[As a throwback to the early days, I did this one as a podcast too, so you can hear the audio of it immediately below. But if sounds like a long-overdue brake job bother you, you can simply read the text version.]
Walkabout podcast – But How? part 30: Responsibility
This is one that I’ve touched on here and there before, but I was reminded of it while watching Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go Of god (they capitalize it differently, those sillies.) As a small aside, I can certainly recommend the video, and seeing her realizations develop over time is captivating, but I don’t feel compelled to comment upon it too much; like Richard Dawkins’ The god Delusion, I’m in total agreement, so much so that there are no insights therein that I want to highlight, because the path to godlessness is surprisingly consistent – things just don’t make sense any other way, and the evidence for creation and/or supernaturality is totally lacking. We have religion only through cultural pressure, and not because it works in any way.
So, instead of answering any questions here, I point out something that is never recognized by the religious, never examined or considered, which is personal responsibility. Sweeney was struck by it when first considering that perhaps there was no god, and realizing that, for instance, all of the people wrongfully imprisoned or suffering from circumstance, those that prayed desperately for deliverance or help, actually had no one looking out for them at all. Initially, this is a depressing and dire thought, especially when considered against an alternative that a god is capable of changing this somehow, and the very idea is so anathema to the religious that they, at the very least, often credit atheism as being distasteful and cruel. Taking away hope like that!
Which, naturally, has no impact on the facts regardless. How we feel about something is the last thing we should resort to in deciding if it’s true or not, and just about everyone knows someone who should have learned that lesson a long time ago, often about relationships or major purchases. More to the point, the ‘hopeless’ perspective only comes about because we, as a species, spend so much time fostering the idea that there is a magic sky daddy that can come to the rescue (change details as necessary.) The problem is not that anyone has taken away hope – the problem is that we’ve insisted that there is someone or something magical that can jump in when needed.
It’s easy to imagine that, in circumstances where ‘hope is all someone has,’ that denying this is being cruel; let them have a bit of fantasy, a vestige of optimism, and so on. And there is admittedly some merit to not introducing further elements of depression or despair to someone that is already having a tough time. Such situations tend to be few and far between, however, and even doctors are straightforward when the prognosis is not good, because they’ve found that solid information, no matter how unwanted, is much better than facile fiction. People may insist that they don’t want to know when they’re going to die, but the foreknowledge of such also gives them time to do the things that they want, or feel obligated to: taking final trips, getting affairs in order, reconciling with loved ones, and so on. Moreover, living one’s life in full recognition of how things are is not just easier, it means that we’re able to face adversity much better. We do not view misfortune as judgment or failure or even abandonment, we do not cling to desperation that a ‘loving god’ won’t really let this happen (or try to invent rationales over why it does,) we simply accept it as circumstance – we may not like such circumstance, but we don’t resent it as if it was a conscious decision of someone else. Perspective does count for a lot when it comes to mental outlook.
One of the common denominators among the new atheists is the recognition of how much they were told, were assured, were impressed with from religious sources, that turned out to be nonsense, often outright lies. People really resent misinformation, and this too may come on top of whatever adversity they were undergoing. In many cases, it’s actually condescending, because what it subconsciously says is that I may know what’s real, but you can’t handle it. While it can be argued that most religious people really believe in the power of prayer and so on, ask them how often such prayers are answered, how often they really work. Watching all the hedging and dodging is quite fun, but revealing in itself; no matter how often someone might urge prayer as a useful action, they know it’s hardly dependable.
Further along those lines is what affect this reliance on spiritual intervention has on those that believe it. It has often been pointed out (from reputable sources, i.e., actual scientific studies) that religion flourishes in the more impoverished and stricken regions of the country or the world, and we’ll leave the chicken-or-egg arguments for someone else. Again, there’s this hope aspect, but there’s also the aspect that someone else is taking care of things, and even that this is the way things are meant to be. That leads to nothing but complacency, and a completely guilt-free sense of it as well. Some may resort to the argument that prayer and/or waiting on godly influence is harmless, but this is true only if there are no other options. To settle on prayer instead of, for instance, donating money, time, or materiel, or fostering legislation, or really, any other beneficial actions at all, is not just incredibly self-absorbed, it’s this placebo taken in abject dismissal of positive action. Donating just one dime, ten lousy cents, to any cause beats prayer every time, because there is never any time when those ten cents doesn’t work, never an excuse that it has no value due to ‘god’s plan,’ never an attempt to explain away the utter lack of improvement. The effect is magnified exactly as much as the amount of money/time/attention is, as well. Every time.
