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One Sunday afternoon, under the warm, unrelenting gaze of the sun, a revelation interrupted my usual observations of the psychological flux seemingly inherent in all family relationships. Since the fact which I had noticed seemed relevant to the conversation, I saw no harm in prodding out the truth by a simple statement, "My sister is one too."
Of course I meant it partially in jest, since she had made no such rebellious declarations. A few inconsequential discussions had made me consider stating her liberalism valid, and I took only a small step further by calling her an equal. Some would call such a leap flattering, but my mother thought the statement horrendous.
"You may hold your own beliefs, but she's just a little girl! How could you?"
The exact wording, time, and place are not important -- the tone of intolerance and look that made me want to proclaim,"Yes, I'm cold-hearted" are what have stayed with me. Such a response was justified by society -- and, as I have been repeatedly informed, extremely calm by almost any comparison. I was not referring to political alignment, but something far more serious and controversial. The group I had unjustly compared her to was the outcast of society's philosophy; I had called her a cold-hearted atheist.
There are many good reasons for such anti religious intolerance in a social structure worried about the individual. How can godless ones be comforted -- in life and death? My mom, with good reason, was worried about my sister's soul; on Earth she would face a lifetime not knowing about a universal and unconditional love and her status in the afterlife was too scary to contemplate.
Such a view was undoubtedly skewed by parental concern which concentrated on the child and not the world at large. Society, regardless of rigidity, is built upon moral rules that distinguish participants from simple feuding creatures. Most problems arise from the fact that the citizens of these advanced moral institutions find breaking the rules to be beneficial -- and are sometimes unable to resist the temptation. It is rather judicially expedient to proclaim God's judgment in all sentences and refer crimes to the afterlife.
Both solutions require a believing population.
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Rome is a somewhat unique example of a theocracy although many historians should claim it a republic. For this reason I see it reasonable to compromise by describing Rome as a religious republic -- the choices of the people and the whims of the gods strike a unique balance. I would argue that this system soon fell into true dictatorship and theocracy as emperors replaced temporary generals during wartime. Furthermore, the gods obviously had a hard time deciding what to do with Rome as the competency of their chosen leaders varied greatly -- statistics too have a way of being whimsical.
But then, statistics are the domain of scientists -- often cold hearted atheists -- and even at that sway on the side of believers. Churchgoers seem to be ideal, moral citizens -- and the religious are in the vast majority. Who would dare kill or steal or commit adultery or any of innumerable other crimes when such a sin was against God, the eternal lover and creator? What reason would an atheist have to be faithful to his or her spouse without even having faith? How can a godless one be moral, or even conceive of emotions?
A couple weeks after I first broke the news of my cold-hearted atheism to a new sunday school teacher, he developed a warm gaze and an unrelenting question: Do you care about anything?
Of course I took the classic scientific approach of first describing interesting phenomena, then being backed up to a biochemical explanation of enjoyment and new experiences as new neural pathways. Holding the same warm, unrelenting gaze he pressed in Socratic style, Do you care about anything? Without a god, everything was created by chance. How can such a cold-hearted atheist view of the world include beauty and love?
The Romans, I soon concluded, may have had the correct approach. It is rather easy to hide desires behind the whims of the gods, and trash built-in inhibitions in the pursuit of happiness by such reasoning. If worshippers enjoy performing their duties, then the universe seems a very fitting place and society is stabilized. Society cannot be amoral because it defines the morals, and similarly I concluded an atheist can be moral by following them.
The religious are wise to follow, knowingly or not. Is it moral to trick an individual into believing, if their immortal soul can be saved? Is murder justifiable if it prevents another from sinning? Was Andrea Yates performing her moral duty by damning her own soul to save those of her children from the temptations of this world? Surely God would not condemn mere children to eternal damnation -- regardless of one's interpretation of hell.
