Empathy and reason – a path to a better world.

The problem with the term “atheist” is that it’s very good for describing what we are not.  It’s not, however, very good at describing what we are.  I know this his hardly a revolutionary thought.  Most of the the blogs, podcasts, and books I’ve read usually at some point tackle the question of what we are for instead of what we are against.  I’ve had reason recently to think about that.

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No, we’re very clear on what we’re against.

If you hadn’t heard by now, Rev. Jamie Coots, a snake handling preacher from Kentucky, was killed by a snakebite.  The irony of this story is obvious, a man of faith is killed by the very thing he believes his faith will protect him from.  My honest first reaction was one unquestionably lacking in sympathy. I couldn’t help but wonder if the world were not a better place without someone who encourages dangerous practices for irrational reasons.  But what I wasn’t doing was celebrating his death.

However, I don’t think I was entirely representative of the atheist community.  Much like when a guy went on a hunger strike to stop gay marriage in Utah, I’ve read too many expressions of callousness and mockery from atheists towards Rev. Coots.  It’s a reaction that I see too often.  Whenever tragedy strikes the faithful, it seems the atheist community reacts with a sense of joy or victory.  We act as if schadenfreude is our trademark.

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It’s not like this thing was working for us.

Beside from the sheer mean-spiritedness of that kind of attitude, it directly impacts our standing in society.  Every time we’re seen dancing on the grave of a religious person – no matter how absurd or wrong they were in life – it reinforces the old stereotypes that most of us spend all our time trying to debunk.  We try to disabuse the religious of the notion that we’re morally bankrupt, god-hating, miserable, shallow people, but the message isn’t getting through the cloud of misanthropy and disrespect that we surround ourselves with.

I know that religious ideas are absurd and damaging to the world.  I get it.  It’s like Sam Harris said,

“I want to show them that kind of respect.  That doesn’t mean I respect ideas… some ideas are ridiculous, and that’s perfectly reasonable.  In fact, ridiculing ideas is what makes progress.  So if I offend some of you, I don’t mean to offend you personally.  I may offend some of your ideas, but that doesn’t bother me at all.  In fact, if you confront my ideas, it will lead to a discussion.”

I’m not saying we have to put on the kid gloves whenever anybody comes around with an inane idea.  I think confronting bad ideas is one of the most important thing we can do.  But while in the midst of that, we must not forget that there are real people on the other side of those ideas.  I think the practice of carrying venomous snakes to prove faith in god is incredibly stupid and harmful, and I’m bewildered by the fact that his family members and congregation won’t learn from his death that faith alone will not protect them.  But that doesn’t change the fact that those family members and that congregation are feeling real pain and loss because of his death.  To be callous or flippant in the face of that won’t win us any converts.  It will only reinforce the stereotypes we’re trying to distance ourselves from.

When I was discussing this with my wife, she suggested the idea that there are two pillars of atheism:  empathy and reason.  I love this idea.  We are constantly fighting the idea that we’re incapable of living moral lives.  How many times to do we have to answer the question, “Without god, where do you get your morals from?”  I actually had a believer one time insist that the only reason I was capable of morality was because god wrote moral laws in my heart.  He said that was why I felt guilty when I did wrong.  He was, of course, way off base.  The fact is that we are moral because we empathize.  We don’t need heavenly orders to know not to steal; we know what loss feels like, so we don’t steal.

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We know what mosquito bites feel like, so we don’t cannibalize… often.

I don’t think I have to advocate to any atheists about why reason is a pillar of our worldview.  The best tool for stripping away superstition and the suffering it causes is reason.  Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, but it did send us to the moon.  I went to a meeting this weekend where a woman suggested that there are many paths to knowledge, and science is only one of them.  She even went as far as to call science a religion.  She also claimed there was no real thing as truth or facts.  However facts and observations are the only way we have of describing the world and universe, and without reason guiding our observations, we are incapable of knowing anything.  Science is superior to religion because it’s effective.  Faith told Rev. Jamie Coots that he wouldn’t die from a snakebite, but he still died.  Reason and science would’ve told him that holding a venomous snake was dangerous, and also produced an anti-venom that would’ve saved his life if he had not refused treatment.

Empathy is tougher.  Even religious people – usually unintentionally – use empathy as a means to an end rather than an end itself.  I remember listening to an episode of the Thinking Atheist about how to deal with grief as an atheist.  In it, a caller was telling a story about a family member who had passed away, and how another family member tried to use that event to try to bring him back to the church.  The line he said, which has stuck with me forever was, “Don’t use my tragedy as your soapbox.”  The religious, usually out of some twisted sense of love or charity, regularly try to find people at their most vulnerable and turn them into believers.  They indoctrinate children, or offer charity to the needy alongside biblical lessons, or reach out to offer solace to the grieving.  And it’s effective.  It’s a large part of the reason that most of the world is religious in one sense or another.

Atheism has a much tougher job, but one that doesn’t have to sink to such manipulative methods.  We have reason on our side.  Our arguments are better.  We don’t want to take people in their worst moments and offer them hope through fantasies.  We want to find people at their very best, and convince them with the superiority of our arguments.

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And kittens… our kittens are superior too.

But when we trash people at their deaths, or dance on their grave, we get in our own way.  When people see us callously irreverent in their toughest moments, they’ll never listen to us in their best.  We need to be empathetic.  When someone is suffering, we must reach out to them in honest sympathy, and help out.  But unlike the religious, our help has no strings attached.  We help ease their suffering because it’s the right thing to do, and it makes the world better.  It’s when they come to us that we want to share our ideas – when they’re ready to listen, not just vulnerable to manipulation.  We can be empathetic not for gain, but because being empathetic is worthwhile on it’s own.

Being empathetic for it’s own sake, in a strange twist, can also bolster our use of reason.  When we are empathetic to those who are suffering, and extend a hand of help without expectation, people will trust and like us more.  If we are sincerely empathetic, people will be more willing to listen to our point of view.

It is through the confluence of reason and empathy that we will reach people.  By sticking to these pillars, we can effectively fight the superstition that makes people think that god will protect them from snakes.  I can’t see any way in which a world with more reason and more empathy isn’t a better one.  Let’s lead by our actions.

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