Friday, February 17, 2012

Purpose, Meaning, Morality, and other Simple Issues

The classic statement of purpose and meaning for the Christian West is found in the first question of the Westminister Confession of Faith: 

Question:       What is the chief end of man?

Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

That needs some explanation, of course.  How does one “glorify” God?  By singing great choruses of praise?  By converting others to faith in God?  By living in such a way that we reflect the presence and essence of God into the world?

And how does one “enjoy” God . . . forever?  By being happy?  Talking to God, “communing” with God as pietists and mystics have urged us to do? 

For Christians (and other religionists) the meaning of life has something to do with God.  We take our purpose from the teachings of Jesus . . .  and in so far that we can walk in that way of love and grace and humility (at least that’s MY take on what he taught; others will differ, radically) we can feel that we are fulfilling our purpose.   Many of us find it helpful to believe that we are, by our living and by our worship of God, connected to Something Larger than ourselves;  that adds importance, I suppose, to what can seem boringly ordinary.

Epstein recognizes that human beings need to have a sense of purpose,  direction – meaning.  And his challenge is to provide that apart from any connection to a Higher Power.

Some random quotes and observations:

I was surprised that at one point he starts to sound like a preacher – and his view of humanity, especially for a Humanist, is not so great:

“I suspect that what drives most people in this world, what really might be the world’s largest religion, is one form or another of what we can call “striving.” Do you know any strivers? These would be people for whom the meaning of life, whether they admit it or not, is get, get, get as much as you can.”  (p. 72).

It’s interesting that Epstein, like religionists,  thinks that individual responsibility is vital.  “But like it or not, we are responsible for what we do about it all in this life.“  (p. 81)   The preaching of forgiveness of sins does not negate responsibility;  some would argue that the “reward and punishment” teachings about Heaven and Hell – if you can get around the imagery – is really a forceful and imaginative way of saying that what we do in life matters . . .  we are ultimately responsible for our choices.

For Epstein, the greatest good, that which gives us purpose, motivation, meaning, is “dignity.”

“If happiness, love, self-actualization, self-sacrifice, not to mention God, materialism, and antimaterialism won’t work as a purpose around which to build good lives without God, what’s left?”  (p. 87)

And “Sherwin Wine defined [Dignity] by describing its four qualities: “The first is high self-awareness, a heightened sense of personal identity and individual reality. The second is the willingness to assume responsibility for one’s own life and to avoid surrendering that responsibility to any other person or institution. The third is a refusal to find one’s identity in any possession. The fourth is the sense that one’s behavior is worthy of imitation by others.”Along with these four characteristics of dignity come three moral obligations for the person who values them: First, “I have a moral obligation to strive for greater mastery and control over my own life.” Second, “I have a moral obligation to be reliable and trustworthy.” And third, “I have a moral obligation to be generous.”  (p. 90)

And Epstein’s conclusion as to what we are to be about here:

“Seek the best in yourself and in others, and believe in your own ability to make a positive difference in the world. Pursue truth and honesty in all you do; and be wary of allowing power, status, or possessions to substitute for moral courage, dignity, and goodness.
“ (p. 121)

All of which is great stuff – values and priorities that any Christian surely would say “Amen!” to.   He or she might say that they derived those values from Jesus, the Bible, Christian culture.  And they might also say that a sense of God’s presence with them – as mystical as that is – and of God’s patient leading and mercy – as hard as that is to describe – helps them to live out the purpose, value, meaning they profess.  Few Christians I know would say that the promise of Heaven or threat of Hell has much if anything to do with how they live.  But they would insist that their faith gives them the ability to live in love – and that when they fall short of their ideals the grace of God allows them to forgive themselves.

Humanists can live with "dignity" too.  And while the Rick Warrens of the world don't think they can, the rest of us do.  We've seen it.  And we've seen "people of faith" act perfectly crazy.  

Friday, February 3, 2012

Can We Be Good Without a Belief in God?

Or with a belief, we might also ask, given the craziness that is conducted in God’s name every day, right here in Oshkosh.  (No, I don’t have any examples, but I’m sure there must be.  It wouldn’t be good of me, any way, to tell tales of bad behavior, would it?  Certainly not in writing.)   Epstein is more charitable than I in his book, arguing not so much that religious people can be bad – Sam Harris has shown that well enough, I’d say – as much as that non-religious people can be good.  Not many people apparently are willing to say that.   

“One out of every two Americans admits to being prejudiced against fellow citizens who don’t believe in God. No other minority group in this country is rejected by such large numbers.”  [Introduction]  Fundamentalists keep claiming that they are a persecuted minority.  (Pat Robertson, who, I am told is still alive, recently cited the very funny SNL skit that lampooned Tim Tebow’s religious behavior as the latest proof that Christians are the object of the world’s persecution.  If people would stop making the faith so easy to parody, “the world” might find someone else to poke fun at.)  I’m sure Epstein is right that non-believers suffer far more for their non-faith than most of us faith-folk do for faith.   Which reminds me of question from my evangelical days that applies to me in my liberal days:  if I were arrested for being a Christian, could anyone find enough evidence to convict me?   But I digress.

Epstein, to our shame, is I’m sure right: religious people behave badly toward atheists.   The question is Why?  I suppose it must have a lot to do with our human longing for conformity.  And the longing for certainty – a word our group has talked about a lot.  If ten of us in a room all profess the same belief (set aside here the possibility that some of us say we believe, but don’t really), it feels good.  And we won’t have to debate that item of belief, which is a time-saver!  But if one of us breaks rank, and questions . . . there enters some discomfort.  The belief is suddenly a bit less certain, all because of that one voice.  And two voices . . . three . . . 

The “good” behavior toward those dissenting voices, says my faith, is to respect, listen, learn from the minority, to wish them well, and to thereby love them – even to the point of death if need be.  Too many times, though, Christians fearful for their own beliefs, and angry at those who question them, have denied their own faith and in the name of saving society attack rather than love the dissenter.

Which, in my mind, doesn’t prove their faith wrong; only that they have not lived out their faith.

Greg Epstein's book, Good Without God? is very well written, and raises some excellent questions that should help us sharpen just what it is we believe, and what difference it makes in how we live.