I’ve hinted to it in various blog posts, and said it directly in my most recent travel one; I’m an atheist, but since the word gets a little bad rep (it sounds to some like anti-theist or that your life philosophy revolves around opposing religion), the title I prefer is Humanist.
This very simply means that you have a Naturalist understanding of the world, or a “what you see is what you get” appreciation of how things work, with no supernatural forces (god, karma, “the force”, positive vibrations, law of attraction, psychic powers, astrology etc.) at play. Now I definitely can’t know this world view is absolutely right, the same way I can’t “know” that Russell’s teapot is really orbiting our solar system somewhere, but I’m pretty damn confident about it and my varied incredible travel experiences have strengthened this confidence.
There are plenty of arguments for this world view, but in today’s post I want to give it to you just in the context of someone who has seen as many amazing things on the road as I have, and how having seen and witnessed a lot of incredible events (many of which I have yet to blog about), hasn’t shaken my confidence in an entirely scientific and logical viewpoint of how the world works.
Many of you may have seen some incredible things in your own travels, or back home that I can never understand or appreciate that strengthen your religious views, and that’s fine as I’m not here to prove anyone right or wrong, but only to offer my thoughts as I have had many people suggest that extensive travel experiences (and the definite increase in serendipitous experiences, that I want to get to shortly) should perhaps make you more religious or superstitious and I strongly disagree.
Those of you reading the blog long enough know that I travel for the people (not for the scenery, not for historical reasons, and not even for the language which is my means to an end to converse with those I meet), and this is why I have faith in people, and why human beings endlessly fascinate me, without any mysterious force, apart from aeons of evolution, behind them.
My religious background
Firstly, just for some context, I am from Ireland, a Catholic country, and was raised Catholic. I was a choirboy for almost ten years (why do you think I like singing so much?) and many of my teachers in secondary school were priests. I’m very happy that I grew up where I did and had the experiences I did, and I definitely don’t have some negative agenda against any particular religion; the priests that taught me Mathematics, Geography and various subjects in school were incredibly intelligent and kind people, and I learned a lot from them; not just from the facts they presented in class, but also from their high moral standards in life.
I was religious, and didn’t have any experience that put me off the church.
All that happened was that I went to university and for the first time I had a little more freedom in deciding if I was to go to church or not. I seriously thought about the question about how religion works and wanted to be confident in my beliefs because if it were all true, then to make sure I got into heaven I should definitely follow the rules precisely; there was no question about being a half-assed religious person for me. It was all or nothing.
Even though I was studying electronic engineering, which was an incredibly demanding course, I took my own time to read up (thanks to my wonderful university library) on various philosophical trains of thought, and attended a couple of debates on religion at my university. Very slowly after many months of really thinking about it, the idea of my particular religion, based on a book written by men thousands of years ago, actually being true seemed less and less likely, and then any concept of a supernatural force behind the universe started seeming less plausible.
There is a lot of science in engineering, and scientific rigour demands that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and I couldn’t find even the most minimal evidence (beyond anecdotal) to support any supernatural phenomena. Science (not just physics, chemistry and biology, but even the science of human behaviour; psychology) tends to explain many things about how the world works. There are still some questions left unanswered, but religion never satisfactorily provides those answers to me, over a much more honest “We don’t know”.
As such I stopped going to church and decided to appreciate the world for what I knew definitely was there, and try to live my life around this different world view.
Moral implications for a traveller with “no consequences”
Now, a question many religious may ask is What is to stop me from doing horrible things now that I didn’t have an invisible moral consciousness outside of me checking up on me any more?
This is in general a good question, but answered for most people because they live somewhere where people know what you do, or may find out eventually. Human evolution has made us a tribal people, and if we did horrible things, someone would find out about it and we could be ostracised from the tribe, which from an evolutionary viewpoint is a death sentence for your genes. As such I think morals being incorporated into human life to help maintain order in tribes is a perfectly reasonable cause for one reason why people are good.
But this explanation doesn’t work for me now, because I move around very regularly. Essentially, if I was a terrible person to everyone in one place, I could “get away with it” because nobody in the next place would know about it. Forget stealing and killing and anything very illegal, because I could get arrested for that even if I moved somewhere else; what about just being a mean person in general?
Should I not leave tips in American cities I may never come back to? Should I sleep with gullible girls and break their hearts because those in the next place won’t know? Should I take advantage of kindness in one place to take what I don’t deserve from very trusting people?
If you think about it, breaking these social rules for a traveller is much easier because there are essentially no consequences. But I refuse to do this because I do believe in doing the right thing, and in following a moral compass in my life.
