"-- beginning without beginning, water without a seam, or sleep without a dream, or dream coterminous with sleep and the sleeper" Thus begins the story of a journey as recalled by the great American poet and man of letters Conrad Aiken in his autobiography Ushant. I would hope for such a seamless, liquid-smooth, mercurial and lyrical beginning (without beginning) for this blog--and for a journey as long and productive as that recounted by Aiken. To begin the voyage by quoting Aiken is appropriate for me because he was one of the first writers who shook me out of the lotus-eater void of religion (and the sado-masochistic, hinterweltlich, morbid morass it makes of one's life) that I was drowning in for years. Shook me, I should say, out of my familiarity with the world I lived in: a familiarity that is facilitated by an all-encompassing, totalitarian worldview that offers a single explanation for everything: God. No question need be asked by the religious because the answer is given already: God. Nothing need be investigated: all phenomena--no matter how strange, how beautiful, how terrible, how irreconcialable--are explained and ignored under the aegis of a word: God. This terrible familiarity leaves only the hope for death and passage to the next world where eternity and paradise supposedly await: it is death worship.
Let me quote some passages from Aiken's story "Gehenna" that shook my familiarity:
"How easily--reflected Smith, or Jones, or Robinson," the story begins, "or whatever his name happened to be--our little world can go to pieces! And incidentally, of course, the great world; for the great world is only ourselves writ large, is at best nothing but a projection of our own thought, and of our own order or disorder in thought. It was a moment's presumption that led a genius to write that genius and madness are near allied; proximity to madness is not a privilege of genius alone; it is the privilege and natural necessity of every consciousness, from the highest to the lowest; Smith and Robinson are as precariously hung in the void as Shakspeare himself." And a few paragraphs later:
"What in heaven's name are these rugs? What in heaven's name are these walls, this floor, the books on my mantelpiece, the three worn wooden chairs, the pencils in a row on my red table? Arrangements of atoms? If so, then they are all perpetually in motion; the whole appearance is in reality a chaotic flux, a whirlwind of opposing forces; they and I are in one preposterous stream together, borne helplessly to an unknown destiny. I am myself perhaps only a momentary sparkle on the swift surface of this preposterous stream. My awareness is only an accident; and moreover my awareness is less truly myself than this stream which supports me, and out of which my sparkle of consciousness has for a moment been cast up." Startling and dangerous thoughts for a young and ignorant Christian mind! They planted their seed, which would soon grow and flower to crack and ultimately shatter the walls and bulwarks built by years of Christian indoctrination. These words offered a frightening, yet somehow tantalizing, alternative to the cosmological hubris of Christians: no the universe--unfathomable as it is--was not created only that humankind have his faith tested for a verdict either of eternal pleasure or eternal torture, no life did not evolve on the planet for over 4 billion years--in which 99 percent of species went extinct--only that God would send his son to die brutally on a cross in one small civilization of many on earth just two thousand years ago, no we are not the center of the creation of an omnipotent, just, benevolent, loving Creator. No, our existence is far more precarious than all that: for all we know, our heightened degree of awareness is a mistake, a momentary sparkle on the surface of a chaos of elements, an evolutionary dead end.
Only later would I come to trace these ideas to their sources in Freud and Lucretius: two of history's greatest atheists. Then my growing unfamiliarity with my world and my self--part of that process of self-examination and knowledge aquisition in which one comes to realize more and more that intelligence is the growing recognition of precisely how little one actually knows--was connected with a secular tradition of thinkers, poets, scientists, artists, etc. I went through the historical progression in micro: theist to deist, deist to agnostic, agnostic to atheist, and finally atheist to anti-theist: the fullest flowering of the mind's assault on the bars and chains of religion.
I have been in this place, quietly but happily, for several years now, without much of an impulse to take my private bliss into any public place; or, rather, to invite anyone into my wholly secular garden--no effigies of Jesus or Mary here!--invite them into my "green thought" in my "green shade." But, alas, it seems to me now that my garden--and, indeed, our great garden--is going to have to be defended willy-nilly: the parties of god are every day scheming and screaming and blowing themselves and us up in the name of religion. Meanwhile the sizable minority of atheists, agnostics, humanists, and secularists privately shake our heads and go our own ways, believing, de facto and de jure, in freedom of religion and the rest of the first amendment. Yet it seems that the time has come now that this minority exert itself more strongly the life and politics of our cities and countries. It is time that we offer some staunch opposition to the highly vocal and active minority of religious fanatics that threaten our freedoms and our planet. To adapt a phrase from another great atheist thinker: ATHEISTS OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!