In praise of the mundane

Tom Flynn at the CFI blog is not in favor of talk about “transcendence.”

In a Guardian blog, New Humanist commentator Suzanne Moore has — if inadvertently — defined the key difference between religious humanists and secular humanists in a very few words.

Bewailing the poverty of atheist (particularly, New Atheist) argot when it comes to offering a supporting matrix for meaningful secular ceremonies, Moore writes: “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.”

There’s the difference between religious and secular humanism in its essence — in a nutshell, if you will. Religious humanists yearn to “express transcendence and connection with others.” Secular humanists are fine with expressing connection with others, but inasmuch as they are secular, they attach great importance to the recognition that … hang on now … there is no such thing as “transcendence” or “the transcendent.”

Essential to the secular view is the insight, rooted in science, that reality is mundane. It’s the domain of matter, energy, and their interactions — and nothing else.

And further, I would add, that that is where our business is. Our business is not with “the transcendent” because it’s here, instead. We need to pay attention to this world, the real world, the mundane world, the world that has such creatures in it…because it’s where we are. We’re no good to each other if we’re concentrating on imaginary Beyonds. We can’t understand this world properly if we think it’s underneath a better, brighter, more special one Out There Somewhere.



  1. screechymonkey says

    Moore writes: “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.”

    Gee, and here I thought calling other people stupid was something only those uncivil gnu atheists did.

  2. says

    I totally agree that we need to focus on the here and now. For that is what gives our lives meaning. But in the grand scheme of things it matters not for it shall all be in vain. The knack is to be aware of that but still try to do ones best. I myself find it very liberating not to be afraid of death. In fact I welcome it when it finally does visit me. Long as my passing is pain free then I shall have no qualms. What is it anyway but a transference from one state to another ? Meantime one obeys the Golden Rule and finds some meaning and as long as you focus on that you cannot go wrong. Of course you will have to reference the bad as well as the good but that is a given. Do not try to achieve perfection. Settle instead for being less imperfect. And when the time does eventually come just let it be. For then one is entering a state od eternal release from all suffering. Oh how I envy the dead. It is the living that one should feel sorry for but what can or do but soldier on. C est la vie as the French would no doubt say. Indeed

  3. chigau (違う) says

    The human need to express connection with others is taken care of by the fact that we are connected with others and we express it by almost everything we do in our daily lives.
    The human need to express *transcendence* doesn’t exist.

  4. John Wasson says

    We shouldn’t let religious humanists usurp terms like ‘nature’ and ‘transcendence’.

    The “domain of matter, energy, and their interactions” is not totally reductionist. Something as mundane as thermodynamics is ’emergent’ as indeed one might regard life and our realization through evolution. Some insights (Noether’s theorems, the Dirac equation, …) might be described as ‘transcendent’ in contexts rooted in science. The secular view rooted in science can define limits where reality becomes idiosyncratic for mundane but complex systems like climate, say, the Lorenz butterfly, or consciousness and cognition and maybe at a fundamental physical level (e.g. Lee Smolin, “Temporal naturalism”,

  5. Brian E says

    The only time Transcendence sort of made sense to me was after getting the gist of Kantian transcendental arguments. Arguments that transcend the particular and use those particulars to prove a general point (or is that induction?) I.e. the ability to reason proves that we all must reason, blah, blah, etc. Not that I think much of them.
    It’s like spirituality. I love looking at the stars, especially when I was a wee bairn in the country, and the whole sky was smeared with light, and this and that shooting stars. Now, in the city, only the bright stars are visible, if at all. Go Crux Australis! And that seems to me the only think that spirituality can mean in relation to reality. I mean, if looking outside yourself, at the universe, or people as multifarious, is what you mean by spiritual, have at it. But if you mean anything else, then I get Gnu atheist, and say evidence please. Because it all seems like prophesy, something someone says, but with nothing to rub wheels against the road of reality (so to metaphor poorly).

