the absence of all the negative entanglements of religious belief and practice and by the accquisition of all the positive traits of a morality based on empathy and compassion. There are many ways to value the absence of a negative quantity.
Yes, it is not what we do not do that is meaningful; it is what we do that is meaningful. Not having religion means that I do possess the freedom to think about morality for myself and do good for its' own sake - it means that I do have the ability to research scientific phenomena without having to justify my discoveries through religious doctrine - there are plenty of things that I do because of my lack of religion that are meaningful to me.
This is why my atheism is important.