As I meant to write about a few days back, the LA Times recently published what I thought was an excellent guest essay about atheism and the misconceptions connected to it. It got me thinking, for the first time in awhile, about what I believe in the area of faith and spirituality. For a long time now, I've described myself as a Deist or a "biased agnostic": I'm not sure if there is a God or divine entity, but I hope there is. It seems that a fairly large group of people react to the word "agnostic" with disdain, feeling that it's something of a cop-out: you either believe in God, and presumably express that belief through one of the major monotheistic faiths that have millions of followers in America, or you don't.
The author of the Times piece, evidently, does not--but, like me, he absolutely rejects the notion that morality or spirituality cannot exist outside of an organized religious framework:
7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.
There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don't tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences.
10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.
If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.
We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.
Emphasis mine. I used to describe organized religion, particularly the Judeo-Christian tradition, as "the training wheels of morality." That phrase strikes me now as too smug and arrogant, as well as too dismissive of the positive benefits of religious socialization--e.g. the very admirable charity/community work that many large churches, synagogues, mosques et al sponsor and support. But the core notion, that one shouldn't need the Ten Commandments or the New Testament or any religious text to guide one's behavior in the world, still holds true for me. Empirical experience bears out that this is the best way to behave: the Golden Rule and the behavioral admonitions of the Commandments minimize conflict and generally lead to more peaceful communities and more satisfied and satisfying lives.
Otherwise, the question of faith in a divinity is ultimately a private one. I simply don't know: my sense is that there is something beyond the immediately tangible, some kind of "world beyond the world"--that, as one spiritual leader once put it, "luminous beings are we--not this crude matter." But it's a storybook conceit: I have no proof that this feeling of mine isn't anything more than the result of countless personal, familial, and cultural inputs and experiences (like watching Star Wars so many times as a kid).
Set against this--and I believe this is why a significant number of liberals have an active animus against organized religion--is all the damage we've seen wreaked in its name, from the Spanish Inquisition to this morning's unreported violence in the Iraq civil war. But this isn't fair either--it holds both God and the virtuous faithful to account for crimes they had nothing to do with, unless you believe that the uglier exhortations of the holy texts were direct quotes.
Faiths should be seen and read in the real world as any other institutions that seek to exert temporal influence: governments, armies, political parties, advocacy organizations. And moral systems should stand or fall on their own merits, based on their real-world performance and consequences. Eventually humankind should be able to reap the benefits of religion's moral guidance without having to bear the consequences of the fundamental divisions it inspires.