Godless Ethics

Good Without God by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed by leading atheists with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness. In some sense, he is playing the role of a modern Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor who is trying to find consensus between the religious and the secular world.

It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

I get the sense that he thinks the creation of humanists organizations that look and function like churches, synagogues, or mosques will somehow make humanism more “competitive” or more attractive or perhaps even more palatable to the skeptics or the indecisive. It reminds me of vegetarians and vegans who eat foods that are considered meat substitutes because they crave meat but won’t eat it. I think humanists can find community and social interaction outside organizations that look and sound like religious ones. In fact, I would venture to say that plenty of believers find their most meaningful connections outside their religious circles.

This is a very accessible book that is well written, thoughtful, and completely unoffensive to left-leaning, progressive readers. Evangelicals and other orthodox or fundamentalist faithful will hate it. There is no doubt that Epstein was very encouraged by the election of Obama, which occurred one year before the book was published. For people who were raised in strong religious environments but now find themselves in the camp with agnostics or even atheists, Epstein’s conclusions can be reaffirming, perhaps even comforting

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Deciding Where To Stay

A significant part of the expense of traveling is the cost of lodging, especially if you are in a large city or a popular destination.  It really is worth the time and effort to find a place that suits your needs and fulfills your expectations.  Sometimes hotels are the best option, especially if you are staying for only a night or two.  There are times when the hotel itself may be what attracted you in the first place, which was the case when my wife and I decided to spend our most recent anniversary weekend at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel in Atlanta.  We looked forward to having dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, hanging out in the bar, and relaxing in a plush bed covered in sheets that, in retrospect, must have been imported from Turkey.  We also stayed in an over-the-top place when we visited Carmel, California.  The name would suggest a cheesy roadside motor lodge, but our room at Tickle Pink Inn had a small balcony looking out over the rocky cliffs of the Pacific and was equipped with a canopy bed and word-burning fireplace.  It was incredible, even for the one night we were there.  We don’t usually splurge like that, but in both cases, the experience was worth the extra money.  And, the experience is what we’re really after when we travel.

If your travels take you to major cultural centers, such as large cities or places of historical significance, then I suggest skipping the hotels and seeking out accommodations that will permit you to be immersed in the locale.  This option is especially preferable if you plan to stay for more than two nights.  It would appear that more travelers are embracing this idea with the rapid rise in popularity of Airbnb, VRBO, and many other agencies that provide listings of homes, apartments, villas, condos, and cabins for rent.  If you want a taste of what it is like to live in a particular place, then staying in a neighborhood or borough or barrio among the people who do actually live there is the best choice, especially if you are in an area where the language and customs are quite different from your own.  Shopping in local markets, eating in nearby cafes, strolling the streets and the parks, and taking in the local entertainment affords you the opportunity to get more integrated with the surroundings, to embrace your temporary milieu.

On our recent trip to Paris, my wife and I stayed in a lovely studio apartment in Le Marais, a trendy historic district that spreads across parts of the 3rd and 4th arrondissements.  The area was in terrible shape by the 1950s but was revitalized in the 1960s and is now the section of the city known for a high concentration of Jewish residents and also of gay and lesbian Parisians. It also hosts some of the most popular small, independent clothing and fashion shops in Paris.  We found out about this particular apartment from a friend in the states who had stayed there the previous summer and loved it.  So did we.  Our fourth-floor room was tucked away in a collection of early twentieth-century buildings between a busy thoroughfare and a side street about two blocks from the right bank of the Seine River.  The first floors of several of the buildings housed offices that looked out to a lovely courtyard, and the whole complex was somewhat secured by combination-code locked gates.  One of the entrances was less than fifty yards from a Metro station, which was most convenient.  Our apartment had a fair-sized bathroom and a small kitchen in addition to a spacious (by European standards) bedroom/sitting area.  It was accessible by a circular wooden staircase that wound its way around an elevator shaft with a car just large enough for two people with healthy BMI frames — it was tiny by American standards but typical for Paris.  The only times we used the elevator were to haul our luggage up when we arrived and back down when we departed.

Apartment complex courtyard
Apartment complex courtyard

We walked to one of the local markets as soon as we got settled into our apartment and bought all the provisions we would need for the five days we were staying in Paris.  That grocery shopping experience alone is worth another blog entry — a human comedy.  We walked to local bistros several nights that were quaint and wonderful.  We had breakfast almost every morning at a little bakery just a quick walk down the street.  The chocolate-banana pastries were like edible heaven.  We were within easy walking distance of the Seine, Notre Dame, and several museums, including the Picasso Museum and the Bastille.  On our last morning in Paris we strolled down to the Seine and walked up and down the banks of the river.  Other than the shopkeepers and other people who provided us with assistance, I don’t think we ever heard a single word of English while we were in the neighborhood where we were staying, which is such an important part of the experience of traveling to a foreign country.  From the window of our room we could hear people talking and laughing at the café four floors below our windows.  We could hear children playing on the sidewalks.  We could hear people going to and coming home from work or school.  For a brief time, we almost felt like Parisians — well, a little.  Do yourself a favor.  On your next trip, find a place to stay in a great neighborhood and soak up the atmosphere you find there.

Views from our windows in Paris