Monday, October 26, 2009

What does it mean to be an atheist?

The realm of the supernatural is a crowded place.

If someone asked you to look at the picture above and describe what you see, how would you answer? Well, you might point out the beauty of the trees, the dazzling sunlight, and the rich, soft grass. But if you were given a pencil and asked to add something metaphysical, how would you respond?

If you are a Christian, you will probably reply that in a metaphysical sense this picture is incomplete, as it does not include the presence of God, which is, it is claimed, all around us. If you had imagination, you would probably find a way to draw this in. But you are told not to worry about drawing God for now; just focus on supernatural creatures.

You might hesitate at this point, as you have probably never seen a demon or an angel before, so you base your sketches on Frank Peretti's books. After a few minutes you stand back and admire your drawings of demons and angels raging battle amongst the trees above.

Now imagine if representatives from all religions and faiths – present and past – were given a turn to draw their own supernatural creatures onto the same picture. Together with your demons and angels, a Muslim will add a djinn, a Hindu an Asuras, and a Chinese a shen. Soon the picture above will be completely covered with sketches of hundreds of creatures for which we have little evidence. As you probably expect, we will no longer be able to discern the trees, the sunlight or the grass, as these will be covered by layers of metaphysical confusion, jumbled colours of chaos and clutter.

Yes, the supernatural realm is a very crowded place.

Many people ask me what it means to be an atheist. To give you some idea, imagine the crowded picture, and then imagine a person taking an eraser and slowly removing all the sketches of sprites, goblins, spirit guides, elves and finally the demons and angels. The eraser returns the picture back to what it originally was – a simple vista of trees.

Take a look at this simple vista, but now for what it is, without thought of any hidden supernatural gods, creatures or forces. The beauty of the trees, the dazzling sunlight, and the rich, soft grass – that is what it means to be an atheist.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Is a person moral if they simply obey a law?

I've been pondering this question ever since The Mail & Guardian reported last month that the National Interfaith Leadership Council (NILC), a religious body, announced that it wants to revisit South African laws legalising same-sex marriage and abortion. The NILC has strong political connections with the ruling party, hence all the publicity.

I don't want write about the NILC's intentions in this post (as others have responded here and here). Rather, I want to ask the question: will simply passing laws to govern moral behavior – which some fundamentalists want – make citizens more moral?

I don't think it will, for the following reasons:
  • Laws might govern your actions, but they generally can't govern your personal and hidden desires. If your desires are strong enough, you will find a way to break the law anyway.
  • Laws might encourage conformity and obedience, but they generally do not teach personal responsibility.
  • Laws might provide a set of rules by which to live by, but they generally do not teach why those rules are important.
  • Laws might externally govern conduct, but they do not develop an intrinsic morality within the individual which governs conduct without compulsion. Isn't it better for a person to refrain from doing something, not because is illegal, but because they don't want to do it?
  • Laws might be prohibitive in nature, using fear to persuade. Fear works well in the short term to impose control, but such a system risks losing its power if people lose their fear.

In other words, I believe laws or commandments (religious or otherwise) should not be used as the primary tool to ensure that individuals live morally. I believe that the best way to build a strong, ethical society is primarily through education, by fostering respect for oneself and others, finding joy in diversity, and encouraging responsibility towards society.

I'm not arguing that morality and law are totally separate entities; one only has to consider the law against murder to realise that laws do overlap with morality in some cases. What I'm trying to focus on is the purpose of making laws, which, in my view, is to maintain social order, to protect the freedoms and rights of individuals (hence, the decree against murder), and to arbitrate disagreements between parties. I don't think law is the right tool to use in order to foster moral behaviour.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

A passage to think about

Okay, I never thought I would ever quote anything from Louis L’Amour, but below is a passage from The Walking Drum, an adventure story set in 12th century Europe. In this passage, the protagonist (the narrator of the story) stumbles across a group of students in Paris, sitting out in the open listening to a teacher. The protagonist’s comments kind of resonate with me (page 245):

Some glanced askance at me, sitting my fine Arabian horse but wearing battered armor, sword at my side, bow and arrows slung on my saddle. No doubt they wondered at such a man being interested in their discussion.
The lecturer, a thin man with a sour face, was expounding upon Bernard’s condemnation of Abelard for his application of reason to theology, and praising Bernard for his sentence against Abelard, who he called a heretic.
“Nonsense!” I said irritably. “Bernard was an old fool!”
Every head turned, and the teacher stared, aghast. “How dare you say such a thing?” he demanded.
“I dare say anything,” I replied more cheerfully, “because I have a fast horse.”
Several of the students laughed, and one shouted, “Well spoken, soldier!”
“Have you no reverence?” the teacher demanded.
“I have reverence for all who ask questions and seek honest answers.”
“A philosopher!” laughed a student.
“A wanderer in search of answers,” I said, then to the teacher, “You asked if I have reverence? I have reverence for truth, but I do not know what truth is. I suspect there are many truths, and therefore, I suspect all who claim to have the truth.”
Walking my horse a few steps closer, I added, “I have reverence for the inquirer, for the seeker. I have no reverence for those who accept any idea, mine included, without question.”
“You ride an infidel horse.”
“My horse has never committed herself, but judging by her attitude on a frosty morning, she is an unbeliever.”
There were subdued chuckles, and the teacher’s eyes narrowed. “You ridicule the Church,” he threatened.
“Who mentioned the Church? On the contrary, I have great respect for religion. My objection is to those who are against so many things and for so little.”