Here’s everything I believe boiled down to ten seconds of moral logic.
1) There is no God, heaven, hell, spirits, angels, miracles, fore-lives or afterlives, and life has no inherent ‘Meaning’
2) Billions of human beings are suffering in ways we could prevent, and that’s incredibly bad
3) Eradicating that suffering should be the pseudo-religious mission statement of every person and every society on the planet
For a while, I called it Radical Atheism. The idea was simple – mainstream godlessness was a non-position. Apathetic, apolitical. I thought it should be the opposite.
People all around the world aren’t just suffering. In their tens of millions, they’re ending the only existences they’ll ever have, in agonising pain, for reasons that are pathetically preventable.
In short, 1) makes 2) even worse. And Radical Atheism, as I saw it, would be about fighting to end suffering and maximise human wellbeing in this life.
I believe all that as passionately as I ever did, but the label didn’t last. It was too easy to misinterpret – too Richard Dawkins-sounding. I don’t like organised religion, but I’ve got no interest in trying to get rid of it. In fact, the whole point was imagining an atheism that was about more than just not believing in God.
So, for now, it’s label-less – no name, just a long and semi-facetious list of adjectival nouns. Radical. Atheist. Humanitarian. Ecological. Egalitarian. Ascetic. Clumsily groping for some sort of coherent meaning.
Whatever ‘it’ is, it’s radical, because it rejects practically everything about modern life.
It’s against capitalism, consumerism, materialism and a whole bevy of other rampant -isms undergirding the status quo.
It’s not about tinkering around the edges. It’s about radically restructuring the way we live.
It’s atheist, for reasons we’ve talked about. This is it. This is all we have.
Starving orphans don’t go to heaven. They just die. Struggling mothers don’t go to heaven. They just die. So we have to help them now. Today. Yesterday.
Humanity is a biological accident on one planet, cruising round one star, in one galaxy, hanging at the edge of a crushing cosmic abyss.
There’s no ‘meaning’. There’s no ‘reason’ for any of it – life, the universe, the existence of everything and anything at all, it’s all down to the most baffling celestial happenstance.
And so, as a species, we need to grow the fuck up. To chuck aside the silly trivialities we use to blot the big scary stuff out – and refocus on what actually matters.
It’s humanitarian because ending human suffering is the most important thing in the world.
Poverty kills 50,000 people a day. Eighteen million a year. Four hundred million since 1990, at a conservative estimate. Add up everyone killed in all the wars in the twentieth century, and you get a death toll half that number.
Billions more live stunted, agonising lives, limping from one needless crisis to the next, never knowing stability or comfort, and never getting to achieve their potential.
It’s the most pulverising indictment of the way we live. And it calls for a radical humanitarianism. Not trade, aid and the IMF. Bono and Bob Geldof. Sponsored fun-runs and baths of beans. But a passionate, relentless drive to eradicate human suffering wherever it can be prevented.
It’s ecological because the Western way of life is destroying the planet.
In one mad, 150-year binge after 200,000 years of relative human sobriety, we’ve brought the ecosystem that supports us to the brink of catastrophic breakdown.
The icecaps are melting, the oceans are acidifying and global temperatures are soaring. We’ve lost half the planet’s wildlife in the past fifty years, and a third of all farmable land in the last thirty. At the current rate of exploitation, there will be no wild fish left by 2050.
The Global Humanitarian Forum estimates that 300,000 people die every year from causes relating to climate change. A further 2.8 billion are living in areas vulnerable to floods, storms, droughts and rising oceans. That’s only going to get worse.
And the world’s richest 10% are the source of half the world’s carbon emissions. In other words, it’s our fault. And, to avert catastrophe, we need to drastically shrink our environmental impact.
That means abolishing the consumer religion. Producing 100% of our energy renewably. Ending economic growth. Scrapping cars and frequent flights. Producing locally, to eat and use locally. And so on.
It’s egalitarian because equality is the solution.
We need a vast and transformative transfer of wealth and resources from us – whose mindless, gas-guzzling excess is well on the way to destroying civilisation – to the places on Earth where millions of people die of poverty.
And we need radical redistribution within societies. Millionaires shouldn’t exist. Neither should homelessness. Everyone on Earth should have everything they need to live stable, comfortable, fulfilling lives – nothing more, nothing less.
And, finally, it’s ascetic. Ascetic is probably the most obscure term of the lot. It basically means not indulging yourself and living a simple lifestyle – usually for religious reasons, but not in this case.
The world we live in is awful. We – the rich, white-dominated, neo-colonial West – have made it awful.
But for millions of us, that has no bearing on how we live our day-to-day lives. It should.
I believe we have a moral duty to 1) stop ourselves from contributing to the systems destroying the planet and billions of people’s lives; and 2) be constantly aware of the suffering we’ve created, and shun the things we use to distract us from all that.
