Notes on Our Thirteenth Meeting — SECULARISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS


As the meeting began we talked a little about Charles Taylor’s book, A SECULAR AGE. But we quickly moved on to more personal reflections on how we feel about living without supernaturalism.

1. The Many Different Paths to Meaning

Claudine spoke up to tell us about a conversation she had recently with a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley. He argued forcefully that all meaning reduces down, ultimately, to the question of power. The rest is just idle talk. “Who are you, living in imperialist America, to waste your time with discussions of secularism and the supernatural while people are dying from your government’s abusive policies in the Middle East?” he asked.

This reminded me of Soviet ideology in its heyday. A “New Soviet Man” proudly rejected the attenuated, bourgeoise intellectualizing of the West. He avoided abstract questions about “meaning” (separate from specific historical circumstances), in favor of “praxis.”

And I was right! It turned out that Claudine’s interlocutor was, indeed, Russian and had spent his formative years in the Soviet Union.

We agreed that this unnamed anthropology professor’s approach — seeking “praxis” and looking to power as the primary lens with which to determine one’s meaning in the world — is one of many possible approaches to living in a secular age. Even Obama seems to hold a version of this, when you consider the sacrifices he has been willing to make in the name of “passing the baton“.

Others include:

  1. Art Appreciation and the Pursuit of Beauty
  2. Tourism/Adventure
  3. Physical Risk-Taking (free diving, wingsuit flying, river rafting, etc.)
  4. Dandyism/Fashion (i.e. self-presentation)
  5. Free Love/Sexuality
  6. Athletic Training/Competition
  7. Pursuit of Excellence (chess, spelling bees, handicrafts)
  8. Nature-loving
  9. Social networking
  10. Consumerism
  11. Awards/Recognition
  12. Ecstatic dance

…and many more.

I confessed that none of these is my single-minded path to meaning. Yet I do have a yearning for some kind of solace, something that would help me navigate the bare and often brutal facts of daily life.

As it is, my closest approximation to a path is an insistence of the importance of… love. I wondered if this is a residue of my upbringing, which was influenced by my mother’s early exposure to the themes of love and forgiveness in Christianity.

Is love enough?

(I also used to have the “civic religion” of the American experiment to hang my hat on — “that all men are created equal,” “the last best hope of earth, “of the people, by the people, for the people,” “I have a dream,” and all that. But Trump’s election, and my resentment at the voters, and my concerns about human beings’ obvious cognitive flaws, to put it bluntly, have complicated that one. I’m sad to say that I am now far more skeptical of democracy as a source of meaning than I used to be.)

2. Does Our Secularism Have Discontents?

Yann asked everybody in the room to raise their hands if they sometimes yearned for something other than the brute and bare facts of daily life, as I had just confessed that I do.

To our surprise, only Setenay and I raised our hands! The other 10 or so in the room sided with Yann in affirming that they do not seek anything beyond the material/natural facts of the world — what Taylor calls the “immanent frame.” This world, this life, is enough for them.

Yann elaborated a little on his position. Generously paraphrasing a toast I gave at a dinner party years ago, he said that he sees our “tiny planet” as precious place in a “vast, cold, impersonal universe.” And that vision, fixed in his mind at all times, is enough to flood him with curiosity and appreciation for what we have.

Jaimey explained that, having grown up as a child in a hippie community, with a non-religious father and a Buddhist mother, during a skeptical time (the Vietnam war dragged on), he has never looked for more that what is. Jaimey also mentioned that he thinks that his father’s habits as a therapist shaped his response to the world; he finds himself approaching problems in terms of a process and not looking for a definitive answer.

For Jaimey, then, the process is the answer.

A number of group members suggested that they turn to “nature” for all the solace they need.

Florence revealed to us that the relentless focus of our Old New Way discussions on the needs, relationships, and values of human beings, increasingly bores her. She sees humans as only one animal amid a panoply of life-forms, including plants. And she wishes that we could shed our obsession with our own human minds and bodies and learn more directly about the plants and trees and grasses and algae and plasma that surround us.

I pointed out that we too, as a particular species of primates, are part of nature. Moreover, our particular modes of thinking are unavoidable — however hard we try, we will never think like trees. (As Florence pointed out, the time scale of a tree, for one, is so removed from ours.) But it goes both ways, I added: they can’t think like us either! So I said that while I appreciated Florence’s intention, to my mind the renunciation of a human-centered approach is folly. We are stuck with ourselves, whether we like it or not.

In this regard, I mentioned what I consider the folly of the poet Robinson Jeffers’ famous “anti-humanism”,  a worldview that, unfortunately, pervades his poetry. Jeffers consistently denigrates human beings, while gorgeously and memorably praising the rest of the natural world. But this is, as far as I can tell, simply the inverse of the Great Chain of Being assumptions that he grew up with. (His father was a Christian minister. Oedipus complex, anyone?) I urged Florence to resist trying to rank us against the natural world, either way. Humans don’t belong on top, sure. But neither do we belong on the bottom.

3. Nature as the Go-To Source of Meaning

Yann mentioned a recent hike to a mountaintop with his son when he felt a communion with nature.

Natalie mentioned how, as a birth doula, she made a point to embrace a giant redwood tree outside of Alta Bates hospital in order to ground herself before each childbirth.

Anne talked about a powerful experience she had once hang-gliding off a cliff in Marin, when a hawk flew alongside her as she landed.

Setenay mentioned that she feels a deep, unspoken connection when walking among redwood trees, even though she only saw one for the first time at the age of 27.

But again, this connection to nature, as powerful as it is, struck me as only one of many possible paths to meaning. Nothing wrong with it. Certainly, it is a tranquil and non-violent form of communion in most of its expressions. (Hunting is an exception.) But is it really enough for them?

