A friend told me last week that he recently, and suddenly, became an atheist—and wished he wasn’t…
I had seen him move from conservative Christian, to a Christian with a more liberal belief about scripture, to something even more general over the past few years. He said he was thinking a few days ago and realized he didn’t even really believe the last bit, and let it go.
What intrigued me most was his expression that he wished he wasn’t an atheist. He said he’d like to believe, but just didn’t really see any supporting logic that would make such a thing reasonable to believe. I asked him what exactly he’d like to believe. Turns out it wasn’t so much about God, as it was the belief in immortality. God would be some guy hanging around on the side there, but the main point is that you’d be living forever, and that you’d get to see others who have died.
Admittedly, I think that would be pretty neat too.
We all have that desire, and it comes from the fact that we are organisms descended from others who have survived after countless generations where those who did not have a deep-seated instinctive wish to survive didn’t try as hard and perished before contributing as many offspring to the following generation. In other words, everything alive today really, really struggles to live because those lineages that didn’t have that desire died off—probably long before we even creepethed out of our ancestral oceans. Unfortunately, that explanation for our desire has completely zero relevance to anything that would affect the likelihood of an afterlife being true. Mix that desire with an intelligence capable of imagining what it wants to believe, and you’ve got a superstition cocktail.
My friend showed exceptional intellectual integrity and honesty in admitting his earlier beliefs had been based on things that aren’t necessarily wise ways to establish them. Now he has before him the task of rebuilding a perspective, a sense of meaning, purpose, and value within his new worldview. It’s a process not exactly the same, but similar to the one I went through years ago, and it can be an exciting process of wonder and discovery—one I am still hopefully on.
I told him that at some point, we can come to terms with our mortality. After all, death is no real mystery—I’ve been dead before. I was dead from about 13 billion years ago until 1971, and I don’t recall it being all that bad.
There is yet another way to view of the universe, or a perspective—no, it’s something more. But it’s one that a person can attain in which the question of death takes on a whole new light. Attaining that perspective is kind of like seeing the three-dimensional image in one of those scrambled pictures. It looks like nothing at first, but you stare at it until finally it all comes together. When it does you have an “ah ha” moment. In this case, when that happens it feels like a religious experience—what I call profound experience, or what psychologist Abraham Maslow called peak experience. I can describe it here, but those who have had it know what I’m talking about.
I first had that experience in the mid-90s. I was reading about complex systems theory. A person can read about the interdependence and interconnectedness of things, about how the universe is one big system of cause and effect. A person can look at time as a tapestry, but there is a difference between knowing something intellectually, and finally grokking it in a way that it is perceived directly. When that happened for me, it was like stepping outside and catching a view of an amazing sunset by surprise—I felt my heart beating. It sends chills down your spine. It sticks with you, and it shapes how you think from that point on. You seek it out time and time again, and you seek refuge in it. You try your damnedest not to forget it, and not to let the world distract you into thinking in those old ways again.
One can easily see how religious figures in the past have felt like they had a revelation from a higher being. One of the next sensations is a sense of great concern that you’ll never be able to communicate the experience to anyone else. But that concern, too, is just a stage.
There have been some depictions in film which have tried to communicate the concept. In Phenomenon (1996), George Malley (John Travolta) attempts to explain to the children the place his death has in the world, with the example of an apple left on the ground, versus one that is eaten and becomes a part of us. In V for Vendetta (2005), Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) has an experience where he sees all of the film’s events, from the personal to the political and several seemingly-unrelated incidents, as all interconnected. This sense of interconnectedness is difficult to explain, but the film does a good job of communicating the emotional and conceptual content of such revelations. In the abstract film The Fountain, Hugh Jackman portrays three men in three different time periods (centuries in the past, the present, and centuries in the future), searching obsessively for immortality in some form, be it mystical or technological. Near the end, the three visions come together to reveal something disturbing and wondrous at the same time: disturbing because of what it means to our sense of ego and wondrous because of the larger vision it communicates. The nature of that larger vision is not fully communicable through the written word alone. It’s not something you’re going to read in a paper and get fully through language and conceptualization. While film is also no substitute for first person experience, the multimedia format, when it is presented well, goes much further in getting across the larger vision to which I refer. This is why I recommend viewing films like these if the reader hasn’t.
