Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Using Compassion and Reason (Not Atheism) to Guide My Life

"I believe in the religion of reason -- the gospel of this world; in
the development of the mind, in the accumulation of intellectual
wealth, to the end that man may free himself from superstitious
fear, to the end that he may take advantage of the forces of nature
to feed and clothe the world."
- Robert Ingersoll

When I was young, I was enthralled by mythology – Greek, Roman, Norse, Christian. To me, the heroic feats of the mortals, the power of the gods, and the glimpses of histories and people of the past were fascinating and inspirational. One day, when I was about 12, I asked my church youth leader about the ancient myths I adored, and was told “those aren’t real, nobody believes them anymore.” But when I asked for a better reason, he couldn’t give me any for why they weren’t true, other than the fact that they were old and they had no followers. I knew intellectually that they were just made-up stories, but I began to realize that there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between the stories of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the stories I was hearing every Sunday in church.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the comparisons between the different religions, mythologies and gods. I worked my way through a lot of doubt, confusion and frustration to realize that all the religions – from the ancients to the modern day – were not all that different, and all were attempting to explain the unexplainable, understand the unknown, and provide comfort and guidance for their followers. You may scoff at the idea of dozens of quarrelling gods living on the top of a mountain and occasionally descending to the mortal level to interact with and influence the human cause – but is that so different from what is described in “modern” religions?

Atheism is not a “faith system” like Christianity or Islam. It’s a conclusion, based on rational enquiry, that there are no gods. Atheism is a descriptor of a personal viewpoint, but it is not the sum total of a person’s worth or commitment to life. I use my reason and intellect to examine the way humans interact, and how I wish to be seen and treated in the world. My ethics come from a sense of connectedness to not only the rest of humanity, but to the rest of the universe. Life is cruelty and compassion, heartlessness and joy, tragedy and triumph. I don’t need a supernatural guiding hand to be helpful, reasonable and kind – just awareness that others have feelings and needs. I don’t need a deity’s threatening tirades to avoid causing unnecessary pain and suffering – just a rational compassion and empathy towards the rest of humanity.

I have taken the next step in understanding my beliefs by contemplating and understanding the reasons for why one would not consider any other religion but their own “true”. Try applying the same criteria to your own beliefs, and in doing so, you may just realize that there isn’t any real difference – and make the leap of faith to atheism yourself.

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