I had this little “atheist/ naturalist moment of transcendence” recently, and I thought I should try to write a little bit about it. I’ve been realizing that I spend a fair amount of my time as an atheist writer talking about what I don’t believe in — why I don’t believe in religion, why it often pisses me off, etc. I’m generally very much okay with that; in fact, I think it’s completely appropriate for the early stages of a social movement.
But I want to start talking a little more about what I do believe in. I want to share the positive side, too. This moment last weekend was a classic one, and I wanted to write about it.
I was at a wedding last weekend, a wedding of friends in the dance community that I’m part of, at which there was oodles of dancing. (This picture is from our own wedding, btw, as we didn’t take any pictures at our friends’.) I was dancing in a particularly good set, with a particularly good partner, doing a dance I’m particularly fond of, and I was getting that special transcendent brain/body fusion that I only ever get from dancing…
…and I was suddenly filled with this sense of wonder and awe — that out of atoms and molecules, here we were managing to create the experience of joy.
To me, the idea that consciousness and emotion and experiences like ecstasy and joy are physical, biological phenomena — it doesn’t diminish these experiences. On the contrary. It makes them more amazing, more awe-inspiring. We are made up of essentially the same stuff as rocks and water and dirt and stars… and yet, out of this stuff, out of these atoms and molecules, we can be aware of ourselves, and of one another, and of the world around us. And we can shape that awareness, and create experiences that bring joy and delight to ourselves and one another. We can make vows to stick together for better or for worse… and we can dance for hours celebrating those vows, using our bones and nerves and muscles to generate connection and meaning, transcendence and joy.
That is just fucking awesome.
Maybe we’ll understand consciousness someday. Maybe we won’t. But even if we do, I don’t think that understanding will have to diminish our sense of wonder and awe about it. After all, we pretty much understand how human reproduction works (although many details are still being filled in); and yet the fact that soon, a new person is going to become part of our family (my sister-in-law Cynthia is pregnant), a person who didn’t exist a year ago but who right now is in the process of coming into existence… I’m still struck dumb at how totally fucking cool that is. It’s a physical, biological phenomenon, and yet it almost overwhelms me at times with how freakishly miraculous it is. She’ll be a whole new person, with her own consciousness — and she’ll have her very own capacity to experience joy, and to bring it to others.
It just blows me away.
P.S. If you want to see some more writing about the positive experiences of being an atheist, I encourage you to check out the new Humanist Symposium at Daylight Atheism. It’s a carnival of positive atheist blogging, a roundup of blog posts that “celebrate the virtues of atheism and promote the philosophy of humanism as a beneficial, attainable way of life.” The host was kind enough to include my Why Are We Here? One Agnostic’s Half-Baked Philosophy piece in the inaugural edition — and I’m feeling very much honored, as I’m in excellent company. This is a seriously cool carnival, and anyone who wants to see some beautiful, thoughtful, positive atheist philosophies of life is strongly encouraged to check it out.