It’s a humid warm summer day, and I’m in shorts and loose tee in the yoga studio, where it’s a little drier, but still pretty warm. The yogi’s describe the environment in the studio as like sunset by a meadow during a nice summer evening. But basically I was sweating buckets near the end of the session and it was dark out and the studio is in Dinkytown so all of the drunks on Thursday night are rushing out of Blarney and, well, being drunk. I’m pretty irritated–look, all I want is a peaceful place to do my yoga with new friends.
Then the leader of the group starts our meditation, and leads by asking us to observe with our eyes closed: our environment. And his one instruction re: drunks has stayed with me to this day:
Listen with compassion to all things. The sounds in the studio, your breathing, your neighbor’s breathing. Listen with compassion to the sounds outside.
Compassion to the sounds outside?! He must have been crazy, I thought. Then I did it. I listened with compassion to the drunks. And, yes, I went home with a sense of inner peace. Since that night, so often do I return to a meditative state when I’m frustrated and I repeat: compassion.
I want to share this story because I think it’s a prime example of me, an unaffiliated agnostic, learning and growing from a faith tradition (in this case, the yogi told me afterward his meditations are derived from his Buddhist faith). And, since then, I’ve turned to faith traditions a lot, and I’ve taken a lot of what I get out of it what I call “cognitive tools” for living a peaceful, compassionate, life that is so worth living. And I want to write this post now, because I just recently read two articles. The first, from Jerry Coyne (who I respect a lot, as a thinker on social issues and as a biologist), who is lambasting this article, and in particular laughing at the idea that humanists could learn anything from religion, and this opinion from the MN Daily, which suggests that religion amounts to childhood indoctrination and is “not needed” in the 21st century. Really? It’s not needed? By whom, the individuals who hold their faith near and dear to their heart, or society? Because I bet even the believers agree on the importance of the first amendment. Is Dixon here implicitly suggesting we take away the freedom of opinion, such that we ask all people to stop considering matters of faith?
Dixon’s take on religion as indoctrination is not a far step from Dawkin’s view at the end of The God Delusion that paints religion as child abuse. And what really concerns me, as an agnostic, atheist, and ultimately humanist, is that I will get called a faitheist and an accommodationist for saying Dawkins is an ass for suggesting this, and that at the heart of our agnosticism is faith. Perhaps not the same type of faith that people hold for Jesus, but faith of a similar color that lies at the heart of all thoughts and opinions. I want to talk more about this later, but I think this sums it up well enough: all thinking must start at some assumption. Science starts at the assumption that we trust our senses (thanks Descartes!). Admitting we have to make assumptions means we admit we don’t know everything. And for this, I suppose that I’m a faitheist.
If I were to hold any belief system of mine above the others I hold, it would be humanism (just hardly nudging out science to second), and I’ll be a humanist so long as I live regardless of what Gods I believe in or not. I think the idea that I have of humanism sits at the root of the solution for a few problems, both with society en masse, but also specifically to problems that currently exist within the American atheist/agnostic community. Or, as I should say, “community”.
Why the scare quotes? Because there is a community, but it’s not all encompassing. The community is defined by Reddit, by blogging websites and circles, and by some local groups who post billboards and sue cities for putting up Ten Commandments and cleaning up the highway. And frankly, not every atheist/agnostic feels welcome to go to the atheist/agnostic events that are in real life. Some community…
For this reason, I have chosen to shun the words atheist/agnostic from my vocabulary except when describing specifically where my belief system lies. I don’t think they’re useful terms. What determines my actions is humanism. And if we think we’re all humanists, we have got to stop creating communities that are only for atheist/agnostics. To elaborate on this, I’d like to explain more about what humanism is to me, and then elaborate on why a humanist community is an everyone-community, and why that’s good for people who are atheist/agnostics of all stripes.
Humanism for me is about my assumption that all morals are human-made. From an atheist/agnostic perspective, this is obvious and doesn’t need arguing. But what if you’re a believer? I would argue that you would think there exists an idea of an individual existing in a perfect moral state, ie: divinity. However, you also probably agree that this is impossible for all human beings. Morality, then, is a human attempt to reach it. And I believe the progress of morality is a lot like the progress of science. In science, we often describe the ultimate goal as “understanding everything, knowing the truth of the universe, being able to predict all things”. However, we cannot know or predict what that would look like. Aiming for that is a “top-down” approach, and although we use that in describing what science is like, it’s not how it happens. Science is definitely “bottom-up”, in which we take what we’ve learned as a foundation, and build on it, add to it, and improve it. We may or may not be on a good trajectory towards “truth”, but we’re getting closer in some way. If you’re religious, I argue morality is the same. You may have a “top-down” idea of understanding morality, but your approach must be “bottom-up”, as you learn and grow as a human being and start to develop concepts and ideas and interpretations of scripture about what it means to be moral. Because that exists in you, it is a human construct of morality, and without question human made.
The last nail in the coffin, at least for me, for knowing that morality is not God-derived is that it’s never useful to consider that. There are billions of people who think their morality is God-derived but they definitely all disagree. Morality may aim to be God-like, but it is human-derived. Therefore, for me, humanism involves looking at many historical and philosophical traditions to see what has worked for people in the past, to develop an idea of what morality means without belief in a God, and to build bridges with people from other faith traditions by discussing these ideas and building up from what we have to a better place. This is why I believe humanism is not a signifier of your individual belief, but rather a philosophical commitment to all human beings.
Therefore, if we want to discuss community building, we need to think seriously about multifaith ideas and efforts. While many atheist/agnostics bemoan the loss of their faith community and all of the programming and social needs their faith community fulfilled, atheist/agnostic groups are attempting to replace that, and I would argue, with limited success. I think at the root of that limited success is because if we want to be in a community (which we all do), this is going to be best accomplished by involving all persons. Multifaith efforts, at heart, are efforts to increase community and understanding of differences while strictly eliminating the possibility of evangelization.
I have been involved on campus with developing a multifaith student group. When people ask me why, the one sentence answer is “to build a better and more respectful multifaith presence on community”. My selfish answer: I want, or perhaps I need, a community. And already, I know I’ve found it. And I know that, even from the limited involvement I’ve had this semester, from group meetings sharing ideas to lots of personal coffee dates with lots of people, I feel better, I am better, and if this is fulfilling a need for me, it’s going to fulfill needs for others. This is a student need, but I just can’t explicate it very well yet.
Will students of the New Atheist stripe on campus participate, despite believing that religion, all religion, at root is bad? Maybe–but I hope that the success of this new group will convince them otherwise, that the best community for atheist/agnostics is the humanist community, which I see inherently as congruent with a multifaith community.
So, if you want, do it: call me a faithest. Call me an accommodationist. I wear those badges now with pride.