Friday, May 14, 2010

Doomed To Humanism

I often give credit to Sesame Street and my own epicurean libido for my lack of racial prejudice. Growing up in a white, lower-class, rural area in the Midwest, there were plenty of racist attitudes flying around, but when you’re receiving steady doses of ‘I’m okay you’re okay’ philosophy from Big Bird and the gang, and finding yourself deeply enamored with Lt. Uhura from the old Star Trek series, the hate is bound to lose. Pabst Blue Ribbon and Lynard Skynard will lose out to muppets and the starship enterprise every time.

The Sesame Street (and Star Trek) message of the potential of mankind and our inherent decency has always rung true with me. It has certainly rung far truer than the cynical view of mankind that is embedded in the Christianity that I grew up with, and tried desperately to reconcile with my own natural philosophical inclinations. Christianity is ugly. It tells us evil things about our nature (and not only are the things it tells us about ourselves evil, they are generally unfounded!). It says that we are born with a sin debt, that we are paying for the sins of our ancestors, that the only chance we had of redemption was God sending a man to be murdered on our behalf (explain the logic of that one to me), that anything bad we do is our fault and anything good we do is only because we allowed god to work through us. Ugly stuff. I always cringe inside when I hear someone say, ‘oh, god is good because I accomplished X.’ I want to grab the person by their lapels and shout, ‘no, god is not good. You are good. You made this happen’.

I should’ve known from the start that I was doomed to humanism. It has always been things that secular people said about Jesus that moved me. Kurt Vonnegut musing on the beatitudes is a thing to behold. If there were a writer in the Christian bible that wrote like Vonnegut, I may have had a chance at remaining a believer.

Vonnegut:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies — "God damn it, you've got to be kind."
-Eliot Rosewater, from God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.

If that’s not nice, I don’t know what is. There’s nothing that nice in the bible, and Vonnegut is just a man. I find it damning that the lord of the universe didn’t even have the good sense to hire a decent ghost writer when he was putting out his self-help program.

Even the symbols that were supposed to scare me away from leaving the fold only drew me farther out of it. Satan, very frightening and tricky as he seemed to be in a more fundamentalist imagination becomes eminently more sympathetic when you think about him for just a minute on your own. Read Arthur Miller’s ‘The Creation Of The World And Other Business’ for the best interpretation of things as they must’ve gone down. In spite of all of the scary stuff I heard in church, the Satan I ended up with was more Prometheus than Loki.

Faith is about shutting off your brain and basing your life and values on stale dogmas and outmoded fairy tales. Faith is a refusal to use your…god given faculties. Faith says, ‘I will claim to believe x and behave x because I have been told to do so’. The humanism which I have been doomed to leaves me with the tools of skepticism and reason to make my conclusions with. In one sense, this is harder than making choices through faith, because I am wholly accountable for my decisions, and it is upon my own faculties that praise or blame can be pinned. In another way it is easier, because I don’t have to constantly try to rationalize away my suspicions about the soundness of this or that dictate, and I don’t have to do all of that unnecessary heavy lifting to justify downright evil shit like the doctrine of hell, original sin, or weird prohibitions about how I use my naughty bits.

Humanism is exciting. Humanism is romantic. Humanism is rational. Humanism is brave in the face of the stories of gods and hell that we are programmed to believe. It’s infinitely appealing, because--to paraphrase Terry Pratchett--we begin life as rising apes rather than falling angels. Not only that, we are more responsible for our actions. We can’t follow the line of the religious and say to ourselves and others that we were ‘merely following orders’ when we go wrong. We have empirical tools to make decisions with, and our ultimate authority is our own conscious. There’s no passing the buck to a higher power. Humanism is intimidating on some levels, but it is also freeing.

I seemed to have been destined to this conclusion. I can’t in good faith vouch for faith, but I can vouch for our potential, collectively and as individuals. I can vouch for the thought that maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain for oneself and others is a simple and decent way to live, and I can see both the cold logic and the basic decency of a philosophy that considers the well being of our neighbors and our societies, and seeks to further human knowledge and understanding.

More Vonnegut:

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”


Amen.

8 comments:

the elegant ape said...

