Saturday, July 10, 2010

All you need is Love

Are the Beatles right? Is Love all you need? Obviously it also helps to have shelter, food, access to clean water, health-care, education and a stable government. If the universe does exist as the outcome of morally neutral physical forces, without purpose and indifferent to human existence, what meaning and purpose can we make of our lives? What values do we live by? How do you live a Good Life in the absence of any external force or design?

Philosophers have been asking the last question since Socrates. The Greeks thought that a good individual life could only occur in a good society and that good government was an essential element in achieving this goal. The real point of politics must be to develop a society where individual lives can flourish regardless of class, gender or ethnicity. It is probably possible to live a good individual life if oppressed, poor, hungry and scared but without doubt it is harder.

So given the constraints of time and place and societal conventions, what autonomy does an individual have to create their own sense of purpose and meaning in Life? I believe that we have a reasonable amount of autonomy over the choices we make in life and that we can and do set our own direction. Many philosophies and certainly most religions are quite prescriptive about how to live your life. But I believe that there is no one way to live a good life. However I find much to agree with in the philosopher A.C. Grayling’s recent book “The choice of Hercules” where he discusses finding a balance between pleasure and duty in trying to lead a life truly worth living.

However most of the recent studies on Happiness and Well-being reveal that it is relationships that are the greatest indicator of happiness. Not only relationships within a family, but also with friends and with the wider community which give you a sense of belonging. It is probably stating the obvious to say that love, of whatever kind, seems to be an essential ingredient for the Good Life. Moreover it seems to me that along with obeying the law, having a sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of life and the universe might also help, with gratitude for life and acceptance of death. Nothing else seems to really matter. So I’ll end with another song: Don’t worry, be Happy!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Book Review 4 - Utilitariansm by John Stuart Mill

At long last – the promised blog on Utilitarianism – one of my favourite philosophies. It has occurred to me that I have been talking a lot about God for an Atheist, but this book review will be fairly free from that topic as like the Epicureans, Utilitarianism is based on human-centred ethics. It owes a lot to the philosophy of Epicurus in that it recognizes that humans respond naturally to pleasure and wish to avoid pain whenever possible. But unlike the Epicureans, the Utilitarians did not advocate withdrawing from public life to achieve this state. In fact the founder of the movement Jeremy Bentham was one of the most influential thinkers of the 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly in England. He is credited with influencing the Great Reform Bill of 1832 which overhauled the still feudal British electoral system. He also had a great impact on reform of the British legal system and was one of the first people to promote women’s suffrage and the decriminalization of homosexuality.

The main principle of Utilitarianism however is “the greatest good for the greatest number” meaning that all actions must be judged by their outcomes rather than by their motives, and whether they maximise happiness or pleasure for ourselves or for society in general. This is how we should determine what is right and wrong and this utility is also known as the greatest happiness principle. Bentham believed that humans have a tendency “to make a duty and a virtue of following their self-interest” but that because we have to co-operate with others we can develop sympathy with the needs of our fellow humans. Like Aristotle, Bentham was very concerned with defining things that we take for granted and disliked “vague generalities.” He very precisely described the different kind of pleasures such as those of the senses, wealth, skill, amity or friendship, power, reputation, piety and even malevolence. Some pleasures such as piety and malevolence can also be pains. His main interest though was in the best way to govern and to make laws as a result of his theory.

His follower, John Stuart Mill, who modified and expanded the concept of Utilitarianism, was more interested in ethics and morality. John Stuart Mill went further than Bentham and incorporated a Stoic sense of duty and the role of the conscience into Utilitarianism, claiming that there were two levels of happiness - one derived from sensual or physical pleasures and the other from those of the mind. Mill argued passionately that it is better to be “Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” He also emphasised the importance of love or private affections as being an important factor in happiness, something that Bentham seemed uninterested in. One of the best passages in the book I think is where Mill says “Genuine private affections, and a sincere interest in the public good, are possible, though in unequal degrees, to every rightly brought up human being. In a world in which there is so much to interest, so much to enjoy, and also so much to correct and improve, every one who has this moderate amount of moral and intellectual requisites is capable of an existence which may be called enviable.”

