Now that the whole world is reeling from the metrical, game-theory approach adopted with enthusiasm by New Labour and others - the approach which states that human beings are simply selfish, decision-making machines and that all our actions, even those which appear to be entirely altruistic, are, at bottom, only performed to increase the chances of our genetic material being replicated - I thought that I would like to refresh my spirit a little bit.
I had earlier watched a programme about the Nazi air raids on the City of Bath in 1942. Very interesting. There were many eye-witness accounts including one about a certain Fireman Leonard Smith, a volunteer fireman who decided to report for duty, even though not on the roster for the evening when he left home, wife and children for the last time. He was engaged in fire-fighting at, I believe, the Assembly Rooms, when he was instructed to go to the Circus, a few yards away, to man the water pumps. There he was instantly killed by a German bomb, his remains only being identified some time later with the aid of his fireman's belt. There wasn't much else of him left. The programme pointed out that the crater could still be seen in the grassy centre of the Circus as a shallow depression.
So. I walked to the Circus to see the remains of this bomb crater and to pay a quiet tribute to a man who I simply cannot believe was simply a "selfish decision-making machine". If he was only motivated by an innate urge to replicate his genes, why would he leave his wife and children on that evening? Why would he go beyond the call of duty because "people might need him"? Not his genetic relatives. Just people.
The depression is still quite evident there in the Circus. That's where Fireman Smith met his end. And that's where I stood and thought of him.
As an atheist and rationalist, how can I explain this? Is there an explanation at all? Yes, of course there is. People are a complex and endlessly fascinating mixture. And people can be heroic and they can be good, and they certainly don't need to believe in magic sky men to be heroic and good. Fireman Smith would probably have said that he believed in god. Yet I do think that, even if he didn't, he would still have acted in the way which he did. And when we at last throw off the shackles of the magic sky men and their agents, people will be people, and that means often being heroic and good.