The Problem of Atheism

Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics

Illustration by artist Hugh Lieber from Human Values and Science, Art and Mathematics by mathematician Lillian Lieber


Excerpts from Keiji Nishitani (1900-1990), The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism (Appendix)

Marxist Humanism

As is commonly known, Marxism looks on religion as a way for those unable to come to terms with the frustrations of life to find satisfaction at the ideal level by imagining a world beyond. In so doing, the argument goes, they nullify the self and transpose the essence of their humanity into the image of “God” in the other world. In this act of religious “self-alienation” both nature and humanity become nonessential, void, and without substance. Atheism consists in the negation of this nonessentiality. By denying God it affirms the essence of the human. This emancipation of the human in turn is of a single root with human freedom.

This variety of atheism is connected with Marx’s characterization of the essence of the human individual as worker: humanity is achieved by remaking the world through work. The process of self-creation by which one gradually makes oneself human through work is what constitutes history. Seen from such a perspective, atheism is unavoidable. For since the source of religious self-alienation lies in economic self-alienation (the condition of being deprived of one’s humanity economically), once the latter is overcome, the former will fall away as a matter of course. According to Marx, then, atheism is a humanism wrought through the negation of religion.

Now insofar as Marx’s atheistic humanism is a humanism that has become self-conscious dialectically – its affirmation rests on the negation of religion – it clearly strikes at the very heart of religion. In it we find a clear and pointed expression of the general indifference, if not outright antagonism, to religion in the modern mind. From its very beginning, modern humanism has combined the two facets of maintaining ties to religion and gradually breaking away from it. In a sense, the history of modern philosophy can be read as a struggle among approaches to humanism based on one or the other of these aspects. At present the debate over humanism – what it is that constitutes the essence of the human – has become completely polarized. The responses provided by the various religious traditions show no signs of being able to allay the situation. Questions such as freedom, history, and labor, in the sense in which Marx discusses them in relation to the essence of humanity, paint a picture of the modern individual that had until recently escaped the notice of religion. To come to grips with such questions, religion will have to open up a new horizon.

Even if we grant that Marx’s thought touches the problem of religion at some depth, it is hard to sustain the claim that he understood its true foundations correctly. Matters like the meaning of life and death, or the impermanence of all things, simply cannot be reduced without remainder to a matter of economic self-alienation. These are questions of much broader and deeper reach, indeed questions essential for human being.

The problem expressed in the term “all is suffering” is a good example. It is clearly much more than a matter of the socio-historical suffering of human individuals; it belongs essentially to the way of being of all things in the world. The problem of human suffering is a problem of the suffering of the human being as “being-in-the-world,” too profound a matter to be alleviated merely by removing socio-historical suffering. It has to do with a basic mode of human being that also serves as the foundation for the pleasure, or the freedom from suffering and pleasure, that we oppose to suffering.

Or again, we might say that the issue of “the non-self nature of all dharmas” refers to “the nonessentiality of nature and humanity,” but this does not mean that we can reduce the claim to a self-alienating gesture of projecting the essence of our humanity on to “God.” It refers to the essential way that all things in the world are: depending on each other and existing only in interdependency. It is meant to point to the essential “non-essentiality” of all beings, and hence to a domain that no society can alter, however far it may progress. It is, in short, the very domain of religion that remains untouched by Marx’s critique. Marx argues emphatically that through work human beings conquer nature, change the world, and give the self its human face. But deep in the recesses behind the world of work lies a world whose depth and vastness are beyond our ken, a world in which everything arises only by depending on everything else, in which no single thing exists through the power of a “self” (or what is called “self-power”). This is the world of human beings who exist as “being-in-the-world.”

