Sunday, January 31, 2010

Beating Hearts: The Humanist Symposium

As you might guess from the title of this blog, I am a bit obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe.

Imagine my surprise when I began to read through the submissions for this week's edition of the Humanist Symposium and came across Michael Campbell's clever post, "Edgar Allan Poe Should've Read Carl Sagan." Quoting from Poe's "Sonnet: To Science" (Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart?), Campbell points out that it is pure nonsense to imply that science and its emphasis on reality steals all beauty from life. Instead of imagining that science kills poetry, we should open our eyes to see the majesty of the cosmos. At the same time, Campbell acknowledges that poetry has a special beauty of its own, one that depends on its subjectivity to reveal "the complex nature of what it means to be human." (Those of you who want to redeem your faith in Poe might want to check out this essay which addresses the question of Poe's potential humanism/atheism.)

Steven Handel suggests that it is precisely this "poet's heart," beating solidly in each human, that gives our lives meaning. As he writes, "In some sense I find that creativity in humans is just as important as our need for air. What we express through art can give us our first sense of worth and purpose." After a thoughtful discussion of the ways creativity can enhance our lives, he offers many ways to be express one's inner life even for those of us who don't think of ourselves as artists.

In a fascinating essay over at Daylight Atheism, Adam Lee anazlyzes how creativity can be stifled by fundamentalism. He reviews a book about Christian pop culture and learns about the Christian version of Woodstock, called Cornerstone. One of the long-time participants at the music festival eventually abandoned his religious faith--as has a prominent Christian comedian. Lee argues that since "evangelicalism is a creed built on certainty and on having all the answers," it is incompatible with true and honest expression. In order for the poet's heart to beat, it "requires self-doubt, introspection, and self-questioning."

Recently Greta Christina headed out to the Edwardian Ball, where a weekend-long celebration of poet/author/artist Edward Gorey is a place where "Goth, steampunk, ballroom, and historical recreation society scenes collide in a magnificent explosion" complete with "live music, ballroom dancing, costumes, art, exhibitions, absinthe cocktails, trapeze performances, weird taxidermy displays, and more." (Now this is an event I am sure Edgar Allan Poe would not want to miss.) What Greta realizes is that, as she says, "the Edwardian Ball is a near-perfect example of what I think of as the atheist meaning of life." Go read her wonderfully-written and inspiring post.

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Of course, having a heart isn't just about personal expression and creative exploration. It is also about kindness and caring about all of humanity. There is a long history of people arguing that people who do not believe in God cannot be good people. As Ophelia Benson points out that old line of attack is still alive and well. She quotes an inflammatory article in the National Catholic Register which asks, "Why is other human life worth anything if there is no God?" Most humanists would argue that valuing human lives happens simply because we feel empathy and connection with all humanity. When you click through to Butterflies and Wheels, make sure you don't miss that great conversation going on in the comments.

Sometimes the critiques of non-believers feel mean-spirited. But at other times, we can tell our best interests are fully in the hearts of those who confront us.  Hemant Mehta (The Friendly [and Handsome] Atheist) shares with us a beautiful and hilarious letter to a young atheist from his Christian grandmother.

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Edgar Allan Poe wrote (in the sonnet mentioned above) that science is all about "dull realities." While he was wrong that science is dull and cannot show us beauty, he was correct that what is at the heart of science is reality--that is, what can be measured, what can be studied, what can be observed. Several of this week's posts concern this issue.

Secular Guy points out that it is totally unnatural to believe in the supernatural. As he says, "Isn't accepting the universe on its own terms more realistic than trying to change it by fruitlessly praying for miracles?" As the Secular Guy's wife argues, embracing the natural can set us free.

One way we can be set free is to recognize that our social conventions and beliefs hold us back from acknowledging scientific research. Andrew Bernardin chronicles how students in his class are asked to take sides on a heated issue (same-sex parenting) and use information from a textbook to support their positions. Invariably, many of the students attempt to use their own experiences and beliefs instead to back up their ideas. Bernardin finds himself saying again and again, "While that sounds true, is there any research that supports it?"  And now, new research has come out!

Russell Blackford presents a thought-provoking review of Robert Wright's The Evolution of God. Although Blackford makes it clear that the subject is fascinating and that the writing is compelling, he is disturbed by Wright's repeated hints that "the narrative of religion's cultural evolution may be evidence for something divine behind it all." At times, that "divinity" seems to refer to Natural Selection. At other times, it is "just something [still] unknown to us, something of great significance that stands in relation to us, who are ignorant of it." But Wright is being intellectually dishonest--or perhaps disingenuous: ignorance and imagination does not a God make.

David Michael tackles the same kind of question by asking what will happen to religion in the future. "Religion probably originates either from a desire to grasp the ungraspable and control the uncontrollable," he writes, "or to gain political power, or some combination of both." He predicts a future world of more interaction and more debate--and therefore less rigid orthodoxy. The consequence will be less powerful religion. As David Michael says, "In a post-religious world the appealing myths of religion will seem only that: appealing, and nothing more."

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Finally, you can't miss the generous heart of Chanson. She writes a post about attending a fundamentalist Mormon service and getting to know a group of people with beliefs and practices very different from her own. When meeting a "sister-wife" (in a sea of folks dressed as pioneers) in a polygamist family, Chanson stammers a bit and "explained to her that I was visiting the AUB church because I wanted to learn more about my Mormon heritage." Chanson continued that her great-great-great-great aunt was one of the wives of Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism. Looking back, says Chanson, "I figure I was either motivated by a pathological desire to fit in under any circumstances or I’m secretly proud of my strange Mormon-history claim-to-fame and figured that if anyone would be impressed by it, it would be the polygamists."

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If you still have it in you to read a bit more Poe, make sure you check out my favorite piece of his, The Tell-Tale Heart.

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The next Humanist Symposium will be hosted on Feb 21, 2010. You can find more information at Daylight Atheism or over at the carnival homepage. And if you are interested in hosting an upcoming Symposium, email ebonmusings at gmail dot com.


The Tell-Tale Heart said...

Thanks for the terrific introduction to the world of humanist blogs. How kind of Michael to share with you a link between Poe, science, and humanism!

Rick Levy said...

That was a very clever theme that you used to tie the symposium entriest together.

Chandelle said...

So weird that I'm reading this! I followed you over from Nourished Kitchen. I know Chanson, I'm ex-Mormon myself, I read the Main Street Plaza blog and I've been following these other authors as well. It's a small blog-world.


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