On the one-year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the question of "good" and "bad" people weighs heavily on this humanist's mind, especially in the wake of a recent robbery at gunpoint.

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On Wednesday night, I was robbed at gunpoint—an efficient affair, and my second time since moving to Colombia in 2018. Both times, I’d made the mistake of relaxing my guard because there were others around me; this time, I was on my home turf, a block from my building, with neighbours strolling ahead of and behind me. One can’t plan for everything, but I’m still ruefully chuckling at myself for a mistake I would never have made if walking alone.

This time, I’d noticed in advance the fellow who would fling an arm around my neck, press a pistol to my temple, and demand my phone. It was just fifty-fifty as to whether, while he appeared to be taking a wee by a nearby wall, his eyes were casting about because he was afraid of turning his back to the sidewalk, where his bike could easily have been nicked, or if he was up to no good himself. With a couple walking a little ahead of me, and a couple walking a little behind, I erred toward the former and kept going between them. On my own, I would have hung way back until he was “finished”, or even walked into the nearby highway to stay well-lit and at a distance. That overconfidence cost me my smartphone—but thankfully nothing more.

When I say that it was an “efficient affair”, I’m also speaking to a facet of this robbery that made it far less upsetting than it might have been, because I find that the most dangerous characters are the ones who flash a weapon in an altered state of mind; you can’t tell if they will do something awful, because they aren’t in full control of their actions. Meanwhile, the usual armed robber wants as low effort an interaction as possible. And this one certainly did.

I also immediately felt sorry for this one, because even as he’d pressed his body against mine to demand my phone, it was painfully obvious how scrawny he was. Without that pesky gun, I’d fleetingly thought, I could probably have held my own in a scrap for my belongings. Ultimately, I passed a few unpleasant seconds with him—seconds where he’d endangered my life, if his pistol actually worked—but I also knew that his life was far more unpleasant than mine in general, if this was how he was spending it: namely, with a high risk of dying after jumping the wrong would-be victim, or in an argument with others in his difficult circles.

Reacting to bad events

After being attacked, it’s quite normal for some to be angry—hormone levels spike when we’re in crisis—and to be angry expressly at the attacker. Scum of the earth! Worst of the worst! If the police ever find him, they’d better go rough! Lock up his ilk forever and let them eat each other alive in prison!

I do not expect others to come fresh from being robbed contemplating the broader systems of poverty and income disparity that create such crisis points in the first place. Being made to feel helpless is the antithesis of humanist philosophy, and the trauma of having helplessness imposed on us takes time to be overcome.

But in the wake of my latest brush with imposed helplessness, I returned to a concept that a friend and I live out from different cosmologies. A popular behavioral researcher, Brené Brown, famous for work around the roles of shame and vulnerability in business, has a question she likes to raise when talking about people who anger or disappoint us, and people we generally feel are No Good:

How would our reactions change if we thought that if they were doing the best that they could do in that moment?

Dr. Brown is Christian, as is my friend—the sort of wholehearted Christianity that genuinely grounds some in the knowledge that caring for others is essential work and upholds the intrinsic value of all human beings. When Brown poses this question, and meets with pushback from the affronted party, she often adds “What if God told you that this person who infuriates you was doing the best they can?” Then the other person stops short, and really thinks through the consequences of that possibility.

As for me, a scientifically informed atheist, I don’t need a deity to reach the same end result. I know full well that we are biochemically driven organisms, and that our actions in any given moment come from probability spectrums of possible response shaped by past encounters working on our present context within a given environment.

This doesn’t mean that someone’s “best” is ever good enough—quite the opposite.

It means that when someone does something terrible, there’s quite possibly no more that they can do on their own to correct the habituated probability spectrum of response that led them to their terrible actions. They need some sort of environmental intervention to do differently going forward.

And ironically, the question itself is a form of environmental intervention—for us. For those consumed by instances of fellow humans who have hurt us, or disappointed us, or otherwise driven us to intense feelings of anger and disgust. The questions invites us to stop letting someone else’s poor conduct live rent-free in our heads.