I wondered aloud whether the passion and centeredness and feelings of love and communion that Yann, Flo, Nathalie, Anne and Setenay (and all of us) feel in the connection to nature are not so unlike the passion and centeredness and feelings of love and communion that members of ISIS feel at the end of the day when they sit down for tea in their compound in Syria…

After all, their limbic responses to their sensations of comradery are natural too as human beings. Isn’t the attachment to a mountaintop or a tree or a hawk gliding in the air operating on a similar neurological basis as the attachment of a jihadi to his fellow jihadis? Life-form to life-forms on this tiny planet.

And if we can’t make useful distinctions, then don’t we come crashing back to the brute and bare facts of this world all over again?

4. Meaning as Practice… or Manipulation?

Ken spoke of his experiences years ago on a kibbutz in Israel. He admitted that despite the moving times he had, in the end he could not commit to the supernatural beliefs of Orthodox Judaism. Hence he felt it was time to move on. Jaimey pointed out that even in a religious setting there will always be varying degrees of belief among the members. So religion can be seen as more of a practice than a belief system. Certainly, Reform Judaism, or the Unitarian Universalist Church, or Buddhism all take this more open-ended approach.

For Claudine, though, all of these religious traditions, even in their most moderate forms, are effectively manipulating people’s natural limbic needs and desires. She felt exploited by them when she was younger. Anne mentioned that she did too, and that was why she refused to attend church as a young girl despite her mother’s angry insistence. Jaimey tended to agree that this is what religions do, even in their moderate forms.

5. The Analogy to Romantic Love

I shared my friend Oliver’s recent suggestion that a religious commitment may not be that unlike the experience of romantic love. It is not subject to refutation or rationalization. It represents a surge of energy in one’s limbic system, and survives on that basis.

How I long for my limbic system to “light up” in the way that I have experienced romantic love, but in a larger context than a single couple! The ecstasy produced would be almost unbearable. Despite my resistance to supernaturalism, I do sometimes envy the limbic ecstasy that religion provides its followers. Even while I agree with Claudine and Jaimey that they are being manipulated.

So I am therefore left at an impasse: I want something “bigger” than the quotidian facts of my life, something to hold my suffering and inspire me in moments of frailty, but I don’t expect to find it. I want more than the social, the constructed, the fleeting and ephemeral, whatever it is we happen to generate while we “follow our bliss.” Yet I am too skeptical to subscribe to any unitary perspective on meaning (no New Soviet Man or even Burning Man acolyte, I). Even more than that, I see any such exclusive commitments to be damaging and stifling. The desire remains, though, even while I know it cannot be satisfied.

6. Imagine

At one point I shared with the group that in preparation for this meeting I had been reflecting on John Lennon’s much adored anthem for atheism and honesty, “Imagine.”

I told the group that after so many years of tearing up to this song and singing along in the car, I had only in the last few days realized that John Lennon let a flaw into it, a lie. “You may say I’m a dreamer,” he sings…

“You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you will join us

And the world will be as one”

Up until the last line, I am with him entirely. And I would like so much for even that last line to ring true!

But of course the world will never “be as one.”

We are diverse. We have conflicting interests. We have different taste, different agendas, different ideas. We will organize around passions that do not sit well together.

He may be right that world would be improved if we lived with “no possessions” and “above us only sky,” but it will never be unified by any one point of view. The truth is that this is a problem that cannot be resolved… because the problem/non-problem is our existence itself. (Jaimey’s turn to accepting the process as the answer comes to mind.)

7. Living in the Body and not the Brain

The hour was getting late, as another poet of our time would have it.

Nathalie, on her way out, remarked that the discussion was too “heady” for her. “I live more in here,” she said, gesturing with both hands down the length of her body. (Alas, as interesting as our discussions are in this group, I would venture that we all feel this frustration at times. It is so hard to speak to one another with our hearts fully open.)

Walden spoke of “stopping the chatter” of his mind and living with more of a direct connection to the world. This, he said, would also help him live his moral mantra to “not act like an asshole.” The chatter, in his view, leads to assholic behavior.

Towards the end of the meeting I played a song, Muddy Waters’ “Honey Bee.” After the song ended, I described how on Christmas day, with my wife Renée dozing on the sofa next to me by the fire, I had played this song on an old crackling LP.

I had felt touched by Muddy Waters’ representation on the guitar of the meandering, key-shifting buzz of a honey bee. I had also felt touched by the sadness underlying the singer’s acceptance of his “honey bee”… when she comes back home after making honey in so many places without him. The song seems to live in a space beneath the chatter. It definitely speaks to the body as well as the brain.

8. Some Questions Facing the Old New Way at this Juncture

We concluded with a brief conversation about the Old New Way as a reading group. After two and half years, where do we go from here?

Earlier in the meeting, of course, most of the members present had admitted to having very little interest in my desire to find and refine a non-supernatural language through these discussions. I had thought that we were in this together! But it turned out that for Yann and the others (with the possible exception of Setenay, and perhaps Don?), these meetings simply represent an opportunity to discuss intellectually substantive topics with like-minded people. For all they care, these meetings could be about calligraphy, as much as about love or utopia. The point is that we share a secular worldview, but unlike me they don’t feel a need to explore the ramifications of this worldview in terms of meaning and action.

So in some sense this called into question the nature of our group. Am I, as the organizer, alone in my Quixotic quest to find and refine a non-supernatural language of meaning for our present day lives? Does the rest of the group merely look onto my efforts with bemused affection? If so, does that realization steer us in a different direction? Or do we carry on as before?

We broke up in good spirits. All good inquiries.

It was nice to have Walden and his son, Alex, stay for a bit while I was putting away dishes. We spoke of suffering. As usual, Walden was not an asshole.

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