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.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

176. Nature answers own questions

One blistery day last winter, sometime in early January, I ran up to the store to get some things for dinner. When I returned, I came into the house to find my wife consumed in tears. Obviously I was concerned; now what happened I wondered?

Her voice was barely audible through her trembling, but she told me that the deer out by the feeder had a broken leg. She was crying because she thought the deer was in pain and suffering.

She was right; the deer's leg was severely broken at the knee. Watching her struggle to walk and eat brought tears to my eyes as well. It was pathetic-she had obviously been hit by a car, or brutally injured in some other way.

I had actually heard about this deer from my neighbor-he told me he saw her over the holidays. He said he called the authorities for help, as he also believed her to be suffering. I did not immediately tell my wife, as I knew it would break her heart. Part of me hoped something happened to her and the suffering ended--and my wife would be none the wiser.

But nothing happened to her and she often returned to our feeder. Usually by herself, but not always, she limped to our feeder for food. While her walk was hobbling, it is interesting that she could run on three legs when frightened.

We watched her when she came, week after week. Both inspiring and difficult, we wanted to make sure there was food out there when she came by. We get lots of deer, sometimes as many as twenty at a time. They tear up the far back yard, creating a muddy oasis, but we do not care--the grass, or something green, comes back each spring.

Last year was particularly awful-mud, rain, ice and snow. My wife pays the animals particular attention in the bad weather, "I feel so sorry for them," she repeats with each snow or ice storm. To ensure that our injured deer got food, we often made several trips to the feeders each evening. The other deer would come eat all the food, and nothing was worse than watching our injured deer stumble up the long path only to have her realize that there was no food for her. By then, it was too late--if we tried to take out food, she would scurry off on her three good legs.

However, the other deer eventually uncovered our prejudicial intentions-and used it against us. After they ate all the food, they would move into the brush--camouflaged from our vision-and wait for us to take out more food. We would no sooner be back in the house when they would return to eat again. Eventually, the deer grew arrogant, or tired, or smart, and would simply lay in the back yard, in the snow and mud, and wait for their feeders to be refilled. We care about them too, and their hunger, but nothing made us feel better than when our injured deer showed up with a full share of corn waiting for her.

Eventually spring came, then summer, and we did not see our injured deer anymore. While the deer come in the summer, it is not as frequent. This past summer, we often saw three young deer pillaging with four male turkeys in our backyard. We still feed them, but less frequently.

The absence of our injured deer led us to speculate what happened. Did she die, or was she taking a different path--as many of the other summer deer seem to do? One reflection, however, was consistent: Animals are amazingly tough, resilient and enduring. No matter the situation, they struggle to persevere. They do not complain--for who would listen? They live in a world that humans can no longer imagine--where survival is a daily endeavor. They exist cautiously, ready to run, or fight, at any moment. The search for food is exhausting, competitive and tenuous.

A couple of weeks ago, as the cold weather moved in, I believe I saw our injured deer--she graciously returned, wobbling to our feeders once again. This time the tears were that of joy. Her leg is still badly broken, irreparable, and still hard to watch, but perhaps a bit improved. She has a distinctive kneel when she eats. What a tough girl we thought!

As humans, it is difficult to know what an animal is thinking or feeling. Is she suffering, would she rather be humanly euthanized? It is not necessarily humane to put an animal down simply because it is difficult for us to watch-to remedy our suffering. Does she simply accept the broken leg and live her life the only way she now knows? Is she just happy to be alive? Only our injured deer knows the answers to these questions.

But ultimately, without human intervention, her fate is for nature to decide. The only thing we can do is buy more corn--hopefully a lot more corn.