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Meaningful Life Without God ("The Connection" PBS)

In June of 2007 I was invited to be part of a panel on a local television program called "The Connection" (see video of the program below). The subject was about whether a good and meaningful life is possible without a belief in God. I was announced as the President of the Humanists of Houston. The other guests on the program included Nancy Fay, a retired teacher and a Freethinker who is a Director at the Houston Church of Freethought, a Methodist Pastor named Thaddeus Easland of the Hope Church, and Rabbi Stuart Federow of Congregation Shaar Hashalom. The host was Doris Childress.

The program went well I thought. Everyone was cordial and we hit on some good points. The program was only a half hour and it passed quickly, leaving still many things unsaid. The host of the show has communicated to me that they would like to do more shows on similar subjects in the future, and may like to invite me back to be on those, which I said would be fine.

Rabbi Federow informed me before the show that he hosts a radio program on 950AM KPRC called 'A Show of Faith' and might like to invite me or the others to be a guest sometime. I told him I'd be pleased to.

Below is the video of the program in its entirety. I'd like to thank David Forbus for converting and posting it. Below the video I have included some additional comments on things we didn't have time to address in the program...

The Connection (part 1 of 3)

The Connection (part 2 of 3)

The Connection (part 3 of 3)

Here are some notes from my position, on several of the things that we did not have time to address. So as not to be redundant, I have tried not to cover anything here which I was able to address in the program itself:

Humanist/Atheist Distinction
Ms. Childress asks, "...Humanist, atheist, are they one in the same?" I address this question in detail in The Principles of Socio-Personal Humanism, 2.9 Humanism & Atheism. In short, atheism is the simple non-belief in a deity, which could include anything from freethinkers to some forms of Buddhism, from philanthropists or Albert Einstein, to a genocidal dictator such as Joseph Stalin. It could include a purely rational scientific person or a New Age mystical and emotional thinker with all sorts of magical, paranormal, and supernatural beliefs - but merely lacking a belief in gods. Meanwhile, Humanism includes a naturalistic view of the world and is therefore nontheistic, but it also includes a commitment to rationality, ethics, and values of Human rights, compassion, and concern for our fellow human being. A Humanist content with the word 'atheist', would be like a Christian being content referring to himself only as a 'theist'.

Playing the Odds
Rabbi Federow believes that people can find meaning in life with or without a belief in a God, but claims that they are more likely to obtain meaning in their lives when they have a 'relationship with God'. This would be an interesting thing to measure. I would imagine one would go about it by surveying atheists to see what percentage of them would say they find meaning in their lives, and then ask theists the same question, comparing the percentage in both groups. To be safe, it would be best to ask that question before asking them whether they believed in God. I'm not aware of any study of this exact nature, but my anecdotal experience with the many nontheists I've known and worked with in various organizations, gives me the impression that Rabbi Federow's assessment of the odds is incorrect.

In any case, even if it were true that theists are more likely to find meaning in their lives, that doesn't necessarily mean that (a) that meaning is a good one that inspires better behavior or living, (b) that meaning translates into greater happiness, or (c) that the meaning is based on something true. To me, these would be important questions to address. But I must emphasize again that I do not, as yet, concede the premise of the odds being greater for meaning among theists.

Daniel, Why Don't You Believe in God?
Ms. Childress later would turn to Pastor Easland and ask, "Why do you believe in God?" Thus, she probably imagines herself to be fair and balanced in her even questioning. While this may be diplomatic, it unfortunately gives the incorrect impression that there is symmetry in the issue where there is none.

The question to Pastor Easland was rational and appropriate. Meanwhile, the question to me was not philosophically sound. The question presumes there is a burden of proof on the non-believer of a claim. Perhaps, taken on the whole, the two questions together presume that both sides have a burden of proof for each of their positions - but this is not the case.

It is the person making the claim who holds the burden of proof in supporting it. While there may be some 'anti-theists', the atheist position is merely the absence of belief in a deity - not necessarily the belief that "no deity can or does exist". So, where two people are present, and one of them is claiming that an invisible and undetectable entity exists, the rational approach is to ask that person why they believe what they do. The person not believing it, hardly even needs a label for their position, much less an answer as to "why".

Greatest Evils
Near the end, Rabbi Federow says we should remember some of "the greatest evils that have been produced in world history" have come from nonreligious people. He then lists the examples of the Nazis and the Communists. This is a common view, but it misses the mark in several ways.

The most egregious portion of this statement is the persistent yet completely incorrect notion that the Nazis were atheistic or nonreligious. Most followers of Nazism were Catholics, and Hitler himself professed his beliefs and his Catholicism. He visited churches, he prayed, he met happily with Cardinals and Bishops, and those church officials celebrated his birthday and stood in processions to shake his hands with smiles on their faces. There was a wedding of the Nazi party and the Christian faith at a very deep and integral level. The 'Hitler Oath' was "I swear by God, this holy oath, to the Führer of the German Reich and people. Adolf Hitler...". At no time was atheism ever professed by Hitler or the Nazis. See pictures and video of this and mere HERE.

Why then does this myth persist? Simply because of ignorance and mismatched association (i.e. good = religious, bad = nonreligious). But it is important for students of history to know how fascism used and integrated religious dogmatism and intolerance.

Could it be that Hitler didn't really believe in God or Catholicism, and that he was merely using these beliefs to control people? First, we have no evidence of that and secondly, if we merely define everyone who does evil as an atheist because, "they couldn't possibly have really believed in God" then we are simply 'defining away' cases of evil done under theism. More importantly, regardless of what Hitler 'really believed', it is impossible not to think that the majority of the Nazis weren't sincere in their professed Christian beliefs, or that the Catholic church wasn't sincere in their celebration of the party and the man. An evil twisted version of Christianity? Perhaps, but theists nonetheless.

The next problem with Rabbi Federow's statement is his equating of "sheer numbers of people destroyed" with greatness of evil. Certainly, the Stalinist regime was harshly anti-theistic, insisting on the state as a substitute for deity. This regime killed millions upon millions of people. But was Stalin 'more evil' than some rulers in the past? First, we should consider how rapidly the population of the planet had grown in the 20th Century. The previous kings, rulers, and emperors of past civilizations ruled over far fewer subjects to begin with. Secondly, the technological tools of the day allowed for more efficient killing of more people. The compact urban-style cities made starving and controlling populations easier. If the likes of earlier despots had controlled similar numbers of people, with similar means, would their belief in a deity had stopped them from the larger scale barbarism they showed on the scale of their times? What would the crusades have been like with several times the world's population, tanks, guns, and urban interdependence?

But the third and final problem with this notion is the failure to appreciate what I mentioned earlier in the program: the real problem is with faith-based dogmatic ideology, intolerance, and authoritarianism. These are the worst elements in religions, and these same elements can be found within other human institutions; social, political, or economic. Stalinist communism was essentially a secular state-based political religion. These elements are far more important than whether or not someone believes in a deity.

Having said that, it seems to be the case that when we are not operating by fear, we are not intolerant, we are not dogmatic or ideological, and we are not accepting claims out of faith without evidence, there seems to be very little reason left to assume that a deity exists, or that one is essential to ethics or meaning in our lives. Does that make those who do believe bad or stupid people? Not at all, but at the very least it completely eradicates any notion that those lacking belief are, in any way, leading less ethical or meaningful lives.