Sunday, November 25, 2007

An atheist’s renewed respect for nature

Last weekend a group of us went on a two day hike in Suikerbosrand nature reserve. It was really enjoyable: we hiked over 30 kilometres through grassland and forest, and one night we stayed in a rustic cottage, cooking food over a camp fire and enjoying each other's company. We saw plenty of wildlife: herds of Hartebeest, Wildebeest, and Zebra, as well as various interesting insects and birds.

The hike got me thinking about my current views regarding nature. As a budding metaphysical naturalist, I currently hold the view that it is quite likely that the universe is not divided into supernatural and natural parts, but is a wholly natural unit. This means there is no supernatural element in humans that separates us from the rest of nature; we are completely natural beings, without immaterial souls.

While we were hiking, I sometimes took time out to stand in humble quietness, taking in the beautiful surroundings. I gained a renewed respect for nature as I did this, as I suddenly realised that all that I was seeing and experiencing – the cool breeze on my face, the graceful movements of a dancing Widowbird, the beautiful flower growing nearby – was made out of the same quarks, atoms and molecules of which I’m also completely composed. Everything that is me, my body as well as my mind, is constructed from the same natural material that formed the surrounding landscape, as well as the fauna and flora.

At one point an Eland, a large antelope, stood close by our party and simply looked upon us with curiosity as we passed by. I looked at it, and wanted to say: "Hey there, Eland! You and I have an important thing in common: we are made of the same stuff. Both you and I are fully part of this world in which we find ourselves. Because of this, we are kindred."

When I was a Christian, I held the view that humans were somehow set apart from nature because we possess immaterial souls. The natural was always seen as somehow less important than the supernatural. The material was an inconvenient but transitory phase for those who would one day live an eternity in paradise.

But as an atheist, I’ve gained a renewed respect and fascination for the material. Realising that every part of us might be connected to everything else in a natural state of cause and effect, I suddenly realised how important it is for us to preserve and protect the environment. If we are fully part of nature, then we are fully dependent on nature to survive and prosper; if we don’t have immaterial souls, then there is no part of us that is immune from good or bad things that happen to nature. If we harm nature, we will harm ourselves. So in order to prosper, we need to protect and respect the natural.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Free from the fear of an afterlife?

I've been reading Victor J. Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis, and the following paragraph made me wonder: are atheists free of the fear of what lies after death? Page 257:

The promise of life after death carries with it the dread that the afterworld will be spent elsewhere than in the bosom of God. Everyone is a sinner, and even the most cloistered nun lives with the nagging worry that she might not be forgiven for that occasional impious thought that slips into her head between endless recitations of the Hail Mary. Likewise, the believer in reincarnation might sometimes worry about living his next life as a rodent . . . On the other hand, the atheist has the comfort of no fears for an afterlife . . . .

What do you think?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bumper stickers 4 Jesus

While driving home the other day, I noticed the following bumper sticker on a car in front of me. It read, in bold letters: “Real men follow Jesus.” At a red robot I took the following picture of it on my cell phone.

This got me thinking about religious bumper stickers, which I’ve started to notice recently. I saw another one the other day which read: “Without the Bread of Life, you’re toast!” Most of the time I chuckle appreciatively at the clever play on words used on bumper stickers in general, even for some of the religious ones, but the bumper sticker above got me thinking about the underlining belief that motivates some religious phrases. The phrase “Real men follow Jesus” is a statement about Christian males. But if you think about it, it is also a statement about non-Christian males: the phrase is effectively making the implicit statement that males who don’t follow Jesus are not real men. I don’t know about you, but there are millions of Muslim, Hindu, atheist and agnostic men – who are loving husbands and fathers; living honest, moral lives – who might take offence at this statement.

I’ve noticed that some religious language promotes segregation; it demeans individuals by making negative statements (explicit or implicit) about those who are not part of the group. I remember, as a Christian, referring to my non-Christian friends – with much sympathy – as those who were ‘lost’ or ‘unsaved’. Such religious language is based on the erroneous belief that if you don’t follow Jesus, you cannot be fully happy or fulfilled; if you are not a Christian, you are somehow incomplete as a human being.

For millions of people Jesus might be the answer – and I have no problem with this – but for many atheists like myself, not only is Jesus not the answer, he isn’t even a viable option. The most important thing that I’ve learnt since loosing my faith is that it is very possible for someone to live a healthy, happy, fulfilled, and complete life without religion. I wonder if Christian language can ever come to a point of recognising this fact.

I’m not one for bumper stickers, but if I ever wanted to stick a bumper sticker on my car, I would choose one that – instead breaking down another person or group in order to raise the attractiveness of my own belief – promotes positive values, respect, and celebrates what it is to be human.


See an update of this post: Bumper stickers 4 Jesus revisited