It is a thought provoking book and aimed at the ordinary person rather than at an academic which makes it very readable despite its age. (the collection of essays was first published in together in 1861 although some of Bentham’s writings first appeared in 1789.) Although Utilitarians were considered radicals in their time, their views on the liberty of the individual and the right of all people, whatever their station in life, to enjoy a happy life is something that we mostly take for granted now yet their influence has profoundly shaped our society particularly in the area of law, economics and of course philosophy.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Godless Life

Two of the most common questions that atheists’ get asked is “How do you live without Hope?” Or “Why do you want to deny God?” Mostly people just assume that you are ignorant about the Bible and that if only you knew the Good News you would think differently. However, most atheists, I suspect, are not atheists due to lack of exposure to the Bible but for the opposite reason. In fact it is knowledge of the bible that has put me off the God described there and in other similar texts. It is an emotional reaction as much as a rational one. Perhaps one of the reasons for our resistance is that we atheists have trouble with authority figures. Or are we just too critical when, after reading these texts, we decide that if humans have design flaws, whose fault is it anyway?

Perhaps though, we should respond to those questions by asking our own questions: what impact does not believing in a God actually have on your life? What do Atheists do differently than God believers? My answer is simply: nothing. For we are all born, reproduce and die exactly the same regardless of what faith we have. Apparently there are no more atheists in jail than believers. Murders and rapists can believe in a God as well as people who commit fraud and who are unkind to animals or abuse children. Atheists do not seem to be any more immoral or criminal than anyone else. As well, random unpleasant events can happen to us all, atheists or not. We would all die tomorrow if an asteroid hits earth. Believing in God does not stop bad things happening nor does it stop death.

All that seems to happen if you believe, so it seems to me, is that you feel better because instead of random atoms colliding, someone has a purpose or a plan and thinks that you are special. All the wrongs of the world will be righted and in this new Kingdom there will also be everlasting life for believers. Apparently that comforts many people. However it seems unlikely to me and, like most atheists, I prefer to wait and see for myself. But I do have hope that it will not be tomorrow!

Another criticism leveled at atheists this Easter was that, unlike religious organisations, they do not care for the sick, the poor or the under-privileged of this world. This criticism deliberately ignores the many organisations around the world such as the Red Cross, Oxfam and Amnesty International to name just a few, that do not have religious affiliations. It is rather insulting to think that you need to be religious to care about the world or to donate money to worthy causes. Atheists do these things not to please God in order to get into Heaven, but because it is the right thing to do.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Living with Uncertainty

I chose today’s picture because the red bus atheist campaign in England has been so successful and I like the wording of the banner, particularly the use of the word “probably”. Richard Dawkins (pictured) usually does use this word when saying that in his view there is no God but, perhaps just because of his Oxford manner, gives the impression that really there is no uncertainty at all and that believers are generally just stupid and ill-informed. Of course people who have faith just counter his certainty with their own and accuse atheists of deliberately denying God and leading empty, meaningless lives, which rather leads to a stalemate. This lack of tolerance and understanding of the views of others is obviously a fairly natural psychological result of fears due to lack of control over life and anxieties about strangers. Freud is right I think in encouraging us to continually scrutinize and examine our own motivations and to accept and acknowledge these fears. I think that accepting some uncertainty about the meaning of Life, the Universe and whether a God exists or not, requires a lot of self-confidence or self-control and that we all need to cultivate it to live together more harmoniously.

While I find Atheism to be rationally satisfying, I think that it tends to ignore natural human desires for the irrational and the emotional which belonging to a religion can satisfy, particularly in the area of ritual. Ritual can take the form of ceremonies, stories and celebrations that mark the cycles of life or seasons of the year. Rituals can aid in developing a sense of group values and an idea of shared identity that can allay anxieties and provide comfort in difficult times. Music is, of course, central to ritual as it evokes emotion and creates atmosphere. For some years now I have been celebrating the solstices and the equinoxes as part of what my daughter calls my cult! Although really just an excuse to have a themed party with friends, I really feel that although it is fun, we lack an inherited ritual which is meaningful and emotionally satisfying.