As for religion itself, whose maxim all along has been “all is suffering,” the idea that this has to do with “historical” suffering has not often come to the fore. (In this regard, Christianity represents an exception.) The idea of “karma” is supposed to relate concretely to the historicity of human existence, but even this viewpoint has not been forthcoming. The human activities of producing and using various things through “self-power,” of changing nature and society and creating a “human” self – in short, the emancipation of the human and the freedom of the human individual – would seem to be the most concrete “karma” of humanity and therefore profoundly connected with modern atheism. But none of these ideas has been forthcoming from the traditional religions. Even though for Christianity the fact that we must labor by the sweat of our brows is related to original sin, the germ of this idea has not, to my knowledge, been developed anywhere in modern theology.


Sartrean Existentialism

Modern atheism also appears in the form of existentialism. The same sharp and total opposition that separates existentialism and Marxism in general applies also to their respective forms of atheism. Unlike Marxism, which understands the human being as an essentially social being, existentialism thinks of the human being essentially as an individual; that is, it defines the human as a way of being in which each individual relates to itself. Marx’s critique of religion begins from the self-alienation of human beings in religion, redefines it as an economic self-alienation, and then deals with religion in terms of its social functions. In contrast, the existentialist Sartre, for example, understands the relationship between God and humanity as a problem of each individual’s relating to the essence of “self”-being itself. In other words, he begins from something like an ontological self-alienation implied in seeing human beings as creatures of God. For all the differences between the standpoints, they share the basic tenet that it is only by denying God that we can regain our own humanity. As is the case with Marx’s socialist individual, for Sartre’s existentialist individual humanism is viable only as an atheism – which is the force of Sartre’s referring to existentialism as a humanism.

According to Sartre, if God existed and had indeed created us, there would be basically no human freedom. If human existence derived from God and the essence of human existence consisted in this derivation, the individual’s every action and situation would be determined by this essential fact. In traditional terms, “essential being” precedes “actual being” and continually determines it. This means that the whole of actual human being is essentially contained within the “Providence” of God and is necessarily predetermined by God’s will. Such predestination amounts to a radical negation of human freedom. If we grant the existence of God we must admit God’s creation; and if we grant God’s creation, we must also allow for God’s predestination – in other words, we are forced to deny that there is any such thing as human freedom. If human freedom is to be affirmed, the existence of God must be denied.

Human “existence” (a temporal and “phenomenal” way of being) does not have behind it any essential being (a supratemporal and “noumenal” way of being) that would constitute its ground. There is nothing at all at the ground of existence. And it is from this ground of “nothing” where there is simply nothing at all that existence must continually determine itself. We must create ourselves anew ever and again out of nothing. Only in this way can one secure the being of a self – and exist. To be a human being is to humanize the self constantly, to create, indeed to have no choice other than to create, a “human being.” This self-being as continued self-creation out of nothing is what Sartre calls freedom. Insofar as one actually creates the self as human, actual existence precedes essence in the human being. In essence, the human individual is existence itself. This way of being human is “Existence,” and Existence can stand only on an atheism.

Of late we are beginning to see a turn in the standpoint of Heidegger, in that he no longer refers to his thought as an “existentialism.” Still, it seems important to point out what his thinking up until now has shared in common with the existentialism of Sartre. That human beings continually create themselves out of nothing is meant to supplant the Christian notion of God’s creatio ex nihilo. To this extent it is not the standpoint of “self-power” in the ordinary sense. Self-creation out of nothing is not brought about simply by the inner power of a being called human and hence is not a power contained within the framework of human being. This “being” is continually stepping beyond the framework of “being.” Nothingness means transcendence, but since this transcendence does not mean that there is some transcendent “other” apart from self-being, it implies a standpoint of “self-power,” not of “other-power.” In contrast to Christianity, it is a view in which nothingness becomes the ground of the subject and thereby becomes subjective nothing – a self-power based on nothing. Here the consciousness of freedom in the modern mind finds a powerful expression and amounts to what is, at least in the West, an entirely new standpoint. It seems doubtful that this standpoint can be confronted from within the traditional horizons that have defined Christianity so far. It is quite different with Buddhism.

