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

An Appeal for Haiti

We now interrupt your regularly scheduled flame war for this important announcement.

As everyone has no doubt heard, Haiti was hit by a colossal earthquake last night; the city of Port-au-Prince is in ruins, and tens of thousands of people may be dead. If you're able to help, please consider making a donation to the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders. And if simple human compassion doesn't move you, consider it doing it to spite that wicked, heartless old fraud Pat Robertson, who said that the people of Haiti got what they deserved for rebelling against slavery. His religion made him evil; now, for Haiti's sake, I hope that our atheism makes us good.

UPDATE: I'm proud to see that atheist organizations are joining the effort. As commenters have mentioned, there's the Foundation Beyond Belief. The American Humanist Association also has a relief fund, and the FFRF has made a donation to Doctors Without Borders.

January 13, 2010, 9:19 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink28 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

For the holiday season, some goodies this weekend:

• First up, some music for the season: the blogger Lirone, of Words That Sing, in collaboration with William Morris, composer in residence at the British Humanist Association (did you know the British Humanist Association had a composer in residence? me neither!), has written a humanist carol, Gathering Round the Fire. It's 99 cents on iTunes, and all profits will go to the BHA. I downloaded and listened to it, and I enjoyed it greatly. Check it out, support a good cause, and lend a little bit of humanist cheer to your holiday gathering!

• Next, CNN has a surprisingly sympathetic interview with Richard Dawkins on evolution and atheist advocacy.

• The Daily Mail's Andrew Alexander offers a "heartfelt plea for atheism", an eloquent essay only slightly marred by an ignorant passage about climate change.

• Hanna Rosin asks whether the prosperity gospel contributed to the economic crash.

• On Daily Kos, it's a shameful day for the Irish Catholic Church, as a long-awaited report is released about the complicity of the bishops in sex abuse by predator priests.

• And finally, from Time, an unsparing essay about the subjugation and abuse of women in Islamic countries. (Did you know a Saudi Arabian woman has no legal proof of her existence besides her name on her husband's ID card? I didn't.) This is the kind of thing that the New Atheists get called "shrill" and "strident" when we write.

Also, you may have noticed that posts on Daylight Atheism are now classified by tag in addition to the six major categories (also, there's a tag cloud). I implemented this as a result of suggestions in the reader feedback thread, and I've been working my way backwards tagging older posts. Before I go further with that, I'm interested if people have any opinions on it. Too many tags? Too few? Are some missing that you'd like to see included? Personally, I'm still considering whether to add the "Science" tag to the posts on Lee Strobel.

December 12, 2009, 12:50 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink4 comments

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

A Sense of Kinship

This past summer, I was visiting the New York Botanical Gardens when serendipity struck: this beautiful little creature alighted on a stone railing around the edge of a pool, staying just long enough for me to snap this shot:

I think, though I'm not an expert, that this is a blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis.

I don't usually like close-up photos of insects - they have an eerie, alien feel that I find disturbing. (I admit it, I'm a mammal chauvinist.) But this one is one of the rare exceptions. Looking at it again, it's hard for me not to feel admiration for this sleek, graceful creature.

With its iridescent blue scales, its impossibly frail and transparent wings, its delicate jointed legs, it scarcely seems to belong to nature at all. It looks almost like a device, a tiny whirring clockwork machine made by some detail-obsessed jeweler - except, of course, that we humans haven't yet learned to make machines of such fine and precise workmanship, nor any that pack so many marvelous capabilities into such a small package.

So much of its head is taken up by those huge, gorgeous compound eyes, it seems it has scarcely any room for a brain to process the information they take in. Yet dragonflies have keen eyesight, and are blurringly fast and acrobatic fliers - and imagine how well-tuned their organs of balance must be, to control their pitch, roll and yaw in three-dimensional space at such speeds, a task that would overwhelm a human vestibular system. And though they seem so clumsy, so fragile - adult dragonflies can only fly, not walk, and their wings can't be folded in like a beetle's but must be held out at all times - on their own small scale, they are fearsome and effective predators. And of course, like all living things, dragonflies have one more astounding ability that human-designed devices can't match: they can make copies of themselves from the raw materials of their environment!

All in all, despite all our brains, we humans can't create anything nearly as clever, as intricate, as adaptable, or as beautiful as a dragonfly. But we shouldn't feel too bad: when it comes to forging machines, we've had barely a few hundred years of practice. Evolution has had hundreds of millions of years to refine its designs, to hone and sharpen them against the ruthless grindstone of natural selection. With that much of a head start, and with all the resources of a planet to use for trial and error, it's no wonder that even this blind algorithm produces results of a beauty and craftsmanship we can't match.

