img.latex_eq { padding: 0; margin: 0; border: 0; }

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Stopping to Think

The Nonbelieving Literati -- the atheist book club started by the Exterminator -- had a striking success of sorts this last round. John Evo, choosing the next book for the Literati to read, decided to pick a classic that would be completely new to him, and we loosely associated literate atheists settled down, each in our own corner, to read The Plague by Albert Camus.

The results were stunning -- see the Spanish Inquisitor for an overview. Pick a Nobel prizewinner and you get posts all over the show, some thoughtful, some critical, some on smaller themes, some on larger ones, and nearly all of them making powerful points. I was particularly impressed by the Lifeguard's post, which took some of the scariest ideas in the book and faced them head on, starting with the disconnect between the way we live our lives day to day and the moments when we actually stop to think about the meaning of it all:
Think about it. Every day you wake up. You wonder what you’ll have for breakfast. Should I just stop at Dunkin Donuts? No, I’m trying to lose some weight for the beach season. . . . All of these things cease to matter ten minutes later when a car comes crashing across three lanes, skidding 360 degrees on a rainy parkway just twenty feet in front of you on the way to work.

Life, it appears, has a funny way of reminding us just how irrelevant our everyday lives are.
Sometimes it seems like nobody bothers to ask the real questions. But the truth is, I think most of us do. We don't question our foundations all the time, but every so often, we all have to face the broader questions about where we find our motivation and what we want from life. Philosophy is more common than you think.

Art is more common than you think. When I was a child, for some reason I thought painting and music and dancing and the like were for kids. For kids, because they just might grow up to be good at them, and for the lucky few adults who actually did grow up to be real artists and musicians and dancers. But you know what? A few years back, I found my grandmother pulling out her set of pastels and carefully drawing a vase of yellow flowers. It wasn't much better than the good end of kids' drawings, and I thought it was a little weird for an old woman to be picking up a new hobby, but I figured it was kind of nice, really. Maybe you didn't have to give up that stuff when you got older after all.

A few months ago, I was getting into Nana's car and I had to shift a picture off the passenger seat. It was a wave, in glorious colourful blues and greens, the richness of the pastels in full display. I was impressed. And my grandmother? She smiled in that slightly shy, proud sort of way, as I might smile if you were kind enough to compliment one of my poems, and said "Actually, I'm particularly proud of that landscape on the back seat, there, the one with the red-roofed house. I think it's my best one so far."

If you put the work in, you really can get well beyond what your average mildly talented kid can produce. She might never sell a picture. I might never publish a poem. But we're both doing something worthwhile. Art is not just for those who might earn a living from it. Art is for those who might gain a little life from it.

Religion sometimes sells itself as a source of meaning. The alpha course is a good example. And whilst I don't advocate using your desire for meaning as a measure of the truth of a story, I think there's a lot to be said for organisations that give people the opportunity to explore these sorts of questions together. Here's one interesting example calling itself the School of Philosophy. I only have my brief exploration of their website to go by, but they appear to be refreshingly broad. Looking at this flyer advertising their Cultural Day, I conclude that they're not entirely free of what we skeptics refer to as 'woo', but nor does their entire programme rest on nonscientific mumbo-jumbo. Rather, they appear to be taking inspiration from all manner of thinkers from all times and places. Lack of dogma -- I approve. This sort of inclusive participation in the search for meaning and joy in life is a really good idea.

An atheist who seeks meaning or self-expression might take a course like this, or study poetry, or become fascinated by astronomy as a source of awe in the universe. The sort of philosophy that you learn in a university can be very mind-expanding, too.

If you're thinking of creating an atheist group in your region to discuss these sorts of things, though, might I suggest a book club?


Spanish Inquisitor said...

Nice, Lynet. Very nice.

I'm going to edit my "Carnival" and add this.

The Exterminator said...

Nice post, Lynet.

I don't think we can find meaning by searching for it. I think we can find meaning only by creating it.

One way to create it is to actually create it: to write, to compose, to perform, to paint, to sculpt -- to add something to the ongoing universal dialogue.

Another way to create meaning is to commune with those who have created it in the past or who are creating it today. We take their expressions and filter those through our own experiences. In other words, we "create" our own "art" by sharing in the art of others, and by altering that art to fit our own senses and emotions.

That's why, in my opinion, reading and discussing a great book is more likely to be genuinely life-enhancing than dozens of courses on some vague subject called philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Many people pseudo-consciously avoid philosophy to keep their sanity. Seriously. I suppose for most of us here, even the deepest most searching questions do little more than give a slight uneasy feeling. I know those who can be tipped into a major depression by philosophical talk. My wife is one. Frequently I have to interrupt her pillow talk with my "No dystopia at bedtime" rule. ;)

Many others seem to steer clear of such topics instinctively and if you raise such questions it's met with, "Ooh, that's a bit deep!" or "Hmm, very zen."

Frustrating perhaps, but I'd really rather people were happy. I can be happy and philosophical, but I accept that not everyone can.

"Hey, are you ok?"
"Uh yeah. I came over a bit philosophical for a minute there, but I'm ok now."

(Now I'm humming Karma Police...)

Anyway, thanks for making me think again. :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Lynet - some interesting food for thought.

I'm fascinated by the way our creativity is so much shaped by our view of the world, and our search for meaning and truth. The stories that people and cultures tell say a lot about what they are like, and what they believe.

L.L. Barkat said...

I like the thought that art brings us life. Certainly my writing brings me as much life as it hopefully gives away.

And book clubs, well. You know I love them, don't you?