I recently attended my sister’s high school graduation back home in the Midwest. It was the standard pomp-and-circumstance event (although I must say, very efficiently managed) that played out all across the country this spring. Also a common event, the valedictorian, in addressing his fellow graduates, made sure to thank Jesus, and note the ancient carpenter’s supposed role in helping the young man achieve his impressive academic accomplishments.
Many, many moons ago, I too was valedictorian of my class. Then a devout fundamentalist Christian, I too gave props to JC in effusive terms: He’s everything to me, I could never have done this without him, my life could have gone a bad direction, blah, blah, blah. Memory fails me a bit, but I believe I had convinced myself that, without the influence of religion, I would have made bad decisions and engaged in self-destructive behavior (despite being, in reality, a congenital goodie-two-shoes). There were risk factors present — an absent father, growing up poor, home alone a lot due to a mom working super-hard to make a decent life for her kids. But to hear my speech, my two options were valedictorian or junkie drop-out, with the Messiah being the deciding factor.
Thinking back on that speech, I think it appropriate now to say, in the inimitable words of Kathy Griffith, “Suck it, Jesus.”
I accomplished what I did in high school for two simple reasons: I had a loving mother who supported and encouraged me, and I worked my arse off in school. (OK, three: a certain level of academic talent was genetically bestowed upon me by the ‘rents.) That young man at my sister’s graduation likely succeeded due to similar factors. I’m quite sure that he never simply prayed for a good test result rather than studying, and to judge from the eloquence with which he spoke, I’m guessing he wasn’t one Hail Mary away from a life of debauchery, either.
Herein lies one of the fundamental ways in which religion stunts the full development of many people. Where human nature is believed inherently wicked, and all good things are bestowed at the whim of a cosmic daddy figure, a person always owns their failures, but never their triumphs. If you screw up and “sin” (which often involves no real moral failing anyway), it’s your fault for giving into temptation, not having enough faith, living as a “fallen” being, etc. If you succeed, all praise goes to your god. You’re a worm who can do nothing good except through the strenghtening power of the deity. In that context, moral and psychological pathologies are not only likely, but necessary to a proper relationship with your faith.
I’m only just now beginning to explore humanism, but I’m keenly interested in developing the means of discussing moral systems based on human needs and respect. This positive aspect of an atheistic viewpoint deserves greater discussion in the public sphere, and holds the potential to diffuse some of the bombs lobbed against nonbelievers by the faithful.