A Profile in Nonbelief: Roger Ebert

Most Americans have heard of the movie critic and writer Roger Ebert. But what most people probably didn't know - what I didn't know - is that he hasn't been able to eat, drink or speak since 2006. That was the year when most of his jaw had to be surgically removed, the result of complications from thyroid cancer that nearly cost him his life. This information comes via a surprisingly moving article in Esquire by Chris Jones, which describes how Ebert's life has been altered by his illness. And the reason I bring it up is this:

I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear, he writes in a journal entry titled "Go Gently into That Good Night." I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

Despite losing his voice, Ebert has penned an eloquent and articulate stream of thoughts on his own blog, which is now his primary window on the world. Even while he refuses to accept the usual labels, he defines himself in lucid and beautiful terms that any secular humanist would recognize immediately:

I wrote an entry about the way I believe in God, which is to say that I do not. Not, at least, in the God that most people mean when they say God. I grant you that if the universe was Caused, there might have been a Causer. But that entity, or force, must by definition be outside space and time; beyond all categories of thought, or non-thought; transcending existence, or non-existence. What is the utility of arguing our "beliefs" about it? What about the awesome possibility that there was no Cause? What if everything...just happened?

...But certainly, some readers have informed me, it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith. I don't feel that way. "Faith" is neutral. All depends on what is believed in. I have no desire to live forever.

..."Kindness" covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Though Ebert isn't in imminent danger of death, his illness has brought him to recognize more clearly that we all must die eventually, and that what matters most about our lives is what we did with them - whether we cultivated happiness in ourselves, as well as in others. Even in spite of our misfortunes, we can still find reason for joy:

There is no need to pity me, he writes on a scrap of paper one afternoon after someone parting looks at him a little sadly. Look how happy I am.

Ebert's thoughts, and the Esquire article, are written with a gentle, luminous courage that I've rarely seen. This is true spirituality: not clinging to the false comfort of myths interpreted literally, but solace in human kindness, memories of the good things in life, and accepting frailty and mortality with quiet resolve. It's the kind of powerful and moving affirmation of secular humanism that I wish everyone could see more often.

February 22, 2010, 6:56 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink18 comments
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The Lesson of Autumn Leaves: A Humanist Sermon

November is a good month for poetry.

Most great poetry is about transience, and with autumn in full swing, there's much in November to inspire the poet's thoughts on that topic: the last yellow and brown leaves raining from the trees; the early fall of dusk as the days continue to shorten; the gray skies and cool days as the first taste of winter frost becomes perceptible in the air, and the world settles in for its yearly sleep.

While I was walking in the leaves the other day, I had a minor inspiration. It occurred to me that there's a common thread woven through religious belief. The theists, in their apocalyptic dreams and mirages, long for something that's eternal and unchanging: God's eternal kingdom, the city with gold walls and gates of precious stones, or C.S. Lewis' heaven that opens like an onion, each layer more beautiful than the last. Or, more ominously, the worm that never dies, the fire that's never quenched, or Dante's vision of the damned being boiled forever in rivers of blood, frozen in perpetual ice and snow, or trudging in endless circles so they can be hacked to pieces by demons on each pass.

Either way, what the Earth's major monotheisms teach us to desire is permanence: a world immutably fixed in its course, never to change again. They want the race to be run, the final victory to be attained, and all strife and toil ended. They want existence sorted and classified so that they'll never know pain or loss again, while their enemies will suffer in infamy for all eternity.

But as we learn from the autumn leaves, that isn't the way of nature. The world does not trade in permanence, but in perpetual rebirth and renewal.

Observe nature, and you'll see this pattern at every level. Mountains are thrust up and then worn away to nothing. Rivers and streams flow to the sea, become choked with life and silt up, and then fan out and cut new courses across the landscape. Deserts and grasslands sweep back and forth, impinging on each other's boundaries. Plants sprout in the spring, bloom in the summer, die in the fall, and are reborn after the winter. Even within our bodies, new cells are always being created as old ones are destroyed and recycled. In every case, what we see is rebirth and renewal - not a state of changeless stasis, as the religious wish for, but a constant, dynamic tension between destruction and rebuilding; an endless flux of old forms passing away as new ones arise.

