An Atheist at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

I participated in the (October 2021) meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions on a panel focused on compassion as a religious and non-religious value. I represented the non-religious point of view in conversation with Dr. Peter Admirand (Dublin City University, and my co-author on Seeking Common Ground), Dr. Veena Howard (a scholar of South Asian religions and my colleague at Fresno State), and Dr. Laura Novak Winer (a rabbi and a professor at Hebrew Union College ).

Earlier that morning, the Dalai Lama had addressed the Parliament. He said, “all religions have something to teach us.” And, “the essence of all religious teaching is compassion.”

Dalai Lama at Parliament of World’s Religions 2021

This important claim asks us to think critically about the long history of religious violence and intolerance. It may be the case that compassion is taught in every religion. But religious people can fail to be compassionate.

The same point is true, of course, for non-religious people. Secular regimes can lack compassion. And atheists can be cold-hearted.

But there is a place for compassion in atheism. Atheists emphasize the fact of human mortality. We all suffer and die. There is no sense in adding to the cruelty of the world. Rather, we should avoid violence and spread good will.

Atheists should acknowledge that human brains and bodies have evolved to include a substantial place for compassion and communal feeling. We are social animals thrown onto a small planet in the middle of the vastness. We should find way to laugh and sing and mourn together (an idea I’ve explored in my book Compassion).

These shared experiences are a focus of religious life. One need not accept the metaphysical pronouncements of religious traditions in order to understand that compassion is good for us and that love and community help us live well.

Unfortunately, the philosophical tradition has often looked askance at compassion. Kantian morality is focused on universal duty detached from emotion. Such an approach may dismiss compassion as a soft, emotional value.

Kant also dismissed the extravagant claims of superstitious religion. In defending his idea of a “pure religion” of reason (in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason), Kant espoused a religion “cleansed of the nonsense of superstition and the madness of enthusiasm.”

Humanistic ethics has evolved to include much more than Kantian universality. We know that compassion is an important part of ethics. And we should understand that people find meaning in religion without simply dismissing it as superstition and nonsense.

This is one reason it is important for atheists, humanists, and philosophers to participate in inter-religious and interfaith dialogue. It is not easy to dismiss another person’s faith when you know them as a real person. Interfaith and inter-religious conversations are promoting solidarity in a world that still includes much religious intolerance. Atheists and humanists need to participate in these conversations because there is often intolerance and misunderstanding across the religious/nonreligious divide.

There are challenges, of course. Atheists sometimes seem to enjoy picking fights with religious believers. Religious people sometimes sling mud in the direction of atheism. I think we should all be more tolerant, hospitable, and compassionate.

This does not mean that we ignore the fundamental disagreements between religious and nonreligious people. But it is possible to be compassionate in our disagreements. Each of us is trying to make sense of life. Some find answers in religion, in all of its complex variety. Others turn away from religion entirely. So long as there is no violence, oppression, and hostility, we can co-exist. And if we take the time to listen to one another, we might find common ground in the shared human struggle to learn, love, and live.

If you are interested in these issues, please join me as I discuss our new book, Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue with Peter Admirand, at a book launch and panel discussion on November 4, 11:30AM Pacific Time. The panel will be in Dublin, Ireland. I’ll join by Zoom. For Zoom details, contact Peter Admirand: peter.admirand@dcu.ie.

Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a new book , Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue, that I’ve co-authored with Peter Admirand, a Catholic theologian at Dublin City University. We worked together to think about our differences and what we share in common.

I’m an atheist. Peter is a believer. We disagree about some important and fundamental things. But we share the belief that dialogue and mutual understanding are crucially important in our polarized and divided world.

The book is framed by seven virtues of dialogue: curiosity, compassion, and courage, as well as honesty, honoring our commitments, humility, and the desire for harmony. If more people exercised these virtues the world might be a better place. The goal is not to erase our differences but, rather, to journey together to find common ground.

The book includes some biographical tidbits. I share the story of how I came to realize that I am more humanist than theist, a nonbeliever who remains interested in all of the world’s religions. As I explain, this was not a spectacular conversion from theism to atheism. Rather, it was a slow realization that the religion I was raised with no longer spoke to me.

Peter, of course, tells a different story. Our differences emerge in chapters that discuss the meaning of curiosity, compassion, and courage, as well honesty, humility, honor, and harmony. It was eye-opening to engage in this process with Peter.