    Ophelia, I hope you had a wonderful Xmas (secular, of course) and a great New Year. May you rock on. Thank you for another year of thought provocation, introspection provocation, fun and decent humanity. 🙂

  6. theoreticalgrrrl says

    I cringe at all the time wasted waiting for something better, thinking that we are just souls slumming it on this inferior material plane, that our sole reason for existence is to transcend it all.
    It’s hard to get back into living in the present moment after believing so strongly that there’s something better out there, and that we can only really reach it after we die.

  7. Shatterface says

    Religious humanism doesn’t differ from secular* humanism because religious people ‘connect ‘ with each other, it’s because they attempt to connect via a god that doesn’t exist. It’s link trying to connect by email when your server is down.

    And for fucks sake, how often do we need to spell out that secularism and atheism are not the same thing? She’s clearly refering to atheist humanists here so why is she blurring the difference?

  8. Axxyaan says

    I just regret that secular humanists seem generally unable to understand that transcendence can be quiet mundane. In the book “De kunst buiten het zelf te treden Naar een spiritueel atheïsme” the contribution of Marc Van den Bossche is titled: “Lijfelijke spiritualiteit en horizontale transcendentie” (Bodily spirutality and horizontal transcendence). He writes about trancendence but makes it very clear that he is not talking about natural stuff. I am not going to deny that some humanists do flirt with the magical but it seems that a lot of the times the dispute boils down to ambiguous statements/questions being understood differently.

    Take the question: “Is a painting by van Eyck just paint on wood?”

    In one sense the answer is yes. van Eyck didn’t require anything magical or supernatural in making his paintings. In that sense the painting is just paint on wood and mundane.

    But in an other sense the answer is no. You can’t explain the quality of the painting solely in terms of characteristics of the paint and wood. You can research those as much as you want, it will help very little in distinguishing a painting from paint stains on wood. In that sense the painting is not just paint on wood and not that mundane. It transcends being paint on wood.

  9. says

    Axxyaan said:

    In that sense the painting is not just paint on wood and not that mundane. It transcends being paint on wood.

    I think it would be more accurate to say that the painting is not just any old instance of paint on wood. Indeed it is not any old instance because it was painted by a human trying to communicate something to other humans. Looked at from this point of view it seems obvious why it’s significance as a human artefact can’t be explained just by chemical analysis, but the same is true of nearly all human artefacts: forks, chairs, book etc. If you wish to use the word “transcendental” to describe this fact then, you have to be aware that this is a very specialised use of the word and you do so at the risk of being misunderstood.

  10. Axxyaan says

    @Bernard Hurley

    But what I am talking about is not limited to human artefacts. To put is crudely animals are sacks of chemicals. And so I can ask: “Are animals just sacks of chemicals?” with the same kind of ambiguity. And I am not so sure
    this use is so specialised. Maybe this use is just not that common in the circles you frequent?

    Would it be more accurate to word this “being more than just” without using the word “transcendence”? Possibly. But people are generally just not that accurate in their use of words. So what do you do when you see someone using “transcendence”? Just assume they mean magical or supernatural?

  11. screechymonkey says

    In that sense the painting is not just paint on wood and not that mundane. It transcends being paint on wood.

    This strikes me as a classic example of what Daniel Dennett calls a “deepity.” On one level, it’s a true but trivial statement, and on another it’s profound or shocking (if true) but false.

  12. rnilsson says

    Axxyaan axed: “So what do you do when you see someone using “transcendence”? Just assume they mean magical or supernatural?”

    To which I respond: Depends upon how much repepetetitition is relied upon to depend upon “transcendence”.
    To which I respond: Depends upon how much repepetetitition is relied upon to depend upon “transcendence”.

    Which is not the answer, but then again, what was the question? Did I win the sack now? Or did I win the sow back?

  13. Beth says

    Oddly enough, Mr. Flynn’s response to her essay as well as your own seem to me to exemplify the problem she is trying to articulate.

    Even if you have no need of ritual in your life and/or no desire for anything more transcendent than materialism provides, it is not an uncommon desire in humans. Your essay seems to me to be a moralization about the undesirability of people spending time and thought on such things. Is that what you intended it to be?