Most people don’t do either, but they can usually get their heads round the first one.
Climate change is imperilling civilisation. Thus, we should probably stop driving cars. Flying around in jet planes. Eating such carnivorous, dairy-filled diets. Buying things we don’t need. Et cetera.
But the second one is different. To most people, it’s utterly baffling.
I’m a fanatic. To me, human suffering is everything. It’s the only thing that really matters. Hundreds of millions of people no different to you or me are suffering, many of them dying, right now, for reasons we could stop.
I think we need to live constantly aware of that – that unfathomable, pretence-to-being-civilised-annihilating insanity. To think about it every day, almost as an act of religious observance.
It should be the top story on every news bulletin, the front page of every newspaper, be referenced before the start of every film, and every play, and every gig. Every working day should begin with five minutes’ silence to acknowledge it.
In short, it should shape the way we live. And, shunning anything too extravagant or inanely upbeat, we should give over a big chunk of our lives to sombre remembrance. In a world like this, too much happiness, too much fun, is just offensive.
This isn’t a call for people to spend their lives moping in bed in solidarity with the global poor – that’s the responsibility-deflecting riposte I get most often.
It’s about living with a constant awareness of the abysmal state our civilisation is in. And using that awareness to fuel dedicated action to try and make it better.
But even that’s never going to be a very popular suggestion here in the West, because, on the whole, our culture is blindly hedonistic.
We tell ourselves it’s fine, because life is hard – and it is hard. We’ve got grotesquely exploitative neoliberalism to grapple with. Some of us have it even harder – poverty, ingrained misogyny, structural racism and a multitude of other oppressions make life miserable for millions in the West.
But billions elsewhere in the world have it much, much worse. And unless we start agitating for the systemic changes I’ve talked about above, they’re not going to happen – and that suffering is going to continue.
It’s why, although I see myself as a socialist, I don’t just call ‘it’ socialism. Unless we get rid of capitalism and replace it with a better system, individual lifestyle changes aren’t going to have much impact at all – I completely agree with the leftist mainstream on that.
But I also don’t think that individual-systemic dichotomy is anywhere near as clear-cut as is often made out.
I think millions of people making different individual lifestyle choices could play a huge role in bringing about systemic change, as long as it was coupled with concerted activism as well – what is collective action if it’s not lots of people deciding to do the same thing?
And I honestly think that a lot of socialists use that fuzzy, only half-examined notion – individual change is useless without systemic change – as a sort of ethical get-out-of-jail-free card.
Shit, capitalism hasn’t been overthrown yet. Oh well, I’ll just get on with propping up the status quo by mindlessly buying things I don’t need, and jetting around the world, and not giving a second thought to human suffering beyond a few (obviously incredibly important) situations like Israel-Palestine. When did you honestly last hear a socialist talk about poverty in Africa?
But I digress. Johnny Cash had a song called ‘Man In Black’. In it, he explained why he only ever wore black clothes – and, more generally, why he wasn’t a huge barrel of laughs. Take out the bits about Jesus, and, for me, it basically sums up what I’m trying to argue.
He wears the black “for the poor and beaten down/living in the hopeless, hungry side of town,” “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime/but is there because he’s a victim of the times,” “the sick and lonely old”, “the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold”, and “in mourning for the lives that could have been/each week we lose a hundred fine young men”.
To which I’d obviously add everyone suffering in some god-forsaken hole somewhere, without anyone coming to help them.
It ends like this:
“Well there’s things that never will be right I know/and things need changing everywhere you go/but ‘til we start to make a move to make a few things right/you’ll never see me wear a suit of white.”
“I’d love to wear a rainbow every day/and tell the world that everything’s OK/but I’ll to carry off a little darkness on my back/’til things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.”
The elephant in the room
But, to end, it’s time to finally address the elephant in the room.
These are just my views, and my views are utterly irrelevant. I am just one person. I represent no-one apart from myself.
The world isn’t going to be changed by people like me. It will be changed – and, wonderfully, is being changed – by young, hedonistic, urbanite left-wingers with Instagram accounts who like getting trolleyed at the weekend. Just look at who’s spearheading the Corbyn thing.
But here’s why I’ve gone ahead and talked about it in such detail anyway. It’s because it’s what I believe. It’s what I believe more passionately than anything in the world. And, just once in my life, I wanted to write it all down.
(Actually, having written it all down, I’m wondering whether the best thing to call ‘it’ isn’t Moral Communism. As in communism – not in the strict Marxist sense, but more loosely as ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ – motivated by just a very puritanical moral outlook, not any sort of sweeping socioeconomic theory. It would at least be shorter than what I’ve got at the moment)