In The Watchmen, Jon Osterman has become a being, Dr. Manhattan, that can experience his past, present, and future simultaneously. He naturally sees all events as one and interconnected, speaking of all of them in the present tense. This view affords him an extreme detachment from all things, even regarding life itself as irrelevant by the standards of value people typically use. But eventually, he perceives the beauty of life as an integral part of the intricate system we call the universe. He speaks of billions upon billions of tiny interactions that lead to specific forms, and his chest heaves as he struggles to describe the miracles under his nose. This sort of experience is required of “the One” in The Matrix. Neo is told that being the One is like being in love—no one can tell you when you are, you just know it. Eventually Neo has an experience that is portrayed visually, but which illustrates a non-visual event where what we have learned intellectually is perceived directly and fully internalized. Understanding becomes connecting and that “ah ha” moment ensues. Before Yoda told us we must “feel” the Force around us, Heraclitus felt it as he saw the intricate patterns of complexity woven in the natural world around him—the same perceptions that would inform Taoist philosophy, and that would be investigated more rigorously in complex systems theory and other interdisciplinary fields of study.
But complex systems theory is to this phenomenon what music theory is to the spiritual experience of music. You may have a Ph.D. in music, but nothing you learn intellectually can equate to the crescendo of a magical piece of music as it touches the soul and leaves one breathless. But not merely breathless, for the event is not merely an emotion one. It creates a perspective and a new way of evaluating the world, our place in it, and an appreciation of the beauty of all things. Concerning death, Chuang-Tsu said:
(to cry at one’s death) is to evade the natural principles and increase human attachments… those who accept the natural course and sequence of things and live in obedience to it are beyond joy and sorrow.
Notice that he doesn’t say, “will be joyful,” but are “beyond” both joy and sorrow. Here those two words refer to the ups and downs of our immediate circumstances. We have what could be called “big mind,” and in that we understand intuitively that nothing we value, be it friends, family, even our own lives, is possible without that grand flux of ever-changing, interdependent causes and effects called Nature. The only way to curse death is to curse the very thing that makes our existence possible in the first place. After people have had that intuitive-level experience of seeing the world in this way, they don’t need to convince themselves of this intellectually. They naturally tend to see it this way, or they can with some reminding perhaps. When they do, it becomes immediately obvious how silly it makes us to curse our mortality, and how sadly blind to some of the more beautiful aspects of the universe. This “beyond joy and sorrow” is what I experienced at my mother’s passing. It was a sense of acceptance rather than sorrow, and an appreciation for the time had, but it wasn’t joy. It washed over me like a profound and reverent moment, leaving me neither in despair nor in elation, but in the presence of some other sensation—something beautiful and awful.
Of course, death will always be dispreferred, and we will do what we can to avoid it and prevent it in others. To not do so would be improper and inhuman. This is not contradictory when one appreciates the distinction between setting our priorities and actions on one side, but understanding their limitations and roles within the grander scheme of things. This brings an appreciation and acceptance of what we can control and what we cannot. It doesn’t mean we don’t try to do what’s right, try to survive and thrive, and so on. But it’s about our internal economy – our sense of well being and a healthy outlook without attachment to particular results of efforts not fully within our control.
