Principles: From Nature to Motivation

Skepticism is my nature.
Free Thought is my methodology.
Agnosticism is my conclusion.
Atheism is my opinion.
Humanitarianism is my motivation.

—Jerry DeWitt

Jerry DeWitt, former pentacostal preacher, now an openly atheist public speaker and minister to the ‘nones.’

I first saw this quote over a year ago on an inspirational poster. (I think the backdrop was a lake at sunset or something.) I remember liking it, but at the time I was still an agnostic theist, and the name Jerry DeWitt meant nothing to me. Then yesterday, my friend Harper dropped the quote in a conversation. By this time I was both in agreement with the quote and a fan of its author.  Jerry DeWitt is a former evangelical pastor who, after twenty-five years in ministry, publicly outed himself as an atheist and subsequently dedicated himself to organizations such as Recovering from Religion and The Clergy Project, intended to give closeted nones the courage and support to live openly as irreligious people.

I deeply resonate with DeWitt’s statements, not only because I relate to his chosen terms, but because I relate to how he places them within the context of his life. As a personal exercise I decided to expound on his statements as they apply to my own life.

I too am skeptical by nature. I’ve never been one to rest on authority—in fact I was more likely to challenge it, even as a little kid. Perhaps it’s because my parents are both in education. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always been a touch rebellious. Regardless of the reason, “why?” is one of the first questions on my lips whenever a claim to knowledge or authority is made.

en:Image:RANDI.jpg (Original text : James Randi)

James Randi, prominent free thinker best known for challenging pseudoscience and paranormal claims. Credit: Wikipedia

I find free thought (defined as “a philosophical viewpoint that holds opinions should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, or other dogmas”) to be the most compelling methodology for discovering and examining the world. Dogmas are the unquestionable dictates of authority, which is only as useful as its level of expertise. Tradition—while valuable as a community bonding agent and marker of heritage—does not necessarily have a practical relationship to objective truth.  Free thought, with its emphasis on the objective, is an appealingly consistent method for developing my worldview.

Agnosticism—the belief that the existence of divinity can neither be proven nor disproven—to me seems the only reasonable conclusion given the evidence available. Since divinity is supposed to be supernatural—that is, outside the natural world and the methods we’ve developed to make sense of it (scientific method, reason, logic)—we have no way to definitively prove its existence. The divine is definitionally beyond the realm of objective perception. We can only conclude that a notion of god (which may or may not accurately reflect divinity) is no longer plausible or necessary. This is not the same as disproving the existence of the divine, which presupposes an understanding of the divine we simply do not and cannot have. Furthermore, the lack of consensus on the definition of words like ‘god’ and ‘exist’ have led me to embrace the term ignostic, which demands we define our terms before debating.

Atheism, broadly speaking, is a lack of belief in the existence of deities, and many atheists regard their religious unbelief as similar to common incredulity about the Roswell aliens. While atheism is my opinion, it seems arrogant (and intellectually lazy) to make positivist claims about the existence of entities unknown, which is why weak atheism, applied to specific notions of divinity, seems the most defensible to me. I personally do not believe in the notions of divinity presented by traditional theism, particularly the Abrahamic faiths.

Finally, all I’ve ever wanted to do was help people. I enjoy raising money for foundations, pounding nails with Habitat for Humanity, and knocking on doors to garner support for a cause. I want to do things that will improve the quality of life for hundreds or thousands of individuals. Humanitarianism is my motivation for living, and for this reason that I identify as a Humanist.

Words like ‘atheist,’ ‘agnostic,’ ‘skeptic,’ ‘free-thinker,’ and ‘humanist’ have a tendency to blend into a haze of dense terminology, easily mistaken for a set of similar worldviews vaguely expressing degrees of godlessness. If used correctly, however, labels can answer questions that speak to the heart of what a person thinks, how they think, and how they strive to live their lives. In this context, when I call myself a skeptic I’m not just declaring my doubtfulness, I’m an answering the question, “What is your natural mode of thought?” Some are trusting, some are drawn to positions of faith, or charismatic leaders, but I’m a skeptic. I use the other terms to answer questions like “What is your methodology for determining the elements of your worldview?” (I call this a ‘value metric’ in other posts.) “What do you conclude about the divine?” “What motivates you to live your life?” and “How do you intend to live it?” These are the questions behind the labels we wear, and perhaps we’d better understand those with differing labels if we viewed them not as declarations about our characters, but as specific answers to questions within an ongoing, global dialogue.

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