Flipping The Line: Actually, atheism is all you need to thrive ... if you do it well

David McConkey replies to Jen Gerson, and reminds everyone that the key to a good life isn't believing, but belonging.

By: David McConkey

Jen Gerson’s December article, “If This is a War, Where is the Shared Sacrifice?”, keeps coming back to me. Although she is writing about our response to the pandemic, her remarks apply well beyond that. I have been ruminating on, and would like to comment on, a doubt that Jen writes she has “struggled with for years.” Her concern: “atheism is technically correct, but it's also inadequate.” 

Jen notes that she has been reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt and she recommends that everyone “pick it up immediately.” For years I had intended to look at the book, so I was happy to follow Jen’s prompt and borrow a copy from the library. I had been intrigued by the premise of the book as explained by its subtitle: “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.”

Let’s start with Jen’s concern that atheism is inadequate. First, what is atheism? I would define atheism as not having a belief in a God or gods. Jen’s concern is that this non-belief is inadequate in two ways. One is about being a good person. The other is about feeling connected to a larger whole. Haidt also discusses these points. And I would like to offer some reflections on them as well, in the context of living not just through a pandemic, but any time.

Let’s look at Haidt’s observations, one of which is that religions benefit their members and society as a whole. Haidt points to U.S. surveys and studies that find, for example, that folks who belong to a religion give and volunteer more to charity. While most of these donations and volunteer hours go to their own religion, there is an extra amount that goes to the larger society. Haidt refers to religion’s correlation with people being better neighbours and citizens as an example of “social capital.”

Does this mean that to become better people, atheists should adopt a belief in a God or gods? Absolutely not. Haidt mentions that he himself is an atheist. Haidt reports that what makes religious folks better people is not believing in a God, but belonging to an organization.

And I wonder if Haidt is looking too narrowly at the notion of “social capital.” In Canada and other countries, in the last half century, we have seen huge progress on a variety of social issues. Many of these issues where we have seen so much progress — equality for women and LGBT persons, for instance — have been achieved despite the resistance of organized religion. Religiosity is also linked in the West to sexism and homophobia. Surely this should also be taken into account when tallying social capital?

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Besides being a good person, there is the second point about a connection with a larger whole. Jen writes about the desirability of this feeling of connection and laments the absence of it during the pandemic. 

Haidt also writes about this feeling and he describes activating this connection as “flipping the hive switch” — a process by which we can go beyond our usual selfishness and limited perspective to a state of more caring and connection.

“We all have the capacity to transcend self-interest and become simply a part of the whole,” Haidt writes. “It's not just a capacity; it's the portal to many of life’s most cherished experiences.” 

For most folks, “flipping the switch” is not a matter of one dramatic flip and you are done; there: you are enlightened. It is more a matter of continually flipping, glimpsing and sampling transcendent possibilities. 

How can we go about “flipping the switch”? Haidt gives three examples. The first is experiencing a sense of awe in nature. The second is taking hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD or psilocybin (“magic” mushrooms). The third is participating in a rave, which features listening to rock music, dancing and taking the drug MDMA (“Ecstasy”). 

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Another approach, that can be done easily, safely and legally (!) right at home, is starting a mindfulness meditation practice. Even a few minutes a day can allow one to become more familiar with how the mind perceives the world and also open one up to new awareness and ways of being. 

As for atheism being inadequate as an operating manual for life, I would say that atheists can look at the glass as being half empty or being half full. Half empty: we have not been given all the answers on how to live well. Half full: we have not been given all the answers on how to live well, so we have to figure that out — welcome to the adventure!

The basics are not mysterious: start by treating ourselves and those around us well. Go out from there to support worthwhile endeavours in our community — remembering that the world is our community. 

Haidt writes that the important element is not in believing, but in belonging. So, investigate groups to belong to, which could range from casual book clubs to service clubs or other formal organizations. Another idea: try a simple exercise called “loving kindness.” This can be done easily by anyone at home and is a way to strengthen one’s “compassion muscle.” 

During this pandemic, Jen observes that unless we were heath-care workers on the front line, our response has been rather mediocre. “We've been subject to a terrible test — and been found wanting.” 

But even in everyday life, aren’t we usually “found wanting”? A meditation practice can be helpful here in recognizing feelings like “found wanting.” We can acknowledge those feelings, learn whatever we can from them, then let those feelings go and carry on living with more equanimity. 

After all, in the end, all we have is this present moment, which we can choose to live consciously, ethically and fully. 

David McConkey is a freelance writer and a columnist with The Brandon Sun. Visit his website here.  


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