Because what good does that serve, either?

How are we improved by being eaten away by the better choices we wish others had made?

Who are the ‘bad’ people?

One popular argument between schools of public Christianity and slices of the atheist world is whether being Christian or being atheist makes you a “worse” person.

On the surface, it seems a logical discourse: shouldn’t one strive to believe that which makes us the best version of ourselves?

But scratch that surface, and absurdity arises around the whole act of leveraging data about who’s better at charity (a complex comparison, because Christians donate to their churches, which can skew results in contestable ways), kindness, advocating for a more inclusive world, taking responsibility, and not landing in prison.

For one, this question often conflates correlation with causation; often, the same environmental factors that make one atheist make one less likely to be in contexts conducive to harmful behavior in the first place. Atheism is strongly associated with higher education and skews wealthier than many Christian demographics—especially the evangelizing ones. So the idea that if an atheist or a Christian were to suddenly swap perspectives, they’d automatically be better or worse people, completely ignores the underlying environments doing work on our behavior.

Also, this whole binary fixation on being “bad” or “good” people is strongly akin to the classic religious question, “Do you want to go to heaven or hell?” We atheists therefore fall into error when we react to Christian claims that we are bad people by retaliating on the flawed terms established by the accusation. Instead of leaping to “nuh uh, you’re the bad people”, we have an opportunity—as humanists especially—to challenge the whole premise of the question.

And we should.

Who are the “bad” people? Did they drop from the sky, magical beings with an essence that stands apart from Earthly manifestation? Or are they corporeal beings with concrete, knowable biochemistries being worked on by their environments?

And what kind of better world could we build if we started from the latter premise?

The true boon of humanist thinking amid such waste and sorrow is the agency it gives us not to fixate on that which we cannot change.

One year of war in Ukraine

A year ago today, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, we’ve seen some 200,000 known Russian military casualties, and some 100,000 known Ukrainian military casualties, along with around 30,000 civilian deaths, often incurred during brutal and widely disseminated war crimes including rape, torture, public execution, and mutilation after death. Right now, the world is bracing for what we’re given to understood is an impending escalation on Putin’s part. No end is sight.

Last year today, I couldn’t do much with my horror and my grief as the news reached me. A writer, I went to a nearby café, where I listened to locals singing vallenato while they worked, and wrote a poem inspired by W.B. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”. Auden’s piece, written in the aching onset of World War II, begins,

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Auden goes on to reflect on the competing cultural and ideological pressures at work on human beings, to drive them to such terrible ends. One famous section then reads

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

But Auden famously wavered in his drafts of this last line—sometimes “We must love one another or die”, other times “We must love one another and die”.

Because as much as we seek to recognize the humanity in one another, even and especially when those among us do such heinous things to fellow human beings, there is no guarantee that this understanding will ever fully prevent us from being harmed by one another. We can feel a fullness of compassion for those of us who would destroy us. We can look upon what their contexts have given them as choices, and what their habituated biochemical responses have made the most probable outcomes—and still, we may not be able to change a damned thing that other humans do.

What good, then, is this humanist ache, whether faced with a man who presses a pistol to your head over a cell phone, or a wave of humans who have taken up arms against whole others, and are willing to commit the worst crimes to achieve their ends?

Auden’s poem closes with lines that could just as easily have described our reactions, in a digital world, to the mess of war that’s worked on our biochemistry for a full year:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

His hope, in other words, isn’t to transform the whole of the human species with a clearer personal understanding of the forces that drive us all into lesser lives—because that is, indeed, what we humans are living through: lesser lives than we all could have had, if our systems had afforded everyone in them better options.

No—the only sure strength, the true boon of humanist thinking amid such waste and sorrow, is the agency it gives us not to fixate on that which we cannot change.

And to turn the rest of our brief flickers to the work of building a better environment for all the decisions humans have yet to make, in the hurting world ahead.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.