I met Vonnegut in a bar in Sandwich mass in 99. At the time he was huffin and puffin with emphysema. He was cordial and patient with me which was a chore considering I was three martinis in and overtly familar. The model for humanism and a literary giant.
The world will be forever poorer for his absence.
Think of that.......

Spencer Troxell said...

I'm glad to hear that story. It's good to know his decency wasn't just on paper.

I had a good friend back in the day that was always going to Vonnegut's speaking gigs, and I never tagged along with him. I regret that, because now both of them are dead now. It's easy to convince yourself that there will always be time for something at a later date.

As Vonnegut might say, 'so it goes...'

John Jack said...

I'm reminded of Vonnegut's concept of foma, harmless lies. I think prayer, like the construct of god itself, says something noble about us. Fictions can be the basis of whole cultures. I'm an athiest who prays for loved ones e.t.c., It's an act of desperation perhaps, but it's also an act of love.

Spencer Troxell said...

"It's an act of desperation perhaps, but it's also an act of love."

I love it, and am completely sympathetic.

I actually just wrote a piece about being an atheist who prays last week:

http://spencertroxell.blogspot.com/2010/05/atheist-who-prays.html

Thanks for the visit!

Lodo Grdzak said...

Good old Maggie! Hadnt seen her in awhile.

Spencer Troxell said...

Yeah. She's calmed down a lot these past couple of months.

Sometimes I feel a little guilty owning her, just because she's such an energetic dog and we've only got a tiny little yard. Lots of walks and trips to the dog park have helped.

Steve said...

Hey Spencer,
I'm going chronologically through your posts you provided in the most recent one from November. Wanted to start there and follow your logic you had for our discussion.

I think I can affirm what you say about the capacity of human beings for incredibly good things but it seems to me you are presenting only half the picture. As human beings we have a capacity both for the most amazing altruistic acts and taken the opposite direction, some of the most heinous evil one could ever conceived. It seems to me that secular humanism is unwilling to acknowledge the capacity for evil that is perpetrated everyday by human beings. They root the source of these things in a lack of knowledge or culturally conditioned situations but I think that undermines the true capacities of human beings for both good or evil.

I can understand your feelings towards Christianity as you see it. There are incredibly difficult things in the Bible. In some ways, for me, I don't feel its necessary to apologize for the Bible or its contents. The Bible is unashamedly real and unvarnished. Its presents humanking in its fullest spectrum, without the primrose glasses or antiseptically cleaned up versions. What we are willing to allow for the bible is mostly conditioned by our presuppositions. When people comment on the ethically problematic elements within the Bible I have to ask the question, where are you grounding your ethics for such a critique? It seems to me, secular humanism is trading on borrowed capital from the Christian religion when it uses the ethics of Christianity against itself. I think part of the problem in assessing Christianity as a whole is that we may only have contact with a limited amount of presentations or perspectives and those can be taken to represent all of them. I share your philosophical naturalist appreciation, but for me, I was able to find within Christianity an appreciation for those things in certain strands. Far from shutting off one's brain, its actually encournaged to use one's brain as we are called to love the lord our God with all our minds. Thats my first rough pass to start the conversation off. Let me know your thoughts.

Steve

Spencer Troxell said...

'It seems to me that secular humanism is unwilling to acknowledge the capacity for evil that is perpetrated everyday by human beings. They root the source of these things in a lack of knowledge or culturally conditioned situations but I think that undermines the true capacities of human beings for both good or evil.'

I believe in evil, and abhor relativism.

'I don't feel its necessary to apologize for the Bible or its contents.'

That's good to hear. The bible is an important piece of historical anthropology.

'It seems to me, secular humanism is trading on borrowed capital from the Christian religion when it uses the ethics of Christianity against itself.'

I disagree. I think there are good evolutionary explanations for how we got the good morals we've got, and, I think there are good rational and compassionate arguments to be made for why we should sustain them, without invoking religion at all.

'Far from shutting off one's brain, its actually encournaged to use one's brain as we are called to love the lord our God with all our minds.'

There has to be a kind of shutting off that goes on if you want to keep your faith. I think the old saying that 'contrasting evidence encourages scientists to throw out old conclusions, while contrasting evidence encourages theologians to throw out the evidence'.