Your Neighbourhood Atheist
By Klasie Kraalogies
It appears that a lot of people have no idea what it means to be an atheist. Here is the secret – there is no such thing as a typical atheist. But here are some brief windows into the life, loves, and musings of this atheist.
Here I am
I get creakingly up, and stumble into some exercise wear (weekdays only). After an hour or so of sweating, I take a shower, dress, and start breakfast. I like variation with breakfast – sometimes it is just toast and coffee, other times an omelette with fiddleheads or chanterelles fresh from the boreal forest (when they are in season) – once again with coffee. Or crumbly porridge, which is like a dry, crumbly grits, served with butter, sugar and milk, the breakfast of my forefathers. Surprisingly, with coffee. Basically, breakfast is coffee with food. My morning coffee is always a homemade Americano – 2 shots of espresso from freshly ground beans. During the summer I take it outside, my aging dog accompanying me, and we enjoy the morning.
• • •
Two and a half years ago I published a series of posts on this website, detailing my journey to atheism. I have no need to rehash that – and I have no desire to be proselytizing for unbelief. Attacks on religion is, by and large, quite boring, and often motivated by the same insipid lifestyle choices that make people attack others for their political beliefs or choice of sports team. If one is truly confident, as I am, that there is no deity or transcendent entities of any sort, then religion becomes a way that humanity as expressed itself over time, and therefore rather interesting. It is a way of expressing world views and beliefs about morality. It has often been pointed out even here, those beliefs have changed and will continue to change. No one takes everything in say Scripture literally, because (1) they won’t be able to, and (2), there are multitudes of literal readings. What is real is a shared, by and large, understanding of morality. And that understanding is shared across boundaries. Only extremists shout that one can kill left, right, and centre – most of humanity do not agree. Morals have evolved and continue to evolve. So, in my day to day life, rational thinking about moral questions is de rigueur.
For example – do I enter this business deal or not?
First the easy ones:
- Is it legal?
- Can I perform my part?
- Can I trust the other party?
Then the ones that require more thinking:
- Will this harm anyone?
- Will this harm the environment?
- What are the long term affects?
These questions require deeper thinking because they are not simple and require nuance.
I often find that some religious people assume that once you are an atheist, you do what you want irrespective of morality etc. That is balderdash – because morality is evolved behaviour (with some humans a bit behind), and, rationally considered, harm to others harms me too, as everything is interconnected. The chickens will come home to roost.
• • •
I love both gardening and cooking, and nature in general. Being able to harvest something, albeit even something as simple as some thyme and rosemary from the garden, and use it immediately in a dish, is wonderful. In addition, exploring recipes and ingredients, flavours and more from all over the world, and recombining them in interesting ways, is a delight for the soul.
Food is glorious. I love sharing it with those I love. Wine and beer and scotch, when I can afford it, a delight for the palate and a blessing for the soul. But so is the beauty of gardens, of flowers and bees and vegetables and birds.
“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”
• Orson Welles
The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question ‘How can we eat?’ the second by the question ‘Why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘Where shall we have lunch?
• Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
• • •
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more
• • •
What is the meaning of life? There are many religious answers to this, though I am not dealing with those in this post.
Let us look at some of what helps me get to the answer. The Stoics said that the goal in life is living in agreement with nature. Humans, unlike all other animals, are constituted by nature to develop reason as adults, which transforms their understanding of themselves and their own true good. Good so far. By nature, of course they don’t mean the modern wild and untamed wilderness, but the nature of things, the material world. But they do go on to say:
…that virtue is the only real good and so is both necessary and, contrary to Aristotle, sufficient for happiness; it in no way depends on luck. The virtuous life is free of all passions, which are intrinsically disturbing and harmful to the soul, but includes appropriate emotive responses conditioned by rational understanding and the fulfillment of all one’s personal, social, professional, and civic responsibilities. The Stoics believed that the person who has achieved perfect consistency in the operation of his rational faculties, the “wise man,” is extremely rare, yet serves as a prescriptive ideal for all. The Stoics believed that progress toward this noble goal is both possible and vitally urgent.
