Though real experience of faith is at the human level, in daily commerce, in the trust that is required of us to maintain the integrity of community – as we see in something as mundane as obeying traffic rules – we generally associate the word faith with religion – belief in the metaphysical – God, angels, demons, spirits reflections of human virtue and human vice.
Belief in the supernatural reinforces the need for trust in daily life. And religious rituals, like social traditions, requiring strict conformity, are a means of maintaining community. Those who understand have no need of metaphoric re-enforcement of trust through ritual and tradition. They understand trust in real terms; they know it is essential that human beings keep faith with one another in order to be human and humane; in order to survive with dignity. Ubuntu: “a person is a person through other persons” which fosters mutual respect – is what they posit as the basis of community.
Ironically, religious faith, reflecting human limitation, repudiates mutual respect except within its own cultural confines. Its insistence on conformity to a partisan set of religious norms and values that arise from a particular culture, confines faith within cultural ghettoes and gives prominence to difference rather than the commonality of being human. Each religious enclave avoids engagement with the beliefs and practices of every other – there is such fear of contamination. Such paranoia casts doubt on professions of religious faith. If one’s faith is firm why fear contamination? Fierce repudiation of other configurations of faith, points to the subconscious uncertainty of professions of one’s own faith. And the so-called faithful, being at the root uncertain, are really faithless. Their God simply becomes an icon of their culture; not the creator of all humanity. And religion, instead of reinforcing the trust necessary for human existence, often vitiates it and threatens human survival in the world.
After someone sent me dates of religious rituals, I informed her that I was an atheist, have been all my life. She wrote back, “I am surprised, but I respect your choice.” When someone says they respect your choice, it generally means a repudiation of that choice, end of discussion; we cannot enter into any kind of consideration of the ‘choice’ – pointing again to the fear of contamination that emanates from subconscious doubt. So I was unable to explain that atheism is not a choice; it is my understanding of existence. To think of atheism in terms of choice is to relegate it to a kind of religion.
The expression of respect for my so-called ‘choice’ is not genuine respect. Real respect would mean a willingness to discuss, explore how our views differ and why they differ. But for believers in general, faith has to be absolute – there can be no questioning – questioning indicates doubt, an abdication of faith. Believers live in fear of uncovering doubt beneath their ‘faith.’ As my faith is in the human condition, it is not a reflection of hope and fear, it is based in reality. As I am ever ready to subject my understanding to questioning, in the hope of gaining greater insight into the human condition, I make an attempt to open discussion. I inform her that atheists are people who have examined religious beliefs, understand people’s need for them, but accept the scientific view that existence is a mystery. Pursuing a closed subject, however, I am being insensitive. So there is no response and I proceed alone to clarify my thinking.
The mystery of our existence in an expanding universe is disturbing to humans who are finite in infinity; we have beginnings and ends; the universe, apparently not. Being finite, we make sense of life through the finite, through definition and definition is a declaration of mortality. But we long to be one with the universe – we long for ever lasting life. Limited, however, by an understanding that is dependent on the finite, what we long for is not really to be infinite but to be infinitely finite, to perpetuate human life forever. So we created the metaphor of the supernatural – heaven; defined it in anthropomorphic terms to contain it, give it stability, dispel uncertainty and ensure unchanging everlasting life. The metaphor works for the majority.
An atheist, however, does not accept the metaphor; she accepts the reality of arbitrary existence; she sees that it is human beings who create the order of their existence, who ordain their destiny through their creativity. The first major human innovation was the establishment of community. Humans began to live in community even before they became fully human. Like other animals, they lived in herds, troops, colonies, to protect themselves against predators. Once they felt fairly safe, they began to turn their troops into communities, into matrices for the creation of more complex existence on earth. And the growing complexity of human existence is the human response to the randomness of life in an expanding universe. The mystery of the appearance of life on earth poses a continuous challenge to define existence. Without the uncertainty, the mystery, there would be no incentive to explore, to define the unknown. The mystery turns human life into an eternal adventure and stimulates endless creativity. The arbitrariness of existence bequeaths on us total freedom to explore and create.
Mirror of Perfection
Exploring, defining and building became our modus operandi. Begun as a means to secure and stabilize existence on earth, it developed into the search for control of all the elements – air, earth, water – and in present times the exploration of space both in fact and fiction. As a result of the order we have imposed on our existence, we now live in communities in which we take security and stability for granted. But community remains volatile – because human beings are volatile, subject both to instinct and reason. Consequently, a more powerful means, more powerful than a human institution, had to be found to protect us from predators within the community. So we devised an incorruptible system of justice in the abstract, outside the human sphere – a Platonic ideal – God. Mirror of Perfection.
Supernatural existence, being mystical, is a powerful inducement for maintaining stability, security and morality. We fear inordinately that which we cannot see and give it power over us. Hence in religion the creation of icons to give God a friendly presence and the Devil an evil one. M. Night Shyamalan’s film, The Village, depicts the human propensity to create fictions based on superstitious fear to keep community intact.
We created the supernatural to protect ourselves from ourselves. Its power derives from its being external to the human condition and human weakness. We endowed upon this external power the ability to grant eternal life – heaven or hell in the hereafter – as reward or punishment for upholding or destroying the integrity of community. And the belief was inculcated that we are all inexorably forging our way to one of these destinations.
Faith, as defined by religion, is belief in the attainability of perfection and eternal life in the hereafter. It makes the search for truth in the world redundant. Human attempts to define existence through empirical means, such as Darwin’s evidence of evolution are still repudiated by some. For the believer, life fits into a preordained pattern and human existence has not evolved; it was divinely conceived. God is the Father. When we die, we become spirits and are united with God (or Satan) in metaphysical existence.