Ultimately one can develop a calm and appreciative acceptance of the workings of Nature and our finite place within it. Once I was flying on a plane, looking out the window. I was thinking about the plane crashing—not in a scared way, but just something I do from time to time. This is a Stoic practice of imagining negative things calmly, to keep the full spectrum of possible events in mind at all time, and keep myself accustomed to the transitory nature of life. As I imagined the situation, I thought to myself:
This view I’m witnessing now, looking down on the clouds from above, is an experience that many throughout history would have given everything they own to have once. Plato wrote of Socrates speculating what it would be like, and he wasn’t far off. So, I’m pretty fortunate. So much so, that of all the life forms that have lived on this planet over the billions of years of its life, I can’t think of a life form I’d rather be. Not only do I enjoy my consciousness and intellect, but human beings have a better standard of living than most animals in the wild, living in the elements, fighting for survival, hunted by predators, and scrounging for their next meal.
Even among humans, I live in the best time yet experienced. In no past time would it be as easy to live than in the present. And even here in the present, I live in one of the most affluent nations on the planet, enjoying some of the best standards of living among human beings anywhere. And even within my nation, although I am not rich by American standards, I am by any reasonable global standard. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of life forms on the planet, throughout its history, have enjoyed the quality of life I have. Now in my 30s, I have lived to an age not far from the life expectancy experienced by most humans before the 20th Century. Given all this, how incredibly ridiculous it would be for me to think I’d have anything to complain about were I to die today.
To live without fear. To live without attachment, without greed, without dependence. To live with an intellect capable of thought without bias, perception without delusion, including self delusion. As stated in the song “10,000 years” by Live, “If all of the ignorance in the world passed a second ago, what would you say?” None of us have achieved this, but at times it is possible for us to glimpse it, and that is something worth working toward. Many ancient philosophies that focused on Nature are good at providing a perspective that helps us see a larger reality beyond our egotistical concerns.
Returning to some of the wisdom of these ancient philosophies may be an important option for many Americans in the coming years. It seems that Christianity has been in decline in the U.S. According to religioustolerance.org, “the percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Christians dropped from 86% in 1990 to 77% in 2001… an unprecedented drop of almost 1 percentage point per year.” Atheism and nonreligiousness are also on the rise. Many secularists are encouraged by this, but my encouragement is tempered by concern. As people leave one faith system it is important that they not simply be “lost souls” but that they have something of meaning, that is compatible with their new paradigm of seeing the world and their place in it.
On the Houston Church of Freethought’s community forum, one concerned person wrote that he needed to find a therapist to help him because he’d been feeling down. He said:
I mean, if you believe that you’re going to live in eternal peace and fluffy-cloudness in Heaven—then your shouldn’t really have much need for motivational self help. Whereas, if you believe there’s no God and, that you’re just going to die and rot, and have as much significance as an ant… well then you might need a little psychological boost once in a while.
This shook me, and related in my mind to what my friend had said about his concern. Consider in the above, again, how the point isn’t really about God, but more about “just going to die and rot.” There is also a second concern in this which has to do with “significance.” We want to know that our lives will have meaning or purpose, and for that we look to an external objective source with which we can be compared. Further, within that objective framework, we want to be the hero of the story. But Chuang-Tsu noted on this:
But now that you have emerged from your narrow sphere and have seen the great ocean, you know your own insignificance, and I can speak to you of great principles.
In other words, we cannot comprehend great principles until we know enough about the world to see that we are not the center of it. But when we realize we’re not going to live forever, that we aren’t the main character of the story, then we see our insignificance. While that insignificance may be frightening, it can be supplanted by something else—for only when compared to something tiny does something else seem huge, and there we see the magnificence of Nature and the beauty of living life for the sake of the experience of life itself. Each moment is not a means to some other end, but an end unto itself. Every moment has value in itself and it is in that amazing universe that we experience that moment. It will never come again, but it had value just for that reason. All beings share in that conscious experience of life, and that is the universal.
If you haven’t had the kind of profound experience I’m talking about, then all this “everything is connected” talk is going to sound insufficient to make up for becoming worm food. Or, worse, it may sound to a secularist like new-agey nonsense. I’m not proposing some method by which we become like lemmings, completely unconcerned for our own lives. That would not be a very flourishing existence either. But there is a difference between acting according to rational goals, and being consumed by them or lost in obsession with them. Two people may outwardly be acting in the same manner, under the same conditions, yet one is miserable and the other content.
