I don’t know who Pamela Bone is but apparently she has passed away judging by the title of the article. Her words are very good and are worth a read and some contemplation.
A while ago, walking along a river bank in the country, I discovered the meaning of life in a piece of cow dung.
In that dried disc was sprouting a tiny forest of fresh green shoots, the seeds the animal had eaten, starting a new life cycle, reaching for the sun. For a moment I understood. Life exists, I thought, because it can. But only for a moment. Then, I thought, why can it? Why is there something and not nothing? And why is there this something instead of some other something?
Years before this I had what you might call a Road to Damascus experience in reverse.
It happened like this: I was in my kitchen, while outside the house my little girl was playing with our dog. I heard the squeal of car brakes, a dog’s yelp, a child’s scream. As I ran I prayed, “please God, please God”. As one does. But even as I ran, something in my head said: “No use. There is no God. Whatever has happened has happened.”
The worst had not happened. The dog ran onto the road, was hit by a car, and in its dying agony bit my daughter, who had run after it. She still has the fine scars on her cheeks.
That was the last time I prayed. To be honest, I had been wavering in my religious belief for some time before. But from that day, in my heart I knew. Now, I do not believe something outside of myself was talking to me. (Who? God, to tell me he doesn’t exist? Satan, maybe?) It was, of course, my own voice. People who are not mentally ill know that any voice in their head is their own voice.
But while my heart knows, my mind doesn’t. I don’t know if God exists. I have no feeling that one does, but I don’t know. And neither does anyone else.
Religious belief (where it is not held merely out of habit) is a matter of deep intuition, not knowledge. One person’s deep intuition tells them there is a God, another person’s tells them there isn’t. Why is it, then, that the people who hold the former belief have been allowed, for so long, to claim the high moral ground?
I don’t mind at all if people believe in God — though some believers seem to mind quite a lot that I don’t. I respect their beliefs. What I do mind is the assumption of many that they are better people because they believe; that faith itself is a virtue and that, therefore, a lack of faith is immoral or, at best, to be pitied.
The unsuccessful American vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman declared before the US election that “we should not indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion”. The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made a similar statement recently. These sentiments are an insult to the 5% of Americans who have no religion, or the 40% of Britons, or the 30% of Australians.
Moreover, they are as little based on any empirical or scientific evidence as they are common.
There is no proven correlation between morality and adherence to any organised religion. Indeed, some might say the opposite correlation applies. I don’t. It is impossible to weigh up paedophile priests, packed churches in Rwanda before and after the genocide, the extremism on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, against the vast amount of good that is done in the world by people who are acting out of religious motives.
Yet the question, “Where are your humanist or atheist organisations working to help the poor?” is in a way nonsensical. World Vision is a Christian organisation. Amnesty International, Oxfam, Medecins sans Frontieres and countless others have members who may or may not be religious. But whether they are or not has no relevance to the work of the organisation.
You (unbelievers) can’t believe in any force higher than yourselves, it was said to me recently. Not true. I believe in plenty of things higher than myself: that oak tree outside my window, for one example; and every single child who comes into the world, new and hopeful. I just don’t believe in a supreme supernatural being, that’s all.
There is no evidence that those who believe in God are kinder, less interested in making money, or more moved by art, or music, or the beauty of the world. There is no evidence that they are either better or worse people. When a third of the population does not hold to any religion, is it not time the bluff that religion is necessary to morality was called? Support for this view comes from a perhaps surprising source: Richard Holloway, Bishop of Edinburgh, argues in his book Godless Morality that religion and ethics should be kept separate.
Morality is an evolved, human construct, and those moral imperatives that are permanent and universal, such as the one against murder, are held on moral, not theological, grounds.
I don’t know the meaning of life. I believe it has the meaning we give it. It is wrong to describe people without religious faith as unbelievers. Atheism is the belief that no God exists; agnosticism is the belief that we do not know. These are beliefs. And are equally valid and deserving of respect.
This article was originally published on March 24, 2001.
I sometimes use the term nontheist myself but in retrospect that has a negative meaning almost like unbeliever. I think I should try to stick to the term freethinker. I’ve always liked that one better anyway since it really describes a mind that does not follow dogma or belief as part of a herd mentality.
I also like the story at the beginning about the dying dog biting the daughter. It’s sad it happened but a religious person would point at that as a miracle and proof of God’s intervention. This freethinker apparently saw it as proof that the universe unfolds as it will on its own. It just reminds me that it is our freethinking minds that defines how we relate to the universe and what we believe is really going on. We really have no clue and are just making sense of it for ourselves. This is why my viewpoint of truth is labeled Agnostic: we have no knowledge or understanding of the real truth.