The book ends with an account of letters (well, emails) we exchanged. We discovered a common love of music, a common love of friends and families, and a common concern about the crises emerging around us.

As I say, in the conclusion, I think we succeeded in finding common ground. But this does not mean that the conversation is over. Rather, there is alway more to be learned.

We were fortunate to have Rabbi Jack Moline, the President of the American Interfaith Alliance write a Foreword to the book. Peter and I are both engaged in interfaith and inter-religious work. We both think that this work needs to involve atheists, secularists, and humanists as well as members of the world’s diverse faith communities.

You can buy the book on Amazon or from Wipf and Stock Books.

The Just War Myth and the War in Afghanistan

The conclusion of two decades of American war in Afghanistan reminds us that war is rarely justified.  A just war responds to aggression or defends human rights.  Just wars should be fought for noble intentions.  Just warriors should avoid deliberately harming noncombatants.  Just warriors should not use torture or commit war crimes.  And a just war should leave the world better off.

In Afghanistan, more than 150,000 people were killed.  This includes Taliban fighters, Afghan government forces, and an estimated 47,000 civilians.  Nearly 2,500 American soldiers were killed.  Trillions were spent.  Millions were displaced, including 2.6 million Afghan refugees. 

It is not clear this was worth it, morally speaking.

This is not to say that the American soldiers who fought, bled, and died in “the war on terror” did anything wrong.  Individual soldiers do not decide where to fight.  In our democratic system, that decision is made by civilian leaders who are accountable to “we, the people.” 

We asked our soldiers to fight in a war that was morally suspect from the beginning.  We should apologize.  In addition to saying “thank you for your service,” we should say, “I’m sorry.”  And we must add, in addressing our veterans, “it is not your fault.”

Retrospective analysis is fraught with difficulties.  But it was not clear from the beginning that an all-out invasion of Afghanistan was a proportional response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.  The Taliban regime was not responsible for 9/11.  It is true that Osama bin Ladin was hiding out in Afghanistan.  But it was overkill to invade an entire country in order to root out terrorists.  Critical voices argued, even in 2001, that a more targeted and proportional response would have been wiser.

It is also important to consider whether sustained and well-funded nonviolent alternatives to war could have been efficacious.  What kinds of nonviolent terrorism prevention programs could have been funded with the trillions of dollars spent in Afghanistan?

The Taliban was (and is) undemocratic and repressive.  It could be argued that removing the Taliban was justified in defense of human rights.  But nation-building wars are much more difficult to justify and to win, as Afghanistan and Iraq show.  As we’ve learned in both cases, the regimes we installed suffered from corruption as well as a lack of legitimacy and popular support.

From the beginning our intentions were mixed.  Some wanted revenge for 9/11.  Some wanted to “drain the swamp” harboring terrorists.  Some wanted to create democracy.  There were also strategic considerations involving Iran, Russia, Pakistan, and China, linked to the neoconservative desire to assert American supremacy around the globe.

Along the way, atrocities were committed.  Lies were told.  Goodwill was squandered.  Contractors enriched themselves.  And brave men and women lost limbs and lives. 

In 2007, I offered a critical analysis of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where I showed the problem of “the just war myth.”  The just war myth evolves from wishful thinking about war.  We want to believe that war can be easily justified.  We want to believe that we are the good guys who win the wars we fight because of our moral superiority.  Those are illusions.

We also want to believe that civilian and military leaders are wise and moral.  We want to believe that our leaders know what they are doing, that they are concerned with morality, and that they are not merely playing politics with the lives of our soldiers. 

Our trust in the probity and sagacity of our leaders is broken after years of polarization.  This should undermine our faith in the just war myth.  This does not mean one must affirm absolute pacifism.  Rather, it means we should be more critical of war and more vigilant. 

We, the people must say “never again” to ill-advised and unjust wars.  We should be skeptical of militaristic rhetoric and simplistic narratives that divide the world into good guys and bad guys.  We should question the idea that war can be an effective tool for promoting democracy.  And we should educate ourselves about the importance of nonviolent alternatives to war.

This critical perspective is offered in solidarity with the soldiers who fought and died during the past 20 years.  It is offered on behalf of the next generation of warriors who will be asked to bleed on our behalf.  It is offered with compassionate concern for the men, women, and children who suffer the horrors of war.

Compassion

I’m happy to announce the publication of my new book, Compassion. This is the second volume of The Three Mountains.