And yet, the stunning truth is that we ourselves are products of the same evolutionary process. Look at your hands, your arms, and imagine tens of millions of years of natural selection pushing and tugging on them like a sculptor kneading clay, slowly molding flesh and bone into new shapes. Imagine the skeins of DNA coiled in your cells, woven out of evolution like a tapestry from a loom. Imagine the unbroken chain of your ancestors stretching back into the misty recesses of time, each one only subtly different from the last - but even subtle changes add up, until you reach a point, untold millions of generations ago, where the ancestral lines of human and dragonfly merge into the same track.

This knowledge should fill us with awe. The fact of universal common descent via evolution means that I and this glittering blue dragonfly, no matter how distant the links, are related. When I snapped that picture, it was a family reunion, of sorts - and the admiration I felt for its intricacy and beauty is the same kind of admiration I'd feel for any talented relative whose glory reflects, even if only a little, on his siblings and cousins.

The human species is like a hiker who, having scaled a long and arduous path, can finally stop at a vantage point and look back on the journey he's taken. Looking out across the landscape, we can see our fellow travelers, each one taking a different course from all the rest, all of them spreading out from a single point of origin in the far distance. Why should we not feel a sense of kinship for all the other beings who are traversing life's winding, contingent paths along with us? And why should we not marvel all the more that our astonishing existence is not the result of deliberate planning, but of a glorious, messy, freewheeling cauldron of chance?

November 23, 2009, 6:51 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink16 comments

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

Getting a Philosophy Under Your Feet

I recently read a Christian book that's more interesting than the usual anti-atheist apologetics: Not the Religious Type, by Dave Schmelzer. Its author is a theologian and self-proclaimed former atheist who now pastors an evangelical church, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, in the Boston area.

This book is in large part about the New Atheist movement, and unlike most Christian authors, who have nothing but anger and scorn for outspoken atheists, Schmelzer actually shows our viewpoint a measure of sympathy and understanding:

So in this world where the conversation between secularism and faith is such an important one (read, for instance, the first chapter of The End of Faith - Harris says what, at that point at least, no one had said so directly, and good for him), I say three cheers for thoughtful atheism, which did such a service during the Louis XIV era in moving us past theocratic bigotry, warfare, and suppression of thought... and brought us such profoundly helpful things as modern scientific advancement and made a few key contributions to, say, the U.S. Constitution. I like those things! (Whatever the downsides of modern atheism.) [p.153]

Although Schmelzer has to throw in that sop to his Christian audience, his willingness to acknowledge freethinkers' contributions in moving humanity past the era of theocracy and ushering in the Enlightenment is unique, as far as I know, and certainly praiseworthy. I don't think I've ever read anything by a prominent Christian writer who had anything good to say about atheism, much less "three cheers" for it. So I say, kudos to him for that! It's rare to find a religious person with such a commendably open-minded attitude towards atheists, which makes it all the more welcome when it appears.

I'll say some more about this book in future posts, but for now I want to focus on a different aspect of it, which is Schmelzer's own account of how he, in his words, became a "turncoat atheist". There are some lessons worth taking away from his story about what most commonly makes people turn religious.

To hear Schmelzer tell it, he was an atheist up until college; in fact, he "was tagged as the dorm atheist" [p.13] after getting in an argument with three Christian students his first week. What provoked him to change his mind was this:

A professor mocked me in class for something I thought I'd done especially well. Another teacher moved up a deadline on a paper and suddenly I saw with new clarity how close I was to failing the class. And those two things were enough to make me question the whole basis of my life... [p.14]

As he explains it, his entire goal in life was to get good grades, get a good job, and become wealthy and successful, and the possibility of doing badly in school put all of that at risk and left him feeling frightened, depressed and rudderless. In his distress, he says, he prayed that if God was real, he would reveal himself. That night, while he was out driving, he got lost and veered off the road while trying to drive and read a map, bumping into a post - which turned out to be a giant cross set up by a local church. Still trying to find directions, he pulled off the road into a lit parking lot, which turned out to be the parking lot of another church, with another giant, floodlit cross. At this point, he says, he had a strong impression that God was speaking to him, saying: "I'm here to tell you that there is a God, and I care about you" [p.32]

Leave aside the silliness of what actually precipitated his conversion. (He lives in 85% Christian America. What other religious symbols did he expect to see while randomly driving around town? If he had come across two mosques in a row, that would have been a far more unlikely coincidence.) Schmelzer himself admits, "Looking back, my reasons seem superficial" [p.13]. Like Francis Collins, he converted as the result of a sudden emotional experience, not because an accumulation of evidence finally persuaded him.

