Catechism for Atheists

Phillip Adams

Phillip Adams is a well known Australian radio broadcaster, journalist, writer and superb critical thinker. The following is a speech he made at a University Graduation ceremony in Australia. Instead of the traditional Ten Commandments he proposes 12 new lifestyle choices for humanity.

1. Thou shalt not worship false gods.

The ones I’ve in mind are technology and the economy. There was a time when the economy served people. It was designed to give them jobs and wages arid, except when things went wrong, as in depressions, optimism. Now the economy is omnipotent and omniscient, requiring millions of blood sacrifices. We are destined, doomed to grease its mighty axles with our tiny lives. And playing Gog to Magog there are new technologies to assist your total surrender, their tentacles invading every nook and cranny of your life. Yield to them if you must, but please don’t worship them. Now, famous writers will tell you cyberspace is a spiritual realm that the new technologies, by interconnecting human consciousness, are bringing God Into being. (He didn’t exist, doesn’t exist, but will exist by the time the Internet is in full flower.) How odd that cyberspace seems to be about downloading porn, buying junk from the vast dotcom shopping mall and visiting hate pages run by raving bigots.

2. Thou shalt not fear death.

This is a big change. Over the millenniums, religions have insisted you do so. As an atheist, I believe we already know death well, that the death after life is identical to the oblivion that preceded it to those millions of years prior to birth, characterised by the same lack of light, colour, taste or sensation. Whereas religions postulate a smorgasbord of hereafters, including one wherein people simmer for billions of years in molten brimstone. Forget it. In the future you will live forever because your personality, no matter how enfeebled by years staring at a computer screen, will be immortalised. You’ll simply jump ship, downloading your consciousness on to a floppy. Behold, the digital eternity.
3. Don’t bother dying in the first place.

The Australian writer Damien Broderick is among many who tell me that I belong to the last generation who’ll find it necessary to kick the bucket. Whereas you, dear graduates, belong to the first generation whose boots need not come into contact with that battered receptacle. So you may not require the digital afterlife previously mentioned because you’re going to benefit from the Human Genome Project that will allow you to linger on for centuries. You will have a lot of time on your hands which, oddly enough, leads to the fourth suggestion, which is, despite all the extra time…
4. Don’t waste it.

I’ve long found the thought of mortality useful. It’s something of an aphrodisiac to know how quickly your time is running out. Which is why I’ve always had five or six careers running in parallel. Pack it in, that’s my motto. So I don’t waste time with TV soaps, cricket, football, the sporting pages, Alan Jones or Padriac McGuinness. It’s better to use your time to think, and to think for yourselves. Not because you’re paid to think. Not because it might lead to promotion or a Nobel Prize. Think because thinking is one of the two ultimate pleasures, more orgasmic than sex. Discover something. Olympic organisers do not know – that tossing ideas around is far more exhilarating than hurling discuses, putting shots or heaving javelins. And thought wins over sport in another important regard. You can do it longer. I know people over 30 still actively thinking. Try that with marathon running.

5. Fall in love.

Do so frequently and with abandon. Falling in love is the most exhilarating. agonising, wonderful, woeful experience that flesh is heir to, while the symptoms are similar to flu, do not ask for antibiotics. Better to let the fever ravage you. Or, rather, ravish you. At no stage in life will your perceptions be as heightened as when you are overwhelmed by love. If you’re not in love, please correct this by the end of the ceremony.

6. Worry about someone else.

You are probably weighed down by neuroses, anxieties and self-pity. The best way to deal with them isn’t to rush off to a therapist or to pop Prozac. To minimise the miasma of personal anxieties, it’s good to help people with more problems than you. Work with street kids. Get involved with Aboriginal land rights. Wave placards at the Prime Minister. Rush off to Davos or Seattle and menace multinationals. In short, help society while we still have one.

7. Do not be fashionable.

The world is full of people who have yielded to fashism. That’s f-a-s-h-i-s-m, the fascism of fashion. This can, involve haircuts, nipple piercing, designer clothing, political ideologies, experiments in gender, philosophies, religions and modes of literary criticism. Remember, fashions have ever-briefer shelf lives. Yoghurt lasts longer than most modish theories. To avoid being covered by intellectual mould, keep your distance. Identification with a fashion will give a sort of evanescent relevance. You may briefly glow. But you’ll finish up as dead as the dodo or Derrida.

Here follows a grab bag of optional commandments or suggestions or lifestyle choices you may wish to download on to your floppy:

8. Be curious.

This will ensure your education will not end with today’s triumphs but begin with them. Remember, absolutely everything is interesting.

9. Be sceptical.

This is utterly different from cynicism. Apply scepticism to everything you hear or read or see on the telly. Be particularly sceptical of experts, whether anointed or self-appointed, and of politicians.

10. Be enormously amused.

It is our triumph and tragedy that we are the only creatures fully conscious of their mortality. This gives us three things: life insurance policies, spirituality and a sense of humour. Given a choice between the spiritual and the humorous, go for humour every time as, unlike religion, laughter hasn’t been responsible for the deaths of millions. But always remember: it’s a good idea to laugh at yourself.

11. Do as little damage as possible.

“First, do no ill.” This scrap of the Hippocratic oath seems universally applicable. At the end of life, or just before a voltage surge wipes out the digital you on the floppy, look back o’er the vista that was you and you may find that you’ve been comparatively harmless.

12. Be glad to be alive.

The odds against winning lotto are what? A million to one? The odds against us being here today, because of the big bang billions of years ago, are trillions to one, whatever happens to you, you’ve already won first prize simply by existing. It’s tantamount to winning lotto every day, and with all respect to this fine institution, that’s far more important than your degree. Because no matter how crook things get, life, which so many take for granted and consequently waste, may be the most interesting phenomenon in the universe. And there isn’t a lot of life around. Even the most optimistic cosmologist knows it’s rare even life at its most basic, at the level of the amoeba or the polyp. Life on this jewel of a planet, in this beautiful and still not entirely stuffed-up country, is a billion times more precious than the biggest salary package or the highest share price. So react to life with joy, gratitude and passion.