In fact, we owe our very existence to such a process. Though a seamless thread of historical continuity links all of us to the very first life on Earth, there is no single molecule, no single cell that has come down to us intact from that moment of genesis. What has been passed down is a pattern, a template of information constantly being copied from one physical substrate to another, constantly being born again with each generation - although, because of the ceaseless scouring and reconstructing of evolution, not even that pattern has survived unchanged.

Knowing that we are part of nature, that our lives are also evanescent swirls in the great river of change, is not a vision that everyone finds reassuring. Hence, sermons like this one, which assures hearers,

...we know death is wrong. It was never part of God's plan for creation. You were made to last forever. God designed you in his image to live forever.

This is a view that animated bits of carbon may be expected to take. We're anxious to convince ourselves that we are exempt from the rules that apply to all other living things, that our destiny is not like theirs, and it's no surprise that theologies which fulfill our fantasies with promises of immortality and endless bliss have found millions of takers. But all the soothing platitudes in the world can't change the fact that, despite all that we're capable of, we too are like those autumn leaves. We bloom and burst into full color; in our heyday, we're fiery and beautiful; and then, ultimately, we fade, fall away, and are gone. Henceforth we belong to memory, and it's left up to future generations to continue the work of humanity.

The apologists of religion often accuse atheists of being arrogant, but is it not they who truly lack humility? Is it not they who believe that they are special, set apart, above the rest of nature? Is it not they who believe that although trees fall, mountains erode, and even stars die, that they will live eternally, that they are not part of nature's ceaseless ebb and flow?

There are those who would say that this viewpoint, this recognition of our transience, is a reason to despair. Unless our lives are endless, so they say, we must feel hopeless. That, too, is a claim that I deny.

The knowledge that our time is brief is not a reason to fix our gazes with dread on the end, but to ground our vision in hope for the present. Knowing that we will not be here forever, we have the strongest possible incentive to make the most of what time we have, and to live with happiness and fulfillment of purpose. Our time is finite, so let us use it wisely, and dazzle the world with what we can accomplish before we go. That, too, is the lesson of the autumn leaves.

November 25, 2009, 6:37 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink18 comments
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In Honor of Terry Pratchett

I should have mentioned this story much earlier, but better late than never.

If you're an atheist and a regular reader of sci-fi and fantasy, you probably know the name Terry Pratchett - and if you don't, you should. He's the award-winning and much-loved author of Discworld, a series of fantasy novels set in a flat, circular world that's carried through space on the back of a giant tortoise. Discworld began as a straight-up parody of other fantasy novels, but it's moved on to parodying all different aspects of our culture, and doing so in the midst of surprisingly deep and affecting storytelling. Pratchett is also an atheist, and many of the Discworld books (including my personal favorite, Small Gods) show the virtues of atheism and humanism - no small feat in a riotous fantasy world where, as the author puts it, "the gods had a habit of going round to atheists' houses and smashing their windows".

And if you're a fan of Pratchett, you may also know that in December 2007, he announced he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's disease - a grim prognosis, since the early-onset form of the disease tends to be the fastest-developing, and treatment options tend to do no more than delay the spread. As Pratchett himself said, "I know three people who have successfully survived brain tumors but no one who has beaten Alzheimer's."

Although he's still writing and still cheerful, Pratchett has said in recent weeks that he does not believe in "a duty to suffer the worst ravages of terminal illness", and that when the time comes when he faces an irreversible disintegration of self, he would rather end his life on his own terms:

Now, however, I live in hope - hope that before the disease in my brain finally wipes it clean, I can jump before I am pushed and drag my evil Nemesis to its doom, like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty locked in combat as they go over the waterfall.

...I am enjoying my life to the full, and hope to continue for quite some time. But I also intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand and Thomas Tallis on the iPod - the latter because Thomas's music could lift even an atheist a little bit closer to Heaven - and perhaps a second brandy if there is time.

Oh, and since this is England I had better add: 'If wet, in the library.'

In recent weeks, he's also spoken out against assisted-suicide guidelines which appear to leave open the possibility that citizens of the U.K. could be prosecuted for murder for helping a terminally ill loved one take their own life.