A bit of an overstatement, maybe?
Epicurus on the other hand promoted a life free of fear and anxiety:
He regarded the unacknowledged fear of death and punishment as the primary cause of anxiety among human beings, and anxiety in turn as the source of extreme and irrational desires. The elimination of the fears and corresponding desires would leave people free to pursue the pleasures, both physical and mental, to which they are naturally drawn, and to enjoy the peace of mind that is consequent upon their regularly expected and achieved satisfaction.
The Stoics tended to be somewhat religious, the Epicureans promoted atheism. In my view, both got hold of some corner of the truth, but missed out in other ways.
Spinoza placed happiness in the realm of understanding God, but Spinoza, being something of a panentheist, defines God in a way that makes him synonymous with nature, with the Cosmos.
On the other hand you have Max Tegmark who states:
… when people ask about the meaning of life as if it were the job of our cosmos to give meaning to our existence, they’re getting it backward: It’s not our Universe giving meaning to conscious beings, but conscious beings giving meaning to our Universe.
Max gets close to the real thing here, but we need to abandon what the Stoics, Epicureans, Spinoza and other said. Assembling partial insights into coherent bigger insights is the luxury of us who came later in human history. Shoulders of giants and all that.
We give meaning, but our given meaning is so much better when we understand more of the cosmos – and ourselves. Then, placing ourselves within that realm, we find how to live. True pleasure demands virtue, as I highlighted in my marriage post recently. The pleasure of deep connection and companionship cannot be bidden just from desire. Similarly, producing a good meal requires time to select plants, the bountiful yield of this earth, the knowledge of experienced cooks, the testing of the palate, the patience of bringing the meal to fruition. And as everything is interconnected, making that pleasure, that joy, sustainable, requires spreading the knowledge, the care for others and the good earth, the lifting up of society, etc. Pleasure demands virtue, virtue demands empathy, and the understanding of an evolved yet intelligent, analyzed morality. Empathy requires the understanding that we humans have different tastes and gifts. One is the cook, the other the artist, yet the other the farmer.
• • •
Life is most often difficult. Yet most of its difficulties are the things we do to each other, mostly because of fear and ignorance. Understanding drives out fear. Grasping what is in your control, and what is not, can go a long way to bringing peace.
I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.
• Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
And then we die.
If the ages that came before we were born do not bring us fear, why should the ages that pass after we expire install us with dread? If one looks up at the night sky, and see the wonderous cosmos, remember that we came from the stars. We are made from “star stuff”. And eventually we will return to being star stuff.
So we live
Atheism is not a solution to everything. You still have the same problems as you have had before. The same struggles with love and loss, with finances and your own weaknesses. It does not make you better or worse as any other human. In preparing this post I did a bit of googling and man, the demonization out there of those who do not believe is frightening. But like most of these things, it is all nonsense. Humans are humans are humans. Hate will make us all less human, less than the joyous, intrigued, virtuous creatures we can be.
We already know that the language of the cosmos is mathematics. If we are but one universe in a multiverse, mathematics would be not only the lingua franca, but also the source code. As such, each of us are a set of equations, living in a in a world of infinite sets. Living in harmony with each other and the cosmos (and the multiverse?) – now there is a goal worth striving for. Be a giant on whose shoulders other giants can place their feet.
There have been times, lately, when I dearly wished that I could change the past. Well, I can’t, but I can change the present, so that when it becomes the past it will turn out to be a past worth having.
• Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight
• • •
And the greatest of these
I found myself late in life, well past the age of 40. It transpired that I had to wait till my mid forties before unconditional love presented itself. Regret at the lost years does not arise though. Loving someone for who they are, and being loved for who I am.
The soft bonds of love are indifferent to life and death. They hold through time so that yesterday’s love is part of today’s and the confidence in tomorrow’s love is also part of today’s. And when one dies, the memory lives in the other, and is warm and breathing. And when both die — I almost believe, rationalist though I am — that somewhere it remains, indestructible and eternal, enriching all of the universe by the mere fact that once it existed.
• Isaac Asimov, It’s been a good life
But the last words can go to the Immortal Bard, Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.