bookmark_borderFun with Poetic Atheism

Dear Bleaders,
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  

bookmark_borderA Thanksgiving Gift from Emily

Dear Bleaders,

“Faith” is a fine invention

When Gentlemen can see–
But Microscopes are prudent
in an Emergency.
A favorite of mine from Emily Dickinson, offered here as a little digestif to your worldly feasts. Happy Thanksgiving. (Reread the poem slowly as if Lauren Becall were saying it into your ear very dramatically with an almost full honey stop on every verb and use all four syllables for E-mer-gen-cy. Anyway, that’s just a serving suggestion, you can shoot it howsomever you like.)
We’re already back from our festivities — had to come back cause we have a puppy –well, she’s not really a puppy anymore. Most of you are probably not.
Having fun? Still it is nice to sneak off and check the internest……tumbleweed……., see what’s cookin’ at the Secular Outpost.
How’s those relatives working for you? If any one starts to bother you, just tell them your poet told you you don’t have to listen to this, and then eat more pie.
We took home leftovers. I’m going to go have a secular sandwich.
x Jennifer

bookmark_borderDown with Agnosticism

Dear Bleaders,

I’m against Agnosticism. I think it is hooey. Ancient Skepticism made the beautiful point that we are such imperfect sensing and thinking beings that we cannot really know anything; that everything true has an opposite that can also be argued; that true contradictions can be shown; and that irrational states of mind teach us that all states of mind are somewhat irrational– it’s always only one version of the truth. (This critique is true and solid. Science gets around it by dealing with what seems true to humans, just like common sense does. But it is still a beautiful truth.)
But Agnosticism isn’t pretty like that. Agnositicsm points this excellent truth about all epistomology, at one single target, the supernatural invention of one particular hairless ape, at one particular moment in its culture. We don’t know if Zeus exists? Uh, yeah we do. He doesn’t.
I have to give the Jewish Christian Muslim Father God the same respect I give Superman. Does this character exist? Um. No. I know when Superman was made up. Because I’m a historian, I know when God was made up too.
This thing about ‘I can’t prove there’s no God’ is not persuasive. Either you espouse true and full Skepticism, which is a robust philosophical position denying all knowledge, or you embrace Rationalism in which you are free to decipher the world based on evidence, evaluation of bias, vigilant sniffing against desire-driven delusions. True Skeptics cannot know anything, can barely trust the ground beneath our feet.
Rationalists do not need some special holding pen called “maybe despite all common sense” for every last un-evidenced thing someone reports. Rationalism bases conclusions on evidence, examines opposing proposals, tries to acquire a big perspective, and then takes a step toward knowledge. “I doubt, therefore I am,” is the first step, you don’t get to leap all the way to nonsense from there, but you do get to walk towards knowledge and take careful steps. The proposal that we can speak plainly about the existence of fairies and vampires but not God is absurd. There is no call to prove a negative. In rationalism you can dismiss a claim if there is no evidence for it, especially if it seems to be a very historically-specific claim, located in a particular culture, argued by people who admit they are frightened by the opposing conclusion, and no one can even agree on the claimed item’s attributes anyway.
The fact that life feels weird to humans proves exactly and only that life feels weird to humans. There is no reason to dismiss that weirdness (indeed I devote my life to the weirdness), but there is no reason to take it as evidence of something else, some tertiary being or force, called in to hold the weirdness and give it more meaning.
The notion of Agnosticism has no intellectual pedigree. Huxley made it up a hundred years ago, stating plainly that he was taking the idea from Catholic Fideism which was itself a crazy (I’d say mis)use of Ancient Skepticism to fight Protestantism, holding that since we cannot know anything, even whether God exists, let us choose to believe not only that he does, but that so must the Pope.
It is time we stopped using the term agnostic. If people want to retain it with the meaning “I personally have not yet made up my mind” that seems okay, but we have to stop parroting the notion that you “can’t prove a negative,” so you can’t be an atheist. It is not so. The argument is historical, not rational, indeed, not philosophically tenable.
What is more, I cannot say there are no unicorns because it is at least possible to have a horse with a horn or a one horned goat that happens to look like a horse, but I can say that a Pegasus does not exist because you would need wings the size of a football field to lift a horse. God is defined in negative theology as a being so unknowable to us that he “doesn’t exist” and when theologians become as subtle as this we know we are at least in interesting company, but if I go with all powerful, all good, and all knowing, and also ruler of a world like ours, with the cruelty, betrayal, torture, and heartache we have seen around here, well, that’s more of a Pegasus than a unicorn and it is reasonable to say, that Pegasus there, that does not exist.
Anyway that’s what I think. What do you think?