The thing is that I have had very bad things happen to me in my travels; things that I didn’t deserve because I came across someone with a weak moral standing. Girls who have broken my heart, people who have treated me unfairly, said horrible things to me that hurt my feelings very deeply, and many other rough things from mean people. It makes me feel terrible every time, and I would absolutely hate to do this to other people.
For me this explanation is all I need. I don’t need a force to punish me for doing evil; empathy is all I need to make sure I don’t leave a place worse than when I got there.
As well as this, I do think that there is a logical explanation for a traveller to be moral; there are subconscious body language queues that many of us give when we are lying or being deceitful. We may not be aware of them, and the person we are talking to may not be consciously aware of them either.
But to a certain extent, the bad things someone does on the other side of the planet do follow them around. I don’t believe “karma” keeps track of what you do, but you keep track of it yourself, and the lack in social skills and empathy comes across as you interact with people. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s possible that this will lead to others not trusting you or seeing through your lies, and something bad happening as a result.
You betray your own lack of good moral standing, no matter how good an actor you may be. So, bad actions can indeed come back to bite you; there is nothing to say they definitely will, but they can.
On the other hand if you are a good person, people can tell that too and they will open up their home to you and be kind to you. This has always helped me maintain my faith in people despite any unfortunate unfair things that happen to me as a lone traveller; I can see they are kind to me when they would not necessarily be like that to everyone. They say that they can “see it in my eyes”, and I say that they can see it in my body language, wording, hesitations and many other communicative clues that I drop without knowing.
To me the idea that we need some god to make us do the right thing is insulting. Can’t you be good because that is in itself inherently good because of basic rules of human interaction, and how you’d like to be treated in the same situation? No need for a reward in heaven or punishment in hell. Leaving a place better than when you got there, or making a person happier or better off is a reward in itself. This is the legacy we can all create as we interact with the world.
What about serendipity and the unlikely things that keep happening?
When you travel, then a lot of very strange things start to happen to you. Unlikely events that you can’t seem to explain away by chance. To many this feels like a force at play. There has to be some supernatural thing happening, because no explanation seems satisfactory.
But to me, this is just a huge misunderstanding of how chance truly works, and almost always involves ignoring essential information.
When you study Mathematical statistics, you really start to appreciate that our intuition on chance is actually quite flawed! A typical example is that you only require 23 people in a room to have a 50/50 chance that two of them share the same birthday (and just 57 for a 99% probability!). When you first hear this it sounds unbelievable, as our intuition tells us it must be a 23 in 365 (6.3%) chance, but that’s simply not the case when you work it out taking everything into consideration (such as the fact that you check each person against everyone, and then the next person against everyone and add up these separate probabilities)
Our inefficient understanding of chance is ideally suited to the small amount of circumstances a tribal people are likely to meet, but by travelling you are opening yourself up to so many possible experiences, that eventually unlikely things happening are actually very likely.
That last sentence may seem like a complete contradiction, but let me put it this way; I have run into people that I already know completely at random at the most unexpected places across the planet. This may feel like there is some destiny or collective human consciousness or telepathy or god at play to many. Why, the chance of me running into someone I already know in some random point on a huge planet like ours may be some microscopically tiny number for sure. That’s in general. But that ignores a lot of crucial data.
For instance, I’m not actually going to ever find myself in 99% of the surface of the earth as it’s too hard or dangerous to get to, or too cold/hot/dry/wet or even just uninteresting. There are certain places where people are more likely to end up, like populated cities. There are certain places within those cities (or tourist trails outside of cities) where travellers are more likely to end up, like tourist spots, expat hangouts, local hangouts known to expats if you want to meet locals, events that are attractive to your age-group and so on.
This makes the number of places where you may find yourself a lot lower than you think. Still very high for sure, but low enough such that if you travel long enough, in places that other travellers also go to, then statistically you simply have to run into someone you know eventually. It feels like magic when it happens, but it’s just the laws of probability at play.
I like Couchsurfing’s motto of “The world is smaller than you think”. Couchsurfing is one example of a network that I’m a part of – I also know other travel bloggers, language learners, and people who are a part of other specific social groups. When you combine that more restricted group of people with the other restrictions in where you may likely end up when travelling, then how can you not bump into someone you know, or at least part of that tight group or having a friend or experience in common, when you travel long enough?
Whenever it happens, those I meet feel like there is some magic that brought us together. I think on the other hand that the very fact that I travel, opens up my world of opportunities. I find that my “reality distortion field” expands my range of experiences by very simply being open minded to trying new things and exposing myself to as many new people as I can.
For the four years that I studied in university and almost never went out, I didn’t open myself up to new and interesting experiences, and as such can’t recall any interesting serendipity or crazy stories. By travelling I have to open myself to many new possibilities, so I am simply expanding the window on the things that can happen to me; many of which will be wonderful and unlikely at the time, but that something interesting happening being likely overall.
