My boss (so to speak – the editor of Free Inquiry) Tom Flynn takes on the notion of “transcendence” in his editorial in the current issue.
In a 2013 Guardian blog post bewailing atheism’s poverty as a supporting matrix for secular ceremonies, British writer Suzanne Moore wrote: “We may find the fuzziness of new age thinking with its emphasis on ‘nature’ and ‘spirit’ impure, but to dismiss the human need to express transcendence and connection with others as stupid is itself stupid.”
If you’ve been looking for an elevator speech about the differences between religious and secular humanism, this is a great place to start. Religious humanists may well yearn to “express transcendence and connection with others.” How do secular humanists differ? While we cherish “connection with others” as warmly as anyone else, insofar as we are secular, we reject “transcendence” out of hand. For secular humanists, there’s simply no such thing as transcendence or the transcendent.
A core aspect of the secular view is the insight, rooted in science, that reality is mundane. Reality is the domain of matter, energy, their interactions, and (so far as we can tell) nothing else. On the secular view, then, words such as spirit and transcendence simply have no referents. To the degree that reverence is understood transitively—as denoting awe, veneration, or respect toward something beyond—it has no referents either. The domain of everyday experience can’t be transcended. There is nothing above it, nothing beyond or over it, nothing to revere . . . only reality. That’s not to say that secular humanists can’t have sweeping aesthetic or emotional experiences—but we understand them naturalistically.
How about “elevated”? Elevated emotions, language, experiences, that sort of thing.
That’s not a woo-ish or pseudo-goddy word is it? Poetry often uses elevated language, and so does some prose. (And then there’s the bathetic sort of prose that tries for elevated and just gets windy.)
Also I don’t think it’s exactly true that there is nothing beyond or above or over the domain of everyday experience – because sure there is: there’s the cosmos, for one thing, and all the particulars of the cosmos, for another thing (or rather billions of billions of things). They’re literally beyond the domain of everyday experience, and they’re beyond it in other senses too. They’re naturalistically beyond it, as far as I know, but still beyond it. Way the hell beyond it. Thinking about that can make you feel small and pointless and mournful, or small and pointless and exhilarated, or it can make you feel lost in infinity. What it doesn’t much do, I think, is remind you of fried eggs and getting batteries at Target and doing the laundry.