Further to last month’s introductory bit on Radical Atheism, the rubbish new secular belief system we recently made up – a post on Radical Atheism and human suffering.
There’s probably not a god. Life has no big, grand, capitalise-able ‘Meaning’. It’s just physics and biology. Humans are just sacks of chemical reactions. But there’s still right and wrong. And it’s intimately linked to our millennia-spanning pedigree as social animals.
It’s bad to hurt others. It’s good to help others. And it’s bad not to help others when you can help others. Without those basic moral precepts, humanity wouldn’t have survived anywhere near this long. For prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, hyper-individualism wasn’t an option. You helped each other out, played fairly, shared the spoils equally. Or you died. For 90% of human history, nearly two hundred thousand years, that’s how we lived – millions of years if you count the earlier hominids we evolved from. And it was that social, co-operative lifestyle that the species uniquely adapted to suit. It fundamentally shaped what we are, and what humans need to life emotionally healthy, fulfilling lives.
Radical Atheism is about taking that basic morality – and the implications of atheism more generally – to radical conclusions. If it’s got a central, overriding belief, it’s this: that in an incalculably vast, godless, meaningless universe, the only thing left that really matters is human suffering.
In a world excellently equipped to wipe it out, suffering exists everywhere. We live in a state of organised, self-rationalising insanity. Millions starve to death every year on a planet where half of all the food produced is thrown away. Europe’s annual ice cream expenditure would be enough to end extreme poverty. Millionaires exist in a world where billions live on less than a couple of pounds a day. In the richest countries on earth, hundreds of thousands sleep on the streets. Tens of millions give up vast chunks of their one go at being alive to work, too hard, for barely enough to scrape by on, for faceless corporations that don’t care they exist. We eat, buy, and burn too much to try and make ourselves feel a bit better about it all. But ultimately, it’s profoundly, inexpressibly wrong.
That suffering makes a mockery of everything else. Eradicating it should be the world religion – the stated aim of every reasonable human society on the face of the earth. Eliminating suffering that’s preventable. Alleviating suffering that’s not. And doing everything in our power to prevent the emergence of future suffering. If you want a ‘meaning of life’, or a worthy civilisational mission statement, there it is.
As individuals, and as societies, we should see that as an unshakable moral duty. We should think about it every day. But for the vast majority of us, it’s something that’ll never cross our minds. Wallowing in excess, utterly absorbed by the crushingly trivial, we live our lives completely detached from that preventable misery. Our collective indifference invalidates any claim we might have to being civilised. Each and every preventable death is a crime, and the most absolute indictment on our way of life.
Instead, the ultimate aim has to be an entirely different way of structuring societies – one that minimises resource use, material wealth and carbon output, while maximising human wellbeing. There’s no bigger potential source of future suffering than catastrophic climate change, after all.
There needs to be both a comfortable minimum standard of living guaranteed to everyone alive, but also an affluence ceiling that no-one’s allowed to rise above. And the gap between the two needs to be narrow. Poverty should be abolished, and so should living to such excess that you threaten the ecosystem, and, by extension, the continued existence of the species.
Economics needs to return to what it was originally designed for – meeting human needs within the planet’s material limitations, rather than enriching the already-unsustainably wealthy. ‘Growth’ has long since stopped having any relationship to the wellbeing of the vast majority. It needs to be abandoned, along with socially useless sectors of the economy – advertising, cosmetics, the juggernaut film and gaming industries etc – to radically shrink our ecological impact, and make advanced societies sustainable again.
To climactically cram in a Gandhi quote – the overriding objective should be to ‘live simply, so that others may simply live’.