But focus, instead, on what precipitated Schmelzer's initial crisis: He was worried about getting bad grades in school. This upset him because, up till then, he had only envisioned the good life in terms of material success: landing a high-paying job, being wealthy, being a famous author. The prospect of losing all that threw him into turmoil.

In effect, Schmelzer fell for two illusions, one right after the other. First, he bought into our capitalist, consumer-driven society's message that happiness is achieved through acquiring money and possessions. He found out for himself that this was a false ethic, but then fell right into a second trap, the religious message that happiness is achieved only through worshipping God. Atheist though he was, what he was lacking was a real philosophy of his own. Without a solid ethic under his feet to ground him, he fell prey to one false creed after another, like a leaf being blown around by the wind.

This story shows why we, atheists and freethinkers, should promote a positive ethic of our own: one which counsels that happiness is found in the simple pleasures of life, in the company of others, and in experiencing the world and all it has to offer. We need to broadcast this philosophy far and wide, emphasize its good aspects, and encourage others to adopt it. A person who's rooted in this philosophy, who knows how to find happiness for themselves, will not be so easily diverted by fluctuating winds of dogma as Dave Schmelzer was.

August 5, 2009, 6:40 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink34 comments

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

The Contributions of Freethinkers: Zora Neale Hurston

I've been reading this essay from Sikivu Hutchinson in the L.A. Watts Times, which calls on black atheists to come out of the closet while acknowledging the difficulties they face in doing so. The cultural barriers, she says, are even greater than for white atheists: African-American culture is "heavily steeped" in Christian dogma, the legacy of a "culturally specific survival strategy" - in the slave era, it served them as a unifying force and a source of comfort (despite the fact that it was also the religion of the slaveholders). That legacy persists even today, as she notes: "In these (black) communities you find more tolerance towards gangbangers, drug addicts, and prostitutes, who pray to God for forgiveness than for honest productive citizens who deny the existence of God."

The only way to overcome this in the long run is for more black atheists to speak out, but it might also help to point out that some famous figures of the black community have held unorthodox views. I've written before about the life and skepticism of the civil rights pioneer W.E.B. DuBois, but he was by no means the only prominent African-American who was also a freethinker - as we'll see from today's post.

Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, a rural community that was one of the first all-black towns founded in America after the Emancipation Proclamation. Her father, John Hurston, was a Baptist preacher and later the mayor. Her childhood in Eatonville, by her account, was idyllic: in an all-black community, she was blissfully insulated from the racism that still pervaded much of the country, even though her preacher father sought to stifle young Zora's rebellious spirit.

The end of this happy time came in 1904, when Hurston's mother Lucy died; Zora was only 13 at the time. Her father, "bare and bony of comfort and love", remarried, but had little time or attention for his children. She was sent away to finish school, but ended up working at a series of menial jobs, including a Gilbert & Sullivan theater troupe, where she worked as a maid to the lead singer. She wound up in Baltimore, where she finally finished high school in 1918, at the age of 26 - although she gave her age as 16. For the rest of her life, she would always cut at least ten years off her date of birth in public.

In 1925, Hurston was offered a scholarship to Barnard College, a New York City affiliate of Columbia University. She studied anthropology under the noted scholar Franz Boas; one of her fellow students was Margaret Mead. But more importantly for her own literary career, she had the good fortune to be living in Manhattan at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston met and collaborated with black writers and artists like Langston Hughes; she published both fiction and, drawing on her background in anthropology, books such as Mules and Men that documented customs and folklore of the black community in the United States and the Caribbean. Her masterwork was the 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was judged one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century (source). Her other books include Mules and Men (1935), Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939).

Despite her literary acclaim, Hurston never achieved the financial success her work deserved. She died, penniless, in 1960, and was buried in an unmarked grave, where she lay forgotten for decades until her writing, and her burial site, was rediscovered by a young writer named Alice Walker.

What's less well known is that Zora Neale Hurston, throughout her life, was a freethinker. Of her childhood, she later wrote: "My head was full of misty fumes of doubt... Neither could I understand the passionate declarations of love for a being that nobody could see. Your family, your puppy and the new bull-calf, yes. But a spirit away off who found fault with everybody all the time, that was more than I could fathom" (source).

