Here is my reconstruction of the basic points from Appleman’s book. It does not really contain a philosophical argument in the traditional sense, but is more like a last lecture or statement of his creed. (For more about the idea of a last lecture, see Randy Pausch’s moving book, The Last Lecture.)
Part 1 – We Invented Religion
- As we move through the labyrinth of life we wonder, who are we?
- We are not a god’s chosen people, we are primates with big brains.
- These brains invent gods who we believe tell us to conquer the earth.
- Believing in gods is easy, thinking for ourselves is hard.
- The gods promise immortality, thereby breeding contempt for the world.
Part 2 – Religion is a Horrible Thing
- Believers are often horrible people, fanatical and anti-social.
- Religions don’t want to be judged by their deeds, but by their rhetoric.
- Religions want to preserve themselves.
- Religions have been, and still are, a terrible force in human history.
- If taken seriously, religion leads to turning your back on the world.
- But most don’t take it seriously, they want the things of this world.
Part 3 – We Create Meaning in Life in the Face of Death
- By giving up religion and immortality we can find meaning in this world.
- We create our own meaning, we don’t get it from absurd theology.
- Instead we should realistically assess our situation.
- If we do, we’ll find that we are products of evolution.
- We will die, but we can die with dignity like Darwin did.
- Darwin rejected the sadism and superstition of religion, as should we.
- Religion consoles us with promises of the afterlife, but provides no evidence.
- We have a right to rage against death because life is precious.
Part 4 – Morality is a Biological Phenomenon
- We find the origins of morality in the desire for self-preservation.
- In evolutionary history we find that to survive we must cooperate.
- But religion co-opted morality, uniting it with dogma.
- To get people to be moral religion promises heaven and hell.
- But this doesn’t work. For morality we must look to science.
Part 5 – Science Can Play a Role in Morality
- Science explains human nature and how we can flourish.
- Science shows we are connected with the entire ecosystem.
- Knowledge is an important ingredient of conscience.
- Most won’t engage in rigorous thought, but a few of us can try.
Part 6 – The Law and the World Are Human Made
- The law progresses to the extent it distances itself from religion.
- By abandoning religion we can live better lives and make a better world.
- We can make a heaven on earth.
That humans created religion is self-evident. I suppose that doesn’t falsify all of its claims, but it certainly sheds doubt on them. Generally religion is a horrible thing, the cause of an untold amount of suffering. Still, contra Appleman, I admit to having known some good religious persons, although on the whole I have found them morally and intellectually inferior to non-believers. That has been my experience, no doubt others have had theirs. But I’m amazed by how many truly horrific believers that I’ve known.
The question of creating meaning is one I’ve address at length in my recent book. Suffice it to say that I think subjective meaning is a part of, but not all of, the answer to the question of life’s meaning. If it were all of the answer, then one who enjoys torturing children could be said to have a meaningful life. The question of our attitude toward death is one of the most vexing I have ever faced. I don’t know if I should accept it, rage against it, or get a cryonics policy. But I do believe that death should be optional.
Morality is a biological phenomenon, and there is no morality without a knowledge of human nature. Biology is the science which tells us about human nature. Law too is a human invention, and we are better off distancing ourselves from religious moralities. (Having said that, the penal system in the United States is extraordinarily barbaric. It will stain the historical view of this country for generations.) Finally abandoning religion and other superstition is a first step to making a better world.
Again I thank Professor Appleman for his beautifully written and passionate prose.