Most would argue strongly against Andrea's reasoning and claim it to be the work of a deranged mind; yet, under a warm, unrelenting gaze fundamentalist reasoning is marching in step. Extremists were reportedly force-feeding such evil thoughts daily to the poor woman, and yet religious tolerance teaches us to respect even the most evangelical fundamentalists. Observe the reactions of the nation after the tragedy of September 11th. There was scattered critical analysis of the Koran, but America's history of religious tolerance and strong republic viewed the situation from a logically objective standpoint and discovered the appropriate target -- an extreme theocracy harboring religious muslim zealots. What causes them to be immoral while Americans studying the same aggressive texts choose a peaceful life? If its the same plan by the same God, aren't both christian fundamentalists and islamic terrorists correct when they claim September 11th was God's retribution for the evils of America or "big satan"?
Many hasty words were exchanged and taken back, but the deeper issue of what makes us moral was never really contemplated. Rome discriminated against christians for political expedience; it seems modern politicians feign religiosity for the votes. Proclaiming oneself to be atheist is effectively political suicide -- who wants a country without a god?
To broaden the question, who wants to be without a god? Believers are slowly becoming content accepting differences between denominations and even different desert religions. Some eastern religions underwent dramatic liberalization centuries ago or were even created in such an accepting state; however, their influences in America are hidden from religious view by fundamentally philosophical rhetoric. Besides, even those unorthodox thinkers have a higher being.
To answer the question, and essentially define what separates the religious from the non religious, I had to ask from within science and psychology what choices I had. Without proof, would the disciples of Jesus have believed in his resurrection? Having been born in India, would Billy Graham still be a christian? If I had been forced into atheism, would I have rebelled? Concisely put, can human beings choose to believe like they can choose to be moral?
Outside of absolute free will, it seems possible; however, when one considers the absurdities believed in third world countries including ancient ideas such as demons, spirits, and magic rituals it seems that knowledge and upbringing play a significant role. Yet, my family is christian and I have attended regularly, so what more could have been done to keep me from atheism? As a counter-question, why hasn't religion conglomerated to uniformity, thereby saving souls and earning more support?
There is but one simple conclusion: we have no absolute freewill especially when considering beliefs. It is widely reported that children grow up the religions of parents, with a few rare converts and even atheists. Still, as long as those converts have a rule book what should society care?
All of which -- especially a lack of freewill -- seems like so much intellectual wrangling when a simple question truly strikes home: Do you care for anything? The religious care for the creator, who in turn tells them to care for each other and even the world around them. Everything is touched by the creator, and so everything is a form of beauty. What absolute(s) can atheists claim to define beauty and morality? What do atheists care for? Can cold-hearted atheists even care?
Religion may have much to teach atheists in this arena. Many simple "tribal" religions had beginnings in observing the world around them -- the Sun god often holding the most power, awe, and beauty. Why should the desert religions worship the same unrelenting sun? Because, it is a warm part of creation -- creation is beautiful. I realized that this fundamental definition could be held by all existence -- to be is beautiful. The wonder of creation is such a delight that I decided what I really cared for was all that is. The fact that spontaneous chaos developed laws of statistics, spouts of forces, and complex interactions leading to actual sentience is truly beautiful to any trained mental eye. What do I care for? I care for everything, and especially that warmly unrelenting question.
A while after the encounter in the car, I discovered that my sister reconsidered -- with some parental guidance -- and decided she believed in God. In the intervening time I noticed no change in her moral behavior; she teased and forgot responsibilities in the same patterns as she always had and in the end my parents accepted both of us. At the end of the whole fiasco, love and caring held fast. So, I turn a warm, unrelenting gaze at humanity and ask: Must a good samaritan believe in God? Does sentience need an overseer? When the rule book is written by humanity, is it even moral to need a guard against temptation? A new humanism has in fact developed from such questioning: an atheist group has recently arisen to pull the atheists from the closet and prove to the world that we are moral beings; to stand up and preach from the world podium. They are moral atheists, citizens of the universe, and call themselves humanists. Religious or otherwise, perhaps we are all human.