Of course, I hope Terry Pratchett, despite the diagnosis, has many more years of happy and productive life ahead of him (and not just for my own selfish reason of wanting to read more of his books!). I hope with all my might that a cure for Alzheimer's will be found in time. But when my time comes, as it will for all of us, I hope to face the inevitable even half as well as he has this far: with good humor and courage, a fearless self-determination to take my destiny into my own hands, and a hope that some greater good can come about from individual tragedy.

And I'm encouraged to believe that comfort and acceptance in the face of mortality may not be as hard to come by as people think (or as religious proselytizers would like us to believe). There have been many freethinkers who exited life in peace and dignity, such as Edward and Joan Downes, whose story I mentioned this past July. It's likely that the more high-profile examples there are of atheists peacefully coming to terms with the inevitable, the more common and accepted it will be, and the easier it will become for all of us.

October 19, 2009, 6:57 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink26 comments
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Poetry Sunday: An Arundel Tomb

Today's edition of Poetry Sunday features a return of the English poet and novelist Philip Larkin. Born in Coventry in 1922, Larkin received a degree in literature from Oxford in 1943. Though he worked for most of his life as a librarian at the University of Hull, he was well-known and widely acclaimed for his poetry and his work as a literary reviewer and jazz critic. He received numerous awards for his writing in his lifetime, including the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry, the German Shakespeare Prize, an honorary doctorate from Oxford, and an honorary rank of Commander of the British Empire, one step below knighthood. He was also offered the title of England's Poet Laureate late in life, but declined the honor. Nevertheless, Larkin was recently voted England's best-loved poet of the last 50 years in a popular poll.

Larkin's poetry is skeptical, plainspoken, down-to-earth, occasionally bleak and pessimistic but sometimes idyllic and hopeful. He was a confirmed agnostic, and his work was praised as being "free from both mystical and logical compulsions" and "empirical in its attitude to all that comes".

My choice of poem for today was inspired by the story of Edward and Joan Downes, whom I wrote about last month in "Dignity in Dying: An Atheist's View". In it, the poet describes the tomb of a long-dead husband and wife from the English nobility, and the touching, defiant statement they left sculpted in stone on their sarcophagus. The tomb in question is real: after you read this poem, go see the pictures of it.

An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd -
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly, they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Other posts in this series:

August 16, 2009, 10:02 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink3 comments
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Dignity in Dying: An Atheist's View

By way of Dangerous Intersection, I came across this sorrowful, beautiful story:

He spent his life conducting world-renowned orchestras, but was almost blind and growing deaf – the music he loved increasingly out of reach. His wife of 54 years had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. So Edward and Joan Downes decided to die together.

Edward Downes, a renowned British conductor who headed the BBC Philharmonic and served for five decades as a music director for the Royal Opera House, was going both blind and deaf in the twilight of his life. Joan Downes, his wife of fifty-four years, had been his caretaker, but she had fallen ill with untreatable liver and pancreatic cancer and was given just weeks to live. Edward decided that he didn't want to go on living without her, and so last week, the two of them traveled to Switzerland to seek the aid of the assisted-suicide group Dignitas. At Dignitas' clinic, they each drank a lethal dose of sedatives, fell asleep and died peacefully, hand in hand. (I got a lump in my throat typing that.)

But what really caught my eye about this story was its closing passage:

Edward and Joan Downes are survived by their children and grandchildren. The family said the couple had no religious beliefs, and there would be no funeral.

The Daily Mail has an excerpt of Joan's last letter to her family, confirming that she, and most likely her husband as well, were atheists who did not believe in an afterlife:

The letter said: 'Now, I must tell you that even though I had hoped to be around a bit longer, death doesn't worry me at all.

'I have no religion and as far as I am concerned it will be an "offswitch" so after you have thought about it a bit don't worry.'

It concluded: 'It has been a happy and interesting life and I have no regrets. I have no idea how long I will last but I send love to you all and your extensive families.

'Enjoy it while it lasts.'

