We know that doing away with gods and supernatural persons and powers is not an end. It is a means to an end: the real end being the happiness of man.
—Robert Green Ingersoll
On a small shelf above my desk sits a carving of wood in warm tones of brown and gold. It is exactly the right size and shape to hold comfortably, about six inches across and roughly spherical. But this is not geometry; it is a figure that I cradle in my hands. Here we have a man, bold and clean in outline; his body and limbs bulge with the sort of muscles that would be, to the touch, as hard as this wood, although warmer.
It is his attitude that makes the shape. He sits cross-legged, feet drawn beneath him. His elbows rest on his thighs, and his back is bowed into a tight curve that brings his head all the way down between the crossed knees. His face is invisible, for it is buried in his hands; I can see only the ten fingertips that clutch at his brow. This is a portrait of despair.
This is my reminder of the human condition. Even the strongest of us can be crushed by a blow to the heart. It tells me to practice compassion, for suffering, visible or invisible, is all around us. While in some times and places it reaches obvious and terrible proportions, no one is immune, and none of us can know for sure what burdens lie on the shoulders of others we encounter every day.
Freethinkers, with their emphasis on reason, tend to shy away from emotion when they write or speak about secularism. It’s so uncomfortable, so squishy, so irrational! Why can’t our opponents just be logical? But this is a profound mistake. Compassion, I think, would serve us better in the long run. If we can see into the hearts of those who oppose us, we will gain an inestimable advantage now denied to us. And if we can convince them that we have hearts, too, that alone will be a victory.
It’s no betrayal of reason to acknowledge the claims of emotion. Rather, it is the only realistic way to be a humanist. Remember Ingersoll. “It is enough to make one almost insane with pity to think what man in the long night has suffered,” he exclaimed. It was such unashamed feeling for his fellow humans that made him the Great Agnostic. Olive Schreiner, revolutionary feminist atheist of the same era, said, “There are only two things that are absolute realities, love and knowledge, and you can’t escape them.” And therein, of course, lies our dilemma, for love sometimes shrinks from what knowledge reveals.
It is too easy—well I know it—in the face of religionists’ frankly emotional appeals, to forget what we are asking when we implore them to be rational. The greatest appeal of supernatural belief is its implication of immortality, not for ourselves alone but for all those we love. Those who truly, deeply believe freeze the grieving process forever at denial. Listen to Edris Moore, four of whose children drowned together at a church picnic: “[They] went to be with the Lord. I still have my joy. I know where my kids are at. I know I’ll see them again.” For her, it is as though the lost ones are off enjoying the ultimate vacation, where she will join them when her work is done.
Religion thus captures love by playing on its greatest weakness: the tendency to dream. “Come into my arms, love,” whispers religion. “Let me rock you to sleep. Dream your beautiful dreams; I will never disturb them. Love, you are safe with me.” For some—the worn-down, the weak, the weary—that promise proves irresistible. The church of Edris Moore, impoverished mother of eight, was called the St. Louis Dream Center.
But sleep long enough, dream deep enough, and eventually you will forget the waking world or, like Chuang Tzu, no longer be able to tell which is which. When this occurs, we see the danger of indulging love too far. Then we get parents like Leilani and Dale Neumann, who allowed their eleven-year-old daughter, Madeline, to sink into a diabetic coma and die while they prayed for her to be healed.
After being found guilty of reckless homicide, Leilani, the Wausau Daily Herald reported, “showed no visible signs of emotion.” In reply, she released a letter that began:
Many people were looking for a reaction from me. My emotion runs too deep to be seen externally. My faith in God does not waver in the midst of this storm. We have peace in God regardless of the decision made yesterday. Our emotions do not hinge on how or if the rest of the world approves our actions.
Here we have the ultimate expression of the religious injunction to absent ourselves from this world, thinking only of another: nothing can pierce this pathological detachment. Leilani is lost in the dream and cannot be awakened. And love itself is lost with her. For what—what!—can it mean to say that you love your daughter when you are willing to watch her die rather than entertain for a moment the thought that you might be mistaken?
If we are to answer human need, freethinkers must not leave love to the mercies of religion and be content with knowledge alone as our province. On the contrary, it is the greatest duty of knowledge, and those who speak for it, to keep love awake. A catnap, a daydream, a little harmless fantasy, these can be permitted. But ceaseless, self-indulgent slumber must not be allowed. After all, no matter how tightly we clutch those we love to our hearts, they exist apart from us. They have to live life in this world, and to be with them, we must live there as well. Love is more than its pleasures. It has duties, too.
This is secularism’s counter to the siren song of religion. Knowledge must say to love, “You cannot survive without me.” It is love’s role to bind us to one another, but that can only be done in the real world that we all share. And it is the role of knowledge to keep us there. Love and knowledge, knowledge and love; we cannot escape either of them. Nor should we ever try.