After Atheism

In Praise of Leaders
November 4, 2008, 9:09 pm
Filed under: Spirituality, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

I had a great conversation yesterday about leaders. The argument was made that most communities in our society are patriarchal, where the leaders are trying to impose their will (or ideas or morals) upon the followers. The people I was having the conversation with thought of a leader as someone whose primary goal was to constrain their individual freedom. A bad thing.

To an extent, I could understand where they were coming from. We don’t always choose the communities we belong to. Some, we’re born into. Others, we somehow find ourselves in. You don’t generally get to select your family or the various governmental entities that expect you to obey their laws and pay their taxes. At school and at work, rules are enforced by threats of various flavors of punishment. To the extent that the values and actions of these groups conflict with your own, resistance makes sense.

But most communities don’t operate entirely out of force. Force wastes too much energy. Most families, jobs, schools and governments depend on some degree of cooperation. They have mechanisms for dissent, democratic ways of speaking up and influencing how the group works. And if that’s not enough, you usually have the option of walking out.

In these communities, leaders can’t be power crazed tyrants. Leadership, most of the time, is the opposite. A leader has to set his or her individual opinions and desires aside to be of service to the larger whole. Being a leader (for anyone out there who has tried it) is far more about giving than taking. A leader has to listen, to shape consensus, to attend to the basic needs of the community (cleaning up, paying bills, finding a home). The more democratic the group, the more leadership is an act of selfless service. Rather than resenting this kind of leadership, most group members appreciate it.

But I think many people still struggle with being a leader. There’s the quandary of “Who am I to tell people what they should do?” In the absence of an absolute moral code, there’s a temptation to see everything as relative, as each individual as having an inalienable right to “be yourself.”

Here’s where I disagreed. In my opinion, moral authority comes not from individuals, but from communities. Each community is its own ethical center of gravity. The leader has the right to enforce the communities values, to judge something “wrong”.

I don’t think this is a radical idea and I assume most people behave this way now. I just think it’s worth pointing out that stepping into the role of leader, like stepping into the role of citizen, is a choice for something that transcends our individual selves and immerses us in a world of meaning, value, and morality that is not of our own creation. It is not necessarily a way of oppressing people. It can also be a way of freeing them.


October 29, 2008, 4:43 pm
Filed under: Atheism, Religion, Spirituality, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Where does the idea of God come from? The major western faiths – Christianity, Islam, Judaism – claim it comes from divine revelation or from God’s messengers sent to earth. Jesus, Mohammad, the Prophets. From the heavens. From outside.

But religions tend to be culture specific. They emerge from within a culture, defining its identity and values in a set of stories, rules and beliefs unique to that culture. Religion is a reflection and a product of a community. It comes from inside.

C’mon. If there is a God, why does he (or she) do such a poor job staying on message? If you believe that God can create the world, how do you explain why that same God can’t communicate clearly to everybody just what he expects from us?

So why do cultures create religions? What need does this belief in some higher power, in a spiritual realm beyond the senses, satisfy? Why have people, throughout history, embraced all these “irrational” beliefs? I don’t know. But here’s a guess: Humans, by our genetic wiring, do not naturally work well together in large numbers. We can handle maybe an extended clan, but once the crowd grows beyond a few dozen, the mistrust meter kicks in, paranoia pops up, and things get ugly.

On the other hand, strength in numbers give a certain evolutionary advantage to a tribe. Tribes are better at hunting and growing food, defending themselves, etc. The trick getting everybody to get along together. Religion, broadly defined, solves this problem. If everybody in a tribe believes the same stories about how we became a tribe, about where power comes from, about what happens to those who stray, about how team players are rewarded, the tribe becomes unified by a shared communal truth. Religion creates an emotionally acceptable motivation for ignoring our instinctual self interest. And the beauty of such religious belief is that it can’t be disproven. It is not “of this world”. It assumes a spiritual world, beyond our perception. It requires a leap of faith in something we can’t see.

But how do you get the tribe to buy in? For one, they recognize the benefits of being in a tribe. For another, these stories have an empowering appeal. We like belonging to the club. Once the members of the tribe start making the leap, belief becomes mutually re-inforced and sustained, through rituals, through stories told around the fire. The tribe overcomes human instinct by creating, out of language, a culture that supports communal instinct. And thus is religion born.

What we need to recognize, here in the 21st Century, is that we humans, atheist or theist or whatever, still face the same dilemma.

The Religion of Community
October 28, 2008, 4:02 pm
Filed under: Atheism, Religion, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Here, in brief, is the core idea I’d like to explore in this blog: Much of what I used to get out of believing in religion and God, I now get out of belief in community.

By community I mean any group of people united by some common purpose that requires their active participation. It could be two people in a relationship. A family. A neighborhood. A club. An organization. A business. A government. It can last a day or go on indefinitely. All of us belong to many communities.

A community is something we choose to belong to because we believe in the value of its common purpose. It is a leap of faith that something in this world is worth preserving, or that some future is possible.

By joining a community, we shift from being an isolated individual to being a citizen. Few groups long tolerate members whose sole interest is their own needs. Being a citizen requires a certain degree of selflessness, of working to further the group’s goals, of adhering to the rules, of supporting your fellow citizens and defending the group from all the forces that tear groups apart.

Which doesn’t mean you lose your individuality or unique perspective. It’s the duty of a citizen to keep the community on track in an ever shifting world, to disagree when disagreement is called for, to actively engage in the debate. But also to recognize that the purpose of the debate isn’t who wins and who loses. It’s finding those ideas that best addresses whatever problem the group is facing. It’s as if a community is an organic thing unto itself. By belonging, we become part of this larger body.

Seen in this way, community can be a source of belonging, of moral authority, of common cause, of meaningful action, even of a certain immortality.  It’s through becoming part of a community, stepping up to citizenship, that we can become part of something transcendent, something I would even call spiritual.

But that’s another conversation. Today’s music: Mercedes Sosa. It’s a sunny day in L.A. and the Phillies are half a game away from winning the series. What a world.