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What Gets Atheists Out of Bed?

28 December 2013, 09:20

First let me state my position: I’m an agnostic atheist. This means that I’m 99% certain that there are no gods of any sort that somehow intervene in the world, answer prayers, talk to people, or that cause miracles to happen. Why only 99%? Because I’m open to the idea that there might have been a creator of some sort – except we have no idea what it might have been, and indeed we cannot know since it does not manifest “within” our universe. As I’ve said before, it could have been a mad alien scientist experimenting in his laboratory in the 8th, 9th and 10th dimensions (and who could now be dead). We simply don’t know, and likely cannot know.

Also, we haven’t yet explored every inch of the universe, so it’s conceivable that “gods” might exist somewhere. However, since they don’t exist in the places we’ve looked, the classic definitions of gods fall flat since they seem to rest solidly on the idea of omnipresence. It’s very strange how the faithful over the millennia have said that gods exist on mountaintops, in the sea, under the ground, in the air, in space – but whenever we go to these places they’re simply not there.

In short, my position can best be summarised as being a sceptic, or even better – a non-believer. I don’t just accept ideas on the basis of someone’s word about things we can’t see or experience. There are plenty of fruitcakes out there who are convinced of ideas that are patently nonsense, and I have no interest in being sucked into their fantasies.

So, now, to the key question: what drives non-believers, what motivates us, what provides us with incentives in the world? Why do we keep on keeping on?

Let’s start with the basics. We all have a survival instinct. Threaten our lives and we’ll usually fight back in some way or other, even if we’re not very good at it – but we’ll resist the end (which is also a contradiction for the faithful to consider, if heaven is such a prize awaiting them, why do they not want to die?). This instinct is intrinsic to us, it’s biological, we have a natural aversion to death (this isn’t a discussion of evolution through natural selection, but the reason why we have this instinct lies there). This reaction can be measured in many ways, such as the level of cortisol in our bloodstreams when faced with imminent death. But you can experience it directly yourself by standing on top of a building and walking closer and closer to the edge… it’s real and direct.

Then we have more complex needs and desires that drive us: hunger, thirst, sexual desire, envy, jealousy, the need for material goods and experiences – we all seek to address these in some way, and whether you like them or not, they keep us engaged with life. Now the mystics have tackled these in two ways, namely the ascetic and the tantric approaches. In the former, it’s all about denial of these urges, refusal to satisfy them, elimination of them by “plucking them out”; monks live lives of Spartan simplicity to rid themselves of the urges that make us human. The tantric approach, however, goes the other way, by satisfying them until they are no longer important or their hold on us weakens. You can see where christians sit on this one! Most religions, in fact, since it’s the more convenient way to ensure social order.

Nevertheless, ask a non-believer if he’s a tantrist and you’ll probably get a vacant look. We simply wrestle with our natures as we encounter them. In a marriage, but have feelings for someone else? We don’t just go off for dirty weekends with them, we look at our partners, our families and what we’ve committed to, and weigh up the consequences of our actions. The extent of our ability to empathize with others in this is a measure of our maturity, as is our ability to offset the pleasures avoided with the benefits to ourselves and others of values lived. So the “evil” temptations aren’t to be avoided, they’re to be navigated, as experiences in growth.

Let’s go a level “higher”, or “deeper”, whatever metaphor suits you. We have needs for acceptance by others, whether that be as family, as mates, as buddies or colleagues. Some of us need to be accepted as leaders, others have deep-seated longings to be subservient followers. Again, these all originate inside us – wake up in the morning and they’re there, if you haven’t actually been working with them during the night as well, in your dreams or even nightmares.

Then we can look at personal fulfilment, the need for a sense of meaningful engagement in the world, the need to make a difference to someone, some people, to a nation or the world. Again, it comes from inside, nobody pressures us into wanting to be kind or generous, we aren’t commanded to this, it simply arises in us. Or not, as the case may be. The point is, we all have a different pattern of needs and fulfilment-desire within us. We aren’t taught it in classes or through adherence to instructions from an invisible person - we learn by experience what benefits us and those around us, to the extent that our personal ability to empathize illuminates the impact of our actions. It’s about being honest and authentic about our natures.

But I’ve found that there’s another layer of motivation that keeps me engaged with the world. And that’s simple curiosity, a fascination with the nature of reality – why we are who and what we are, “why we’re here”, a deep feeling of “Huh??”, a double-take if you will, a curious surprise at the lack of clothes on the emperor’s body that few others seem to notice. Each day is a rich menu of opportunities to experience this. From the ethics of how we interact all the way down to how a coffee mug rests on a table and doesn’t fall through it (when the matter of each is mostly empty space) – reality is a truly intriguing thing; we live within it, we laugh, love and cry within it. We seek to understand it through studying it and experiencing it, rather than trying to escape it by focusing on something beyond it that is only imagined, hoped for and based upon wishful thinking.

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