Thursday, December 2, 2010

Doomed To Humanism

 [this piece originally appeared on 5/14/2010]

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.


“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 conscience. 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.”



the elegant ape said...

Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922–2007, American novelist

I had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Vonnegut in Barnstable in the late nineties. One of the most civilized, elegant people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

Lodo Grdzak said...

There are those who need faith to get them through some really tragic or heartbreaking shit. But just like my Codeine syrup helps relieve my cough in the short term, it can become addicting and a damaging crutch if I keep using it after the cough is gone. In the end, we're left with ourselves. In the words of Detroit's-own Madonna 'Life is a mystery, and everyone must stand alone." Faith and "being kind to each other," helps us deal with the terrifying loneliness of our existence. But ultimately, they simply soothe the symptoms--not resolve them.