From the perspective of Buddhism, Sartre’s notion of Existence, according to which one must create oneself continually in order to maintain oneself within nothing, remains a standpoint of attachment to the self – indeed, the most profound form of this attachment – and as such is caught in the self-contradiction this implies. It is not simply a question here of a standpoint of ordinary self-love in which the self is willfully attached to itself. It is rather a question of the self being compelled to be attached to itself willfully. To step out of the framework of being and into nothing is only to enter into a new framework of being once again. This self-contradiction constitutes a way of being in which the self is its own “prison,” which amounts to a form of karma. Self-creation, or freedom, may be self-aware, but only because, as Sartre himself says, we are “condemned to be free.” Such a freedom is not true freedom. Again, it may represent an exhaustive account of what we normally take freedom to be, but this only means that our usual idea of freedom is basically a kind of karma. Karma manifests itself in the way modern men and women ground themselves on an absolute affirmation of their freedom. As Sartre himself says, his standpoint of Existence is a radical carrying out of the cogito, ergo sum of Descartes, for the Cartesian ego shows us what the modern mode of being is.

That Sartre’s “Existence” retains a sense of attachment to the self implies, if we can get behind the idea, that the “nothingness” of which he speaks remains a nothingness to which the self is attached. It was remarked earlier that in existentialism nothingness became subjective nothingness, which means that, as in the case of Greek philosophy or Christianity, it is still bound to the human individual. Again looked at from behind, we find that human subjectivity is bound up inextricably with nothingness and that at the ground of human existence there is nothing, albeit a nothing of which there is still consciousness at the ground of the self. No matter how “pre-reflective” this consciousness is, it is not the point at which the being of the self is transformed existentially into absolute nothingness. Sartre’s nothingness is unable to make the being of the self (Existence) sufficiently “ek-static,” and to this extent it differs radically from Buddhist “emptiness.” The standpoint of emptiness appears when Sartrean Existence is overturned one more time. The question is whether Buddhism, in its traditional form, is equal to the confrontation with existentialism.

Sartre thinks that to be a human being is to “human-ize” the self continually and to create the self as human out of nothing. Pushing this idea to the extreme, and speaking from the standpoint of emptiness in Buddhism, it is a matter of continually assuming human form from a point where this form has been left behind and absolutely negated. It is, as it were, a matter of continued creative “accommodation,” a never-ending “return” to being a new “human.” Taken in the context of Buddhist thought as a whole, there is some question as to whether this idea of “accommodation” really carries such an actual and existential sense. Does it really, as Sartre’s idea of continual humanization does, have to do with our actual being at each moment?

When Sartre speaks of ceaseless self-creation out of nothing, he refers to an Existence that is temporal through and through. It does not admit of any separate realm of being, such as a supratemporal (or “eternal”) essence, but is simply based on “nothing.” But for Sartre Existence is self-created within a socio-historical situation, which demonstrates his profound appreciation of the social and historical dimensions of the human way of being. In the case of the standpoint of Buddhist emptiness, in which human being is understood as arising out of emptiness and existing in emptiness, we need to ask how far the actual Existence of the human being at each moment is included. How much of the Existence within the actual socio-historical situation, and completely temporalized in this actuality, is comprehended? To the extent that the comprehension is inadequate, the standpoint of Buddhism has become detached from our actuality, and that means that we have failed to take the standpoint of emptiness seriously enough and to make it existential. In this case, talk of “accommodation” is merely a kind of mythologizing.


Atheism in the World of Today

A crisis is taking place in the contemporary world in a variety of forms, cutting across the realms of culture, ethics, politics, and so forth. At the ground of these problems is that fact that the essence of being human has turned into a question mark for humanity itself. This means that a crisis has also struck in the field of religion, and that this crisis is the root of the problems that have arisen in other areas. We see evidence of this state of affairs in the fact that the most recent trends of thought in contemporary philosophy which are having a great influence – directly and indirectly – on culture, ethics, politics, and so on, are all based on a standpoint of atheism. This applies not only to Marxism and existentialism, especially as represented by Sartre, but also to logical positivism and numerous other currents of thought.

