Tuesday, October 28, 2014

There's No Place Like Heaven

Growing up I was certain there was another life awaiting me, upon crossing the threshold of death. I knew there was an afterlife, a heaven, a paradise, just beyond the reaches of this world. Whereas other religious people whom have confessed to me they have many doubts regarding the fundamentals of their faith, I believed absolutely in God, the Bible as his word, and the tradition of Judaism as the living truth. Though in Judaism heaven is not as predominate as in some other religions, it is understood that after we die, we are brought before God for judgment and, provided we repented before our last breath, we would be spared from the darkness of hell, and brought forth into heaven.

There is a certain comfort which is unparalleled in the secular world, of knowing that one is going to outlive his own death. What came after this brief and tragic life was promised to be glorious beyond earthly comprehension. I so believed in the eternal afterlife that as a child I would spend many a night laying awake in bed terrified by the concept of eternity. Eventually I would become so frightened that I would wake my mother with tears in my eyes, asking her to explain eternity. She would comfort me by stating that God is smarter than we, and therefore we need not worry about how he will make heaven enjoyable for us. 

This deep seated belief stayed with me for 23 years. I loved life, but was unafraid of death, for I knew without a shadow of doubt that beyond this earthly existence, this tragic play of suffering and joy, of tears of laughter, of chaos and order, lies a place of only goodness, whatever that meant. (I can retrospectively see the paradox in a paradise, for wouldn't "good" lose all its meaning without a measure of "bad"?) When I rejected my childhood faith, when I committed myself to rationalism, I was faced with a fear many people seldom think about. 

I was suddenly gripped with the fear of death. I was finally able to stare into the abyss that awaits us all. After our "moment in the sun" we are gone, never to live again. Whereas most people I presume, have either ridden themselves of this irrational fear, or they have suppressed it and are only struck by its harsh blow when they too, focus on the brevity of life, I was faced with it for the first time.  

For me, it became an obsessive thought. At any moment I could stop breathing and I would vanish from existence. And with my death, everything I was planning, my dreams, my hopes, my goals, would vanish as well. How pitiful when one lets his fear of death envelope his life. 

I am still trying to conquer this fear of death, for I have never had to do it before. It has made me less courageous, less able to risk my life, and uneasy with concept of sacrificing my life, even for the greater good. I used to know that if the moment arose, I would be the first to give my life for another, now, I am now hoping I am never confronted with such a challenge. 

Of course, the fear of death is completely irrational.  That is to say, there is nothing to fear. Once you no longer exist, you will not feel anything, your consciousness will be as dead as you are. You will quite simply, not exist. I once heard it said: "There is no reason to fear death. When you are here, death is not, and when death is here, you are not." A rational platform, indeed. 

The fear of death mustn't be confused, however, with the will to live. These two, though similar in subject, are very different in content. The will to live is a healthy disposition, based on enjoying your life, the people around you, the work you are involved in, etc.  The fear of death is the terror of no longer existing. It is the solipsism that believes the world just could not go on without you. It is the arrogance that your life is too important to simply vanish. The will to live, mentioned above, should also not be confused with self-preservation. Self preservation is a natural impulse, an almost inescapable instinct, not a will. 

This fear of death, that I have recently begun feeling, has made me even more suspicious of religion. Is it not just too convenient that just as every human feels the fear of his own death, every religion has ways to circumvent it? The pieces seem to fit too well, do they not? This is not the only existential fear that religion vanquishes, but it is perhaps the most comforting. Heaven has also been a great motivator for righteousness, for it is the righteous, religion teaches, who receive a share of paradise. The danger for the rest of humanity depends on how "righteousness" is defined by the myriad of religions and their myriad of gods. 

So, I will continue to suppress this fear of death by combating it with its inherent irrationality. Where I once would proudly die for my beliefs, I will take the, perhaps, more timid approach stated by Bertrand Russell: "I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong." Lastly, I will grasp every moment of life, every precious instant with a vigor and excitement, for any one of them could be my last. 

And in the times where the fear has all stricken my heart, I will remember the great words sung in Monty Python's "Always Look at the Bright Side of Life": 

For life is quite absurd
And death's the final word
You must always face the curtain
with a bow
Forget about your sin - give the
audience a grin
Enjoy it - it's your last chance

So always look on the bright side
of death...