The Downes' courage and peaceful acceptance, not just in facing but actively seeking out a dignified death, shows clearly that a nonreligious philosophy can indeed offer consolation in the face of mortality. As Joan's last letter said, death is nothing to fear: it's merely an extinction, no worse than a dreamless sleep. Whoever has led a worthwhile and happy life has no reason to dread it. The only thing worth fearing is a life of pain and suffering, or the regret of not knowing that you left important things undone. And by exiting life on our own terms, we can ensure that we avoid both these fates.

Voluntarily laying down your own life is the ultimate choice of a free individual, the ultimate affirmation that our lives are our own and we may direct them as we wish. However, in the U.K. (and in most of the U.S.), assisted suicide is still illegal - a regrettably irrational view, supported in large part by religious medievalists who want to dictate to other people how to lead their lives. It's not a wholly unreasonable fear that people may be coerced or pressured into ending their own lives, but that is a possibility that's fairly easy to guard against. And the alternative - people forced to live out their last days in pain and misery, robbed of dignity, robbed of autonomy and freedom - is, I think, far worse by any rational accounting. Giving people the option to end their lives painlessly, if and when they choose to, is the most powerful proof that a society values human life as meaningful and treats it with respect.

July 18, 2009, 1:55 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink47 comments
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Green Fields

[Author's Note: This piece is dedicated to the memory of my grandmother, who passed away last week. The last time I saw her, several months before she died, she told me that she was not a "god-fearing" person. Freethought evidently runs deeper in my family than I had guessed, and in this small way, as in others, I'm glad I can carry on after her.]

For those who are grieving, for those who mourn, and for all those who are burdened with the weary weight of sorrow, I have a prescription.

Find a quiet, peaceful place, a green field of grass where great trees grow and gift the world with their shade. Let it be just before sunset, at that golden hour when the heat of the afternoon is past, when the sky is blue as a pearl and the setting sun hues the world in its last, richest and most transitory light.

Sit against the trunk of an old and massive tree, one that's lived through summers and winters untold. Lean on its rough, moss-clad bark and feel the slow, patient pulse of the life in the green heart of the wood. Try to clear your mind of thought, and listen.

Put your hand on the earth, tangle your fingers in the soft blades of the grass, and hear it whisper to you. It knows about death, about loss; it dies each winter, when the snows and frosts come. But that isn't the end of its story: it's born anew in the spring, remade each year, playing its part in the mystery of eternal renewal that our ancestors knew intimately.

Hear the wind's call as it passes by, rustling across the grass. It teaches that nothing is permanent, everything is transitory. Life is a pattern of change, of ebb and flow, loss and renewal, death and rebirth. Like the wind, all things arise in their time, sweep by us, and pass on.

Hear a trill of birdsong float down from the green and golden branches of the trees. Their singing should remind us that life itself is music, a great unbroken symphony, and if they do not scorn to play their part, neither should we. In truth, we are not the singers: we are the notes of the melody. There, a birth, a joyous rising chord; here, a death, a plaintive falling note. Each life is a brief theme in the choral harmony, and like every musical theme, it has a beginning and an ending; but if played well, it may inspire exuberant new bursts of music that transcend the original.

Look up to the high boughs of the trees. Look up, because most of us don't do it often enough, and see their branches rise like pillars through endless halls of green. Look past them to the sky beyond, where the stars glimmer unseen beyond the blue haze of our atmosphere, and reflect on how small we all are in the ultimate accounting, how low we stand in the grandest scheme of things. In a way, our insignificance is strangely comforting. It reminds us to look beyond our day-to-day concerns, beyond the small glories and the small sorrows, and to keep in mind the whole vast cosmos that dwells beyond the private walls of grief. And when our gaze returns to earth, when we descend from that lofty plane back to our own small circle of warmth and light, let it be with a renewed sense of our own purpose in living.

No matter what happens after death - whether we are reborn, go on to another place, or simply cease - there is beauty in this life, as much as we could ask for. There are green fields and peaceful waters, the hush of the dawn and fireflies in the summer evenings, the glory of sunset and the silent, holy falling of snow on dark clear nights. If there is any complaint we might justly make, it is not that this life lacks meaning, but rather that it has so many meaningful things to do and to explore that one lifetime is not enough for all of them.