This book follows the trail of compassion. It offers poetic insight, stunning photography, and the wisdom of ancient philosophy. The book reflects on the meaning of compassion in a world that contains both beauty and suffering. It will provoke, invigorate, and make you wonder.

The book weaves spiritual teachings together with folktales and natural history in a way that surprises and inspires. Compassion involves laughter, chaos, tears, and joy. Compassion is about overflowing and becoming broader.

Excerpt: “The instinct to share is primordial. No one wants to drink or dance alone. We share the wine because happiness and sadness need company. We toast the illusions of life, laughing out loud at the glowing red of sunset and the silver light of moonrise. We toast the illusions of life, singing hymns to lost friends, dead dogs, and silent grandmothers. Here’s to the eyes that once saw this beauty, now closed forever. Here’s to the child whose eyes have just opened.”

Amateurs, Morons, and Professionals

There’s an ironic critique of amateurs in The Big Lebowski. Walter (played by John Goodman) keeps complaining about “f***ing amateurs.”  But Walter is an amateur.   He is a caricature of the great American “do-it-yourself” ethos. 

He claims that other people don’t know what they are doing.  But neither does he.  And so Walter keeps f***ing things up.

Some things ought to be left to the professionals.  A professional has specialized training, lots of experience, and a certain talent or skill.  But Americans distrust professionals.  We think that since we are all created equal, we should be able to do-it-ourselves.

Our suspicion of professionalism has some connection with Trumpism, the anti-vax movement, and the American distrust of science.  Professionals are elites.  But we don’t like elites.  We’d rather diagnose our own diseases and interpret the data for ourselves.  We think we are smarter than the doctors, the scientists, and the “mainstream media.”

As we’ve seen, this can lead to disaster.

The conflict between professionalism and amateurism is an ancient one.  Plato criticized democracy as a rule of amateurs.  According to Plato, this is a terrible idea.  Plato’s ideal republic is a nation run by professionals.  He describes a rigorous training method for selecting the rulers.  And he suggests that tyrants have not successfully completed the program.

Tyrants are the worst of the amateurs.  The etymology of the word “amateur” gives us a clue.  The root of the word is “love” (ama-).  Tyrants love power.  But they don’t want to develop the skill, virtue, and expertise necessary to rule.  They grab power without training themselves in wielding it wisely. 

This is not to suggest that all amateurs are tyrants.  There is something admirable about a dedicated amateur.  Amateurs do things because they love them.  They are not in it for the money or the fame.  But a virtuous amateur understands that some things ought to be left to the professionals. 

Things have changed quite a bit in recent decades when it comes to the difference between amateurs and professionals.  The Olympics, for example, used to ban professional athletes.  And while amateur athletes are inspiring, the pros are better.

In some fields, the professionals have been kicked to the curb.  In other fields, increased specialization makes it impossible for amateurs to survive.  Often this is about money: who makes it, who controls it, and where it flows.

At one time, Youtube was a place for amateurs to share videos.  But Youtube went commercial and the professionals staged a comeback, elbowing out the amateurs in pursuit of advertising revenue. 

Similar struggles have played out in other corners of the economy.  Ride-sharing apps like Uber compete with professional cab drivers.  Airbnb circumvents the professionals at Hyatt and Hilton.  Amazon allows self-published authors to reach a wide audience.  And so on.

Each of these stories is complicated.  In some cases, the rise of the amateurs has allowed for an outburst of creative entrepreneurship.  In other cases, you end up with crappy self-published books and weird cars driving you around town.

There is also lots of confusion about what’s true, what’s real, and what’s beneficial.  The Covid-19 debacle shows us what’s at stake.  Rather than trust the scientists, the amateurs are playing doctor. 

Early in the pandemic, non-experts claimed that Covid-19 was no worse than an ordinary cold or flu.  Then the amateurs doubted professional advice about masks and social distancing.  And now the non-professionals are skeptical of vaccines.  Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on.

Plato was right that in an ideal world we’d put the professionals in charge.  But in a democratic country that values individual liberty, the amateurs will resist.  The solution is better education.  But that’s a long-term and ongoing solution. In the meantime, we’re left with a mess. 

At one point in The Big Lebowski, the Dude (Jeff Bridges) says to Walter: “Walter, I love you, but sooner or later, you’re going to have to face the fact you’re a goddamn moron.” This is us. Let’s face the fact that we are a bunch of amateurs and morons, mucking things up. What’s not to love?