An extended excerpt from Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, makes the point even clearer. In a long, beautiful passage, one that predates the work of Carl Sagan and other famous scientific popularizers, she writes of her own feeling of interconnection with the cosmos, and her knowledge that the atoms of her body will outlast death and go on to take new forms:

Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it, and bow to its laws. The ever-sleepless sea in its bed, crying out "how long?" to Time; million-formed and never motionless flame; the contemplation of these two aspects alone, affords me sufficient food for ten spans of my expected lifetime. It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. However, I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords. It is simply not for me. Somebody else may have my rapturous glance at the archangels. The springing of the yellow line of morning out of the misty deep of dawn, is glory enough for me. I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space. Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.

Other posts in this series:

July 15, 2009, 7:31 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink14 comments

The 39th Humanist Symposium

Welcome to the 39th edition of the Humanist Symposium! This is a blog carnival for atheists and agnostics with a mission: not considering yet more arguments for or against the existence of God, but taking that as settled, to demonstrate how nonbelievers find happiness and meaning in life, and how a rational perspective informs our view of moral issues. All of today's entries do a marvelous job of advancing that goal, so without further ado, let's get to them:

First up, it's Chris Hallquist of the Uncredible Hallq, who muses on Can Beliefs Change the World?: Thoughts on Self-Confidence. Although being confident gives us no magical powers to shape the world to our desire, a realistic, clear-headed optimism does make us more willing to overcome doubts and more likely to succeed where others might have failed.

Next, it's Jen of Blag Hag, who writes about her experience wearing an atheist T-shirt in an airport. In her case, this social experiment was a resounding success! This just goes to show that being out of the closet and proud is a vital way of advancing the atheist cause.

Michael Fridman of a Nadder! writes about the famous Milgram experiment as it relates to rape. By acknowledging that every person has a potential to act violently, and that the social setting is often the determining factor, we can learn how to construct a culture that discourages these acts from ever coming to pass.

Brent of An Honest Journey Through Mormonism to Intellectual Integrity (now there's a mouthful!) discusses an experience in Ireland meeting several former Catholics, who credited their deconversion to the Internet and the vast amounts of information available there. The truth shall set you free indeed!

vjack of Atheist Revolution answers the rhetorical question, "If you don't believe in an afterlife, why be moral?" Human empathy and reciprocity offer a more than sufficient reason to be good without needing reward or punishment.

On a related note, Cubik's Rube asks: What if you only had a trillion years? It's a clever and original thought: would an almost unimaginably long, but not infinite, afterlife suffice for you to lead a meaningful existence? If in all that vast time you couldn't find ways to make your life worthwhile, then infinity would hardly seem to help - and if you could, then the same argument shows that this life can be meaningful as well, even if it's finite!

C.L. Hanson of Letters from a Broad tackles the old aerodynamic chestnut about bumblebees not being able to fly. When we see something that violates our expectations about how the world works, a humanist should take it as a golden opportunity to learn something new.

Waiting For The Singularity discusses Ice Cream and the Freedom of Dessert. When the arguments over which is the best flavor seem interminable, it's not the role of the state to tell anyone how to satisfy their sweet tooth.

Our next two posts take opposite perspectives on the same issue, showing that there's no creed of beliefs to which all humanists subscribe. She Who Chatters gives her perspective on Ethical Cornerstones, arguing that morality is by nature a subjective construct, while Open Parachute, as part of a series on morality, writes that morality, like mathematics, has an objective basis. Both authors make good arguments; which one do you find more convincing?

Viktor Nagornyy of the Rochester Atheism Examiner writes about the upcoming book 50 Voices of Disbelief, a collection of inspirational stories on why the contributors are atheists.

Russell Blackford of Metamagician and the Hellfire Club analyzes a new law proposed in France: Should we ban the burka? Does living in a pluralistic society require us to respect others' choices, even when those choices are rooted in a tradition of religious oppression?

And last but not least, Rose of the Jewmanist wraps up the carnival with a wonderful post on beauty and purpose. The knowledge that we are all products of evolution gives us good reason to respect the grandeur and diversity of nature, and gives our life true purpose and an almost spiritual sense of connection to all living things.

That concludes this edition of the Humanist Symposium. Our next edition will appear in three weeks at The Evolving Mind, so if you like what you've read here today and want to do your part to advance the humanist cause, please consider hosting or contributing! New authors offering their perspective on the humanist cause are always welcome. You can find guidelines and further information on the carnival homepage.

July 5, 2009, 11:10 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink17 comments

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