[People will also argue that they’re giving to good deeds through their church, which is the major selling point behind soliciting donations/tithes/etc, and this may be true – to a degree. Nearly every church that I see is in pretty damn good shape, however, and in many cases, the staff attached to them are amazingly well off – funny, they don’t seem to believe that god provides. But okay, I’m sure the middleman serves a purpose, so I’m happy to help out in the same manner, and you can donate to me instead, because I have no overhead in the form of meeting places and landscaping and all that. I’ll see that the money goes to a good place. If the thought of that makes you suspicious, good – you get it. Now apply that same critical thinking without bias, or lame excuses.]
I’ve pointed out, too, that the idea of a supernatural overseer can potentially have dire consequences when it comes to responsibility for the bigger things, like taking care of our planet. President Reagan made it clear, multiple times, that he believed in Armageddon, and his environmental policies reflected that in spades; why bother trying to protect something that will be destroyed in a few years anyway? He’s gone now, but we’re still here, well beyond the time that he (and every self-proclaimed prophet) thought that we’d be done, and we – and our descendants – have to live with the wanton disregard towards sustainable resources and, really, cleaning up our own messes. Which is something that I was taught to do at an early age, but I can’t vouch for how ineffective any else’s parents might have been. Considering the opposing position for the sake of argument, I still would have thought that any god might bear some judgment on how well we’re able to take care of ourselves, and show consideration for others, and bear that same responsibility that my parents, at least, tried to instill, rather than sitting back and believing that it’s all under control, so why bother? It’s a bit like Pascal’s Wager, only if Pascal wasn’t aiming to justify pre-existing beliefs. If we take personal responsibility, assuming that we’re the sole proprietors of our lives and nothing will happen if we don’t make it happen, and there really is no god, then we’ve covered our asses and done everything that we could. And if there is a god, can we imagine that it would look unfavorably on such actions? Does anyone out there really believe in a god that would encourage complacency and selfishness? I certainly haven’t found a religion yet that espouses this, but too often you cannot tell this from the practitioners…
There’s also this very subtle aspect, that once we receive the (self-appointed) label of ‘good,’ then we’ve fulfilled our natural obligation and have no need to establish further ‘proof’ or maintain such a thing – there are, of course, no requirements or tests to becoming religious in the first place, so it’s an instant, effortless boost in status. But people cannot be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – we’re all a mix of emotions and motivations and justifications, and such labels are a judgment call anyway, a matter of perspective. Actions, however, can be beneficial or detrimental; moreover, they tend not to lead towards a ‘once-and-done’ method of establishing status. Most people would be (rightfully) embarrassed by admitting that they performed this one good action five years ago…
I don’t think most religious people have consciously decided to be this way, and imagine most believe that they’re doing good in their own ways; it’s just the subconscious idea that some being can make things right (because, as we’re so often told, this being is nothing but good,) that fosters an idea that we all have backup. That’s part of what I do here: bring the subconscious, or assumed, or never-quite-logically-considered items out in the open to be examined. If we are to believe that there’s a supernatural entity that can correct our flaws or protect us from terrible events, we should be asking where it was during the Holocaust, the crusades, the countless purges (some of them perpetrated by, as we are so often reminded, those godless regimes,) the three centuries of witch hunts, the slave trade, the plagues, and so on and so forth – really, if you want a complete list it’ll take me a couple of days. And I think it’s safe to say that everyone involved did not somehow forget ‘the power of prayer.’ But then, we think that suddenly, notice will be taken when we get COVID, or some such triviality? How many ways can someone handwave away all the counter-evidence before they admit that we’re really on our own, and what we have is only what we make of it?
Further, when we see desperate situations in the world, they were never ‘meant to be,’ they are not ‘deserved,’ and no supernatural beings are going to set things right – we can’t distance ourselves with the idea that it’s not our responsibility, because it surer than hell isn’t anyone else’s.
Along these same lines, I’ll also suggest the post Bigger stakes than that, which highlights the oft-ignored aspect of consequence.