A Short Essay: Naturalism & Atheism

(note: It does seem a strange time of the year to be writing on this topic but a request for input came from my Unitarian/Universalist Fellowship and the following is the result)

For some time I have labeled myself as a naturalist, using the term in a bit larger sense than some have in the past. I believe all, from the largest to the smallest, is a natural process — from the unfolding of the universe, or universes, to the organization of sub atomic particles and waves and everything in between. Nothing is SUPERnatural. Human beings, as a small but interesting piece of this vast natural cosmos, are limited creatures. We are limited physically, mentally, and yes, even creatively we are limited. There is no way we can expect to have anywhere near a complete understanding of this system of which we are a part. It is a noble undertaking to try to expand our understanding, and I revel in my small endeavors and greatly admire those who have added so much in the past several centuries.  But I do believe that what we can understand can only be done so within our natural limitations.

It is a very common wish of human beings to want to fill this very uncomfortable gap in our understanding. God or gods have performed this task ably since consciousness evolved in our species. Theism can be used to fill in all unknowns and justify any social and moral structure desired by those in power.

In my view of naturalism I see great beauty, inspiration, creation, destruction, and unending change. It would be very easy to deify this process, but I feel it would be just one more comforting illusion. I can live with the understanding that there is much that I do not know and I cannot know. I have come to accept that my form of naturalism is atheistic. I do not believe in any form of god. But I do believe in this glorious unfolding process of which I get to play my role — so tiny, but oh so important to me.

Belief in a deity can offer many kinds of support to an individual and a society. For those who wish to follow a theistic understanding of life, I can only hope they do not wish to force their way on others. Theism in all its many forms has imposed many blessings and sufferings on the people of this little planet. I hope that in the future we see more of the blessings.

whitman 18-lr
Whitman #18, acrylic on 300lb paper, 8″ X 8″, 2011, Mark W. McGinnis
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Essay: No Need For Meaning

Snake River Basin: Boise River and Willow, 11″ X14″, acrylic on 300lb. paper, 2012, Mark W. McGinnis

In reading Edward Abbey’s 1968 book, Desert Solitaire, I came across the sentence; “It is as it is and has no need for meaning.” The statement was made in regard to one of Abbey’s many reflections on the condition of the desert of the canyon land southwest.

What struck me about the statement was the universal applicability of the concept. Meaning need not be applied to pristine desert landscape with the setting sun flooding the rock with colors and value, it simply is. The same could be said for a scene described a few pages earlier in the book where he comes upon a frequent campsite that is scattered with the refuse of the people who frequented the site. Abbey described them as Slobivius americanus. I recently felt the same disgust when I was walking a favorite stretch of the Boise River greenbelt to find half a dozen plastic bottles floating in the river and human debris along the shore. Immediately negative judgments came to my mind but there is no more meaning in the garbage than in the sunset, both simply are. This very hard for me because I want to make judgments — I want to put the subjective meaning of my values on the experiences.

This has been a valued and long-standing aspect of my personality. It is certainly related to a 30 year teaching career in the fine arts, where subjective judgments were at the core of what I did every hour of my teaching day. The same mindset carried through into my personal creative life where my judgments were continually engaged to bring meaning into my art projects.

What is meaning? Is it part of the conscious process? Is it the drive to want to know why? Is it part of the associative process of thinking that helped us to survive but has now run amuck. I feel I am constantly looking for meaning to the extent that I miss want is happening now, which is the only true time there is. If  meaning is what something signifies or the purpose of something, in most cases we already have an intuitive understanding that needs little elaboration. Subjective meanings often complicate and confuse what is self-evident.

Am I finally at the point in my life that I am ready to abandon the need for applied subjective meaning and live life for what is? I hope I am. I turn on the radio and accidently hear the news (I try not listen). I hear of the massacres in Syria or a group of wealthy senators doing their best to stop 30 million poor Americans from obtaining minimal healthcare.  I want to put meaning on those events. I want to cry out against those callous, unfeeling, barbarians in the Congress. I want to project my judgments – but why? Certainly from the perspective of the big picture (the Earth, the Universe) they are miniscule if not meaningless. I am miniscule from that vantage point as well. I simply am – another little piece of cosmic dust very temporarily arranged in this organic arrangement, albeit with the blessing or curse of consciousness. Is that a bleak or fantastic view of existence? One part of me knows that all is simply a long, long unfolding of energy and matter. The ego part of me wants to scream out, “No! No! I am much more than that.” It is hard for me, and I think many others, to accept our place in this universe. But the tiny bits of wisdom that others have gifted to me want to say, “To be a part of this cosmic story, no matter how small, is miraculous beyond comprehension.”

I have come to the conclusion there is no meaning other that the unfolding of cause and effect. When I accept this, the question then arises if anything in our lives matter if they have no deeper meaning than cause and effect? (This question has been asked by some of the greatest minds in history and I feel rather sheepish posing it.)  How should I live my life if this is true? This a recurring question of my musings over many years. My life is as much part of a series of cosmic cause and effects as was the Big Bang. By my decisions, and those imposed on me, I shape my place in this system and by my existence I infinitesimally change the system. It simply “is.”

I have come to believe that as I move through the unfolding of cause and effect I should try to make it as pleasant an experience as possible for me, those around me, and the rest of existence. Not because it gives meaning, but because it creates pleasure and harmony — or is that meaning? It makes this short time I have a joy rather than a sorrow. This may seem a rather simplistic, hedonistic life view but it is not as easy as it sounds. For some reason my mind often focuses on sorrows rather than joys and spreads those sorrows to others. If I can leave the subjective meanings my mind behind and focus on what “is” in the moment — as the cause and effect unfolds — I have a much better chance of making that moment pleasant for myself and others.  Why not?

Post Script:  A short story related to littering mentioned early in the essay. Many years ago I had group of art students in a secluded valley of Northeastern South Dakota. We were going to do some watercolor sketching. It was a beautiful spring day and we were along the stream that ran through the valley. There a wonderful, water-loving yellow flower was profusely blooming along the banks. Unfortunately the area was also profusely littered with cans, bottles, wrappers, and other garbage. I was outraged that such beauty would be tarnished by human disregard, and my mood sunk and I grumbled and grumbled to myself. As I was walking around checking on where my students were settling in to do their painting I noticed one of the students (the most punked-out student of the bunch as it was during those years) had set aside his materials and was walking around making piles of the garbage to facilitate easier clean up. It was a revelation to me that instead of getting angry and complaining, the best reaction to the moment was what the student was doing.  I am not always successful living what I know, as I wasn’t earlier in this essay, but when I remember that student, it is a lesson to me to not project meaning or judgment and just do what needs to be done.

© 2012 Mark W. McGinnis