Every book I got for Christmas this year was just what I wanted, including The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now. That didn't surprise me. I'd ordered each myself, then gave them to my wife to wrap up.
Such is akin to one of the book's central themes. We can either view meaning as coming from the outside, God being a commonly-perceived source, or from inside our own selves.
These aren't hard and fast dichotomies, of course, just as my book selecting wasn't entirely of my own doing.
I think a "Best Books of 2011" list in the New Yorker clued me in to The Joy of Secularism. Likewise, even if the meaning of life is considered to reside in some objective external reality, we humans have to subjectively perceive it somehow if that meaning is to become, well, meaningful to us.
I've only read the first two chapters in the book, an introduction by George Levine (the editor) and a terrific essay by Philip Kitcher, "Challenges for Secularism." But it's already clear how special the book is: a highly appealing blend of excellent writing, clear thinking, and practical wisdom.
(Plus, I love how the cover mirrors the checkered look of "The Joy of Cooking," a book I grew up with as a kitchen must-have.)
Levine has a simple goal. He's out to show the positive side of giving up a belief in the supernatural. When gods, spirits, souls, magical powers, and such are discarded, what's left can be, and often is, absolutely wonderful.
Joyful, in a word.
This book was conceived and largely developed from a totally secular perspective. It will explore the idea that secularism is a positive, not a negative, condition, not a denial of the world of spirit and of religion, but an affirmation of the world we're living in now; that building our world on a foundation of the secular is essential to our contemporary well-being; and that such a world is capable of bringing us to the condition of "fullness" that religion has always promised.
...I want to establish an affectively and intellectually powerful case that a secular world is not only worth it -- that life is indeed worth living -- but that with all the inevitable pains and losses, it can be wonderful, indeed, at times joyous, and that a sense of that wonder enhances the possibility of improving it.
Philip Kitcher's kick-off essay is so richly thought-provoking, it's tough to single out what hit me hardest as I read it. I guess it was (1) meaning is more meaningful when it comes from us, and (2) our connection with the cosmos is best conceived as horizontal, rather than vertical.
Here's some Kitcher quotes that I liked a lot.
As already noted, secularism removes purpose from the cosmos, by denying that there is an unfolding plan, envisaged by a divine creator. The removal renders impossible a particular way of conceiving the significance of human lives. You can no longer think of your life as directed toward filling some small (probably infinitesimally tiny) part of the divine scheme of things.
What is lost here is the thought that a specific task -- perhaps that of recognizing the greatness of God and working to bring about his will on Earth, as is best in your particular situation -- has been assigned to you, and that this assignment provides your life with direction and meaning. A first secularist response would deny that this is any loss at all, and would assert that, on the contrary, we gain significance for ourselves once we recognize the importance of choosing our own pattern and our own projects.
...Thoroughly secular people can interpret the purpose of their lives, not through some "vertical" links to a dimly understood transcendent reality, but through "horizontal" connections to a natural world that is vaster than their own individual existence.
Recognition of yourself as part of a world, including most importantly other human lives, on which your actions make an impact, the epiphany can be a rich source of broader connections without any presuppositions about the supernatural. The religious claim of especial depth or richness in these experiences is thus exposed as the residue of misguided presuppositions that ought to be foresworn.
I really resonated with Kitcher's challenging of the religious contention that our lives have to be exceptional in order to be well-lived. "In the wake of Christianity, however, it is easy to be haunted by the thought that nothing less than a permanent imprint on the universe is enough."
This isn't only a Christian notion, of course.
Hindus see the goal of life as rejoining the soul, Atman, with God, Brahman. Buddhists aspire to enlightenment, perceiving the cosmos as it truly is. So whether a religious faith is of West or East, a true believer is under a hell of a lot of pressure to make his or her life into something of cosmic significance.
During the thirty years or so when I was an active member of an India-based spiritual organization, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), I used to enjoy feeling special.
I was sure that before too long (even four lifetimes is a blink of the eye compared to eternity) I'd be privy to secrets of the cosmos that couldn't be realized by anyone except the few people fortunate enough to meditate under the guidance of a Perfect Living Master, God in human form.
I'd stand in line at a movie theatre, waiting to buy tickets, and look at my fellow movie-goers, thinking "They aren't on the divine path that I am; they aren't going to be taking the journey of the soul that I am; I'm so fortunate to know the truth that escapes them."
Standing right beside me would be one of the people I was thinking about, my wife. She hadn't been initiated by my guru. So she was doomed to remain in maya, the illusion of materiality, until her karmas improved enough to merit God's/Guru's grace.
Now, my attitude back then seems like total bullshit. I had distanced myself from the world and the vast majority of other people, choosing to identify with the small number of RSSB disciples scattered around the planet. I'd set my sights on an exceedingly vertical goal, a transcendence of physical reality into spiritual realms of existence.
Last Saturday, Christmas Eve, my wife and I planted a Golden Willow on the shore of a commonly-owned lake in our neighborhood. It took us quite a while to haul the heavy container from our car, dig a suitably large hole, position the tree properly, crumble the dense clay soil (almost like modeling clay) into a root-friendly composition, and give the tree a welcoming drink of lake water.
In my true-believing past, I would have viewed this volunteering as an act to be dedicated to God, my guru, or my store of good karmas. On Saturday afternoon, planting the tree simply seemed like a good thing to do. It'll take many years or several decades for the willow to grow into its full glory. We might be alive to see it. We might not.
Doesn't matter. We enjoyed planting the tree. Other people will enjoy seeing it. And we recognize that some night a beaver might enjoy chomping it down (but first the critter will have to get through a beaver barrier that we'll put around the trunk).
Realizing that a meaningful life can be filled with simple small things, rather than complex cosmic accomplishments, is a godsend to me. Except, god didn't send that realization. And that's what makes it so satisfying.