The difference between a round earth and a flat one is primarily one of perspective—a broad versus a narrow point of view. – K.C. Cole, First You Build a Cloud, and Other Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life
As I have tried to look at things without the prejudice of a religious viewpoint, I've found a few key ideas that underlie the many changes in my views of life, the universe and everything. Here are the ones that have the most far-reaching implications.
The most effective way to find truth is not by accepting tradition, but by objective study.
It seems to me that an accurate understanding of reality is the most powerful means to well-being. If our ideas are erroneous, our actions based on those ideas are unlikely to accomplish our objectives. If I think my illness is the result of bad blood, it might make sense to drain some of it, but in reality that would be unlikely to improve my health.
Some people claim that there is no objective reality, only a subjective reality created by each person. That seems absurd to me—a careless exaggeration of the truth that each person has a different view of reality, which seems accurate to that person and on which that person bases all decisions.
There are so many things that so many people agree on that it seems clear that there is an objective reality. The repeatability of experiments is very strong evidence of this. It may be obvious that there is an objective reality, but comprehending it is far beyond our capabilities. To one degree or another, though, we do all have our own views of what it may be.
Since no two people agree completely on everything, it seems unlikely that my views are accurate and everyone else's are flawed. It seems much more likely that mine are not only inaccurate, but that many people have more accurate beliefs than I do.
I used to believe that we human beings were incapable of discovering truth on our own. The only way we could know the truth was by God's revelation to us. When I discovered that there is no belief that all Christians share, I began to realize that none of us can justifiably claim that any of our beliefs is certainly true. Considering the multitude of ways in which our knowledge can be defective, it seems extremely presumptuous to claim to know anything for sure, other than that we exist.
Although we can't assert that we have absolute knowledge, we can have some confidence that, on the whole, our body of beliefs corresponds with reality to a useful degree. We can have this assurance because most of our beliefs agree with the beliefs of most other people, but more importantly because many of our actions based on those beliefs produce the expected results. The unique contribution of science to our understanding of reality is due to its efforts to study things objectively by cross-checking observations and interpretations rather than relying on individual or mystical means. It seems to me that such approaches are the most effective way to discover truth.
It was most humbling to realize that the beliefs I had based my life on were supported only by tradition and anecdotal evidence. My distrust of science became an eagerness to learn from science, and I shifted the focus of my reading from books of Christian teachings to books about scientific discoveries.
I am responsible for myself, and not for anyone else. I have to make my own decisions and accept the consequences of those decisions, but I don't punish myself when I make mistakes.
I have free will. My authority over myself is not dependent on what anyone else says or does, or on any other aspect of my circumstances. Nobody else lives inside my body, experiencing what I experience. I have to live my life the best I can with my own limited understanding. I can't depend on someone else to know what my best interests are, and nobody else could make my decisions for me even if I wanted them to, so I am the final authority for myself.
The fact that my understanding of reality is inaccurate doesn't mean I can legitimately base my actions on something I believe to be false—even if everyone else says it's true. If I did that, I would be forfeiting my life—giving up my own thoughts in favor of someone else's and living as an extension of them rather than as myself. Some cultures value this kind of self-effacement, but I don't. It seems to me that doing so deprives the world of my unique contribution to its store of experience.
My responsibility extends only to the boundaries of what I can control, which is myself. I can try to affect my environment, and I often can exert considerable influence over it, but I usually can't control it as completely as I'd like.
In particular, I can't control other people, and if I tried to do so, I would be attempting to usurp their responsibility for themselves. I now consider respect to be a fundamental aspect of love. Jesus told people to treat others the way they would want to be treated, and I still think that's the best way to get along. I don't want other people to try to control my life, so I want to respectfully allow them the freedom to live as they want as well.
Since people and other aspects of my environment aren't under my control, I have to base my decisions on my predictions of the effects of possible actions. I'm now more careful about making major decisions because I can't expect God to rescue me from my failures. I take more initiative to do things I want done, rather than waiting for God to do them for me. I more carefully consider the long-term effects of my actions because I no longer expect Jesus to come back and make everything right.
