Welcome to the latest installment of Further Than Atheism, a weekly column that explores the vast territory that lies beyond the mere disavowal of religion. As atheists, we share little but our disbelief. A lot of people say that atheists don't believe in anything. While that's true for some, it doesn't have to be true for all atheists. After all, there's a lot more to life than worship. Further Than Atheism explores some of the many possibilities for positive belief that remain when gods are pushed out of the picture.
A while back, I wrote an essay on an aesthetic vision of atheists. Sarcastically entitled How To Tolerate a World Without God, the essay argued against the ideas of those Christians who believe that a life without belief in God must be some kind of tortured agony. I asserted that the world looks pretty good without God, and that from a certain point of view, it feels like a better place to live in when the observer takes the idea of God out of the picture.
Indirectly, my argument was based upon the idea that atheism follows from a loving study of nature. In this installment of Further Than Atheism, I'll argue the opposite: that a loving study of nature can follow from a thoughtful atheist perspective.
Let's face it: sometimes it's pretty lonely being an atheist. Everyone else in town gets all gussied up and gets together in church while we sit at home or roam the empty streets in search of open businesses. As much as we criticize them, folks who belong to religious communities get a lot out of it. There's an entire realm of socializing that goes on behind closed doors that atheists just can't participate in. Those churches exert a lot of political power too, as much as they'd like to pretend to be apolitical for purposes of tax exemption.
What's an atheist to do? As I described in the Further Than Atheism article To Church or Not To Church, some atheists choose to go to church even though they don't believe, most often in Unitarian congregations. For the rest of us, that's a little difficult to stomach, so we're left on our own.
A great alternative for atheists is to join non-religious activist groups. Activism is like religion in that it is based in groups of people that come together because of shared ideals, but it's unlike religion in that it doesn't demand absolute allegiance or an abandonment of critical thinking (at least in the best activist groups - I'll admit that there are some activist communities in which unthinking devotion is a basic requirement of membership).
Environmentalism is particularly ideal for atheists because it isn't based upon a short-term objective. The environmental problems our world faces are so immense that we can all be pretty sure that environmental organizations will be needed for generations to come. Environmentalism is also fantastic because it's compatible with a secular humanist perspective. Fundamentalist Christians and other religious extremists tend to believe that the world is a flawed place and that there's nothing that can be done about. Many churches even preach that it's sinful to try to make the world a better place. In any case, when the world gets rough, religious folks can always hope for a better life after death. Almost all atheists assume that this world is all we've got, so it makes the best sense for us to work to preserve its integrity.
Now, some atheists of the more conservative bent are bound to argue that environmentalism is practically a religion itself, that it relies on a number of principles that environmentalists must take on faith. It's true that there are some environmentalists who lean in this direction. Take, for example, the young woman who lived up in a redwood for 2 years and took to calling herself "Butterfly". She started getting pretty flaky after just a little bit up there, saying that the tree was having conversations with her. The New Agey Butterflies out there are a real embarrassment to the more seriously committed environmentalists who search for answers based on principles easier to verify than "the Earth is our Mother."
As a whole, environmentalism is rooted in solid scientific ground. Take global warming, for example. No matter how much Rush Limbaugh huffs and puffs, the fact is that global warming is a measured fact. The scientific debate about causality is coming to a close as well, and you've got to be pretty clueless not to be alarmed about the possible consequences of the trend. Extinctions are happening at a pretty fast clip, and humanity is responsible. Pollution is widespread. The ozone hole continues to unzip. All these are facts observed directly by scientists.
Does it all matter? Well, in the end I guess that's a subjective decision. There are those who argue that it doesn't really matter whether a bunch of species die out or whether we have almost no securely natural territory left. There are those who would rather put on sunscreen and hats to block out increased UV radiation than change their consumptive habits. There are some atheists who say that it's unscientific and sentimental to worry about environmental issues unless they directly affect our lives.
Well, who said that just because we're atheists we don't care? Sure, I'm sentimental, and I don't think there's a problem with that. If I'm going to live a few short years and then die, I'd like to live those years in world that's pleasant, not some post-industrial garbage heap. I'd like to leave my son and his descendants a world that they can enjoy too, if you don't mind.
As an atheist, I'm committed to thinking critically, which means that I prefer to be skeptical of weakly reasoned ideas. Environmentalism seems to me to be based upon some pretty solid reasoning. I'd be blowing it out of proportion if I said that the science proves that the natural world is definitely going to be destroyed, but I'd be a pollyanna if I pretended that a serious risk of ecological disaster doesn't exist.
Too often we atheists mistake self-absorption for rigorous independence. The fact is that mature atheists can be just as, if not more, caring than religious folks. If there's one issue that we can rally around, the preservation of the integrity of the environment is it. Our future doesn't lie in some pie in the sky. We got nothing but the Earth that we walk on, and if we aren't careful, that Earth won't be something worthy of wanting for much longer.
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