My initial internal reaction to hearing the above question is usually, “Dang it, what was it again?” I personally don’t feel the need to identify or label my religion, but it helps for the sake of communication. So, here it is just in case I need to remind myself someday.
When people inquire about my religion, I get the sense that they’re often really asking if I believe in some sort of supernatural something. When it comes to God, I consider myself ignostic, which means that I don’t know what you mean when you say God. Once we clarify what we’re talking about, then I may be able to commit a different label with respect to that God.
For most Gods, I’d just be a shade short of atheistic, such as with the God of the Abrahamic religions and gods of other cultural mythologies, many I’m sure I’ve never heard of. I prefer not to use the term agnostic, because that makes it sound like I’m on the fence between yes and no, when I really think that God is highly unlikely. However, atheist is too strong of a devotion, so I guess there’s no nice shiny box to fit this into. Some people may label things that already exist as God, such as the universe, everything, or energy. In that case, I believe these exist, but calling them God is at best redundant. Then there are Gods that are beyond our powers of comprehension by definition, such as simply by saying, “God is beyond our comprehension, so everything that you think God is, he isn’t.” In that case, it’s open ended and over, and I’d rather get to more interesting questions.
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Religion is more than just about a supernatural something or another, but for some reason I get the sense that a religion to many people is a tightly sealed box packed with God, a moral code of behavior, values determining what is important, an understanding of the universe, and our part in it. Some people may be afraid to open the box and examine what’s inside, worried that if one can’t hold its ground, then everything else is threatened. However, just because I don’t believe in God doesn’t mean I don’t believe in morality or live a life void of meaning. Everything is astounding enough as it is, and I don’t need the supernatural to appreciate it.
Might as well start with people. Humanism to me basically means that the well-being of people is important, and it does not really matter if God exists or not. If he does, that’s great. If not, that’s great too. Either way, here we are living in this big world.
Everyone has the same basic needs, such as nutritious food, clean water, clear air, and adequate shelter. We all feel stress from the same types of circumstances: uncertainty, loss of control, lack of information, emotional isolation, and overwhelming conflict. Furthermore, everyone wants to feel like they belong, otherwise we can feel disoriented, rather like a stranger lost in a unknown land looking for something or someone familiar.
Any good religion comes with guidelines, so here are some about being human that I believe in. Note: subject to revision.
2. Act with compassion
3. Do what inspires you
4. Be courageous
In case we were feeling too important about ourselves, environmentalism says to hold on a minute. We exist in a context that’s not all about us, and that’s a good thing. One of the purposes of a religion I think is to tell us about our place in the world so that we can relate with our environment in a meaningful way. Many religions may get this sense of connectivity by a history of tradition, a creation myth, or the simple fact that being part of a religion grants you access to a community larger than yourself.
To really understand our place and where we are, I think that ecology -or the study of interdependence- is the best start. Whenever people describe a spiritual experience, the hallmark is often a sense that there is something greater than ourselves and that we are all connected. Well, that is literally true. The Earth is a single field of behavior. It may be hard to fully cognize since the planet is so much bigger than we are, but every now and then, the awareness may hit you inexplicably and without warning.
To give a small example of how we are connected, imagine a closed system with just you and a tree. You are breathing in oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, so every time you breathe out, you’re losing mass because there’s a net loss of carbon. The tree on the other hand is taking in that carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, so it’s gaining mass from the carbon in the atmosphere. You are losing mass by breathing, and the tree is gaining mass by breathing, so you are in a way becoming the tree. If you’re worried about withering away, you can eat something. Now, imagine not just you and one tree, but millions of different species linked in a single network along with abiotic components (air, water, earth, etc.), and that’s more or less the something greater that we are a part of within the realm of environmentalism.
Environmentalism even has a moral code. Aldo Leopold, who pioneered the study of ecology and fused ethical philosophy with environmental studies, stated, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
You can determine the environmental morality of your interactions by which type of long-term biological relationship your own relationships resemble. Let’s start with parasitism, in which one party benefits and the other is harmed. Parasites drain the life out of their environment or otherwise make the life of the host more difficult. This can be beneficial to the environment as a whole when the host species is becoming too overpowering, but let’s ignore that for now. Benefiting at the expense of others is not consistent with the values of humanism, and draining the life out of the environment reduces its ability to sustain the life of other organisms, so parasitic people and their constructions are generally considered immoral.
The next type of relationship is commensalism, in which one organism benefits and the other is neither helped nor harmed. This situation I think is morally neutral. You’re getting what you need without causing harm, which ought to be the minimum standard with which we evaluate our actions. As is the code for medicine, so to it is for us: First, do no harm.
The third type of persistent biological interaction is mutualism. In this case, both organisms benefit from the relationship. This is the most satisfying and moral type of interaction and one that we should be building in multiple facets of how people do things.
In case we still feel too important, we are probably more insignificant than we are even capable of imagining. That’s the good news. Try justifying that the world was created just for us. Better yet, try justifying that the shade of your skin, your sex, or how much money you have is even important. Try quibbling over an arbitrary patch of desert when it’s a bit of dust on a tiny speck orbiting around a typical star on the edge of an average galaxy out of billions that only make up 4% of the entire universe that may not even be the only one.
All of our problems just look childish. This isn’t an excuse to not solve social problems, but rather a realization that they’re ridiculous. With the Earth in such a larger context,
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
-Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell
In case anyone is feeling small, I leave you this:
“Be humble, for you are made of earth. Be noble, for you are made of stars”