I used to spend hours berating myself after making a particularly poor decision. I no longer regard myself as flawed for having made a mistake, so I see wallowing in guilt as a waste of time. I constantly re-evaluate my decisions based on their outcomes, and when I conclude that a decision was not a good one, I think about it enough to try to avoid making the same mistake again, but I don't dwell on it because I know I can't undo it. I see no benefit in punishing myself beyond accepting the consequences of my actions and doing what I can to ameliorate the situation.
My beliefs and actions are cosmically insignificant—important only to me and the people around me.
One of the first books I read as I was beginning to look for a new goal in life was Gregg Levoy's, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life. Levoy tells of an experience that put his calling as a writer into perspective. Looking out at a mesa and realizing that our entire culture would eventually be a thin layer of sediment on the side of a mountain, he acknowledged that his life's work would have very little impact in the long run. He concluded, "Yet precisely because it makes a flyspeck of difference whether I write my essays or not, somehow this frees me up to write, to follow the calling, to do whatever I want, because there is no failure."
This was a profound statement to me. What I do with my life is not likely to change the world for good or ill, so from a cosmic standpoint it hardly matters what I do. I am free to fail. On the other hand, my life has a substantial impact on my family and friends, and of course it is extremely important to me. I want to do what I can to make our life good, so I do my best to find ways to do that. I'm free to be creative.
Differences aren't defects. The idea of perfection is nonsense, and there is no particular way things "ought" to be.
One day when I was out in the back yard thinking about the audacity of some people who were trying to tell me that some things were wrong with my life, it occurred to me that there is no perfect tree. We don't judge a tree by whether or not its branches and leaves have exactly the shape we think they should have; we look at the whole tree and admire its beauty.
I was taught that sin is a failure to live up to the perfection that God requires for a relationship with him. The concept of a perfect person makes no more sense than that of a perfect tree. Each is different and each is good. I feel uniquely valuable and enjoy being myself. I look for ways in which my particular abilities can be useful to other people. I take pleasure in who I am, apart from my accomplishments.
It seems that we increase our discontent with life by comparing it to the way things are "supposed to be." We set up an unattainably high standard for what we want from our friends, our jobs, and every aspect of life, and then feel disappointed because the reality isn't what we think it ought to be. Realizing that there is no "ought" has mellowed me. I can enjoy my job even if it isn't what I've always dreamed of doing. I can be disappointed with my friend's decision not to go hiking with me without being angry that he isn't doing what a friend "should" do.
Many quarrels in the world arise from moral judgements. We classify people as good and evil based on their apparent motives. It seems to me that we all have one fundamental motivation for everything we do: to improve our own well-being. The people we think of as supremely evil—serial murderers or terrorists, perhaps—are distinguished by their disregard for the well-being of other people. They apparently believe that the well-being of others is incompatible with their own. It seems likely that in the vast majority of cases they are mistaken in this belief, but that doesn't make them any less human or less deserving of life than the rest of us. By accepting the fact that other people have different values, it's easier to address issues more compassionately and negotiate arrangements that are mutually beneficial.
Maybe people make moral judgements as a way of attempting to control other people's actions. At the bottom of all control issues, there seems to be fear—fear that people will do things that will harm me. Maybe they will. If they do, I will do whatever I can to protect myself. But I will try to limit myself to defensive actions that don't interfere with the offender's choices, because that's how I would want to be treated.
I find that these new perspectives make a dramatic difference in my attitudes. I'm more relaxed because I'm no longer preoccupied with finding the "right" thing to do. I'm more self-confident because I'm more conscious of my own thoughts and less fearful of being wrong. With an acute awareness of how firmly I believed things that weren't true, I'm much more tolerant of people whose ideas are different from mine. Realizing how little I understand about how life and nature work, I'm much more curious about everything around me. Accepting my life as my own responsibility, I explore it as a fascinating adventure.
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Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. – Helen Keller
Next page: Recommended Reading
Wonderings - my thoughts on life and the story of how I went free of religion
God in a Box – my fundamentalist Christian youth
Out of the Box – my charismatic, ecumenical experience
On the Edge – my own version of Christianity
Going Free – my acceptance of responsibility
On the Outside – my personal, non-Christian relationship with God
In the Real World – my naturalistic world view
New Perspectives – implications of some new ideas
Recommended Reading – books that have helped me develop my new perspectives
I welcome serious questions or comments about these pages.
Copyright © 2004 by Joel Justiss. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, text and photos on this site are property of the author and may not used, reproduced or distributed without prior permission.