Thursday, January 12, 2012

177. Seculars know good, evil, too

I was disappointed to read syndicated columnist Cal Thomas' attack on not only the late Christopher Hitchens, but also on non-theists in general.

While Thomas acknowledges that Hitchens was smart and witty, he seems to take joy in suggesting that he has now realized the errors of his ways-engulfed in the ultimate punishment for a secular belief. "Hitchens now knows the truth and that can only be the worst possible news for him," Thomas writes.

Then Thomas lays out his case against non-believers.

Thomas criticizes the celebration of life and implies selfishness. He writes, "Some people exist, however nervously, believing that this life is all there is." He quotes the late singer Peggy Lee as proof who said, "Is that all there is? If that's all there is to life, then let's break out the booze and have a ball, if that's all there is."

It is true that non-believers believe in life. We believe that we all share this moment in time on this planet. This philosophy often embraces all life as precious, not to be needlessly wasted or suffered or destroyed. Many non-theists are vegetarian and vegan--unable to even kill an animal. And, Hitchens himself took some criticism from secular humanists when he embraced the Iraq war-since many of us rarely support the idea of war.

Next, Thomas proceeds to present many tired clich├ęs and amateur philosophical arguments about morality and belief--none less convincing than using the Bible, and religious quotes, to prove the foolishness of one's non-belief. It must not occur to Thomas that a Muslim, through Koranic verse, could easily prove Thomas' foolishness in not believing in Islam. And so on.

Thomas writes on the metaphysical burden of evidence, "I have always found atheists to be interesting people because they just may be the world's smallest minority group, one that gets smaller still as its members pass on and meet God face to face. Still, atheists demand physical proof of God's existence, as if they could bring God down and make Him into their image. What kind of God would that be? He would be their equal and, thus, not God at all."

For atheists, it is not about demanding physical proof; it is about rejecting the probability that God exists. For agnostics, they are comfortable admitting that the existence of God is unknowable. Neither atheists nor agnostics wish to make God, if he exists, to be their equal-only to tip the balance of reason about his existence in is his favor.

Furthermore, and from a comparative perspective, atheists and agnostics wonder how people know their religion is the "right" religion. People from many different religions seem to be pretty certain that they have found the one and only true God. Certainly, the odds are that if I grow up in America, I will be a Christian; in Iran a Muslim.

Thomas insults atheists and agnostics when he reasons that they have no reason to engage in charity, "Why contribute to charity, or perform other good deeds?" He further reasons that only God can motivate the true purpose of charity, "Without a source to inspire charity, such acts are sentimental affectations, devoid of meaning and purpose."

To me, charity is inspired by the benefit it delivers. I could perhaps argue that when non-theists act kindly or charitably, it comes with genuineness and without the hope of eternal reward. In 2006, I was the president of a secular humanist group, which is comprised of mostly agnostics and atheists. Not only was this group highly educated and well read, they were among the nicest, kindest and most generous people I have worked with. They often donated anonymously-not seeking the recognition, in this life or the next.

Secular humanists believe that moral principles are tested by their consequences. In many religious moral perspectives-bad acts do not necessarily preclude eternal consideration; they can be redeemed through confession and forgiveness. However, it is rather unconvincing to suggest that only religion may define good and evil. Secular Humanists, although diverse, have a doctrine of their own entitled, "The Affirmations of Humanism." I doubt many people would take issue with more than a couple of these assertions-as kindness, consideration and responsibility are a vibrant theme.

Of course, there are non-theists who have acted immorally or unethically. But that list is certainly not limited to non-theists. For Thomas, his generalizations about non-theists, based on prejudice and obliviousness, fails miserably.

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