It's true, as an old book says, that we live in the valley of the shadow of death. But that should not be a source of fear to us. That proximity is the very thing that makes our lives meaningful, that makes them sacred. The knowledge of our own mortality should imbue each day with an ocean of significance; it should be the signpost on the trail, pointing the way for us to live life to the fullest, with the most awareness, and the deepest joy.

Someday we, too, will slumber under green fields. Our story will be told, our journey will be complete. But in the interim, in this time and this place, we are alive and free. We have a long way left to walk before the evening falls, before the time comes to lay our burdens down. Let us choose our path wisely, and find worthy companions to accompany us along the way. And one more, personal word of advice: take the time to explore the side trails and detours. You'll find secrets and wonders that will make the effort worthwhile.

June 10, 2009, 6:49 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink28 comments
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We Need Nothing More

I recently received an e-mail from an atheist asking for advice:

I've always been afraid of death, and usually I tell myself that it's pointless. But lately, I've started thinking about my existence and ultimately, my death. I was, and still am to some extent, horribly afraid of losing myself forever, which is quite irrational I suppose. I've cheered myself up, worked through this fear several times. I've made myself realize that life is short and that I should look at death as a reminder to cherish life, to be happy with my past and my present, and to stop focusing so much on something I cannot comprehend. Death will come soon enough, and when it does, it's not the irrationally horrible void that I tend to imagine in my head. I can only live and work with what I have, and what I have is this reality. I've embraced this fact with emotion. I want to be strong. I know I can overcome. I know I have hope inside me. I refuse to live a life of despair when I could live a life of happiness. And yet, the fear keeps lingering.

...Now don't get me wrong. I am in no way suicidal; I want to live as long as possible, as happily as possible. I would never consider ending my life. But I think to myself sometimes: "once I get out of school, I'll work, then I'll have a family, then I'll keep on living until I die." It all seems pretty bleak.

If such thoughts depress you, then I suggest you ask yourself this question: What else do you want there to be?

Answer that, and you'll already have gone a long way toward lifting your bleakness. Your course in life is not set; no one is forcing you to settle down at a job or start a family. If the most common path doesn't appeal to you, then take a different one. Only you can decide what would make your life meaningful to you, so make that decision and then set out to do it. I've had thoughts like this on occasion, and I find that taking this perspective is a good way to vanquish them. From your letter, I take it you're still fairly young, which is even better and gives you much more flexibility to shape your life the way you want.

If indeed there is nothing after life, then is life not pretty pointless?

I don't see the logic behind this statement. If your life is meaningful to you now, then that meaning is real, regardless of what happens in the future. You may no longer experience meaning after you die, but death does not "reach back" and retroactively erase the meaning or purpose from all the prior moments you enjoyed. Those earlier moments do not cease to exist. On the other hand, if your life is not meaningful, then what would you gain by extending it other than more meaningless existence?

To see this from another angle, consider a clever argument from John Allen Paulos' book Irreligion. Let's take some point in time far in the future, long after you've ceased to exist - say, a thousand years from now. Let's assume that nothing we do now will matter in a thousand years. Depressing, no? Well, maybe - but, by the same argument, it would seem that nothing that will matter at that far-future time matters now. In particular, it doesn't matter now that it won't matter then. To put it in simpler terms, why should we care what happens in the distant future, when we'll have no possible ability to influence events? What we should care about is the here and now, the events that do matter to our lives and the ones which we can affect.

I could just as well see life as full of life wonder, an opportunity to enjoy myself, a view which I harbor much of the time, but not all of the time. I fear death. I fear losing my identity, losing my memories, my experience as a human being, not as a system of atoms.

Obviously, no one wants to die; evolution has given us a strong drive to prefer continued living. At an emotional level, I understand the pull of this argument. But on a rational level, I don't see what there could possibly be to fear about death. To regret its inevitability, to wish it were otherwise, yes - but to fear it? That claim seems to me to involve a serious confusion of terms.

Fear, by definition, is the expectation of something bad happening to me. But if there is no "me", then nothing bad can happen to me, so what is there to fear? Claiming to fear being in a state of nonexistence, to me, makes as much sense as claiming to have felt joy before you were born, eagerly anticipating your chance to come into being.

