Post the First, by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Dear Bleaders,
Hecht here. I’m new in these parts so will start with a few introductory introductions. To wit, I call anyone reading any blog I write my “bleader” for the obvious wordscrunch and also because I like reminding us that we are mortal. Also while often “breeder” means nesting heterosexual, blood is something many artists symbolically gush on the blank canvas of existence. So that’s you. I’m Jennifer. Jennifer Michael Hecht.
I used to blog a lot, over on the Best American Poetry site, and on my own weird little blog, “Dear Fonzie” so named because I admire both Arthur Schopenhauer and Arthur Fonzarelli and of the two of them I thought I could count on the Fonz to be a better listener. It’s hard to blog after the first thrill has worn off, so you really have to think about these things. What, I wondered, might set me in the mood for the world enough to chatter at her, and what I came to was the leathered arms of a bygone age, the curling scent of pomade, a little motorcycle love. I wrote odd things on that blog; posted curious photographs; indulged my predilection for funky diction. Then I decided to act my rum’s proof, not my shoe size, and start a serious blog which I called what I’ve long been calling my brand of radicalism: Poetic Atheism. But I only posted a few times before a penchant for not-posting overtook me and I took up with an orange ukulele. Youtube is teaching me how to play it. Up, down, chuck, up, down, chuck.
So what nut would guess, on the basis of this monument to entropy that is my blogging history, that I should sign on when asked to blog here, on the frontier, in the Secular Outpost? None. But I figured I’d say Yes now and think later on the principle that autumn demands action.
Then I read this memoir-essay by Jennifer Fulwiler on her trip from true teapot-mocking catholic-minded atheist to actual big-C Catholic believer and I wanted to say a few words and thought to myself: well now, self, why not sit yourself down and try to stay down till you’ve written something? And then, praise the baby jesus, I did. The trouble is, can I keep going? The temptation is to wander off to the kitchen or go play with the kids. But lookit, I have a full cup of coffee, no little sheep are bleating maa, so stay the hell with it. Right.
Here’s how JF opens her piece:
One thing I could never get on the same page with my fellow atheists about was the idea of meaning. The other atheists I knew seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we’re all nothing more than chemical reactions. I could never get there. In fact, I thought that whole line of thinking was unscientific, and more than a little intellectually dishonest. If everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death. And considering that the entire span of homo sapiens’ existence on earth wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen of a 5-billion-year-old universe, it seemed silly to pretend like the 60-odd-year life of some random organism on one of trillions of planets was something special. (I was a blast at parties.)
By simply living my life, I felt like I was living a lie. I acknowledged the truth that life was meaningless, and yet I kept acting as if my own life had meaning, as if all the hope and love and joy I’d experienced was something real, something more than a mirage produced by the chemicals in my brain. Suicide had crossed my mind — not because I was depressed in the common sense of the word, simply because it seemed like it was nothing more than speeding up the inevitable.
So yeah. I know, there’s a lot to say back to this, and who has the time, right? But the universe is nearly 14 billion years old and most people around here live to around eighty years. I’m just saying. But to get back to her.
She then marries a man who believes in God, an American Protestant, has a baby, and goes into a dark depression, specifically because she now has to cope with the *eventual* death of this beautiful child, as well as her own; then one morning she is looking at the baby and feels something a little transcendent, a little blip of an intimation of joy, and she follows it all the way to risk-my-life-to-avoid-contraception Catholicism.
I guess I read this essay in the first place because I have a ton of Facebonk friends who are atheists, because when you write a couple of books on atheism, atheists friend you on Facebonk, and so some of them posted links to this; which is why also you’ll see if you look that there are a ton of comments by atheists.
First thing I wanted to say was how a lot of the commenters said really fine sophisticated nuanced things in response. There were some Catholic defenders of the essay, with whom I shared some sympathy at times, but who seemed to be much more drawn to respond to the nasty comments than to the many subtle and considered responses (who had the benefit of being representatives of what seems to everyone to be the common sense truth, that thing about nature and atoms and no God).
Next I just wanted to say that unlike what might be called more materialist-minded atheists, I give a great deal of attention to questions like the ones JF raises above.
I believe the following formulation can be powerful help in sorting the problem: The feeling of meaning is sufficient to the definition of meaning.
I also do not believe that people have to make their own meaning. Meaning is a fierce presence. It comes from the fact of each other; it is human. You wouldn’t try to understand the meaning of a mole rat by holding one blind furry beast to the light, because they live in packs and are as organized as ants or the PTA. This is true even if you have never joined anything like the PTA. You are an ant. You are one of us. As I’ve said elsewhere, you do violent harm to the community if you kill yourself, there are tons of stats to prove it. I don’t want to stray to far from my topic here, but I believe that this insight constitutes a moral injunction, which is to say I have come up with a secular argument against suicide.
A hundred years ago Durkheim said the feeling we get in religious crowds, that we say is God, is in fact a powerful something outside ourselves, but it is the community, not something supernatural, that gives us these real experiences of the natural transcendent.
In all my books, but perhaps especially Doubt: A History, and The Happiness Myth, I talk about the blip of transcendent joy to which we humans are occasionally privy, and how we might follow it without losing too much common sense.
The thin tendrils of the joyous tone that sometimes rumbles through the body is real. In common speech we speak of depression and don’t imagine demons, but we don’t talk about sudden, unbidden moments of transcendence that come perhaps once or twice in a lifetime. Poets do, though, without leaping to God, sometimes explicitly saying that they themselves felt like a divine being, and without inferring anything from it about some hidden other world that has furniture and mothers and special hats for all the big boys. I kid. But seriously? Let’s listen to Yeats for a sec:
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man, 

