While killing time at Barnes & Noble recently, I was flipping through The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, and I noticed that it emphasized some of the same spiritual principles that are espoused by AA: Acceptance. Serenity. Humility. It reinforced the idea that AA’s message can most certainly be secularized–that religion has no monopoly on these values.
But, I want to take this a step further. I find it hugely ironic that the religiously devout among us stereotype nonbelievers as lacking humility, all the while claiming it for themselves and assuming that our “intellectual pride” is what drives our disbelief. I would argue that there is actually a more genuine sense of acceptance and humility in the absence of theistic beliefs.
I have mentioned before that, while I find Jehovah god repugnant, the general idea of a benevolent father figure in the sky that has since evolved within Christendom is indeed palatable. I wish it were so! But, I recognize it as just that: wishful thinking. While I’d like to think that someone upstairs is pulling all the strings and looking out for me every step of the way, I can’t help but notice that this just doesn’t seem to mesh with reality. As Carl Sagan said, “The Universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.” And I think that, as we emerge from our childish beliefs, we have to come to terms with that. We have to accept that there isn’t really a cosmic mommy and daddy cradling us from above. Our circumstances aren’t preternaturally arranged for us; we have to face them head-on, taking ownership of our own existential crisis. Of our own adulthood. Therein lies acceptance!
And humility? I hardly see humility in thinking that you share a special relationship with the Creator of the Universe–that he busies about guiding you through mundane minutiae while some child in a third world country wastes away in starvation. When people insist that I survived my brush with death because “Someone was looking out for me,” I hasten to consider the implications of this utterly solipsistic point of view: So, God saved me where he failed to do so for others, because I’m special? Granted I think much of my potential as a human being, I certainly don’t have such an overblown sense of self-importance as to think this! Pardon me for saying so, but that strikes me as real humility.
There is also humility in understanding that this universe wasn’t specially created for us. We live on the outskirts of a galaxy consisting of a few hundred billion stars. And, strewn throughout the vast expanse of the cosmos, there exists something like a hundred billion galaxies–each practically its own universe, in and of itself. If you do the math, taking into account the law of averages of large numbers, there are probably millions of civilizations out there–even if life is rare! To esteem ourselves the center of this colossal, cosmic wilderness is preposterous, and surely the height of hubris.
Bill Maher said it best: “Religion is arrogance masquerading as humility.” Contrary to conventional religious beliefs, I find a greater sense of acceptance and humility in my lack of religiosity. And especially where it concerns adopting a life of virtue and moral integrity, it is far nobler to do good for goodness’ sake, rather than to do so seeking treasures in heaven or avoiding torture in hell. At the end of the day, my atheism isn’t about spiritual rebellion. It’s about self-actualization. It’s about getting real and growing up.