Do you have any advice for a struggling atheist? Any outlooks or personal anecdotes? Have you ever had to deal with such a state of despair or were you always so confident with your mortality?

Yes, I have had these existential fears and doubts from time to time. Everyone does - it's an inevitable part of having limited knowledge, which means it's an inevitable part of being human. The most comforting thing I can say to you is that they'll probably lift on their own, given time. Like any other grief, time heals the hurt.

But that doesn't mean you have to live with it in the meantime. From what you say, it sounds to me as if you've already got a solid, well-grounded humanist philosophy worked out. That will be a tremendous help in overcoming this - it probably is helping already, even if you don't realize it yet. Everyone has to come to terms with their own mortality eventually, as part of becoming a mature human being. Think of this phase as growing pains. It will pass, and you'll be stronger for it; and I have no doubt that you'll rediscover the beauty and the hope that you mentioned, and learn anew to cherish life and live to the fullest because it is brief.

However, on the chance that words can offer you any more assistance, let me offer a few more. Christopher Hitchens' The Portable Atheist closes with this passage from Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It reached in and grabbed me, and it may do the same for you:

The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.

This, in my opinion, is how an atheist should view life and its inevitable accompaniment of death. Would I live longer, if given the opportunity? Yes, of course - but I've never believed for a moment that my life must be meaningless unless it's infinite.

What comes after this life, if anything, I don't know. We may be resurrected from the dust by a supernatural being on some future judgment day; we may all be living in a dream; we may be digital souls in an unimaginably powerful computer running a massive simulation of the universe. I don't know, nor do I care. I only care about what is verifiable, what is real. And what I know to be real and true is that this world and this life are enough for me. There is beauty here, wisdom, wonder and love - as much as I could have asked for. It's an embarrassment of riches, and there are so many different paths to happiness that it would be selfish and needless to demand anything additional. I echo Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and I would extend her compelling conclusion to all atheists. We need nothing more.

February 25, 2008, 8:26 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink36 comments
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Fragile Trappings

I stepped out of my house today on a chilly fall afternoon. After an unseasonably late warm spell, as if summer had lingered this year past its appointed time, autumn had arrived at last. The feel of the season was in the air: the misty cool, the forests defiantly ablaze with fiery color, the smell of fallen leaves, wet black and rusty gold, in the grass. There was a sense of hunkering down, of quiet activity in the stillness, as nature prepares for the coming winter foreshadowed in the bare gray branches of the trees.

In autumn, the mind turns naturally to impermanence. I've written about death from an atheist perspective before, but that was several years ago, and this seemed like an appropriate season to revisit the topic.

We must face the facts: our lives, in the grand scheme of things, are short. Like the leaves falling from the tree, we bloom, flourish, and inevitably wither. Vast expanses of time preceded each of us, and equally vast expanses of time will follow us. We were not there, will not be there, to know what happens; we will never meet the people who inhabit those times, as they will never meet us. Our existence is, as Robert Ingersoll said, like a narrow vale between two cold and barren peaks.

And yet, in that narrow valley in between, there is a wondrous thing: a creature who exists, who lives, and who is conscious of that life and that existence. We reflect on the fact of our being and know ourselves for who and what we are. That by itself is a miracle so great that it outshines all the lesser miracles invented by human beings ever since.

Our lives are hedged about with mysteries, many of which are so vast we completely overlook them most of the time. What is the ultimate cause of our existence? Why is there anything at all, rather than nothing? Why do we have the natures we do, and not another? How does the ephemeral crackling of neural activity give rise to a self-aware mind with a sense of what things are like? These are all deep and profound mysteries, and we should not trivialize them. Our species is still young, and we know, at most, a tiny fraction of all there is to know. There are whole lands of knowledge we have barely glimpsed in the distance. Given the limitations we are still under, it would be more than wise to keep an attitude of humility when facing all that we don't yet know.

But our limitation cuts both ways. Religious people often invoke the admittedly imperfect state of human knowledge as reason to believe in God, but the fact remains that their knowledge is just as imperfect and their vision just as limited as anyone else's. Why, then, should we trust them when they claim to have penetrated to the fundamental truths of our existence? What makes them so confident that they have already solved the deepest questions about who we are and why we are here? For, whether they admit it or not, that is precisely what they are claiming.

