Saturday, May 2, 2009

Materialist Transcendence

Sam Harris writes at length in the End of Faith about how modern materialism is confused by centuries of religious co-opting of the language of transcendence. Whenever someone starts talking about "being part of something bigger than yourself", meditation, expanding consciousness, or a sense of peace or oneness, we get out our woo-meters. The problem is that these things, or at least an experience of them whether or not you think they're "real", are an aspect of human neurology and an important part of our lives. We can't afford not to reclaim them from religion.

Sometimes when I participated in discussions of what atheists can offer people in this realm, I used to feel that we were at a disadvantage. Because theists are not bound by truth and can gorge on whatever cognitive McDonald's and meth that their religion doesn't explicitly proscribe, I worried that what we offered would always be destined to be transcendence-Nutrasweet to their refined sugar. This concern is put perhaps less pejoratively in a New York Times op-ed about non-religious people becoming religious.

Eventually I realized that this was really an incredible advantage. These feelings of transcendence are often associated with events - social gatherings and life-changing events - and there's nothing stopping us from doing the same thing, for the simple reason that they fulfill us and they feel good. In other words, for us, they're real, and they're unpolluted by meaningless or half-understood liturgies obscuring their meaning. And there's no debate about whether we're having these events; even a devout Mormon or Muslim won't try to tell you that you haven't really had a wedding or kids, because right there's the video of the wedding, and right there are your kids. They might try to insist that you haven't had the same joy that L. Ron Hubbard or Jesus gives them - that's fine, let them.

So what are these transcendence-inspiring events (both good and bad)? Feel free to comment with your own. For me they've been:

- Realizing about age 12 that one day I'd be "on my own"
- Learning about the origins of man and the universe
- Losing my virginity
- Falling in love
- Deaths of father, grandparents, friends
- The few times I've been able to meditate successfully
- Birth of my children (hasn't happened yet but I expect!)
- Experiencing great novels, paintings, or films
- Learning a new idea that forces me to re-evaluate how I think about something
- Being alone and self-dependent for extended periods in a harsh environment (deserts, mountains, the Arctic)
- Highly physical goal-oriented activity (i.e. climbing a mountain peak and standing at the summit, and watching the mountain's shadow on the clouds below like the photo I took for the banner picture on this blog)
- Visiting historical places (standing where an atomic bomb went off or seeing Jefferson's home)
- Physical exertion (that runner's high after a long run)

About a year and a half ago, I remember finishing a run with my Wednesday night running group. It was a hilly one, on a classic Northern California September evening - warm, no humidity, golden-grass hills studded with oaks - and after we finished, we got our canvas folding chairs out of our cars and sat nursing our post-run beers. As we talked and told stories and playfully insulted each other, the sky went from dark blue to orange to purple. And I thought to myself: why does there need to be more than this? Why would I want there to be?


Dale McGowan said...

Oh my word, I can't even pick a favorite part of that post. Brilliant. Thank you.

Maiasaura said...

here from the meming of life. good post!

my list includes watching my boys explore in the woods or even the backyard, euphoric in the dirty wonderland that is nature.
also sharing a good meal with good friends.

Michael Caton said...

And I can add another one - watching the ocean with someone you love. Still glowing from that one today.

tcs3600 said...

Great post!

To the transcendent events list I would add:

Making music with a group of people.

No coincidence that the Christians have been doing this at their services for a long time.

Teacherninja said...

Don't forget music. even religious music. I agree that there is a transcendence in life and we mostly express it through art and creative works. To me, the composer might mean it for his/her god(s) but I just interpret it as the wonder of life whether it's Beethoven, Bach, or Coltrane, etc.

Great post,

Michael Caton said...

Great comments all. Teacherninja: In the same way that we can appreciate sectarian music, I have a favorite church in San Francisco - it's a hulking dark Dominican monster which makes no pretense of modernity. I'm all for beautiful buildings, even if the builders had other ideas about the purpose of said buildings.

FrumpyPigSkin said...

Also here from 'Meming of Life'. A thought-provoking post! I add specifically listening to 'Ara Batur' from Sigur Ros. It's long, but listen all the way through, loudly, and without distraction. Brings me to tears every time.

Michael Caton said...

I can't believe I left out music. If I developed some selective nerve disease so that I couldn't hear that crunch guitar sound from Metallica's song Blackened, my life would be less meaningful. Also the second piece in Carmina Burana.