Life's a piece of sh*t, when you look at it
Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true
You'll see its all a show, keep 'em laughin' as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you

Always look on the bright side
of life...

The greatest weapon against fear is comedy, is it not?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Why I No Longer Want to Be an Atheist

When I left my religion a little less than a year ago, I quickly gravitated towards atheism. Not passively, because I no longer had belief in God, but actively so. It would seem that after I removed myself from the community of believers, I sought a new community, a community of atheists.

Interestingly, I have met only a few people who will call themselves atheists. Even my most secular friends shy away from the word. Stranger still, my friends who will admit that they don't believe in God, will call themselves non-believers or unbelievers, that is, if they don't avoid any such labels entirely. Thus my community was formed online. Through various social networking sites I was able to attach in some way or another to a a cultural array of thousands of men and women who do identify as atheists. This was comforting for a time, a sort of roadside inn on my ever-bending path.

However comforting having a cause to fight for or having a community may have been, I could not avoid two facts: 1) The word atheist carries with it a negative implication, and 2) It is not how I wish to identify in the long run. It is not, so to speak, "the sword I wish to die on."  I began to critically examine the word "atheist" both it's literal understanding, as well as it's colloquial undertone.

The term "atheist" according to the Oxford Dictionary means: "A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods."

However, many people wrongfully define it as: "The belief that there is no God."

Though I am quite certain there are people who believe there is no god, this, in my experience, has not been the true definition of an atheist, nor is it any less illogical than the theist. The religious, ironically, are very quick to point out such hypocrisy. "We are not all that different, you and I," the theist will say to the atheist, "for as I believe there is a God, you believe there is none!" Indeed, he would be right in the case of an atheist who believes there is no God. Disproving that anything exists is an impossibility, as was pointed out, in a mocking sense, by Russel's teapot.

The majority of atheists with whom I have come in contact have identified with the actual definition, that of  disbelief or lacking belief in God or gods. An a-theist is simply someone who does not subscribe to any theology. The same is true with words like: apolitical, amoral, and achromatic, the prefix "a" simply means "without." In it's simplest sense "atheist" is a harmless word that describes nothing more then that the individual labeled as such does not have a belief in God. In this literal definition many secular people can be rightly placed. Yet there is resistance, why?

A word's definition has never been set in stone. It flows with the culture, it evolves and morphs with society. This etymological evolution must be respected for words have always been a means to communicating with other people sharing our era, or eras to be, nothing more.

Therefore, it is not the literal definition that will shine a light onto a word's true meaning, but it's implication when used in contemporary dialogue.

In our 21st century society this term seems to come with a sort of negative stench. Moreover, it is received as an attack against theology, against religion, against God himself. Thus, atheism has become synonymous with anti-theist. Though many atheists are troubled by this, is it not at least somewhat the case? When one calls themselves an atheist, identifies as an atheist, is one not standing in direct opposition to religion? This is not necessarily a bad thing, it may at times even be a great thing; however, we should be aware of what we are doing when we use the term. We are making a statement. A statement of rejection, of disagreement with religion, and generally people feel antagonized by those who disagree with them. One cannot help but feel threatened when someone is standing in opposition against what they love, what they hold dear, what they don't want challenged.

Today, calling yourself an atheist sets you apart from the religious, opposite them. This, I will repeat, is not to mean that I condemn in any way its usage, but that one who claims to use it just to define his state of credulity toward religion, is as silly as someone calling himself gay in the 21st century, referring to his happiness.

There are those atheists who are on a mission to correct the definition. They hope to appeal to the masses and change the connotation of "atheist." I salute their valiance. However, I do not know if such a thing is possible. People do not enjoy changing their opinions nor the words they use to express those opinions. Perhaps in this age of tolerance we will yet see this word made into a positive label. Though I suspect, if that day comes, there will be no more use for it anymore.