Apologists through the ages have extolled the beauty of religious myths and origin stories. And I suppose if one views them as imaginative collections of imagery, like poetry or folk tales, there is a kind of antique charm about them. But as actual, honest-to-goodness answers for the most profound mysteries of our existence, I find that they fall far short. When measured against the unimaginable expanses of space and time, against the staggering glories of the cosmos as we so far comprehend it, the stories of religion are so trite, so superficial, so small. Their childlike arrogance in imagining that we are the very center of creation is a dead giveaway to their origins in human imagination and ignorance.

In the face of our imperfect knowledge, what we need is humility and a candid admission of our ignorance. We do not need anyone pretending they know all the answers and dignifying that pretending with the name of "faith". The mysteries we confront are far deeper than that, far too profound to admit of such shallow, simplistic, easily disproven answers. In truth, they are not answers at all; they are baubles, little diversions, stories invented for the comfort of children.

Even more absurd, in my view, is the oft-heard claim that only religion can hope to offer answers to these mysteries - that once we stand on that horizon, we must forsake reason and turn to faith. Richard Dawkins relates an example of this belief, and its refutation, in his book A Devil's Chaplain:

"I once asked a distinguished astronomer, a fellow of my college, to explain the Big Bang to me. He did so to the best of his (and my) ability, and I then asked what it was about the fundamental laws of physics that made the spontaneous origin of space and time possible. 'Ah,' he smiled, 'Now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand over to our good friend the Chaplain.' But why the Chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef?" (p.149)

The fundamental questions of our existence stand before us, like a doorway to a vast and unknown realm. But that doorway is the common property of all humankind. We all have the right to look up at it in awe, to run our hands over its massive stones searching for keyholes. There is no clergyman serving as a gatekeeper, no velvet rope before the door limiting access to supplicants who come in the name of faith. If anything, it is only the application of reason that has levered it open even the tiny crack it has so far been opened up.

An even better analogy, to my mind, is this: It's as if the self-appointed spokesmen of religion have hung tattered fragments of brocade on these great gates and then proclaimed that they own the things themselves. Not so! We, atheists, see that sham for what it is. We see through your fragile trappings, and we know that you are not the sole possessors of these gates. We know that you are just as ignorant of what lies beyond them as any of us. And while we may not know what the answers are, that doesn't mean we can't see what the answers aren't.

Even the few, halting steps we have taken under the guidance of reason have revealed to us a wealth of knowledge and wonder, a world such as we never dreamed of in all our long childhood. What we have now are at best a few grains of the truth, a few sparks struck from its unseen surface. Yet they show us the way to go on, and give us confidence that the true answers, whatever they turn out to be, will be stranger, more awe-inspiring, and more wondrous and beautiful than anything we could have ever imagined. That great door may only be open the slightest hairline crack, but there is light streaming through that crack, and faint music coming from beyond.

And so I say, brush aside those fragile trappings. Pay no mind to the people who insist we already know everything, that the deepest answers have already been revealed. Ignore the flimsy and tattered scripts they offer. Those things are thin gruel for the hungry, when solid food is available.

Instead, join us in joyous acceptance of our humility, and exult in the awed recognition of how much there is still left to learn. And then, if the desire moves you, take up the tools we have and use them to strike a few more sparks from that surface. Merely to be able to attempt this is a noble privilege. But greater still will be the day when that door finally opens - whether it be in our lifetime or a million lifetimes from now - and when that day comes, all who step through will know that your work, no less than anyone else's, brought us to that glorious threshold.

October 29, 2007, 7:31 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink27 comments
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Poetry Sunday: Dirge Without Music

Today's edition of Poetry Sunday features another freethinking poet of the 20th century, the American playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay. Joseph Parisi's 100 Essential Modern Poets calls her "glamorous and bold", and notes that she was known "as much for her unconventional lifestyle as for her gift for poetry". Millay was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, the second to win the Frost Medal, and the English novelist Thomas Hardy called her poetry one of America's two greatest creations (the other being the skyscraper).

