[A]s we know, there are known knowns: there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.So I'm watching this back-and-forth between Daily Kos's atheists and religious from the sidelines, and I'm shaking my head.
-- Donald Rumsfeld
Let it be stipulated that everything that's been said about the discrimination that atheists are subjected to, most of all in the sphere of electoral politics, is true.
Let it also be stipulated, however, that atheists don't know something that the rest of us don't. They're not smarter than we are. They're not more in-the-know. They haven't cracked the cosmic code. Rather, they've formulated a conclusion based on incomplete information which differs from the conclusion that billions of other human beings have formulated based on their own incomplete information.
If there is a God -- or more than one -- that God exists beyond anything we can know via measurement or observation. If there is a being or force capable of creating and organizing the entirety of the infinite universe, we have no more chance of comprehending it/him/her than a dog has of comprehending a doorknob. Or the Large Hadron Collider.
So much blood spilled, so many angry words exchanged, so many relationships sundered, so many idiotic laws passed, so many customs fobbed off as essential morality, so many terrible decisions made, so many unlucky people persecuted, over what we must admit, when pushed to the wall, that we have no way of knowing.
But if we have no way of knowing that such a God exists, we also have no way of knowing that such a God does not exist. Just as we cannot begin to comprehend a being or force capable of creating the universe, we cannot extend our intelligence far enough to be certain that there is no such being or force. To state as fact that there is no God is as presumptuous as to state as fact that there is.
In my early adolescence, I called myself an agnostic, but that word means "one who does not know." There's plenty that I know. And rather than dwell on things that I not only don't know but can't know, I think it's much wiser to begin by looking at what we do know already.
We know we live on this Earth in this time. It's divided up into nations, societies, cultures, ethnicities. We know that none of these is perfect.
We are human. We know that humans are social animals. This is essential to our nature. It's the source of what's good about us and what's bad about us: the drive to associate with, share with and care for others, but also the drive to seek higher status within our groups and to fight with groups we believe are encroaching on us. We know that the former brings out the best in us and that the latter brings out the worst in us. Therefore, we know that we'll bring out the best in ourselves when we can enlarge the definition of "our group" to embrace as many people as possible -- ideally, everyone.
We know that we're born and that we die. We know that for every one of us, time will pass between those two occurrences. We know that it's better to be safe, happy and healthy during that span of time than to be sick, imperiled and miserable. Some may see life as a gift, others (like me) as a predicament, but regardless, it's in our nature as human beings to share it with others and our responsibility to ease each other's burden as much as possible.
We know that we thrive on this Earth and that we have found no other place in our universe that can support our needs as well. Actually, we have found no other place in our universe that can support our needs at all -- at least, not one we can get to. We know that life will be really damn hard for us if we mess with the air, water and land enough that it can no longer support us like it used to. There will be a lot more sickness, danger and misery in the world if we do that.
We know that individual people can make bad decisions that harm many others, and that consequently it's better to spread the decision-making responsibility around. We know that ideas that seem crazy sometimes turn out to be right after all, so it's a bad idea to suppress ideas we don't agree with, at least until we've had the opportunity to test them.
We know that the techniques and practices of science enlarge the scope of what it's possible for us to know, even as it reveals to us the existence of things we still don't know -- but at least it allows us to know that we don't know those things.
This is why I'm not a theist nor an atheist but a secular humanist. We are humans, and we live in this world in this time: these are incontrovertible facts. There is so much that we do know, and so much of it needs our attention, that it seems irresponsible to me to waste our time and energy thinking -- let alone arguing -- about things that we can neither know with any certainty nor change to any degree.
The wisest teaching I've ever read in any religious writing -- which, it's worth noting, has been hit upon separately by multiple traditions -- is that one shouldn't do to others what one wouldn't want done to oneself. The second-wisest is in the Analects of Confucius:
Ji Lu asked about serving spirits. The Master said, "You aren't capable of serving other people yet. How can you serve spirits?" He asked about death. The Master said, "You don't know about life yet. How can you know about death?" (11:12)Let's learn as much as we can about this knowable world we all live in and the other knowable human beings we share it with, and act on that. Because if there's one other thing we know about life, it's that it's too short to waste it worrying about things we don't know and can't change.