I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to read my speech from my new iPad.
Yep. I'm not only a humanist, I'm also an early adopter.
I want to start by saying that, to me, any discourse from me about how one can live a moral existence without religion or the church would
sound improperly defensive. That there's an opposite to be defended is
absurd and based on a provably false premise. So let's dispense with
(To be clear: I'm referring to the humanist axiom "Good without God," whereby "good" means morality. It's provably false that there exists no morality outside of religion, therefore the statement
sounds defensive to me.)
By what route does anyone come to believe what they believe? We all like to imagine that it's based on a set of logical facts, but it's often a
much more circuitous route.
For me it was pretty simple. I'm actually the fourth generation in my
family to have no practical use for the church, or God, or religion. My
children continue this trend.
Here are a few things I've learned.
Prayer doesn't work because someone out there is listening, it
works because someone in here is listening. I've paid
attention. I've pictured what I want to happen in my life. I've
meditated extensively on my family, my future, my past actions and what
did and didn't work for me about them. I've looked hard at problems and
thought hard about their solutions.
See, I order my life by the same mechanism that I use to build things. I cannot proceed to move tools around in the real world until my brain
has a clear picture in it of what I'm building. The same goes for my
life. I've tried to pay attention. I've tried to picture the way I want
things to be, and I've noticed that when I had a clear picture, things
often turned out the way I wanted them to.
I've concluded by this that someone is paying attention—I've
concluded that it's me.
I've noticed that if I'm paying attention to those around me, to myself,
to my surroundings, then that is the very definition of
empathy. I've noticed that when I pay attention, I'm less selfish, I'm
happier—and that the inverse holds true as well.
I think one of the defining moments of adulthood is the realization that nobody's going to take care of you. That you have to do the
heavy lifting while you're here. And when you don't, well, you suffer
the consequences. At least I have. (And in the empirical study I'm
performing about interacting with the universe, I am unfortunately the
only test subject I have complete access to, so my data is, as they say,
self-selected.) While nobody's going to take care of us, it's incumbent
upon us to take care of those around us. That's community.
The fiction of continuity and stability that your parents have painted for you is totally necessary for a growing child. When you realize that
it's not the way the world works, it's a chilling moment. It's supremely
So I understand the desire for someone to be in charge. (As a side note, I believe that the need for conspiracy theories is similar to the need
for God.) We'd all like our good and evil to be like it is in the
movies: specific and horrible, easy to defeat. But it's not. It's banal.
There's a quote I love: "Evil is a little man afraid for his job." I
always thought some famous author said it, but I asked my
200,000 followers on Twitter today, and it turns out that Roy
Scheider said it in Blue Thunder.
No one is in charge. And honestly, that's even cooler.
The idea of an ordered and elegant universe is a lovely one. One worth clinging to. But you don't need religion to appreciate the ordered
existence. It's not just an idea, it's reality. We're discovering the
hidden orders of the universe every day. The inverse square law of
gravitation is amazing. Fractals, the theory of relativity, the genome:
these are magnificently beautiful constructs.
The nearly infinite set of dominoes that have fallen into each other in
order for us to be here tonight is unfathomable. Truly unfathomable. But
it is logical. We don't know all the steps in that logic, but we're
learning more about it every day. Learning, expanding our consciousness,
singly and universally.
As far as I can see, the three main intolerant religions in the world aren't helping in that mission.
For all their talk of charity and knowledge, that they close their eyes to so much—to science, to birth control education, to abuses of power by
some of their leaders, to evolution as provable and therefore factual
(the list is staggering)—illustrates a wide scope of bigotry.
Now, just to be clear. If you want to believe, or find solace in
believing, that someone or something set these particular dominoes in
motion—a cosmic finger tipping the balance and then leaving everything
else to chance—I can't say anything to that. I don't know.
Though a primary mover is the most complex and thus (given Occam's razor) the least likely of all possible
solutions to the particular problem of how we got here, I can't prove it
true or false, and there's nothing to really discuss about it.
If Daniel Dennett is right— that there's a human genetic need for
religion— then I'd like to imagine that my atheism is proof of
evolutionary biology in action.
There may be no purpose, but its always good to have a mission. And I know of one fine allegory for an excellent mission should you choose to
charge yourself with one: Carlos Castaneda's
series of books about his training with a Yaqui indian mystic named Don
Juan. There's a lot of controversy about these books being represented
as nonfiction. But if you dispense with that representation, and instead
take their stories as allegories, they're quite lovely.
At the end of The
Eagle's Gift, Don Juan reveals to his student that there's no
point to existence. That we're given our brief 70-100 years of
consciousness by something the mystics call "The Eagle," named for it's
cold, killer demeanor. And when we die, the eagle gobbles our
consciousness right back up again.
He explains that the mystics, to give thanks to the eagle for the brief bout of consciousness they're granted, attempt to widen their
consciousness as much as possible. This provides a particularly
delicious meal for the eagle when it gobbles one up at the end of one's
And that, to me, is a fine mission.
— Delivered to the Harvard Humanist Society, April 2010