On Election Eve last week, I wrote a post on this blog called “If Trump Wins.” At the time that I wrote it, I didn’t think Donald Trump had any chance at all of winning the presidency, and the defiance and optimism I felt Monday night vanished twenty-four hours later. Like it did for a lot of you.
It wasn’t just that this spectacularly unqualified person was going to run the executive branch, or that he’d likely have congress on his side. It was the slap in the face that we really did live in a country that at the least turned a blind eye to bigotry, if not openly embraced it. Just when we thought maybe we were moving away from that, or at least encouraging a more open society. Nope. Just like that, the door was slammed shut. People of color, LGBTQ Americans, Muslims, women, et. al., maybe saw this coming more clearly than I did. But I sure as hell see it now.
So when I went to bed on election night “devastation” isn’t much of an exaggeration of what I was feeling. Hopeless, hollowed out. Anguished. All that liberal Trail of Tears bleeding heart stuff people posted – I actually felt that. I only went to work that day because people needed me, otherwise I would have stayed home in my bathrobe with my dog. What I’d written Monday night seemed like it was from someone else.
But I got over that defeat. It took about a day and a half of “fake it ’til you make it,” which I did ’til I did, and the courage started coursing back through my veins. My own words, when I finally reread them, reminded me of who I really was once I was back on my feet. But there was still a long fight ahead of me. Assuming the Electoral College didn’t step in and do the job it was designed for – the job that none of us ever thought it would need to do – Trump was going to be president. A lot of people were going to need help, including those who voted him in. The question wasn’t what I needed to do.
The question was, “why?”
And that’s what I’d like to write about tonight.
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It’s really a legitimate question to ask yourself as a citizen and especially as a parent trying to guide another human being into a moral life. Why do good when it’s likely that your actions will have no effect? Why do good when you don’t see any fruit coming of it? Why bother when your values are unappreciated?
It’s a question I get a lot as an atheist, or some form of it at least. People who assume that goodness comes from a deity are going to be curious about what compels we godless* to behave well toward others. If there’s no outside source pushing us that way, well, what’s the point? You hear this a lot from conservative Christians: the idea that without God to keep us in line we’d all descend into savagery and lawlessness (speak for yourselves. Actually, maybe you are.).
If you’re the kind of person who believes that your faith gives you all the reason you need to sustain you in the fight for marginalized people, then read no further. If you honestly draw all the resolve you need from your religious beliefs, good for you. No, really. If you believe that all people have basic human rights that deserve defending, then we’re on the same team, and I really don’t care what got you there. But if you’re struggling with why you shouldn’t just pack it in after this brutal defeat, then maybe I can help. Here’s what gets me through. Maybe you can find something useful here.
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We atheists don’t tend to do optimism very well. If you don’t believe in a god, you’re pretty much flying through life with no safety net, and that’s not a little bit intimidating. Most deists believe in some form of a benign plan, something good that we’re all being more or less encouraged toward, whether it’s by God, gods, the Cosmos, Gaia, or what have you. If you believe that, or at least hope for that, it relieves a lot of pressure. Even if you believe that people are the instruments of that plan, there’s a vague idea there that if you fail in your task, there’s something else that will pick up the slack. Or give you strength to try again. If you’re an atheist, you’ve got none of that. You’re on your own.
Many people are telling us “It’ll be OK.” Maybe it will. But just because this country has always recovered (at least to the satisfaction of the ruling class) is no guarantee it always will. All empires fall in this world. When America falls, how will it happen? I think it’ll look a lot like this. Remember, with no net, there’s no guarantee there’s a master plan in place.
Sounds grim? Wait, there’s more.
Most deists believe in some form of afterlife. Even if it’s reincarnation, there’s something else to look forward to. Usually it’s something better, or at least part of a divine plan. There’s something more than this life here on Earth. Atheists cannot count on anything like that. As an atheist, I must accept the possibility that this go-around is all I get.
So let’s recap: I’m alone. This life is all I have.
Disheartening? Well, I get that, but wishing for something else doesn’t make it so. I’m not going to get more just because I want it really really badly. And if you think about it this way, and really accept the transient nature of life (like Buddhists do, by the way), something beautiful happens. You stop thinking about all you’ve “lost” (which was never really there to begin with anyway – at least that’s how we atheists see it) and you start realizing how startlingly beautiful and rare and unique this life we’re living really is. You see it as something worth fighting for, not just a stepping stone to the next phase of existence. This life – it becomes the one love in your life. Existence becomes so much more precious because it’s finite.
Would you rather have someone like that fighting for your rights? Or someone who believes we’re meant to suffer here and it’ll all be worked out later?
* * *
So we atheists place a lot of value on the present because we’re not certain of anything but the present. But if that’s the case, why spend it doing good? Why not spend it wallowing in the fleshpots, debauchery, and violence conservative Christians seem alarmingly obsessed with?
The simple answer is, I don’t want to. I feel better when I do good than when I don’t. When I do something to help someone, I like myself. I give myself a little smile, and an “attaboy!” I sleep better at night, and it makes me want to help out more. When I pass up a chance to help someone, or when I fail miserably out of fear or laziness, I don’t like myself. I lose sleep. I get down on myself. I’d rather feel good than feel bad. So I try to live morally.
It really is that simple.
Years ago, I mentioned to someone – a volunteer firefighter and sometime Sunday School teacher – that I was looking for some volunteer opportunities in my life. His immediate response was, “Well, don’t expect any thanks for anything you do!” I figured that he’d recently been embittered by some bad experience, but still, his answer surprised me. I wasn’t looking to do volunteer work because I wanted someone to thank me. I was looking to do it because I felt it was important.
I do good (or feel bad when I fail to) entirely for internal reasons. I have little control over what people do with my actions or how they are received. So it doesn’t make sense for me to look for validation outside myself. I can only answer to my own morality.
So I don’t do good because I’ll be thanked.
I don’t do good because it’s effective (though I hope it is).
I don’t do good because it’ll bring me in line with what others believe (though I hope not to feel alone).
I don’t do good because I think someone is “worthy” of it (though we are all worthy, being human beings).
I don’t do good because others may emulate me (though that’s a bonus if they do).
I do good (or hurt when I fail) to stay true to myself.
This is why I’ll fight on. Because this world and her people are worth fighting for. Because I have no guarantee anyone else will pick up my slack. Because this world is all I know I have. And because it’s who I am and how I want to live.
My reasons for carrying on don’t require a god. But they don’t necessarily negate one either, so if there’s anything here you can use, help yourself. I hope My Knucklehead can find some help here; that’s ultimately why I’m writing this. But we all have some work to do in the days and years ahead, and maybe that’s true regardless of who was elected. So I’m getting up and soldiering on.
Who’s with me?
*Actually we’re all godless, but I’ll let that go for now.