This past weekend was Thanksgiving up here in Canada, which for me was pleasantly spent at my aunt and uncle’s place. They let me sleep on the couch and fed me delicious food, and got some of the family together for Thanksgiving dinner. On the whole, it was great, other than the fact that I was tired pretty much the whole time. I’m not even sure why.
But of course, Thanksgiving is always a time to reflect on the things for which one is thankful – which is, coincidentally, why it has that name. I always have so much to be thankful for, though of course, I don’t always act that way. I have a loving and supportive family, some great friends, and a great deal of privilege living as a white middle-class male in a democratic Western country in the 21st century. These are all things that I often take for granted, yet they are all important parts of who I am. And when I reflect, I am always grateful for these things.
But this year, I am also thankful for something more general. I am glad to be human. That might seem sort of an odd thing to say. After all, if I weren’t human, I wouldn’t even be able to express my thankfulness. If I were some other sort of animal, I guess I might be able to be glad to be a dog, or a horse, or a caterpillar, or a chimpanzee. But humans have such a rich field of experience that it doesn’t seem animals encounter. We have art, and culture, and science. We have the ability not just to see the moon, but to travel to it, and we have the ability to look at things at a microscopic level as well. We’ve explored our planet, and organized it, and cataloged it, and changed it in ways (both good and bad) that other animals could never even dream of doing. We have the ability to reason, and imagine, and ask, “Why?” We think about purpose and creativity and knowledge and we even think about our own thinking. Yes, there is much to be thankful for when our humanity is considered.
Yet I find that religion likes to destroy this. When faced with the knowledge of our own humanity, too often the response is, “Not good enough.” With many religions, humanity is an unfortunate mistake to be overcome. Christianity says we are riddled with sin, Islam says we are proud and ungrateful, and Buddhism says we are ignorant. To be sure, we have our failings. I would not dare dispute that we are not perfect. But we are still human. And human is all we can be. To say that our best is not good enough is to say that humanity is a curse. And this is something I cannot accept.
The odds have certainly been stacked against us. We live in a universe that is largely empty – a vacuum that would kills us within seconds were we to go unprepared for the trip. We live on a planet that is prone to disasters of all sorts, from tornadoes and hurricanes to earthquakes and volcanoes. On top of this, we live with animals which would like to eat us and other animals which would like not to be eaten. For the vast majority of our existence on earth, we have struggled to survive in a constantly changing environment that is all to ready to leave us behind if we fail to keep up. And yet, despite these odds, we have not only survived, but flourished. This flourishing has brought its own share of problems, of course (overcrowding, food scarcities, disease, etc.), but regardless of the consequences, we have flourished in a way that is uniquely human. We have done it through ingenuity, through the manufacture and manipulation of tools, through the impressive alteration of the world around us, and through the sustenance of knowledge using language and culture. The task before us was monumental, and our success was unlike anything ever witnessed from another species. This is our legacy and our heritage. This is our human nature. And for good or bad, this is who we must be.
But religion attempts to change all this. By denying who we are, it is said that we will attain something better. There never is anything better. The benefits we generate are still products of human nature, for we are human. I reject any notion that religion brought us charity, or love, or morality, or reason, or justice. These are things that thinking and caring men and women brought to us. We human beings can create value, and these values are our creations. But religion can also be blamed for great evils. Tyranny, oppression, subjugation, slavery, injustice, hatred, and irrationality. These, of course, are all part of the human condition as well, and cannot be divorced from who we are. Religion, as a tool, can be used to further the ends of both the good and the evil. But the denial of human nature that religion can produce is an evil all unto its own.
I can be proud of the incredible benevolence that humans can exude. I can also be ashamed of the terrible misery that humans can inflict. But there can be no reason for me to deny the very thing that I am in favour of some vague promise to become something better. The benefits that result from religion in this world are completely explainable as the actions of genuine, caring individuals. The rest of the benefits are merely hypothetical benefits, placed in some inaccessible afterlife for which no evidence can ever be provided. If human nature is to be superseded, it will be in a place that can never be seen from earth, and from which one can never return. As such, it is meaningless for us here and now. Our human nature is our heritage, and instead of holding out hope for a different sort of nature, we need to embrace the one we have now.
Humanity can certainly be improved upon. It is as simple (theoretically) as producing more of the things we value, and producing less of the things we do not. When we value love and compassion, we must therefore produce more of these. When we despise hatred and intolerance, we must therefore produce less of these. But none of this denies our own nature. It is merely an improvement of what we already have – something which humans have already shown to be possible throughout our history. Instead of substituting our nature entirely, we need to move closer to an ideal humanity which lends itself to a harmony of values and a flourishing of human potential.
So let us not discard our humanity like a dirty rag. It is surely worth far more than that. To do so is to deny who we are and who we inevitably must be. Instead, let us embrace it, and be thankful for the ability to improve upon ourselves. That is the first step to becoming a being who is whole and complete.