Heaven and hell based on human duality, led to the conception of dichotomized good and evil and the dichotomized human being – body and soul. Good was associated with soul; evil with body. In Heaven, the place of goodness, spiritual beings free of bodies, are not contaminated by carnal desires. [Our depictions of deities and angels in human form, however, contradict this – reflecting our inability to conceive of intelligent life except in anthropomorphic terms.] Inhabitants of heaven, being pure spirit, represent perfection i.e. order, consistency, stability, certainty, singularity of purpose and goodwill. Hell is the opposite; it is the place for the wicked who remain victims of lust. [It is, however, difficult to understand how the wicked, who also lose their bodies in death, are able to feel the physical pain of the torture that they must undergo in hell.] The configurations of Heaven and Hell redirected the fear of death into the fear of committing crimes.
The Violence of Faith
Divine life is a metaphor, a poetic invention, a symbol, a mirror of human perfection; it is not empirical fact. As such it requires constant interpretation by saviours, prophets, popes, priests, sangomas, shamans, psychics, fortune-tellers. We devised the metaphor of the supernatural world with its promise of eternal life for a pragmatic purpose – to ensure survival on earth. But the metaphor has taken on a life of its own and every community has created it’s own gods or god.
A symbol, being an abstraction, cannot be proved or disproved. It requires blind faith; it cannot be questioned. Questioning, therefore, becomes sacrilege, a repudiation of faith. Any challenge, even the slightest, such as the challenge to symbolic items – bread and wine, icons, hijab – is construed as sacrilege and leads to violent reaction – ostracism, excommunication, division, fatwa, holy war. This bellicose disposition of the fanatical believer arises from his inability to give concrete evidence of the supernatural; so he has to knock you over the head to convince you or he has to annihilate you. The metaphor is thus turned into a fetish protected by superstitious fear.
For the believer, perfection as it is envisioned in Heaven, is a beacon for good behaviour. For the atheist, perfection, envisioned as an abstract ideal, is a beacon for continuous human exploration to advance life on earth. The atheist’s faith is in reason and human endeavour; she, believes in the search for perfection in real circumstances, even though it is a never-ending search – perfection being unattainable. But that is what makes progress possible. The search for perfection leads to continuous change and enhancement of life as we gain more knowledge, more understanding. Human beings, therefore, are on a perpetual voyage of discovery, a life-long adventure, in pursuit of expanding meaning of existence in an expanding universe.
For each of us, the adventure lasts only as long as our individual lives. Death brings it to an end. There is nothing more. So atheists know that they must make the most of the time they have on earth. Life, being limited, is very precious; it makes sense not to waste it.
[In two Hollywood films, The City of Angels and Meet Joe Black, human aspiration is reversed from the traditional religious view; the films present angels who choose to return to physical life on earth and not remain in spiritual stultification. Being Hollywood films, of course, the adventure of life on earth means sex – but then sex does symbolise human creativity.]
Belief in the metaphor means viewing life through the metaphysical mirror and taking its reflection for reality. The atheist abandons the reflection in favour of reality. She looks squarely at human existence and finds the meaning of life in human endeavour. To “love thy neighbour as thy self” read as a metaphor is to ensure life in the hereafter; but in reality it expresses a pragmatic need to work together to build community – the catalyst for the development and progress of the individuals who comprise it.
The metaphor and metaphysical sources of control, place ultimate accountability for human acts outside the human sphere. So instead of examining the nature of human actions in terms of their impact on human society, they are translated into metaphysical terms of good and evil and deflect understanding from the human condition. Acts of destruction and violation seen as acts against God are sacrilege. To place them in the human sphere and see them as they are – acts against human beings – diminishes the degree of the iniquityÂÂ for the believer.
For the atheist, however, God is an abstraction for community, so all crimes are crimes against humanity and are “sacrilegious”. Community is the source of our being and identity; crime, therefore, is not simply an attack on another, it is an attack on the condition of being. As such, it is also self-destructive, parasuicidal. We created community for our survival and the responsibility of preserving community is ours; we are accountable to ourselves not to a metaphorical being.
The only reality in which we operate, is the world that we occupy. We have theories about how it came about but we have no absolute proof. Against this uncertainty, we have furnished our world with all kinds of institutions, religious, social, political, economic, scientific, artistic, to give us stability. Our establishment of stability, the very bricks and mortar of the home we have created, is based entirely on human endeavour.
But human nature being what it is, despite theism, despite atheism, we have given rise to societies in which the powerful prey upon the powerless. Neither the metaphor nor rational understanding has been able to eradicate harmful exploitation. Human beings are imperfect, so the striving for moral perfection, both theistic and atheistic, remains in the domain of the metaphor.
Faith in human endeavour
When John F Kennedy promised a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, he was expressing his faith in human endeavour. All our understanding of existence in the universe has come about through human endeavour, through all philosophers, artists, scientists, technologists, who search for ways of overcoming ignorance,ways of extending the boundaries of human understanding and human functioning. They work within the human construction of systems searching, always searching, for new and better ways of understanding and organising our lives. They have superlative powers of observation that allow them to look at the obvious, restructure it and configure new meanings that lead us into more advanced understandings and ways of living. Because they are always challenging accepted conventions and shaking us out of traditional understandings, they are often seen as upstarts until we eventually begin to understand what they offer us.
It is their ability to discover the shortcomings of the ways in which we organize our lives and find solutions that allows us to continue to advance.