I would like to dedicate this post to Karen Hunter and Jesse Peterson. Karen Hunter, as members of the atheist blogosphere will recall, declared several weeks ago on CNN’s Paula Zahn NOW program, “What does an atheist believe? Nothing.” She went on to add that atheists need to just “shut up.” In a follow-up segment several days later, Jesse Peterson accused atheists of “trying to impose their godless lifestyle” on America and challenged Ellen Johnson of American Atheists to explain where atheists get their values from after trumpeting that he gets his values from “God and the Bible.” Well Karen and Jesse, here is my answer to you.
In short, I believe in civilization, liberty, justice, human rights, personal responsibility, accountability ,and the spirit of self betterment. While Jesse Peterson boasts that he gets his values from the Bible, I derive my values from the wisdom and knowledge accumulated by the human race from thousands of years of experience. You see, what Karen Hunter, Jesse Peterson and countless others fail to realize is while they focus on the comings and goings of a collection of semi-nomadic tribes between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, complex and sophisticated civilizations thrived in Egypt, Crete, Greece, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, along the banks of the Indus River and in China. The Israelites and their collection of tales that would eventually comprise the Old Testament had no impact on the development of these civilizations.
The Greek achievements during the Hellenic and Hellenistic eras had a profound influence on Western civilization in so many areas. The plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; the philosophy of Socrates and Plato; the spirit of scientific inquiry exemplified by Hippocrates and Aristotle; the birth of history with Herodotus and Thucydides. The Greeks gave us the Olympics, the Doric capital and the Corinthian column. And of course, as we all know, it was the Greeks who introduced democracy, or rule by the people, to the world.
In China and throughout East Asia, probably no man has had a greater influence than Confucius, who is believed to have lived in the 6th century B.C. ‘The Analects’, the collection of sayings attributed to Confucius, is replete with introspective statements such as “In what I have undertaken on another’s behalf, have I failed to do my best? In my dealings with my friends have I failed to be trustworthy in what I say?”, “When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self,” and “It is these things that cause me concern: failure to cultivate virtue, failure to go more deeply into what I have learned, inability, when I am told what is right, to move where it is, and inability to reform myself when I have defects.” One of my favorite sayings from ‘The Analects’ is Book 13:13, “If a man manages to make himself correct, what difficulty will there be for him to take part in government? If he cannot make himself correct, what business has he with making others correct.” Those lines should be memorized by every aspiring candidate for political office.
Though Confucius is well known even to Westerners, Chinese civilization produced other great and important thinkers. One of my favorites, who is virtually unknown to Americans, is Mo Tzu, who lived in the 5th century B.C. Hundreds of years before Jesus was preaching to the Pharisees to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Mo Tzu preached the doctrine of “universal love.” By that, Mo Tzu meant that we should regard the welfare of others as much as our own. “When everyone regards the houses of others as his own, who would disturb the others’ houses? One would regard the others as one’s self…is this a calamity or a benefit to the world? Of course it is a benefit.”
In the Gospels, Jesus famously implores his listeners to turn the other cheek. Several hundred years before that, the Buddhist text ‘The Dhammapadda’ had already covered the same ground:
“’He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, he robbed me.’ Those who think such thoughts will not be free from hate. For hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal. Many do not know that we are here in this world to live in harmony. Those who know this do not fight against each other.” Elsewhere it reads “Overcome anger by peacefulness; overcome evil by good. Overcome the mean by generosity; and the man who lies by truth.”
Another great Indian religious text, the ‘Bhagavad-Gita’, instructs us that people with an evil nature “are addicts of sensual pleasure, made restless by their many desires, and caught in the net of delusion.” A person with good tendencies, on the other hand, “harms no one. He renounces the things of this world. He has a tranquil mind and an unmalicious tongue. He is compassionate toward all. He is not greedy. He is gentle and modest. He abstains from useless activity. [I wonder if that applies to blogging! :-)] He is free from hatred and from pride."
It was not until I was of college age that I became aware of and read the great works of Eastern religion and philosophy. It had a lasting impact on me by shaping my views about materialism and our attachment to the things of this world. Eastern thought, particularly Buddhism, is often stereotyped as being about withdrawing from the world and leading a monastic lifestyle. But for me, it was more about applying the philosophy in a way that was practical and consistent in a Western culture. We need clothes, shelter, transportation and possessions, but we do not need to have the fanciest clothes, the biggest house, the most expensive car, and loads of jewelry and other luxury items. Otherwise we find ourselves drowning in debt instead of saving for a rainy day. As Tyler Durden tells his followers in Fight Club, "The things you own end up owning you."
And not to give the Bible short shrift, but the one book from the Bible that had the most appeal for me was the Book of Proverbs. While there are many phrases in Proverbs about what "the Lord abhors" or "detests", there are also many wise and practical sayings, such as "He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored" which are religiously neutral and echo the teachings of the texts I mention above.
What one begins to notice is that there are certain moral lessons that can be found in virtually all of the great texts of the civilizations of the ancient world. Some Biblical Literalists will argue, as I have seen, that this is evidence that our morals come from God, which of course they mean to be their God. I find this argument to be a pathetic attempt for them to give their religion the credit for all of the moral and ethical advances made by others. Rather, I would argue, as would any other objective person, that as civilizations developed throughout the world, the people who belonged to these civilizations found themselves confronting common problems. With the rise of literacy, the learned and educated people in each civilization developed the means to share their wisdom and observations with others.
It is only very recently in human affairs, say the last two or three centuries, that it has become possible for an educated person to have access to the moral and ethical traditions of cultures outside of his own. Nowadays, anyone can go to a local library or Barnes & Noble bookstore to find books about the Greek philosophers, 'The Analects' of Confucius, the texts of Hinduism and Buddhism, along with the Bible and virtually every great work that has been written and published up to the present day. Because we live in a predominantly Christian country, it is to be expected that the Bible will have a greater hold on the imaginations of most Americans. But as the Clarence Darrow character in "Inherit the Wind" says of the Bible, "It is a good book, but it is not the only book." When considering the collective wisdom of humanity, the Bible is but one of many pillars of human civilization. So, when Jesse Peterson boasts that he gets his values from the Bible, I would tell him that the source of his values is much poorer and limited than mine.