A huge misunderstanding of applying chance is to think of just a particular occurrence. The chances of me meeting a specific person in a specific place at a specific time are indeed puny, but the chances of me meeting someone I know, somewhere in the world with enough time passing are very much run-of-the-mill.
Travel and see the world, and you will indeed have wonderful and serendipitous experiences. I love it when these quirky moments happen, but they don’t make me wonder about my psychic powers to gravitate people towards me, or anything of the sort. They just confirm my belief that us humans have a lot more in common than we think. We are likely to think of the same great songs, on rare occasions at the same time, we are likely to visit the same places, and we are likely to think similar thoughts. How similar we truly are is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned on the road.
I think this is fantastic in itself, without requiring any supernatural cause. I wrote about my understanding of how luck works in more detail here.
Isn’t it depressing?
The thing about travelling alone is that you can indeed be truly alone; I have found myself in many situations where I literally don’t have a friend in the world within thousands of kilometres. It can be a very sobering thought. Some could get some consolation in these situations that they are being “watched over” by a higher power, and I obviously don’t do that. I don’t get lonely however, because of my matter-of-fact way of looking at things.
I don’t believe that any destiny is leading me in any particular direction, but that I have to take care of myself and make sure I expose myself to as many friendly people as possible so that the range of kindness I do receive increases.
When times are rough, I don’t look up to the sky and ask why I’m being forsaken, and I don’t pray. I try to do something tangible that can improve my situation, and then I may indeed get out of it and live to tell the tale.
Religious people have suggested that this world view is depressing; why imagine there’s no heaven! I do think it’s easy to think yourself into a negative spiral of depression when times are rough, but rather than offer some cheery thought about how a universe without good people being rewarded for all eternity is “better” (it wouldn’t be; that is a nicer thought, although wishful thinking doesn’t make it any more real), I very simply try to not think about such negative things. I don’t see the point; every moment I think about the afterlife or lack thereof is time wasted in this life.
Whether there is one or not, my thinking about it for countless hours is not going to change the fact. Worrying is about as effective as “trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing gum”.
I only have one life, and I intend to use it wisely; living it, experiencing many things, meeting many wonderful people, increasing my chances of interesting things happening to me, trying to make a place a little better when I leave it, maybe inspiring a few people with this blog, and doing whatever else I can to leave a real mark in the world. That will be my “legacy”.
The physical world in front of us and the many incredible and infinite numbers of opportunities open to us is why I refuse to get depressed that bad things happen to good people, by making sure that I’m not a part of those bad things.
Many interesting points of view
But once again, I don’t like to call myself an atheist, and think even the sound of the word humanist feels more appropriate to my world view. The fact that I have mentioned it so little on the blog should show you that not being religious is hardly a philosophy in life, the same way that not being a stamp collector is hardly a hobby.
My philosophy is that the tangible world we can all agree is in front of us is a fantastic thing, without needing any extra wonder to spice it up. As Douglas Adams once said: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
My matter-of-fact understanding of the world has helped me to live my life better. The world follows particular rules, such as social, psychological, biological ones, and by trying to be aware of these rules that I know definitely are applied, or trying my best to understand those rules, I can work with them to make sure that I can live a full life, meet fascinating people, make a real difference, or even just have a fun and interesting life.
Having said all this, I never feel the need to “convert” people, and the very idea would make my cultural integration almost impossible, especially when I travel in countries where people are very religious and likely to have a narrow mind about those who aren’t, and would be better judging me for the kind of person I am, and how I interact with them.
I’ve spent time with a Buddhist monk, attended weddings in several countries, and had many kind people offer their prayers for me. The validity behind such acts or ways of life (note that Buddhism is not considered strictly a religion by many, but it is a set of rituals and a certain belief system) may not be so strong for me, but it gives meaning to many people and I don’t take away from that or try to force my philosophies on them.
While there are definitely many aspects of how those in power with religious agendas influence the real world I can’t ever agree with (restricting gay rights, delaying abortion legislation, preventing contraceptives from getting to poorer countries etc.), this is never a good reason to get angry with individual religious people, who are genuinely trying to make sense of the world as best as they can. Respect and an open mind coming from both sides is by far the best way forward.
Having said that, I do hope that more people will appreciate how wonderful the world we live in is, and how we are better striving for creating a “heaven” on earth by opening barriers between cultures, and generally trying to get along with one another. While you may disagree with me, I think a humanist appreciation of the world leads to this being much easier, and a little travel could open your eyes to how wonderful humans truly are.
The fact that amazing things have logical explanations does not take away from the fact that they can inspire awe and make us appreciate the world all the more.
Let me know what your thoughts on this are in the comments below!