Involved in the problem of the essence of human being are the questions, “What is a human being?” and “By what values should one live?” These are questions that need to be thought through in terms of the totality of beings, the “myriad things” of which human beings are only one part. It is a question, too, of the place of human beings in the order of the totality of beings, and of how to accommodate to this position (that is, how to be truly human). For the order of being implies a ranking of values.

For example, even if “man” is said to be the lord of creation, this places him in a certain “locus” within the totality of things, and therefore refers to how one ought to live as a human being. In the Western tradition the locus of human being has been defined in relation to God. While we are said to have been created from nothing, our soul contains the imago dei. This divine image was shattered through original sin, to be restored only through the atonement of God’s Son, Jesus, and our faith in him as the Christ. Here the locus of human beings in the order of being and ranking of value takes a different form from the straightforward characterization of man as lord of creation, a form consisting of a complex interplay of negation and affirmation. This locus of human being is well expressed in Augustine’s saying: “Oh God, you have created us for you, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Needless to say, the basic dynamism behind the forming of this locus came from Greek philosophy and Christianity.

Modern atheism, Marxism, and existentialism share in common the attempt to repudiate this traditional location of the human in order to restore human nature and freedom. The seriousness of this new humanism is that such a restoration is possible only through a denial of God. At the same time, the new humanism harbors a schism in its ranks between the standpoints of Marxism and existentialism. The axis of the existentialist standpoint is a subjectivity in which the self becomes truly itself, while Marxism, for all its talk of human beings as subjects of praxis, does not go beyond a view of the human being as an objective factor in the objective world of nature or society. Each of them comprehends human being from a locus different from the other.

In the Western tradition the objective world and subjective being – the natural and social orders on the one hand, the “soul” with its innate orientation to God on the other – were united within a single system. The two main currents in modern atheism correspond respectively to these two coordinates, the soul and the world, but there is little hope of their uniting given the current confrontation. There is no way for modern men and women simply to return to the old locus, and the new atheism offers only a locus split into two. Confusion reigns in today’s world at the most basic level concerning what human beings are and how they are to live.

Each of these two standpoints seeks to ground itself from start to finish in actual being. This is related to the denial of God, in that full engagement of the self in actual being requires a denial of having already been determined within the world-order established by God, as well as a denial of having been fitted out in advance with an orientation to God in one’s very soul. Both standpoints stress the importance of not becoming detached from the locus in which one “actually” is, of remaining firmly grounded in one’s actual socio-historical situation, or more fundamentally, in actual “time” and “space.” But do these standpoints really engage actual being to the full?

Earlier on I suggested that as long as Marxism and existentialism continue to hold to the standpoint of the “human,” they will never be able to give a full account of actual human being. These new forms of humanism try to restore human beings to actual being by eliminating from the world and the soul the element of divine “predetermination.” The result is that they leave a gaping void at the foundations, as is evidenced by the lack of a locus from which to address the problem of life and death. Since the human mode of being consists in life and death, we must pass beyond the human standpoint to face the problem of life and death squarely. But to overcome the human standpoint does not necessarily mean that one merely returns to the “predetermination” of God, nor that one simply extinguishes freedom or actual being. It is rather a matter of opening up the horizon in which the question can be engaged truly and to its outermost limits.

Earlier I also proposed consideration of the locus of Buddhist “emptiness” in this regard. In the locus of emptiness, beyond the human standpoint, a world of “dependent origination” is opened up in which everything is related to everything else. Seen in this light there is nothing in the world that arises from “self-power” and yet all “self-powered” workings arise from the world. Existence at each instant, Sartre’s self-creation as “human,” the humanization in which the self becomes human – all these can be said to arise ceaselessly as new accommodations from a locus of emptiness that absolutely negates the human standpoint. From the standpoint of emptiness, it is at least possible to see the actuality of human being in its socio-historical situation in such a way that one does not take leave of “actual” time and space. In the words of the Zen master Musō:

When acting apprehend the place of acting, when sitting apprehend the place of sitting, when lying apprehend the place of lying, when seeing and hearing apprehend the place of seeing and hearing, and when experiencing and knowing apprehend the place of experiencing and knowing.


