If you have not already done so, please read my last post before reading this one.
In order to give you an idea of where I’m starting from, allow me to outline, as best I can, what I believe.
I currently define myself as an agnostic, as opposed to an atheist or a theist. Even this is somewhat fraught. There are some thinkers who define an atheist as a person who dogmatically asserts that there are no gods. Others insist that anyone who does not actively believe in gods is an atheist. The thinking is that the word ‘atheist’ is like the word ‘amoral’. ‘Amoral’ implies an absence of morality, whereas ‘immoral’ implies that morals have been violated. (One can see how the two have a close relationship – isn’t it immoral to be amoral?!) People have attempted to clear the waters by distinguishing between positive and negative, or strong and weak, atheists.
Agnosticism and weak atheism are sometimes considered to be the same thing. But an agnostic may differ from the weak atheist in that the agnostic may positively, even dogmatically, assert that neither the existence nor the absence of gods can be known. This has been my own view for as long as I can remember.
Moreover, I do not know whether there is an afterlife, whether I have a soul, if the theory of evolution is wholly accurate or whether Jesus rose, bodily, from the dead.
But I do believe in certain things, some of them most assuredly and unequivocally.
I love my family and best friends, very much. They are of vital importance to me. They are also more important to me than other people. I reject, completely, the view that we each owe every other human being the same degree of love or care or interest. We have certain responsibilities to certain people, duties of care that are defined by our relationships to them. I consider this a moral imperative. It has various practical implications.
First of all, it means that I devote my major energies to these familial and friendly bonds. I am more likely to see a friend in the evening than switch on the news. I hope one day to have a family of my own. They will enjoy the vast bulk of my money, emotion and time. I will not work in a job that prevents me from seeing them. And any monies or time I devote to charitable causes will have to come from any surplus left after I have provided, as handsomely as I can, for my family.
This does not mean that I want to raise children who are spoilt or indifferent to others. I will read them the riot act if I learn that they are bullying someone. I want them to take a keen interest in the world. But they will have an absolute right to feel special, and specifically that their mother and I love them unconditionally. Our home will not be a doss house for all manner of strays. I will not spend hours down the pub tipping beer down my throat instead of playing football with my kids.
This notion of a specific duty of care applies elsewhere. Harry S Truman is often condemned for dropping nuclear bombs on Japan. But if those bombs ended the Second World War, and they did, then you can make a pretty convincing case that they saved the lives of huge numbers of Americans AND Japanese. So it can be defended from a purely utilitarian perspective.
But it would be quite wrong for an American President to look only at probable casualty rates. American people have put their trust in him. He has a duty to prioritise American lives. That may mean refusing to risk American troops in a war that has no direct impact on America. Or it may mean giving the go ahead to X - a course of action that will result in more casualties overall, but less for American troops, than course of action Y.
I do believe that there are degrees to this. It is not always right to do literally anything to minimise the risk to your troops. It may be that dropping a nuclear bomb on Afghanistan would have resulted in less Allied deaths. But it would have been utterly disproportionate and deeply immoral (we will ignore, for now, the fact that it would additionally have massively angered other nations and the implications of that). So brave young men and women had to go and fight on the ground.
Similarly, I will occasionally disappoint my family because I have to tend to someone else (a distressed colleague, for example). And I hope that they will understand that this is right. Yet just because this is a matter of shades of grey, my resolve is not weakened. We have special responsibilities, and I do not admire - at all - people who neglect their families to do charity work.
I find the distinction between positive and negative rights (or entitlements) useful. It is unquestionably correct that humans are indivisible beings, each of whom matters, and not merely means to an end. I am implacably opposed to violence without self defence (war is only just if it is a form of self defence, even if pre-emptive). I also loathe abortion. A foetus is human, and it is a distinct being. Therefore it is a human being. The notion that it only becomes one as it passes through the birth canal is preposterous, and clearly self serving.
That said, I utterly reject the view that all that matters in life is how we treat others. We have responsibilities to ourselves. It is right and proper that we pursue our own happiness, and do all that we can to be well rounded individuals. We are not obliged to engage in vast sacrifices. Simply put, I didn’t ask for anyone else to be born (other than my little sister), and I don’t believe that someone else’s mere existence gives them a claim on me.