In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup 

On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed 

My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less 

It seemed, so great my happiness, 

That I was blessed and could bless.
This is of course just a little part of his brill poem Vacillations in which he occilates and pendulates the possibilities of Christian life after death and decides the only reason to believe it is desire for it, and ends up the poem by dismissing the great Catholic apologist of his day, the Baron von Hugel, snapping, “The lion and the honeycomb, what hath Scripture said?/ So get ye gone von Hugel, but with blessings on your head.”
Why all the blessing? In the first verse it was to say hella clearly that what he felt was transcendence, a robust experience of sublime intensity. In the last it is the goodwill that the experience left him feeling for those who would call it an intimation of God. But Yeats didn’t buy it. Reality is enough. Reality is way better, even. Somehow the meat in your head thinks and is capable of joy. That’s stranger than any religious tenet, yet true.
There’s tons more I meant to say bleaders, and I will. Will willing. (I just made that up. It is funny. Will willing, instead of God willing. Get it?) But right now I gotta go get something else done with this sunny Saturday. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, all we bookish freaks gotta remember to go outside. So Go outside! Good. Superfun meeting you.
Jennifer

About Amy Lepine Peterson

Amy Lepine Peterson teaches ESL Writing and American Pop Culture at Taylor University, but spends most of her time making a home in the cornfields for her best-friend-husband and two (frankly adorable) children. Look for her with a french press of coffee and a book or a screen, plus a little one on her lap, thinking about education, mothering, theology, tv, movies, music, and sustainable habits of living.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12030785676230758243 Dan

    The problem to me isn't that in the face of death my life is meaningless, even though I feel as though it is meaningful; it's that I can't escape meaning something no matter how hard I try. I am condemned to meaning and the rest of the world is damned to it too.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Thank you Jennifer – a fine first post!
    ===============
    Fulwiler said…

    The other atheists I knew seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we're all nothing more than chemical reactions. I could never get there. In fact, I thought that whole line of thinking was unscientific, and more than a little intellectually dishonest. If everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it's all destined to be extinguished at death.
    =========

    In standard argument form:

    1. If atheism is true, then all great human achievements can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain (unstated assumption).
    2. If all great human achievements can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then all great human achievements are destined to be extinguished at death.
    3. If all great human achievements are destined to be extinguished at death, then life has no purpose.
    Therefore,
    4. If atheism is true, then life has no purpose (implied conclusion).
    ====================
    Comments:

    (1) is false. Atheism is merely the rejection of theism, so nothing follows from atheism about the possibility of reducing human actions to chemical reactions.