What my historical research has shown however, is that the early Christians used many existing pagan rituals in creating their new religion, so now I can enjoy Easter and Christmas as solar and seasonal festivals without being untrue to my rational beliefs. While I know that we need to be mindful of the fine line between ritual and superstition, and that not everyone shares my world view, I have found that people really enjoy re-connecting with the natural world and becoming more aware of seasonal and celestial events. I think that living, as we mostly do, in urban environments that have very little relation to the natural world and with the decline of participation in meaningful rituals, this might help to explain the increase in depression and anxiety in our modern western world.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Do we need a Saviour?

As it is Easter, it seems timely to reflect on religion, its role in human society and the near universal need for a savior. In the famous book ‘The Golden Bough’, James Frazer described the transition from magic to myth to religion very persuasively. He examined the origins of European fertility gods and how originally the King was sacrificed at the height of his powers to ensure the return of the sun and the growth of new crops after winter. He was usually re-born again in the spring in a new form. This practice pretty soon gave way to non-human substitutes such as animals and totems. However, it is fascinating to see the survival of such concepts in the continued existence of the Wicker-Man, the phallic may-pole and of course the most famous scapegoat of all, Jesus Christ. However, Frazer’s desire to find a unifying theory of religion caused him to make many dubious assumptions about Non-European indigenous people, their myths and magical ceremonies, leading to much criticism of his work.

It is without question though, that Humans need to belong to a group to survive, and that magic and rituals such as stories, dance or art have always been used to strengthen these bonds, with the unfortunate consequence that outsiders are necessarily excluded. The development of a priestly class, who could intercede on people’s behalf to a God, or Gods, cemented these differences, as their power always depended on the unquestioning acceptance of taboos and on their special knowledge of any rituals or sacred texts. Many modern Christians are scornful about the so called primitive belief in magic yet refuse to recognise that not only does the ceremony of communion when bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of a sacrificed Christ, but also the concept of resurrection itself, relies on this primitive belief in magic.

Although increased literacy and the translation of sacred texts into common languages have, in most western countries, reduced the power of priests, I believe religion is overall a negative force in society. Many people still believe unquestioningly in texts written in another place and time and continue to uphold taboos relating to food, dress and reproduction which make little sense in the modern world. As we all know, small doctrinal differences can cause violence and all too often, wars. The prevailing view common to nearly all religions is that their particular version of faith is the only and absolute truth and that all other beliefs, however similar, are not only wrong but will lead to eternal damnation. Many are sadly not content to leave this to God but take action in this world to eradicate unbelievers.

Critics of atheism say that secularists too have killed people in the form of Stalinism and other non-religious totalitarian regimes. It is indeed a sad fact that humans tend to want to exterminate others all too freely and that political views as much as religious views have been used to unite people in this way. Also it is true that some Atheists can be as dogmatic and intolerant as anyone else. It is this human desire for certainty and absolutes that leads to trouble in my opinion. However, I can understand why many people want a savior or a hero who will right the wrongs of the world so that we can all live happily ever after but I think we also need to leave room for a little doubt and skepticism, no matter what our world view is. Perhaps we should all celebrate uncertainty as well as fertility at Easter, as that way no one has to die unnecessarily!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Book Review 3 –The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

This book by Alain de Botton is a wonderful introduction to the usefulness of philosophy for life with plenty of quotes from six of the great philosophers of the last 2,400 years including my favourite Epicurus. The title is a kind of philosophical joke as the “The Consolations of Philosophy” was originally written by the Roman Senator Boethius in 524 AD while he was imprisoned by the Ostrogothic King Theodoric on trumped up charges of treachery. Although a Christian he was also in agreement with Platonic ideas and his work is often described as the most interesting piece of prison literature ever written. Boethius writes the book as a conversation between himself and Lady Philosophy. She consoles Boethius by discussing the transitory nature of fame and wealth by saying "no man can ever truly be secure until he has been forsaken by Fortune."

This is essentially the theme of Alain de Botton’s work. He offers philosophical advice for a number of human problems, including unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart and difficulties in general. It is refreshingly free from jargon and the traditional metaphysical dilemmas that usually make philosophy impenetrable. Instead it is a practical guide to understanding what matters in life and how to achieve happiness. The philosophers he has chosen do not always agree on how to achieve this, but he presents their views in a very entertaining way.