Further Reading

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism by Keiji Nishitani (PDF)

On Buddhism by Keiji Nishitani (PDF)

The Kyoto School (SEP)

5 thoughts on “The Problem of Atheism

  1. (Before I get started on my commentary to the above text, I would like to direct a comment directly to the blogger. As much as this post is a complete thought, to comment on this thought could easily take as much space as the post. Also, trying to keep in mind all the points a commenter would like to address is extremely difficult as they are continually bombarded by new points, many of which seem more important than the ones before, but they in turm get lost in the morass of still more points, and by the end there is a swamp of confusion. Perhaps the blogger could split the post into shorter pieces, say about 1000 to 1500 words, and publish them simultaneously once all are ready. This, of course, is just a suggestion for convenience, and does not demand compliance.)

    “The seriousness of this new humanism is that such a restoration is possible only through a denial of God.”

    In my philosophy, although the concept of a god, or gods, or a super-being, or super-beings, or an alien, or alien beings, is something that can be spoken to, a denial of same is absolutely not necessary to speak of life. Since all these concepts are inventions of humans, they will, like all human inventions, pass into non-being, and there will come a time someone reading such a composition will have few points of reference. To deny something is to give that something value, but I personally see no value in any of these concepts as this time and in this place. I am an atheist, I do not accept the beingness of the objects of these concepts, and this is the total of my dealing with them.

    However, I am not just an atheist, I am a spiritual atheist. I personally am aware of other states or planes of existence, forms of beingness that do not and cannot exist on this plane, or in this state. Some are places for After-Death, which can be equal to places Before-Birth, when contemplating thoughts about life and being on this worldly, or even universal plane. Others are states or planes of existence that could pre-date our plane, but definitely there are planes that post-date our plane. But I am not about to deal with them here, since the subject of the post is life on Earth, so the commentary should focus on life on Earth. To wit:

    One of humanity’s biggest problems is that it sets itself apart, for the vast majority of humans, from all other forms and species of life. This gives rise to the idea that all other things, living or non-living, exist only to serve the purposes of humanity. The writer, Keiji Nishitani, has offered up Buddhist principles to help differentiate certain western ideas from other ideas, hoping to widen the field of play to incorporate other ways of considering the world. I prefer to widen the field of play to incorporate other ways of considering life.

    “Involved in the problem of the essence of human being are the questions, “What is a human being?” and “By what values should one live?” These are questions that need to be thought through in terms of the totality of beings, the “myriad things” of which human beings are only one part. It is a question, too, of the place of human beings in the order of the totality of beings, and of how to accommodate to this position (that is, how to be truly human).

    Being human does not mean to individualize humanity to all other living beings, but rather to find where we fit in that order, if there were such a thing as order–I do not believe there is, except the order to which we try to force life into. We are a very egotistical species, we who call ourselves human. We look at all other forms of life, and judge those lifeforms in human terms. This is not a long-viable approach to life. It has lasted for thousands of years, I grant you, but thousands of years are not even a blink in the eye of Earth, and much less in the eye of the universe. If you can consider the cosmos at all, thousands of years are not even a microsecond in our concept of time. To have value to the cosmos, humans must successfully exit for at least millions of years, but this is not assured.

