If one does not believe in a god, and views religion as anachronistic, it is certainly reasonable to ask: what does one believe in? Deists, focused on the hereafter, seem to find it difficult to imagine an alternative, and consign atheists either to the ranks of nihilists or disingenuists, that is to say mad anarchists with no guiding principles who might do anything, or those who say they are atheists but in their heart of hearts don’t believe what they say; they have simply lost their compass. Yet I consider myself both a rationalist, that is to say atheistic, and moral. Deists, and even some doubters, will no doubt question how atheism and morality can coexist. Yet it is not terribly difficult to describe a system that is at once reasonable, moral, non-theistic and in some sense even transcendental. Though not everyone will find the moral system that I will describe here satisfying, in fact such a system already exists and has existed for millennia. It is only necessary to recognize it. In this section I will describe a non-theistic system that is:
In other words what I mean to do here is to show that a logically consistent “morality” can be achieved by a system without reference to the supernatural. I also find it satisfying while being aware that not everyone will. Here, at this stage, I introduce the basis for a discussion of the other never-to-be-discussed Big One: politics.
I want to say first in this connection that I view “holy” writings of all kinds such as the bible, the Koran, and polytheistic writings, as parables, easily accessible expressions of a deeper and very much older evolutionary mandate that has been in place for millennia, long before any god-concept had been articulated by humans, and furthermore, that this deeper, yet rational system functions in elementary ways for nonhuman species as well as for ourselves. I will use the term Evolutionism for this system. It could, not unreasonably, be termed Social Evolutionism but I prefer not to distinguish between, let us say, the software and the hardware of the system since there are undoubtedly interactions between them and I don’t see that the distinction has much value here. In the sense in which I use the term here, it is to expose the underlying “moral” aspects of evolution and not simply the biological or physiological characteristics of it.
It is perhaps easiest to see evolutionism first in its nonhuman form. Think of the social insects and, as well, other cooperative animal societies such as schooling and flocking animals, and in particular mammalian social animals such as herding animals, lion prides, wolf packs and other “tribal” nonhuman species where each member is called upon to play a certain role and even, when necessary, to sacrifice itself for the common good. The continuation of the species is the powerful mandate under which all these individuals necessarily operate. Organized species that lacked this mandate, if such there were, no longer exist. The measure of success or failure of the system is the expansion or diminution of the species and it’s well-being. That this mandate also applies to man should not surprise us since we flow almost imperceptibly, in fits and starts, over eons, from the lower animals. If you doubt this, then there’s probably not much reason to read further since I take this as the generally accepted base from which to explain the complex system of morals under which I believe we operate and from which “religion” sprang in order that tribal leaders could effectively articulate such a morality and build and maintain group cohesion under often difficult circumstances.
Consider the remarkable transition that human beings, operating under this mandate, have made from their humble beginnings as reactive animals, to the present day when, however imperfectly, most of us can satisfy our basic needs for food and housing, and many of us have the leisure to reflect upon our existence and continue the progress that has been made. Consider that this transition has occurred primarily over a historically short few hundred thousand years, with the bulk of it occurring only in the last few centuries.
I repeat: To some, perhaps most, this system may seem a weak proposition, shorn of divine transcendency if not of altruism, bereft of mystery and insufficient as a guide to live by on this raw earth, a grim and hopeless proposition that constrains us to only a short visit here in our only home, with no promise of an afterlife at all. Yet it seems to me that though none of us “asked” to be here—birth is a command performance after all—this is where we are; this is the circumstance in which we find ourselves. After more and more thought over my lifetime, and in particular in the last decade or so, the notion of simply not being at some point, after having performed such service as I was able in this society, seems to me to be quite the most attractive proposition of those on offer.
I understand critics who say that many of us are poor, living tentatively at a subsistence level, that wealth and comfort are unequally distributed, that war and strife and terrorism strike at the fundamental progress that has been made. All true; let us redouble our efforts. But consider where we dummies started, and consider the nascent control we begin to have over nature and even our own genes. Should we have another few thousand years, who knows what might be accomplished at the exponential rate with which we are now proceeding. This is not a trivial accomplishment! Rational beings must view it with some awe, and it seems to me that we should take some credit for this achievement since it has been purchased at great cost to our species.
Still, I understand it will not appeal to many. It is difficult to compete with the amorphous conception of heaven and eternal life. But this does not bother me. Each of us can go our own way and in the end what will be will be.
I do make this claim however, which may be interesting to religionists on its own merit: understanding this system, and I will try to elucidate it on the pages following, will permit us to understand man’s complex politics in a deeper and more all-encompassing way than any other.