I particularly enjoyed the section on inadequacy which featured Michel de Montaigne who wrote his famous essays around 1580. Montaigne’s descriptions on the size of his penis, his ingrown toe-nail and the problems of his digestion were very amusing and made me rush out and buy a copy of his work which is still in print and a great read. Although very well educated, Montaigne had no time for philosophers like Plato and Aristotle who he found boring and in denial of the human condition. He was interested in how ordinary people behaved and why. His philosophy is still very relevant today.

The other section which I really enjoyed was the consolation for a broken heart which featured the German philosopher Schopenhauer who died in 1860. Schopenhauer felt despair as early as the age of six and was one of the greatest pessimists in history, greatly preferring poodles to people. Although not lucky in love himself, he was fascinated by the idea of love and wondered why it was such a neglected topic by philosophers. Like Montaigne he believed that our minds were subservient to our bodies and he developed a theory called the will-to-life which he claimed affected our ability to reason. However he was a seriously morose writer and ends by saying, “There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist to be happy.”

Alain de Botton seems to agree and writes, “Not everything that makes us feel better is good for us. Not everything which hurts may be bad.” But despite this rather grim pronouncement, the book is rather uplifting and very informative, with lots of pictures and diagrams to break up the text. In my opinion, this is how a book on philosophy should be written – clearly and on subjects that are important to everyone.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why do we need God?

god ganesh
Originally uploaded by jk10976

Setting aside the cosmological explanation, the concept of a personal God must answer some deep psychological need or needs that humans have, as it has been part of all cultures and societies throughout history. Neanderthals are not even the same species as us, yet flowers have been found in their graves suggesting some kind of ritual associated with death. Some people would say that this alone proves that a God of some kind exists but wide acceptance of an idea does not prove that it is true. What it says to me is that we humans have a longing for what we lack. As we know we are finite beings, we long for the infinite. As we know our lives are brief, we long for the eternal and as we know things only relatively, we long for the absolute. Infinite, eternal and absolute are words often used to define God across all religions.

But there can also be a longing for a more personal relationship. Andre Comte-Sponville says, “What do we wish for more than anything else? Leaving aside our base or vulgar desires, which have no need of God to be fulfilled, what we wish for most is: first, not to die, at least not completely, not irreversibly; second, to be reunited with the loved ones we have lost; third, for justice and peace to triumph; and finally and perhaps most importantly, to be loved.”

Freud of course went further and claimed that humans, when faced with the perils of life and frustrated by their helplessness, recalled memories of the protection afforded them by the father whom they both loved and feared in childhood and constructed a far mightier figure to protect them through the rest of their life and after death. While not totalling agreeing with Freud and what he called the universal neurosis, I do accept some of his arguments that humans made God to satisfy a range of unfulfilled needs and anxieties. My problem with Freud however, is that he is good at analysing the symptoms but not so helpful about offering a cure. He basically says we have to all grow up, stand on our own two feet and accept reality. Easier said than done!

I think we all have to find ways to cope with life and death – it is not necessarily a weakness or a neurosis, it is just human. We Atheists too no doubt have our own God substitutes and need to accept uncertainty. Much as I admire Richard Dawkins, like any fundamentalist he can be at times too certain of his beliefs. There is a freedom though, I think, in realising that we can depend only on ourselves and the people we love to help us through life. Maybe we would fight more to improve things in this life if we withdrew all expectations from the afterlife?

Even though their views on life after death and God are different to mine, I find that some religious figures are helpful as guides for this world. For instance, I respect Jesus for his teachings about humanity and for his emphasis on love, compassion and tolerance. It is not always easy to live in accordance with those values (tolerance is particularly difficult I find) but at least we can try. At its best, belief in God can promote the elevation of those values over things such as power, wealth and bodily pleasure. This is obviously not a bad thing but in my opinion it is not exclusive to a belief in God and can also be achieved with the use of reason and an understanding of human nature.

[The future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud (Penguin books Great Ideas, London 2004) and again the Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre Comte-Sponville were used in this post]