    Let me move on to the second question asked above, “By what values should one live?” This question pre-supposes the concept there is a way that we “should” live.” Should is a loaded word, and refers to an attempt to make life orderly. Life is not orderly, and never has been, though many believe that can be done. Order precludes accidents, and accidents happen all the time. By their very definition, accidents are things “not expected to happen.” If there were a way humans should live, we should not ever have accidents. But since we do have accidents, there can be no order, no matter how much we try to make life so.
    So let us reword the question to “By what values will we live?” The word values is also a loaded word, but not in the same way as the word should is. Values also implies an attempt at order, but this word is not so absolute. Using the plural word “values,” we are not restricting the possibilities of how a being will live, but more “hoping” a being will live by values that have an affect on oneself, as well as others. But again, humans being who they are, generally only want to apply any such values to human life, and to hell with any other kinds of life. Human life is the only kind of life that matters. But human life cannot exist without other kinds of life. “Life feeds upon life.” Humans need food to exist, and except for vitamin pills and mineral pills, and suchlike man made foods, humans exist and survive on the carcasses of once-living plants and animals. All life, except some of the most basic beings in the world, survive to some extent on what was once living matter. The higher up the food chain one goes, the more true that statement becomes. But this only speaks to values in an indirect way. We value other living things by the matter they leave behind when they die, OR ARE KILLED.
    Let us look at other types of values, in general, rather than in specifics. How we treat others, respect, compassion, empathy, love, hatred, bigotry, murder, infliction of pain, healing of injuries, and oh so many more, these are values that we use in our relationships to others, and with others. Generally, we feel it is important to treat others as we wish to have others treat ourselves. But how often do we throw these values aside according to the time and place of where we are, or where we recently were, or where we want to be. Values are easy to talk about, but they are very difficult to live by. What is even the use of having them in the first place? Because we want to feel superior to those who do not act in ways we feel our values give us precedence for having. But yet, one of the values many of us have is the value of all being equal in our basic being. Equality, while possibly real in certain ways, is a joke in most ways. What is the value of being equal if we do not live equally? No value at all!
    The same can be said for almost every value humans can think of. Values are merely concepts of ideas of actions we woulkd like others to take so as not to hurt us.

    But those values, worthless as they are, are seldom put into play when thinking of other species, or other lifeforms. Remember, we are the top of the food chain. Right? Wrong! Our dead bodies are eaten by all kinds of insects, bacteria, viruses, and especially maggots. There is no top of the food cycle, biologically speaking. It goes round and round and round.

    But were we to look at our spiritual beings, that which exists inside of us, but outside of physical reality. Again, humans like to see themselves at the top of the spiritual ladder, if they even entertain the concept of a spiritual anything. But we are again not at the top of anything. Because, spiritually-speaking, all living beings really are equal. They have what we call the spirit of life, and because we are all alive, we are equal at our deepest cores. We are not the only beings on Earth, in the universe, or as part of the cosmos to have spirit. Life is spirit.

    And there I must leave you for now. To go on from here would take much more time and space than I have available to me at this moment. But there are other times… other places…

    PS I forgot to address the word “will” I used when I rewrote the second question above. My apologies. I will try to do so later. For now, my supper calls, and I must take sustenance, or die…

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  2. Thank you, rawgod, for the lengthy commentary. Many of your points are very well taken, especially your early assertion that, “Since all these concepts are inventions of humans, they will, like all human inventions, pass into non-being.” My reasons for making this post stem partly from an interest in the human condition, but more fundamentally from my own background in Christianity and attempting to make sense of the world after having left the faith. This was one of those books that, after having studied Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, filled in many of the human elements and contexts of the development of nihilism in the 20th-century Western world. I do host a free full-length PDF ebook of this work, available at the bottom of the post and also in the Bookshelf section, if you’re interested.

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    • My interest lies much more in your reaction to, and thoughts on what I have written above. As you can probably tell, I have developed a philosophy from what people tell me are two opposing concepts, atheism, and spirituality. I have been working on understanding events I have experienced in my life, and how to express those experiences in the English language, a language not truly suited to spiritual concepts. Basically, this has been my life’s work.
      Your post exposed me to works I had only heard of, but never checked out because I want my philosophy to not be cluttered with reactions to others’ philosophies. This is next-to-impossible, of course, but I decided on doing things this way after I read some asshole philosopher’s claim that “all future philosophies must go through me,” or something like that. I cannot now even remember that philosopher’s name, but he was German, 1700s or 1800s, I think. What an ego!
      Of course, his ego has nothing on mine, lol.