But merely having profound experience is not, alone, sufficient. Experiences of this sort can vary widely and convey a wide range of concepts. If not pursued further, they can be as fleeting as a wild drug-induced hallucination at a party and then discarded. They are generally far more effective when integrated with a philosophical framework and ongoing practices. How is it that these perspectives and practices lend themselves to an acceptance of our mortality? If these experiences are so wonderful and the universe so amazing, then wouldn’t that engender an even deeper feeling of wanting to continue conscious experience within it?
This form of “spiritual gluttony” or “attachment to detachment” can happen to people as well. But generally, perceiving the universe as I’ve described engenders two things: first, an appreciation for the beauty of an ever-changing impermanent cosmos, and secondly a sense of ourselves as just a small part of that. It’s one thing to begin with the mature realization that you can’t change some things, and you’re going to die, so you might as well learn to accept it. But when you add to that a deep, intuitive perception of the awe and beauty of the whole thing, it makes it easier to accept reality as it is, and even embrace it. We fall in love with the universe. That is the only way we will ever have a chance of living harmoniously within it. Living well is not a ‘strategy’ – it is a relationship. That includes all the so-called “bad” and so-called “good”, for better or for worse. With each step, our pressing of foot to the ground is like taking the hand of our beloved. We begin to get a deep internal confidence that the universe will unfold just as it should – the only way it could. There is no “should have”, no “what if”; no “if only”. There is simply: is. And, in this, our own life path is wrapped up inseparably from the stream of the universe – both whole, perfect, and the same.
There is a process addressed in loving-kindness meditation and other techniques, and which was called appropriation (oikeiosis) in ancient Stoicism. It is a process where your sense of identity begins to migrate beyond yourself, to those around you and further out like concentric rings. As that sense of identity expands, we find that our biological survival becomes less of an issue. We look at things less temporally, and more in terms of quality over quantity. We come to fully internalize the notion that it is not living long that matters so much as living well. So, yes, these perspectives and practices lead to a greater joy for life — but it is a less self-centered joy, and that acceptance of our finite place within the universe is part of that increased capability.
This is not something readers can fully “get” by reading an article (or by reading all the volumes of human wisdom in existence for that matter). It’s not a perspective you can fully take on deeply merely by choosing to. It’s something that can only be appreciated fully by doing it — by engaging in the practices over time. But if you want to pursue it, I’d recommend keeping an opened mind, thinking not only analytically, but creatively, and then get out there: (1) read a lot of ancient philosophy, especially Taoism, Buddhism, and Stoicism, being tolerant of cases where something is stated that you might not fully agree with; (2) put it into practice, both applying specific practices, but also in everyday life; (3) have lots of conversations with others; and (4) experience new music, art, stargazing, and other awe-inspiring things.
Having engaged in this sort of process, I am convinced that there are many more aspects of a fully robust life practice waiting for us to explore. Aspects which are compatible with our naturalism and empiricism, but which tap into something we’ve yet to harness, and deal with issues and questions that have confronted all people throughout history. Naturalist thought must grow to encompass these aspects of what it means to be human—if it is to fulfill the needs of people and address the concerns of their personal life practices. But in order to do so, we naturalists and Humanists must be willing to go outside our traditional comfort zones and be willing to look boldly at all of the wisdom human history has to offer us, without flinching or turning away simply because, mixed into that, is a plethora of older ideas through which we may need to sift. Most importantly, we need to do more than discuss these perspectives academically. The key is to put the perspectives into practice in our lives and learn through experience which are effective and which are not.
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This article originally appeared in The New Humanism under the title “Adieu to Immortality”.
2 thoughts on “Embracing a Natural Life”
I have been following D T Strain for some time and have read this wonderful article before. I feel priveleged and delighted to join
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Thanks so much for your kind remarks and your support Christopher! Once the membership functions are complete and we formally launch, maybe you'll be our first member! 🙂