Wednesday, September 10, 2008

An email from a friend: she's going to wear a headscarf, like Muslim women do, pray five times a day, and study the scriptures, all until the end of September. She says she's done similar things with other religions. She believes this will help her understand the perspective of other people.

Now, I'm wondering if she would consider living for a month as an atheist. Since atheists don't have a regimen of ritual it seems that there are no challenges to that life.

But I wondered.

So here's my summary of how an atheist lives (as opposed to someone who just doesn't pay attention). (Why six points? No reason.)

  1. Appreciate the people in your life who depend on you, and those on whom you depend. From family to friends to neighbors to colleagues, other people is how you give your life meaning and purpose.
  2. Treat your fellow beings with courtesy and respect. Be humble. You will all eventually end up as dust, no matter what you do or what you believe.
  3. Attend to your health every day. No supernatural forces will do that for you. Doctors can help, but they're only human. Ultimately you're your own responsibility.
  4. Be careful and attentive at all times. There are no supernatural forces that will protect you or others from accident or injury if you make a mistake. Seatbelts or helmets are always a good idea.
  5. Life is about change. Take every opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone. Learn things that seem difficult. Don't judge the worth of these efforts by their success, but enjoy them, just so. Live, because this is the only life you've got.
  6. Know what you can change, and what must be endured, and learn to tell the difference between the two.

From here we can go on to discuss various things.

We could, for example, discuss if wearing a headscarf, frequent prayer, and studying scriptures (we'll assume she meant the Quran) is sufficient to give one insight into the lives and perspectives of actual members of Islam. Especially given that this project is going to run only three more weeks or so.

Is it possible that any one of the points in my summary is more of a challenge than all three of my friend's challenges put together? She admitted to expecting a certain amount of criticism from people who might be upset with discovering a Muslim in their midst, but is that really a hardship? Many people seem to enjoy taking a position of what they believe is moral superiority where they might evoke expected but undeserved anger from other people.

Or we might wonder why atheists don't have rituals. I suspect that one of the reasons why religions are successful is that they do have rituals. They have rules of behavior that require an effort to engage in, and all members of the religion who subscribe to those rules automatically bond as a result. It's built into the human skull, programmed into our very bones, that shared misery is half the misery, and that we're rewarded for it with social reciprocation.

What do atheists do for social reciprocation? Since we don't get together to discuss our atheism (at least most of us don't, not as such), there is no community of atheists where reciprocation can take place. At best we can share stories about silly stuff we've seen people do in the name of some ancient superstition or other, but that's not much of a ritual. Joe Sixpack gets to do better than that when he visits the pub on Friday nights.

So this might explain why atheists aren't a community akin to proselytizing religions like Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses. This isn't to suggest that atheists should start some rituals. There isn't really a need for a community of atheists, because atheists look for community in other ways. Atheists keep the essential nature of human beings in mind. We have religions because our mental and social structures support them. If we wanted to get rid of religions, we'd also have to modify the human mind and human society, to remove the existing supports for religion, and replace them with community forming structures that do not depend on tribalism, ritual, and superstitions.

Until we do, consider the list above. It's at least as challenging as wearing a scarf.