  14. says

    Beth, my essay says nothing about ritual, so no, I did not intend it to be a moralization about the undesirability of people spending time and thought on ritual. I did intend it to be a moralization about the undesirability of people spending time and thought on an imaginary beyond at the expense of a non-imaginary here.

    To be sure, I’m thinking of a particular kind of beyond, and probably a particular kind of thinking. I don’t mean for instance fiction and fantasy, or play and playacting, or anything like that. I mean treating a (sacred) “beyond” as real and as better than the mundane world.

  15. Beth says

    That you for the response. I appreciate your taking the time to clarify but I’m not sure I’m clear on what you mean. Let me try to rephrase it: You’re okay with rituals but object to contemplation of the divine?

    Or do you just object to having a belief about an afterlife?

  16. says

    I object to a lot of things, but what I’m talking about here is treating an imaginary sacred “transcendent” whatever as more important than the real world. I think humans need to understand and accept that we owe our efforts and attention to this world.

    I don’t know what “contemplation of the divine” is supposed to mean.

  17. Beth says

    I searching for a way to describe spirituality without reference to god or gods. When I think of transcendence in the context this writers essay, I think of she meant it as a reference to the non-personal spiritual-type entity/location/experience. Heaven is a poor descriptor of my assessment of her meaning because it carries so much other cultural baggage for us, but I thought that might be what you were thinking of.

  18. Axxyaan says


    Sure one can see it as a deepity. That doesn’t mean it is a good idea to just deny it because you assume they go for the profound false meaning instead of considering they may try to communicate the trivial and true. Maybe they find it necessary to communicate the trivial and true because they have the impression those are being denied.

  19. medivh says

    Beth: what would spirituality be without gods? I fear you are trying to define something in defiance of its self.

  20. Axxyaan says


    Spirituality has since a few decades been a component in helping people in end of life situations. It is one of the four components of the total pain concept. Here is an attempt at explaining from

    Finally, in this picture comes the problem of spiritual unrest. Spiritual care in any setting is not easy to define and is often subjective, arbitrary and personal. It is generally assumed to include an individual’s beliefs, values, sense of meaning and purpose, identity, and for some people religion. It may also encompass the emotional benefits of informal support from relatives, friends, religious groups and more formal pastoral(*) care. For many, existential questions about the human condition can be ignored during many phases of life but are brought into acuity at the end of life. Because of the intensely personal nature of spirituality it may be tricky to identify specific issues for individuals but the concepts of hopelessness and lack of understanding are perhaps easier to identify with. We all have secrets; we all have an element of guilt within our lives that may come to haunt us at the end of our life. Allowing these fears to be expressed and some of that hopelessness and helplessness to be verbalised, can relieve some of the spiritual distress that contributes to pain. This then is one further aspect, one other dimension of the totality of pain.

    (*) Pastoral care doesn’t need to be religious. Here in belgium and the netherlands people can volunteer for doing humanistic (atheistic) pastoral work. (Yes I am not happy with the word “pastoral” in this context but I can’t find a better word for the moment). You follow a course in which you learn how you can support people in spiritual (or existential) distress. We mostly offer a listening ear in a non judgemental fashion. So people can e.g. discuss with us the option of euthanasia without us trying to dissuade the client of the idea or they can breach other subject that are for whatever reason controversial in the family or hospital.

  21. Argle Bargle says

    Spirituality sounds like it’s religion without gods. Sort of what Alain de Botton or the Harvard Humanists are pushing.

  22. Dave Ricks says

    My fridge has this clipping from the Boston Phoenix 20-30 years ago (the clipping follows me from fridge to fridge):

    Anyplace you go in the world, the depths of human suffering are immeasurable. People have nothing with which to comfort each other but attention and affection. That’s all they have to offer. Dancing, conversation, singing, storytelling; everything that money can’t create. Love, fun, and sexuality make power out of nothing. Yeah, I know all I’m saying is Prince was always right. – Patty Stirling, San Francisco

    Put another way, Come Talk To Me.

