“Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.”
— Forrest Church, Unitarian Universalist minister
I took a new look at my “about” page on my Facebook profile yesterday. I’d forgotten it existed. Most likely Facebook will continue to de-emphasize it, then eventually hide it, then delete it. It sure doesn’t directly make them any money, and few people use it anymore. It’s a vestige of the old Facebook, which was little more than a face photo, a few personal details, and room for writing messages on friends’ walls, all nicely organized compared to the visual monstrosity that was MySpace. In any case, at one point early on, Facebook allowed users to select one of a few broad religious categories as their religion. Much later, they began allowing short free-form responses. Now, with the heavy commercialization of everything, there are two fields available. The first field lets you choose from a predetermined list of organizational and category Facebook pages, such as “Anglican Episcopal Church” or “Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod”. The second field is for details, and that’s what’s by far the most interesting, and what almost nobody fills in.
Not too long ago I was a very progressive, very Traditionalist Catholic. It’s a delightful combination, but you won’t hear about that category much because they don’t say awful things that would get them flak in the news. Such Catholics also tend to fly under the radar since they cannot abide the unremittingly ugly New Age woo of merely progressive Catholics, and are not abided by the reactionary hatemongers among merely Traditionalist Catholics or the authoritarian modernists that are today’s conservative Catholics. Consequently, the entirety of my religious self-description then was “Catholic”, despite my eagerness to talk for hours about the details with a kindred soul of any persuasion. But all that went away, as it sometimes does, when I finally studied questions of God’s existence with care. Since then I’ve kept the first field filled with an equally simple claim: None. As a religious label, “None” is so socially acceptible that it will earn no vitriol from anyone, whether they be anything from evangelizing psychotics all the way to militantly dogmatic “freethinkers”. But that’s because “None” means everything from the sort of vapid non-denominational Christianity that cutely refuses to call itself a religion, through the vast spiritual-but-not-religious quagmire, to secular humanists who just don’t bother with religion. “None” is a smokescreen.
It felt time to stop hiding. This is especially true since I’ve been irregularly attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation with increasing pleasure in it. Thus I started typing in Facebook’s little space for religious details to fill that “None” with content befitting a real human person who engages with the big questions. Surprisingly, Facebook didn’t cut me off with an arbitrary short character limit. Here below is what I wrote. Please understand that it is not an argument — it’s just a statement of where I stand right now as I walk from birth to death. Perhaps when I am farther along, it will be valuable to have a record here of where I once was.
All knowledge is ultimately uncertain. Keep all beliefs consistent with the facts. Assign each belief a subjective level of confidence using Bayes’ Theorem. Act to achieve your values based on the combination of all beliefs proportionally to your confidence in each. Rational behavior requires consistent values. Morality is about making our desires and values consistent and harmonious. Human desires include air, water, food, sleep, esteem, safety, shelter, love, community, identity, status, purpose, contentment, work, pleasure, variety, novelty, liberty, justice, order, and knowledge. Values are the specific forms that desires take on. Culture hands you raw values. Philosophy, travel, stories, and experience reforge them.
Natural laws appear to account for everything including themselves. Math appears to describe abstract realities that must be and cannot not be. The universe appears to be a mathematical object which viewed from the inside is a particular mathematical relationship as it unfolds from nothingness into infinite detail. Life appears to be an ordinary outworking of fundamental laws of our universe in very rare and wonderful circumstances, slowly evolving bodies governed more by function and fitness than mere thermodynamics. Humans appear to be an ordinary outworking of biological laws in rare and wonderful circumstances, rapidly evolving under intense competition spurred by mutations giving us great capacity for mimicking each other and thinking recursively. The cultures and languages of the world appear to be ordinary outworkings of social evolution. Civilizations appear to be ordinary outworkings of cultural evolution and gradual wealth accumulation. The religions of the world appear to be ordinary outworkings of cultural evolution, where the most successful cultures were those with effective traditions for thwarting their own tendencies toward factional violence by redirecting negative emotions into sacrificial rituals, followed by the evolution of civilizations, where the most successful civilizations were those that convinced vast numbers of people to morally police themselves. Where civilizations have built sufficient wealth and use it to eliminate the causes of most crime and to adequately police the population, religion is irrelevant to most people and appears to be withering away.
You’re here now. There’s no evidence whatsoever either for or against an afterlife, so do what you love and do it often. Life is mostly problems, so prize your struggles. You can change yourself some and your environment some, so do both to love your life. Use science. Eschew materialism. Count your blessings daily. When you’re grateful to someone, visit them and tell them. Always have something to look forward to. Forgive and forget. Exercise vigorously. Savor sensory experiences. Grin, laugh, and stand up straighter. Perform random acts of kindness. Love somebody who loves you. Work devotedly on something big and good. Find the path that makes your life a great story. Belong unreservedly to a community.
We do not destroy religion by destroying superstition.
— Cicero in De Divinatione (Book I, chapter LXXII, sec. 148), 44 BCE.