I could sell most of my possessions, and give the proceeds to a number of worthwhile charities. I’m not going to, because I don’t care enough. And, chances are, neither do you. You need to face up to that.
Just think for a moment. Do you ever seriously inconvenience yourself to help strangers? I’m afraid that doing a sponsored bench press competition (as I did) doesn’t count if you enjoy lifting weights (as I do). Nor does taking a gap year to build a hospital in Africa, if you think it’s going to expand your horizons and make you feel good about yourself.
I actually think that agonising about motivation and altruism is fairly pointless. Of course the activities I describe above are worthwhile. And all the socialist collectives in the world are as nothing to the massive good done by capitalist organisations driven primarily by a desire to maximise profit. But it does allow me to outline a key part of my personal belief system – that context matters, and that we owe certain things to certain people.
And indeed to certain animals. I have loved all our family pets. They have been far, far more important to me than someone I’ve never met. I would shoot a man dead before I would allow him to torture someone’s pet. But I will not stop eating meat. Nor do I approve of violent efforts to stop animal testing. Once again, context matters.
So what of God? Well, as I say, I don’t know if He exists. But I do have some sense of what He must be like if He does.
Firstly, I simply cannot accept that He would punish us for having doubts about Him. I sometimes fear that He would. I think that is a residual symptom of OCD (obsessive prayer is a common symptom of that condition). Rationally – and I think we must be rational – it makes no sense at all that He would smite a kind man who denies His existence and exalt a cruel man who asserts it. If God is kind, He must accept that imperfect beings will have doubts.
It is also spectacularly difficult to accept that He is at once both omnipotent and good. I suppose this issue is rather like the assertion that capital punishment is indefensible because it is likely that someone innocent will be executed – i.e. one that the other side sneers at because it is such a well worn argument. But the point about that argument is that it is a bloody good one. And I’m afraid that I have to say the same about the goodness and power of God.
I do think free will is a good thing, and I accept that it is meaningless if it doesn’t allow us to be unkind or even cruel. But it is harder to accept that there is a place for cancer and earthquakes. And the most egregious acts of human depravity – rape, murder, genocide – would it really have been so restricting for God to prevent us wanting to engage in those? That still leaves us fairly extensive scope for folly and goodness doesn’t it?
None of us is perfect. But I find it very hard to accept that a baby is anything other than innocent.
However, the very fact that this is challenging means that we should engage with it. And I think it would be sophistry to dismiss something as falsehood just because it is unpalatable. I must keep this in mind as I go out on my journey.
It is easier to believe that the world was created by God, and that He is kind, but that He is not omnipotent. I’ve never understood why God must be omnipotent. It’s not like anything He may have created is perfect. Other, perhaps, than love and happiness.
As I say, I do not know whether there is an afterlife or not. I suspect I will not waiver from my current position that this is inherently unknowable. But I do believe that this world exists. It is fantastic, but not a fantasy.
And it matters, profoundly. I reject the idea that all that matters is what goes on in a future life, or that happiness should be deferred until then. It is an irrational position, given that we do not know that there is an afterlife. It is also ridiculous when one considers the myriad wonders of where we are now.
This life is sacred. It is right that we should treat it with some reverence. I don’t know if we have souls, but I think that we should consider ourselves more than bestial (albeit that we are animals). Relationships matter. Sex is not a sport. A funeral should always be a sober event – even if the wake is not. Literature, education, sport, architecture, music and art offer us a chance to raise ourselves up, and can provide immense pleasure. Pure, genuine happiness – as opposed to the mere satiating of desire - is never sinful. I believe that it is the primary purpose of our existence, and that it best served as a shared dish.
These, then, are some of my thoughts. They betray the prejudices of the author, and his priorities (someone else might have written much more about whether Jesus literally rose from the dead). I am interested to see how they change and what is added and subtracted as I continue this journey.
What do you believe? What do you think? Email me, on firstname.lastname@example.org