    My two quotes above are compatible with any form of naturalism, materialism, and/or atheism. I’ve also reread Suzanne Moore’s original post to see her argument as a whole, not just the words Tom Flynn quoted her using to make her argument. In context, I read her original phrase “transcendence and connection with others” as moving from one psychological state X to another state Y, in particular if the state X is me feeling alone and beating myself up over some inconsequential incident nobody remembers anyway, and the state Y is me getting out of that loop and getting into a state of psychological flow with other people. Again, I read all of that as compatible with any form of naturalism, materialism, and/or atheism.

    The trouble here is Flynn read Moore’s word “transcendence” and took it to mean something unreal like the supernatural. Flynn’s interpretation was unnecessary and unhelpful.

    To be precise about the words Moore used: She wrote “spirit” in scare quotes, so she did not take that word for herself (and she did not write “spiritual”). She wrote “transcendence” without scare quotes, so I do see her taking that word for herself. Which is fine with me, as I see her meaning “transcendence” as moving from one real psychological state X to another Y, especially going from feeling alone to connected. I hope we can agree that action is good, to move from X to Y, especially when we pause to appreciate for some people their everyday X may feel dark to the point of suicidal.

    If we’re looking for a better word Moore could use for that real psychological change of state, then alright; but that’s different than Flynn saying Moore was talking about unreal things.

  23. Axxyaan says

    @Argle Bargle

    Alain de Botton seems to find his spirituality almost exclusively in institutionalised religion so that seems to me a rather limited notion of spirituality. The mindfulness excercises Greta Christina sometimes write about can be viewed as spirituality. If I recall correctly there are traditions in the east that view sport as a posible spiritual exercise.

  24. Axxyaan says

    @Ophelia Benson

    I guess people use “spiritual” and “transcendent” because they view them more or less as established terms. I also find Tom Flynn’s notion that using these words to refer to the natural is a deceptive use of words, rather strange. Especially as he doesn’t seem to have a problem with the following from the original.

    For me, not believing in God does not mean one has to forgo poetry, magic, the chaos of ritual, the remaking of shared bonds.

    Why doesn’t he object to the word “magic” here? Isn’t magic an opposite of natural? So is, in the eyes of Tom Flynn, Suzanne Moore yearning for the literal magic or using deceptive language here? Or does he recognize “magic” can be used to refer to something mundane?

    I can understand people not being happy with the choice of words Suzanne Moore used here. If you want to object because it sound like a deepity, is ambiguous worded etc, go right ahead. But however many more accurate terms may be available, people do use “transcendent”, “spiritual”, “magical”, “heavenly” etc. for referring to natural occurrences, so one just can’t infer from someone using these words, they are referring to the unnatural in whatever shape.

  25. Axxyaan says

    I find the following passage especially appalling. How would we react if believers would argue that unbelievers couldn’t properly enjoy art because we are somehow not properly psychological wired, yet here is Tom Flynn suggesting that we secular humanists can’t be moved by ritual because clinging to a notion of the beyond is indispensable for it to “work”.

    Now if specific rituals or rituals in general don’t work for you, that is fine by me. Just like it is fine by me if you don’t enjoy (specific) art. You can celebrate whatever you like in however way you like. But if there are unbelievers who enjoy rituals, who feel rituals work for them, there is no reason to suggest that means they are still somehow clinging to the beyond, and that is what Tom Flynn is suggesting by implication.

    Here’s a suggestion for my religious- and congregational-humanist colleagues. Cobble up a humanist ritual that focuses solely on connection with others — without playing the transcendence card — and maybe secular folks will join in.

    I wouldn’t count on it, though. Not because secular humanists are obtuse, but because I suspect that the empty notion of transcendence is indispensable to constructing any ritual and ceremony that “works” psychologically. Absent some imagined anchor in the beyond, ritual and ceremonial tend to seem empty and contrived, and to collapse amid their contradictions. Why bother with the mumbo jumbo — the robes, the incense, the choral music, the laser show, or whatever — if there’s no beyond out there for it all to point to?

  26. says

    Good questions. I was thinking of it from the angle of the contemptus mundi tradition – the idea that only the holy or divine or sacred or transcendent matters, and this pathetic little world we live in until we die and go Beyond isn’t worth bothering with. That can be a terribly destructive and harmful way to think.


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