Freethought Perspectives: Lives of Purpose

The following was presented in the Houston Church of Freethought by Arthur A. Fay, Nov. 12, 2006.

I have wrestled with this phrase “lives of purpose” and how to address it as I attempt to try and give you what it is about this life that I value and what makes me happy. I finally decided as a man of 63 years of age and retired earlier than expected, I maybe should begin with today. Hopefully, I will be able to give you enough information of how I got here so you might at least know me better and maybe add a bit to your view of Freethought.

First, in the couple of years since retiring, I appreciate time as never before. It seems my life has been a gigantic merry-go-round since early childhood, and suddenly, all that changed when I was handed a severance check and forms to fill out for receiving a pension. I truly appreciate the phrase “time to smell the coffee” as that exactly captures the essence of what I am trying to say. Before, I rushed around with busy schedules and career concerns; now, I take each day (even each hour) one at a time, and try and enjoy all of them. This has enabled me to read at my leisure, learn new stuff on the computer that interests me and that are not just demands of a job, and best of all, I barely remember what commuting on clogged highways each morning and evening was like.

And there are a lot of other things I value more today than ever before. Nancy, my wife who practically saved my life in the mid-seventies, brings me complete joy. Of all the wonderful experiences she has brought me, that smile in the morning or whenever she re-enters the house is worth more than gold.

Today, I value watching my two stepchildren and my son conduct rational and productive lives. One of my greatest joys has been their telling me that my influence and values have contributed to some of their successes in life.

I thoroughly enjoy my life today. And I really think one of the reasons it is possible is the fact that the values I have held for about forty years are valid, consistent, and dare I say, universal. I’m certain of them, yet it is also true I could be wrong. And that, for me, is the essence of a Freethinker, i.e. sound conclusions always subject to rational revision.

In my EARLY YEARS, my values began forming in childhood, as often is the case. There were two main sources- society and parents. I absorbed them relatively uncritically, again as many people do. Through exposure to the Methodist Church, neighborhood friends, schools, and parental input, I was a sponge soaking up all manner of values and mores.

My earliest memories of the beginning of critical thinking began in my early teens when I began resisting church and Sunday school. I was instinctively offended by admonitions that I was basically unworthy and could only become worthy with subservience to an invisible and incomprehensible being. Those attitudes made no sense to me, and they soon led to my being able to skip the further stifling experience of church.

In my later teens, I began thinking more and more about the things I was learning in school about history, science, and literature. Still, I emerged from high school thinking Jesus was probably the Son of God, and somewhere there had to be a plausible explanation of everything. Yes, I thought God was there, but it still didn’t make sense.

As a YOUNG ADULT in my early 20s, I bumped into my first “epiphany” (“a sudden intuitive leap of understanding, especially through an ordinary but striking occurrence”). And that was the realization that everything we perceive as “existence” does not require a cause. This experience began with the familiar “first cause” argument, and I sum it up with the phrase, “Time is IN the universe; the universe is not in time.”

You all know the first cause argument. God is proposed as the first cause. What, then, created God? “God does not require a cause,” it is said. Then how is it existence requires a cause? A cause either exists or it doesn’t. If it exists, it is part of existence. If it doesn’t exist, it cannot be a cause. Therefore, existence has always existed in one form or another, and that gives the word “eternal” meaning.

This realization happened to me in 1963 when I was 20 years old. Within the next couple of years, and with this fundamental view of existence, I was able to make sense about virtually everything.

My second “epiphany” occurred shortly after the first when I realized man has a specific nature, and that is the fact he has a brain, and the functioning of that brain on a conceptual level is essential to his survival.

Man is not given an automatic means of survival like that of plants, ants, and birds. With relatively few exceptions (like chimpanzees), man survives strictly through cognition and abstract thinking. And regardless of whatever claims to the contrary, cognition is volitional. It is a choice. And this is the true meaning of the much-aligned concept known as free will. Science is beginning to discover many aspects of how the brain functions, and I welcome this inquiry. Yet I firmly think, in the end, we all know we consciously make decisions to take actions, and these decisions can be changed at any time with further thought and new information.

Parts of this “epiphany” lead me to a profound concept: freedom. Most people accept this concept as “a good thing,” but not everyone has any particular basis for thinking so. Rational thought, which leads logically to rational actions, requires the condition of freedom, which is the absence of force, in order for them to take place.

Suddenly, all of my knowledge of history and philosophy fell into place. Freedom is the basis of science, the Enlightenment, and the virtues and values in the founding of this nation, the United States of America. So at age 25, I possessed philosophical knowledge that has served me well for about 40 years now.

This brings me to 1968 and what I consider the true beginning of my ADULT YEARS. Recall some of the events of that year. There was the Tet Offensive in the Viet Nam War. We lost Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Lyndon Johnson decided not to run. And that was the year I destroyed my draft card. I realized a free man not only cannot be coerced into giving up his life, but SHOULD NOT be forced to do so. Not recognizing the fundamental concept that man owns his own life makes totalitarianism possible. If a society cannot convince someone to sacrifice his life on rational grounds, it doesn’t deserve to survive. Conscription is slavery, and I would have no part of it.

The 70s, 80s, and 90s were filled with productive efforts, mostly in energy industries. I am gratified that they enabled me to provide a decent living. And I have always been proud that all along the way, I was always considered competent, but above all, trustworthy for providing insight with integrity.

The values I have been describing formed the basis of my work ethic. I realized there’s nothing more rational or practical than people exchanging values on a voluntary basis. This is the value of America. This is the value human survival. And this brings me back to today.

Returning to TODAY (AGAIN) I do have a few regrets. Let me mention one. I am not always as patient as I should or want to be. I sense the rapid passing of time, and the fact this life truly is very, very short in the scheme of things. And with not a scintilla of evidence that our sentient nature survives its dependence on a physical existence, our lives are a very precious commodity. So part of my happiness today rests on the knowledge that my conscious existence, is indeed, very precious.

I would like to close with a comment about atheism today. We are witnessing for the first time in my experience, some excellent spokespersons in Richard Dawkins, David Eller, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett. I cringe at times with other atheists criticizing minor points while ignoring the importance of hearing in the public media what is for them, if not radical ideas, at least rational challenges to theism.

Finally, I see signs that the ancient societal taboo against open examination of some of the principles of religion may be beginning to crumble. I hope so. If 9/11 had any meaning at all to truly free and rational people, it is that religion can have a very pernicious effect. And if we don’t soon learn effective means of challenging such people, all rational concepts will have no longer have meaning. We will no longer exist.