So, after almost a year of non-belief in God, am I an atheist? Literally speaking, yes, but what of the "definition" as it is perceived today? I suppose that would depend. I think it best to use it as one would a weapon. I will examine the situation, evaluate the effect the word will have on the person listening, and acknowledging it's mighty power, choose to use it, or not. It is not who I am, I am not wholly an opposition to religion. I am a rationalist. What is rational I embrace, what is an insult to reason, I dispose of. I have no enemies. I walk a path beaten with steps of many travelers, both religious and secular, who have come before me. We are all on the same journey, the relentless pursuit of truth, above all else.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Western Implosion and Middle Eastern Explosion

The Earth, it seems, is imploding in the West and exploding in the East. While ISIS gains power and rages through the Middle East, we in the West have become fearful for our very lives. Indeed, if ISIS or one of the other terrorist organizations fueled by Muslim fundamentalism gets hold of a nuclear weapon, one cannot help but wonder whether that would spell the end of existence on this planet. It would seem that as science comes ever-nearer to fully understanding the earth's beginning, religious fundamentalists are hellbent on it's end. However, is that all we have to fear?

As our worried eyes turn inward, toward our western democracies, are we to worry less? Perhaps, we mustn't worry for our bodies, for the law certainly protects us, but what of our souls? I use this word for lack of a better one. I not referring to the concept of "soul" in any immortal sense I assure you, I am merely referring to the part of humans that seeks to transcend itself. The portion of our consciousness that motivates us to build rather than destroy, to plant rather than uproot, and to "become all I can be" instead of become what they want me to be. 

As we look upon our free societies we can see a sort of moral decay. People seek money, fame and decadence, abandoning wisdom, truth, and goodness. The religious speak of their high moral standards, yet many of their so-called high standards have nothing to do with human happiness on this world whatsoever. The atheists speak of their morals as well, but how many can be said to study them, master them? Ethics may be the most important area of study today, and it is absent from most of our children's curriculum. Money has become as powerful as a god. Money represents survival, more money, more survival, and thus, more power. People are killing, stealing, and as selfish as ever. The world pursues temporary fleeting pleasures and not lasting friendships, strong ethical characters, and the thirst for knowledge. People seem not to notice the other, that is, whenever we are not actively hostile toward them. Which evil is worse, indifference or cruelty?

What is the source of our society's moral decline? I would like to posit that it is consumerism. The constant "need" for the next best thing. The misery of the present and the lust for the future. The great enemy of happiness. Consumerism is the confusion of "want" and "need." It is apparent to me, that this deadly confusion, this mixing of terms, has caused modern man to feel his very survival in jeopardy. When we are told that we do not have, and that we need more, how are we to focus on our moral fortitude? How am I to care for the less privileged when it is I who am lacking? When my lust is not satiated, why worry about them, the disgusting other. In fact, is it they who prevent my happiness, and more importantly, my very survival. 

This moral implosion, this ethical decline, will spell a cruel end to our civilization. We mustn't be confused, there is a real threat of death that hails from the fundamentalists of the Middle East, but we are no utopia either. We are strangling ourselves with self-imposed misery. Our society of individual rights and equal opportunity, is the platform necessary for a strong and happy civilization, but alas, without individual morality, without studied and taught ethics we are nothing more than a jungle of beasts disguised as civilized creatures.

One may read into this that I am calling for a socialist movement; that my enemies are the big corporations. This analysis would be dead wrong. I have not the interest in this essay to explore the positive and negative aspects of the many varying social orders, I am merely calling for something much more simple, yet sublime. A return to values. We need to study ethics, teach ethics, live ethics.  Scholars of history today know more than they ever have.We have seen many systems that have tried and failed. We have watched many revolutions against tyranny only gain power and become tyrannies themselves. Who better than we to create a lasting ethical code? One that seeks the best for the individual, whilst not forgetting the whole. One that embodies the morality inherit within each of us. One that is led by rational discourse.

The first step, I believe, is to live by the maxim: "Who is happy? He who is happy with his lot." Once we reestablish the distinction between "want" and "need," once we realize that our survival is not in jeopardy we can climb Maslow's pyramid and begin to focus on actualization, both of the self and society. Once accomplished, I believe humanity without much help, will begin to peek out from their material caves and seek to build a civilization based on values, based on respect and acceptance of the Other, based on ethical imperatives.

This analysis may, of course, be wrong. Consumerism may be not a cause but a symptom of the moral decline. One way or another, these are the discussions we should be having, we need to be having, or nuclear annihilation is not the only thing we should fear.