Friday, September 09, 2011

The joy of unbelief

In a recent New Yorker, James Wood reviews a new collection of essays called The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, edited by the literary scholar George Levine and published by Princeton University Press. Wood doesn't mention, as I recall, the play on the title of The Joy of Sex, but apparently Levine's book has something of the same theme: You'll have more fun in life if you shed your theological inhibitions and let it all hang out.

Well, I'll have to read the book when I get back to my nook in the college library, but as a reasonably joyful secularist I'd have to say that I haven't noticed secularists are generally any happier than religious believers. If the goal of life is to be joyful, then religious people might even have an edge. At least they can anticipate future happiness to make up for present woes.

No, my reason for being secular is purely intellectual: In 75 years of reading and reflection I haven't found a shred of evidence to convince me that all that stuff I was taught as a child is true. The vast majority of religious people believe in the truth of the religion into which they were born, which should give any such person pause for thought. Rather, I find far more compelling the painstaking development of empirical science as a guide to reality, especially as supplemented by the principle of parsimony. I'm a secularist because my head tells me to be that way, not because I want to be happy.

Head trumps heart.

Still, like anyone else, I'd rather be joyful than sad. And part of being happy is having a story that gives meaning to a life. Theists, of course, have such stories. Their stories have ancient origins and are generally codified in scriptures and traditions, fixed in stone. Contemporary secularists have a story too, an evolving story that reaches across cosmic space and geologic time. The secular story provides a firm armature on which to hang a life, but it doesn't do much to affirm the cosmic significance of an individual life. There is nothing in the scientific story of the world that offers the equivalent of the believer's conviction that the Creator of the Universe has him or her uniquely in mind.

So we scratch out our happiness as best we can -- from love, from physical intimacy, from poetry and art, from the feel of earth underfoot and wind on the skin, from a cold beer and anchovy pizza, from doing good and resisting the crasser temptations of greed and power, from courage in the face of oblivion.

In all of this, we are pretty much just like everyone else.