Thursday, June 5, 2008

I Love Being Alive

Sometimes the feeling comes in moments of epiphany like the time the sun rose as I sat on the icy flank of Mt. Shasta's north face, the orange light of the new day's first moment pouring into me like a cymbal-crash in my soul, forcing me to recognize how fortunate we are to exist. Other times I'm out for a long run and I've stopped to tie a loose shoelace and I suddenly notice that here in the dark forest on the valley floor, the silence and smell of the trees is so encompassing it has become like a separate object, and I can feel the hum of consciousness itself.

"Hey, you said 'soul'! I'm calling the police!"

You don't think this word has ANY meaning? That is, you don't think there are states of experience so profound that you need vocabulary like this to express what happened to you?

I've had people tell me I'm not allowed to have transcendental experiences like that, because I'm an atheist. Strangely enough, it's not just religious people, but fellow atheists, who feel anointed to tell me what I'm allowed to feel.

Religious people tell me these things: either that underneath my apparently life-long commitment to atheism, really, actually, I'm "spiritual", and my unreligion is a sham; religious friends and family who like you usually try that one, because it would solve their cognitive dissonance (and in their way, they're complimenting you). Or, they say that whatever experience I think I had, it was a pale and watery one compared to the richness of God (who apparently would have made the sun reflect more orangely off the snow or something). Or, they say that I'm just flat-out making it up because of course as we all know, atheists are miserable, shallow, empty people with no reason to live. Right?

We atheists are alternately bemused and frustrated by the little cognitive gyrations religious people go through to preserve their faith, especially when confronted with a happy, productive atheist living a good life with most of the virtues intact that they as religious people aspire to, and which they insist on crediting to religion.

That's why it's all the more confusing when I've described experiences like this to other atheists, who then have proceeded to tell me I'm irrational, or confused, and if I feel that way I'm ill or, apparently, one step from relapsing into theism. (That's my favorite one, because I've never believed in gods).

I'll tell you one thing: if I couldn't have those kinds of experiences, I don't know how much I would want to keep on living. Neurochemical backfire or otherwise, this is one of the gifts of being a self-aware animal. Don't you value these precious moments in your own life? And yet apparently there are plenty of dopamine-starved sad sacks among the human race who never have or seek those experiences; some of said sad sacks are religious, and some of them are doubtless atheists, alienated from these moments by the religious connotations of the only vocabulary we have left to describe them after seventeen centuries of Christian-dominated cultural discourse in the West. Sam Harris points out that the problem, as in so many cases, is that religion has co-opted the entire vocabulary of revelation. Pre-Christian European history once again provides us with excellent counterexamples to our modern assumptions, colored as they still are by almost two thousand years of religious invasion into all aspects of thought. Why would Lucretius the Roman atheist have so avidly extolled the revelation inherent in material nature? And do you think every early Christian who claimed such a revelation was genuine? While we're talking about ersatz epiphany, if the Romans were a little more sophisticated about their Emperor-selection-process, they would have recognized Constantine's "in hoc signo" as the ham-handed pandering it was.

There are clearly states of experience different than the one you're probably in now as you read this blog. Whether they are all routes to "truth" is another question entirely, but not one which I find meaningful with respect to how much they improve the quality of my life. (Truth and reason are not things I'm thinking about when I savor a Yuengling beer at the end of a hard day.) The Enlightenment has been a trend of taking back elements of human thought and culture from a self-perpetuating argument-from-authority that dominated and damaged European civilization. We escaped the Dark Ages one shackle at a time by retrieving from the clutches of this inbred, bankrupt superstition the institutions of astronomy, then philospohy, then literature, then art, then government, to name only a few. In so doing we have either invented new words for new ways of thinking, or cleansed the old words of their religious connotations. I see no reason why we should let the brahmins hold on to our mountain sunrises.

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