      Anyways, I add to my philosophy mainly by being challenged to expand on points I take for granted, they are such a part of me I forget they are not a part of everyone. The more dialogue I get involved in, the deeper my philosophy goes. You seem to like philosophy for its own sake, at least as I am reading your words. I like philosophy for my sake, and therefore for life’s sake, because I firmly believe everything that is inside of me is at least potentially inside of everyone else, if it is not already there, discovered or undiscovered. We, every living being everywhere, are on spiritual journeys of life, though most don’t know it yet, while others think it but don’t yet believe it in their spiritual bones. Relatively speaking, very few living beings “know” they are on a real journey, but those who know it still need to understand it. I am in the process of understanding…

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  3. The continuation of my commentary on the above blog:
    Do you Remember, I changed the original second question above from “By what values should we live?” to “By what values will we live? I made this change because the verb should is basically meaningless. Life knows no order, and all attempts to impose order are, for the most part, useless. Accidents happen. Next, I challenged the use of the words values, and turned them into meaningless phrases that are only paid attention to when useful to the holder of said values. So where does that leave us?
    We are left the the signifying verb, will. I am not using the word will here to discuss mental power, as in having the will to quit smoking. I am merely using the word will to express future action, as in, we will live however we want to live, or, we will go to the park this afternoon. It is an intentional verb of sorts, but really it only gives the possibility of intention, making it conditional on future events. So, when I ask the question, “By what values will we live?” I am asking, assuming everything goes according to our plans, how will we respond to them. So, if we were to make a list of values we perceive as meaningful to our lives, will we live by them? Based on humanity and the way it acts as we presently know it, the easy answer is, No, most will not. We may want to, we may try to, but situations will always come up where we will act against our best intentions. Will mothers defend their babies to someone’s death, even their own, if a perceived threat becomes potentially real. They see their child walk close to a wild bear, and they go on full alert. They remember their value, do not do any harm to anyone, but this is not an anyone, it is only a bear. This woman is a member of the American NRA, she will have a rifle ready, even if her only purpose of having it is target shooting. As she goes to get the gun, she is not thinking, My child was not supposed to go near bears, so it is his or her fault for disturbing the bear! No, she is thinking the bear might harm my child. Now she has the gun, loaded it, and readies herself to use it if necessary. Then she sees a bear cub come out of the bushes on the other side of her child from the bear. She knows bears will hurt anything that comes between her and the cub. She gives no thought at all to the thought that if the bear were to do anything, it would just be defending her own cub as best she knows how. Nor does she take into account most wildlife, even bears, realize that babies of any species are not generally threats to anyone. No, she will only remember hearing a story of a bear hurting a baby, and as soon as this bear takes one step towards her own cub, which means a step towards the woman’s child, she fires the gun, killing the mother bear, and orphaning the cub. But does she yet care? No, all she cares is her baby is safe, and she has to get away from the place of danger. She grabs her child, and drives quickly away.
    Despite the woman’s value of not hurting anyone, she intentionally killed a mother bear. The bear did not even try to harm the baby. All it did was take a step towards her own cub. But the mother did not see any of that, she thought only of protecting her child. She threw away her value for what she thought might happen, whether it might have happened or not. She will not live by her value. And neither will most people, not even in a potentially dangerous situation as this.

    All in all, the questions asked at the start of this comment by the writer, Keiji Nishitani, may be important, but to me their importance lies in the difference between humanism, and spiritual atheism. I cannot, and do not, speak for anyone else. For myself, humans are but a link in the endless chain of life, and values need to be something you cannot only believe in, but something you can and will abide by. Otherwise it’s value is zero.

