On Human Perfection/Perfectability

Presented at the Services of the North Texas Church of Freethought on Sunday, March 2,1997

Although some Atheists enjoy, and spend a great deal of time bashing superstitious religions, especially Christianity, we don't do a whole lot of that here. Although we're suspected even by some of our fellow unbelievers of Freethought heresy for creating a community based on our mutual devotion to facts and reason as the basis for the good life, and of calling ourselves a church, we don't imitate most of the other churches whose stock-in-trade is attacking others. On the other hand, I think we do need to consider and respond to — if even in our own minds — the attacks that god-believers habitually heap on Atheism, at least when their arguments pretend to have merit.

One of those condemnatory critiques goes roughly as follows: Atheists know very well that there's a God, but they deny Him — notice it's always "Him" — "Him" and his penis … — because they want to deny their own failings. Supposedly, Freethinkers can't stand the thought of their own faults because they want to make their own rules so they can do evil things.

It's pretty fanciful stuff, obviously. An analysis of history doesn't support it either, although I've had discussions with believers who try to lump Hitler, Stalin, and Mao in with us. This is for the purpose of proceeding to calculate whether these preposterous proxies for Atheism and Rationalism killed more people than died in the Crusades, the Witch Hunts, the Inquisitions and pogroms, and all the other religious wars and massacres of the past. Forget modern-day Northern Ireland, of course. Forget Bosnia. Forget Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East. Forget Rwanda. Forget everything but what they say, you see. That's always been theirmodus operandi.

A very few believers have made a somewhat more thoughtful critique of unbelief, and it is that that I'd like for you to think about today. These theists — William F. Buckley of National Review and PBS's Firing Line notoriety, for example — say that we Freethinkers don't so much think we're perfect as that we think we can do it all for ourselves without the help of their perfect God. They say that in order to maintain this stance, we have to believe in the perfectibility of human beings. And, of course, it's not hard for them to find in the writings of Freethinkers and Humanists many references to the idea of progress. This the critics take to mean progress towards some apotheosis — thinking of Buckley makes me think of such words, I suppose — some ideal — of perfection which, they, in turn, suggest is their God.

So it's a polished version of the complaint that unbelievers arrogate to themselves the rights of God.

It's a quaint idea, isn't it, that gods are entitled to rights? In most of the rest of the world, the rights of human beings are given scant consideration. And even here in America we have people who can't seem to grasp the ideas embodied in the plain language of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Montaigne said that "Man is certainly stark mad. He cannot make a flea and yet he will be making gods by the dozen." He might just as well have observed in his day, as in ours, that human rights are trampled routinely without thought or complaint while theologians and their flunkeys devote their intellectual energies to discerning the rights of gods.

In any case, what of this business about unbelievers having a kind of faith in the perfectibility of humanity? It certainly is a concept for which one can find little support in either history or current events. So that, if perfection is anywhere to be found, it would seem unreasonable to look to that source for help in improving our station.

What is perfection, anyway? Various dictionaries suggest synonyms such as "complete," "without defect," and "flawless." You can't improve on perfection, in other words. It's not just the best that there is. It's the best that there can be. It's Valhalla, the Elysian fields, the New Jerusalem, Avalon, Utopia, …, well, you get the idea. Perfection is all the wonderful good stuff we can think of and none of the bad stuff we forgot to mention. It's the tomorrow that never comes.

For nowhere in our experience, nowhere in the actual reality that we inhabit, in a universe that god-believers say was all created by a perfect God, do we find perfection. They've got an excuse for this, of course: the grand swindle of Original Sin. As they say, "that's a whole 'nother story," but even the most sympathetic treatment of the Original Sin business still doesn't explain all of the design flaws, not to mention all of the cruelties that we see in the world of nature. If a watch implies a watchmaker, this world implies a deaf, dumb, blind, reckless, and, at times, malicious watchmaker.

Fortunately, human beings, with all of their faults, are not so contemptible and thoughtless. In fact, human beings really have succeeded in making the world a better place.