bookmark_borderPost the First, by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Dear Bleaders,
Hecht here. I’m new in these parts so will start with a few introductory introductions. To wit, I call anyone reading any blog I write my “bleader” for the obvious wordscrunch and also because I like reminding us that we are mortal. Also while often “breeder” means nesting heterosexual, blood is something many artists symbolically gush on the blank canvas of existence. So that’s you. I’m Jennifer. Jennifer Michael Hecht.
I used to blog a lot, over on the Best American Poetry site, and on my own weird little blog, “Dear Fonzie” so named because I admire both Arthur Schopenhauer and Arthur Fonzarelli and of the two of them I thought I could count on the Fonz to be a better listener. It’s hard to blog after the first thrill has worn off, so you really have to think about these things. What, I wondered, might set me in the mood for the world enough to chatter at her, and what I came to was the leathered arms of a bygone age, the curling scent of pomade, a little motorcycle love. I wrote odd things on that blog; posted curious photographs; indulged my predilection for funky diction. Then I decided to act my rum’s proof, not my shoe size, and start a serious blog which I called what I’ve long been calling my brand of radicalism: Poetic Atheism. But I only posted a few times before a penchant for not-posting overtook me and I took up with an orange ukulele. Youtube is teaching me how to play it. Up, down, chuck, up, down, chuck.
So what nut would guess, on the basis of this monument to entropy that is my blogging history, that I should sign on when asked to blog here, on the frontier, in the Secular Outpost? None. But I figured I’d say Yes now and think later on the principle that autumn demands action.
Then I read this memoir-essay by Jennifer Fulwiler on her trip from true teapot-mocking catholic-minded atheist to actual big-C Catholic believer and I wanted to say a few words and thought to myself: well now, self, why not sit yourself down and try to stay down till you’ve written something? And then, praise the baby jesus, I did. The trouble is, can I keep going? The temptation is to wander off to the kitchen or go play with the kids. But lookit, I have a full cup of coffee, no little sheep are bleating maa, so stay the hell with it. Right.
Here’s how JF opens her piece:
One thing I could never get on the same page with my fellow atheists about was the idea of meaning. The other atheists I knew seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we’re all nothing more than chemical reactions. I could never get there. In fact, I thought that whole line of thinking was unscientific, and more than a little intellectually dishonest. If everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death. And considering that the entire span of homo sapiens’ existence on earth wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen of a 5-billion-year-old universe, it seemed silly to pretend like the 60-odd-year life of some random organism on one of trillions of planets was something special. (I was a blast at parties.)
By simply living my life, I felt like I was living a lie. I acknowledged the truth that life was meaningless, and yet I kept acting as if my own life had meaning, as if all the hope and love and joy I’d experienced was something real, something more than a mirage produced by the chemicals in my brain. Suicide had crossed my mind — not because I was depressed in the common sense of the word, simply because it seemed like it was nothing more than speeding up the inevitable.
So yeah. I know, there’s a lot to say back to this, and who has the time, right? But the universe is nearly 14 billion years old and most people around here live to around eighty years. I’m just saying. But to get back to her.
She then marries a man who believes in God, an American Protestant, has a baby, and goes into a dark depression, specifically because she now has to cope with the *eventual* death of this beautiful child, as well as her own; then one morning she is looking at the baby and feels something a little transcendent, a little blip of an intimation of joy, and she follows it all the way to risk-my-life-to-avoid-contraception Catholicism.
I guess I read this essay in the first place because I have a ton of Facebonk friends who are atheists, because when you write a couple of books on atheism, atheists friend you on Facebonk, and so some of them posted links to this; which is why also you’ll see if you look that there are a ton of comments by atheists.
First thing I wanted to say was how a lot of the commenters said really fine sophisticated nuanced things in response. There were some Catholic defenders of the essay, with whom I shared some sympathy at times, but who seemed to be much more drawn to respond to the nasty comments than to the many subtle and considered responses (who had the benefit of being representatives of what seems to everyone to be the common sense truth, that thing about nature and atoms and no God).
Next I just wanted to say that unlike what might be called more materialist-minded atheists, I give a great deal of attention to questions like the ones JF raises above.
I believe the following formulation can be powerful help in sorting the problem: The feeling of meaning is sufficient to the definition of meaning.
I also do not believe that people have to make their own meaning. Meaning is a fierce presence. It comes from the fact of each other; it is human. You wouldn’t try to understand the meaning of a mole rat by holding one blind furry beast to the light, because they live in packs and are as organized as ants or the PTA. This is true even if you have never joined anything like the PTA. You are an ant. You are one of us. As I’ve said elsewhere, you do violent harm to the community if you kill yourself, there are tons of stats to prove it. I don’t want to stray to far from my topic here, but I believe that this insight constitutes a moral injunction, which is to say I have come up with a secular argument against suicide.
A hundred years ago Durkheim said the feeling we get in religious crowds, that we say is God, is in fact a powerful something outside ourselves, but it is the community, not something supernatural, that gives us these real experiences of the natural transcendent.
In all my books, but perhaps especially Doubt: A History, and The Happiness Myth, I talk about the blip of transcendent joy to which we humans ar
e occasionally privy, and how we might follow it without losing too much common sense.
The thin tendrils of the joyous tone that sometimes rumbles through the body is real. In common speech we speak of depression and don’t imagine demons, but we don’t talk about sudden, unbidden moments of transcendence that come perhaps once or twice in a lifetime. Poets do, though, without leaping to God, sometimes explicitly saying that they themselves felt like a divine being, and without inferring anything from it about some hidden other world that has furniture and mothers and special hats for all the big boys. I kid. But seriously? Let’s listen to Yeats for a sec:
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man, 

In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup 

On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed 

My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less 

It seemed, so great my happiness, 

That I was blessed and could bless.
This is of course just a little part of his brill poem Vacillations in which he occilates and pendulates the possibilities of Christian life after death and decides the only reason to believe it is desire for it, and ends up the poem by dismissing the great Catholic apologist of his day, the Baron von Hugel, snapping, “The lion and the honeycomb, what hath Scripture said?/ So get ye gone von Hugel, but with blessings on your head.”
Why all the blessing? In the first verse it was to say hella clearly that what he felt was transcendence, a robust experience of sublime intensity. In the last it is the goodwill that the experience left him feeling for those who would call it an intimation of God. But Yeats didn’t buy it. Reality is enough. Reality is way better, even. Somehow the meat in your head thinks and is capable of joy. That’s stranger than any religious tenet, yet true.
There’s tons more I meant to say bleaders, and I will. Will willing. (I just made that up. It is funny. Will willing, instead of God willing. Get it?) But right now I gotta go get something else done with this sunny Saturday. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, all we bookish freaks gotta remember to go outside. So Go outside! Good. Superfun meeting you.