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  4. Oops, I missed a whole section of my argument. I will try to rewrite it without being too repetitive. My apologies.

    [Referring back to my argument we will not live by our values when push comes to shove…]

    But those values, worthless as they are, are seldom put into play when thinking of other species, or other lifeforms. Remember, we are the top of the food chain. Right? Wrong! Our dead bodies are eaten by all kinds of insects, bacteria, viruses, and especially maggots. There is no top of the food circle, biologically speaking. It goes round and round and round.

    But were we to look at our spiritual beings, that which exists inside of us, but outside of physical reality, what would we see? Again, humans like to see themselves at the top of the spiritual ladder, if they even entertain the concept of a spiritual anything. But we are again not at the top of anything. Because, spiritually-speaking, all living beings really are equal. They have what we call the spirit of life, and because we are all alive, we are equal at our deepest cores. We are not the only beings on Earth, in the universe, or as part of the cosmos to have spirit. Life is spirit.

    Despite the woman’s value of not hurting anyone, she intentionally killed a mother bear. The bear did not even threaten the baby. All it did was take a step towards her own cub. But the mother did not see any of that, she thought only of protecting her child. She threw away her value for what she thought might happen, whether it might have happened her not. She will not live by her value. And neither will most people, not even in a potentially dangerous situation as this.

    So do we humans forgive the mother for unnecessarily killing the bear? Most humans do. I will not. She had other choices, like making loud noises to chase the bear away, distracting the bear to lead it away from the child, walking up, without fear, picking her child up, and backing away, just for starters. But the mother is not thinking, she is acting on the same instinct the mother bear might be acting on. Does any of this absolve her of guilt? No! But most humans, as I said before, will look at her humanness, and forgive the killing of a non-human. This is unacceptable. The bear has as much right to life as does the mother, or even the child. In fact, in this situation, the bear has more right to live. The woman, though acting through instinct as is the mother bear, is awake, sentient, and able to reason, all she has to do is shrug off the instinct. The bear, as far as we know, is awake, is possibly sentient, but as far as we know, not able to reason. But now we can never know, the bear is dead. The cub has no mother to teach it. Chances are good the child still being a baby in looks, would have been by-passed by the bear, there was no visible threat as far as she could see. We again will never know. The bear is dead. She cannot be brought back to life…

    Will we act according to our values? Now we get to the we. The original question used the singular pronoun, one. One individual might be able to live by a particular value, maybe even two individuals might. But unless the above mother is one of those individuals, which she obviously was not, the bear might still be alive. But does talking about individuals really answer the intent of the question, “By what values will one act?” By referring to the previous question, “What is a human being?”, it could appear Nishitani is asking, “What is one human being?”, but really he is asking about all human beings. Human beings are all alike biologically, and according to some psychologists, even mentally. So “What is one human being,” can easily be understood to be, “What are human beings–all human beings.” After all, “We’re all one.” So this now changes the second question to, “By what values should all humans act?” All humans includes all of us, living, dead, or still to live. So, the 1st person plural pronoun we can easily replace the third person singular, one.” Having already changed the obligation-loaded verb should to the futuristic form of “be,” will, the question in its simplest term becomes, “By what values will we live?”

    As I have shown above, we likely will not live by any values if the opportunity to not live by those values forces itself upon us. Why not? Because we are human. We think of our selves first, or extensions of our selves such as children, maybe spouses, other loved ones. Anyone else is, first by virtue of not being connected to the self, next by not being human (in whatever way you choose to define human), not worthy of our consideration. Does this really make us human? Is this what humanism (that which constitutes the essence of the human, by species or by individuals) is all about, being better, more important, than anything or anyone else? If it is, I want no part of it. I may be human, but I am no more important than the fly that lays the eggs from which will hatch the maggots that would eat my dead body, were I not intending to be cremated.

    All life is equal, in my opinion.

    Like

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