No, we haven't succeeded in quelling the doom and gloom chants of the "Man is a Fallen Creature and Needs God" crowd. Maybe we never will. Because as soon as the progressive thinkers and visionaries have finished dragging the grumblers and the "It Can't Be Done/Shouldn't Be Done" folks into the future, as soon as they start living better and longer and set up their worldwide satellite TV networks, they resume their complaining.

Yes, there's much that remains to be done. And, yes, some of our most serious current problems are of our own making or have been contributed to by our past efforts. Better public health measures and medical advances have led to population pressures. Technological improvements have led to more efficient weapons of war and more catastrophic industrial accidents. Antibiotics and pesticides have encouraged resistance in their intended targets and have endangered "innocent bystander" organisms. And even global transportation and commerce have served to spread harmful insects and disease-causing microorganisms. You don't have to travel abroad to get traveler's diarrhea anymore. Now Montezuma's revenge comes to you in the grocery store.

But so what?

How does improvement imply an expectation of perfection? Perfection means that you can'thave any further improvement. It means that you can't learn anything more, that you can'tgrow anymore, that you can't get to a better place from where you are. It means not having a reason to get out of bed in the morning …

It's a curious thing that the believers in the indispensable but invisible and otherwise inapparent but perfect God are always the first to complain about the way things are. Then they typically resist all efforts to try to improve matters and, when things do improve, they complain that they're not PERFECT.

Freethinkers know — or should know — that getting out of bed in the morning means to join the struggle that is life. As someone once said, "To travel hopefully is better than to arrive."

Let's not apologize for our failure to become perfect. Let's make it clear that perfection is not, and cannot ever be the goal of a rational individual. In the context of the human condition, as in the context of nature, things need only be good enough given the requirements and the opportunities available. For a Freethinker, heaven cannot be the end of considering how life might be improved upon.

Robert Ingersoll, for example, thought it would be an improvement if good health were contagious, instead of illness. We can get more sophisticated today, though …

It's not unreasonable to expect that sometime in the next century, which is just around the corner now, we'll be able to replace the defective genes in sufferers of sickle cell disease, muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, Tay-Sachs, and a host of other serious hereditary conditions. Nor is too much to suppose that efforts to replace vital body organs, either with modified animal tissues or with plastic and metal, will finally become practicable.

It will probably be a while until the ethnologists, the psychologists, and the neurologists and the neurophysiologists come together with the penologists to close in on the causes of violent crime and other grievous aberrations of human behavior. But ultimately this must happen. Right now — which is to say "in the meantime" — it seems to many that all we can do is to build more prisons, which is about as satisfactory a solution to the problem of criminality as building more cemeteries is a solution to the problem of AIDS. Speaking of which … it was just reported that the mortality figures for AIDS have actually diminished a bit. We can only hope that this won't lead to complacency about it.

These are serious and important matters, of course. But the amazing thing, and the gratifying thing about thinking about the problems of the world and how they might be lessened or eliminated, is that it's also fun …

How about, for example, if cellulose were digestible by humans? After all, it's nothing but glucose strung together with b 1-4 linkages instead of a 1-4 bonds as in starches. It might reduce the problem of world hunger since cellulose is, without a doubt, the most abundant organic molecule on the planet. Maybe a few dozen additional digestive enzymes could even result in the complete usage of everything we eat. Just think: NO SHIT! Of course, for some of us, it would also be nice if we could absorb and metabolize less of what we eat …

Take a little time to brainstorm about how you might make the world a better place. Have fun with it. But take a little time to be practical about it as well. Ask yourself how you can makeyour world, and the world of those around you, a better place — here, right now, today.

And when you're challenged by those who chase after the perfectly impossible, the perfectly absurd, and the perfectly nonexistent, remember to tell them what you think about this business of human perfectibility. Tell them that until they can deliver on their promises and give us a reason not to get out of bed in the morning, it is enough for Atheists and Humanists to look for some improvement, to expect a bit of sunshine, and to try to do something that their God — if He's so perfect — is incapable of: to learn, to grow, and to become better.

Thank you and Good Morning.

© 1997 by Tim Gorski