Millay was born in Maine in 1892. Unlike Wallace Stevens, her literary career started young: she was first published at the age of 14, and became well-known early on for losing a contest, when her epic poem "Renascence" won only fourth prize in an annual competition - a slight which was protested by the public and critics alike. After graduating from Vassar College, she moved to New York City's Greenwich Village, where she led a bohemian life with many literary friends and numerous lovers (both male and female). Her "First Fig", published in A Few Figs from Thistles in 1920, was a famous unofficial anthem of the Roaring Twenties. Millay was critically acclaimed, wealthy and successful in her time, and highly sought after for readings both in person and on the radio. Later in life, she wrote some overtly political poems in support of the Allied effort during World War II.

Today's poem is Millay's "Dirge Without Music", first published in The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems (1928). Like many of her poems, it deals with themes of death and mortality. I personally find it one of the most haunting and beautiful elegies ever written on the subject, and it strikes the perfect balance for a freethinker: sorrowful, reluctantly accepting, but with a hint of brave defiance.

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains — but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Other posts in this series:

October 14, 2007, 2:30 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink18 comments
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Morality Without Humanity

A shocking story has recently come out of Texas. It seems that High Point, an Arlington megachurch, abruptly canceled a planned funeral after finding out the deceased was gay, and that his family planned to mention that fact:

The pastor said that he could imagine a similar situation involving a different sin. Perhaps a mother who is a member of the church loses a son who is a thief or murderer, Mr. Simons said. The church would surely volunteer to hold a service, he said.

"But I don't think the mother would submit photos of her son murdering someone," he said. "That's a red light going off."

These words blaze with ugly and unrepentant bigotry. Comparing homosexuality to theft or murder is a disgusting slander, and shows that, when it comes to gays and lesbians, these people have nothing but hate in their hearts. They are consumed with an obsessive drive to punish everyone who engages in lifestyles they do not approve of. Frankly, I'm surprised they didn't allow the funeral to go forward as planned so that they could deliver a sermon, a la Fred Phelps, about how the deceased is now burning in Hell and all other gays must repent or else share his fate. (I note that the deceased man, Cecil Sinclair, was not a church member; it was his family who wanted the memorial service held there.)

In either case, they've made it abundantly clear that people who practice different ways of life are not welcome within the doors of their church. I hope that all gay people and friends of gays take this lesson to heart and withdraw their support from churches that continue to disseminate such repulsive prejudice. I don't understand why Mr. Sinclair's family wanted to hold the memorial at High Point in the first place. Were they unaware of the church's position on gays? Or did they believe that they would be welcomed, regardless of their differing views on the topic, because Christianity is a religion of love and tolerance? If so, I'm sorry for their disillusionment, but I think this only further underscores the point that most conservative denominations only extend that hand of welcome to people who believe and act just like them. Far from being a universal offer, their compassion is extended only to members of the in-group.

But there was another part to this story that also shocked me:

For instance, the family was willing to allow the church to issue an "altar call" asking people to accept Jesus at the end of the service.

Perhaps I'm naive, but is this a common occurrence at conservative religious congregations? Do they routinely exploit families' grief as a way to proselytize for their own beliefs? It strikes me as tasteless and insensitive in the extreme to use a death in the community as an occasion for advertising.

High Point Church's dismissive comparison of homosexuality to theft and murder underscores a point I made last month, in the post "Why Do They Care?". The reason this bigotry seems so shocking is because it blithely equates murder, an act of violence inflicted on the victim without their consent, to a consensual, loving relationship between people of the same gender. To rational humanists, that is an outrageous equivalence, to compare an act of violence and harm to an act of pleasure and consent.

But to religious fundamentalists, there is no relevant difference. In their eyes, the only evil is that which offends God. No other factors are relevant - whether it causes harm or not, whether it is consensual or not, whether it causes pleasure or pain. If it angers God, it is wrong; and every such act receives the same punishment. They group all sins into the same category, recognizing no distinction or difference among them. A morality so blatantly divorced from human concerns, bearing no relation to what actual people need or want, is bound to cause great suffering whenever it's applied to the real world.

August 15, 2007, 6:01 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink22 comments
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