    But we can fix (1) by revising it (and the conclusion) to be not about atheism, but about materialism or naturalism.

    (2) is also false, if the death in view is some particular person's death. If I die but leave a billion dollars to a favorite organization (say the ACLU), then my financial achievement outlives me and would have significant impact on the lives of others after my death.

    But since the greater sweep of the history of the universe is in view here, 'death' might be plausibly interpreted as meaning something like the end of the human race, the 'death' of humankind.

    But if that is the intended meaning, it is not immediately clear (to me) whether premise (1)is logically relevant to premise
    (2). I would need to give that some more thought.

    Premise (3) seems to be the crux of the argument, so it is important to get clear about the what is meant by 'death'. Is it the death of individuals or the 'death' of humankind that is in view here?

    3a. If any great human achievements by person X are destined to be extinguished at the death of person X, then life has no purpose.

    3b. If any great human achievements by any human being are destined to be extinguished when humankind ceases to exist, then life has no purpose.

    (3b) seems implausible to me. Why must the impact of a great human acheivement outlast the human race in order to be significant?

    But if we go with interpretation (3a), then the objection I initially raised to premise (2) stands. So, it looks like there may be a problem of equivocation here, at least at first glance.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Jennifer — I second Bradley's comment: "a great first post!" I'm glad you're posting here and I'm happy to be one of your "bleaders."

    I think it's useful to make a distinction between cosmic purpose ("meaning of life" or objective purpose) and personal purpose ("meaning in life" or subjective purpose). Not only is cosmic purpose unnecessary for personal purpose, but attempts to deny this point usually amount to an emotional (i.e., subjective) appeal to believe in cosmic purpose (i.e., objective), which strikes me as a rather ironic method for defending objective purpose.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    Welcome, Jennifer.

    Jeffery, I would make the distinction a bit differently. To say that a hammer has a purpose is to say something about the intentions of the hammer-maker, not the intentions of the hammer (because a hammer has no intentions). To say that a person has a purpose can be to say either (a) something about the intentions of the person-maker (e.g. God), or (b) something about the intentions of the person. These are two distinct senses of "purpose".

    Divine creation may give us a purpose in the first sense. But this sort of purpose has to do with God's intentions, not ours. What is it to us? If Jennifer Fulwiler knew that a god had created her solely for the purpose of his own amusement, would that give her the sense of "purpose" or "meaning" that she craves? Presumably not. What she presumably craves is to have some aims in her life, i.e. some purposes in the second sense. And we cannot help but have aims in our life. That is the human condition, arising from our genetic inheritance and life experience. At a bare minimum we have the aims of breathing and eating. But we have all sorts of other aims as well.

    Some, but not all, of our aims arise from our beliefs. It's true that theistic beliefs are likely to give theists some aims that atheists don't have. One might be the aim of seeing that God's will be done. Such religious aims can play an important part in believers' lives. And it seems plausible that atheists are, on average, likely to be somewhat more aimless than theists. But the idea that there can be no purpose without God seems to be based on taking "purpose" in the wrong sense.

    The word "meaning" is even more problematic than the word "purpose". When people talk about life having a "meaning", they're not using the word in the same sense as when they talk about the meanings of words. This "life's meaning" sense is extremely vague. I don't think it means just "purpose". For Jennifer Fulwiler, "hope and love and joy" aren't "real" if they have a purely material cause. For her, it seems, "meaning" involves a belief about how these feelings can be more than just states of the brain, and presumably that means some sort of dualistic belief involving a "real" me, separate from my brain. Any belief that does not involve dualism would probably not be a belief in "real" meaning, as far as she's concerned.

    Our own Jennifer writes: "The feeling of meaning is sufficient to the definition of meaning."

    I'll interpret that to mean this: to have meaning in your life is to have a feeling of meaning. I think that's a reasonable way of putting it roughly, though I would prefer to say that to have meaning in your life is to have a certain sort of mental state that leads you to feel your life has meaning. But what kind of mental state is that? That's the question I've tried to answer above, suggesting that it's a state involving certain sorts of aims and beliefs.


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