I’m getting the sense that atheism in these parts (’round this url) is not as, shall we say “taken for granted” as it is in my usual conversations. A good number of my usual conversations take place in my head, the ones that involve other people are still usually in New York City, and failing that, often in universities, and in any number of reform religious temples and churches that invite me to speak, i.e. I go from one den of atheism to another. I’m surrounded by secularism and never find myself in a conversation about what I would think if I met up with someone on Sunday who I had buried on Friday. My answer to that is that this sort of thing doesn’t happen. We are animals on a ball of dirt and if you look at us and all the other animals with a little perspective, what seems self-evident seems true.
The kind of atheism conversations I am going around starting are about how we feel about all of this. As I suggested in my first post, I do not believe individuals have to create meaning for themselves. I think saying people do have to do this is a bit of a wrong turn. I ask you to grant that nature is extraordinary and that so is culture; and meaning is embedded in the community, in our natural and cultural togetherness.
As I also mentioned in my first post, my particular form of radicalism, if you will, is called Poetic Atheism. I am not in the least against science, indeed, one aspect of Poetic Atheism is to pay attention to the celebrations of science that have been made by artists and writers who really knew how to stoke up some awe or translate a moment of natural transcendence into something articulable and even more fully memorable. But Poetic Atheism does poke a little fun at science. My PhD is in the history of science (Columbia, 1995) and if the philosophy of science is about how science works, it is not untrue to say that the history of science is about how science doesn’t work, or rather how it is a cultural production and, like all cultural productions, a lot of it changes over time in waves of fashion. The hard sciences are obviously more durable, but even medicine, which features a great deal of experiment and measurement, changes its mind about everything every few decades and it is all a lot more kaleidoscopic than linear progress. There’s just no good reason to set science up, all by itself, against religion. You want your friend’s cancer treatment to be up to date, up to the minute, but you read Sappho at your wedding – art can be thousands of years old and still stir a community and move people to tears. You may love the Renaissance but you don’t want to use their toilet paper or take their doctors’ advice. The art still does work, though, strong as the day it was made.
Much of what religion used to do for people, after all, has also gone on in the humanities, without God, all throughout history. Almost all the best poets wrote without recourse to the supernatural – that is why they were poets, they were knocking their heads against the questions of meaning and life and death given the world as it evidently presents itself to us, (as even the Bible tells us): “Dust to dust” and “All is vanity.”
When someone prays in Shakespeare’s plays something bad follows quickly after. The Bard solves nothing with Jesus. He says we are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little lives are rounded with a sleep. That is not Christian theology, it is secular philosophy, poetic philosophy. John Keats does not, upon seeing the first specks of blood in his coughing handkerchief, begin writing Odes to Mother Mary. He says instead “When I have fears that I may cease to be…” when he is tortured by the thought of missing life as a celebrated poet, and missing love and family, he doesn’t throw himself before an altar, but rather goes down to the beach to stare at the ocean and think “til love and fame to nothingness do sink.” Natural beauty (and science beauty and its attendant oddly-unifying cosmic awe), and art, the very art of the poem, are historically sufficient to float the human heart across the sea of life’s troubles. Of course, it only works if you are aware of it. That’s where Poetic Atheism comes in, as my proselytizing is really just a vehicle for the delights of secular culture.
I shall soon return with another classic poem dear to the atheist’s heart – something perhaps about the delightful permanence of impermanence (I’m thinking Shelley but also have a think on how long those Gettysburgian lines about being forgotten have gotten remembered, I envision a posthumous wink from Lincoln just thinking about it)? Or should it be some solace for the grief?
Catcha on the flip