Saeculum: the present world.
As Thoreau said shortly before he died in 1862, “one world at a time.”
Those who feel we are “at home in the universe” already, have no driving desire to be somewhere else, somewhere better, more beautiful, more blessed. We are, by Nature, naturally, secular–of this world.
The Book of James in the Christian scriptures instructs believers not to be “stained by the world.” Paul was constantly warning the faithful not to give in to “the flesh”–the impurity of the physical, material existence. The First Letter of John, as much as it claims that God is Love, says “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” and “We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus shows his humility (?) before “The Jews” by stating, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world” (8:23). Apocalyptic dreaming is completely otherworldly and therefore naturally (read: un-naturally) focuses on the imperfection of this world; believers can’t wait to get to “the other side” “up there” beyond. As a youthful evangelical and charismatic I sang, in an almost ecstatic trance with my friends, “Heaven is a wonderful place. . .I want to see my Savior’s face,” “He’s Everything to Me!” and many other songs of longing for another world. The dream of heaven (really the “sky” for ancient people) was of no concern for the Hebrews who seem to have acquieced to “the grave” as the end of life–then one’s offspring carry on the family name and memory; one’s children (or creative work and ideas) are the only eternal life.
“Sacred” has been presented, throughout religious history, as the opposite of “Secular.” Anything not of “this world” is superior and holy, set apart in the realm or reign of God. This universal schizophrenia has fractured and decimated whole nations and entire cultures leading to massive atrocities, staggering wars and appalling violence. Though Hitler and Stalin and Mao are often held up by the religious as the best evidence for the moral degradation of Atheism, could any of these (and let’s add the Afrikaaners of Apartheid South Africa and Sadaam Hussein in Iraq and Ahmedinajad in Iran) have had the wide destructive impact if Religion was not involved, or, let’s even be honest enough to say, was involved–in other words, if Religious faith was “doing its job?” It begs the question, Where is the Sacred at all? In another world beyond the clouds? In “holy” bread, wine, grapejuice or water touched by “holy hands”? Under the priestly robes or in the holy of holies? What makes a “sanctuary” a sacred place and not “worldly?” What if the whole universe is sanctuary, in the sense of Good, Beautiful and “Blessed?” Some “progressives” might tend to agree, until we remind them that it is WE who bless, WE who deem it sanctuary and have to live with that. And there remains the nasty problem of the secular/sacred, flesh/spiritual divide that no faith can sidestep for long.
Isn’t this all death to the intellect? Isn’t it silly and foolish? Of course. Dividing the Universe into the Up There and the Down Here, which pretty much every religion teaches, ends rational discussion, constructive cooperation and certainly decisive environmental action. In recent days Evangelical voices are calling their flocks to be “good stewards” of the environment, that is, “God’s Creation.” Fine, to a point. But how many religious folks are willing to work beside non-religious women and men to take care of the earth, the home we all share? There will always be a limit to how much the Sacred/Secular dichotomy can be pushed. In a two-story universe (or three if you count God’s torture chamber) this secular world will always and forever be in the dark and damned basement, with the sacred first story the true dwelling of the sacred and divine and those who serve the “higher” way, the un-secular chosen.
Doesn’t a more “secular” understanding and worldview make better sense for today? Does the fact that there is no first floor, no basement, no house at all, frighten us? It is not necessary to be afraid. We all live in a house with one room, as Muir reminded us. Maybe it’s all sacred or all secular, but what does it matter? The cosmos is as it is no matter what we call it. If it helps a person to think of it all as sacred, fine. As long as there is no greater value placed on an invented reality called “super-natural,” on something “higher.” We do not live in the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits, though fiction that is based on Science and Art can be stimulating and entertaining. But we are no longer entertained by faith that judges the present world, the secular, as deficient or “profane” (another destructive archaic expression). It is not entertainment to be devalued as “only flesh,” “only human,” “of the world.”
It seems probable that Life does indeed go on forever; death is never the end. Atoms and molecules continue. We are secular immortals. We are of the humus, humbly of earth, dirt–Human. And perhaps we will one day soon live up to our name, Homo Sapiens: genus of the wise, in this present, secular age.
Can A-theists and Theists Work Together? Read “Mission Beyond Faith?”
“A Non-Believer’s Holiday”
Once again, it’s Easter, it’s Passover, and no doubt, there are countless other religious holidays around the spinning world of spirituality. Millions of Hindus recently washed their sins away in the rivers of India. Pagans celebrate the Goddess and the life (and execution) of the ancient freethinker Hypatia of Alexandria. Bahai’s and Zoroastrians have their special days. Catholics have a new Pope and Buddhists have the same old Dalai Lama (I can see him smiling).
Some of us “only” celebrate Spring. We only welcome a new season–the Green Season decorated with new buds and birds and a bit of rain. Our only rituals are walks by the Bay or deep breaths in the wild woods, listening for the choirs of hawks and frogs and turkeys and coyotes. We only delight in the verdant vivaciousness of fresh living things–and we feel a part of that freshness. We only honor the incredible (beyond belief) beauty of the amazing “homeworld” we share with all creatures small and great, alongside those with super-natural faith and those who simply, joyfully, see the natural world as good and super enough just as it is.
Most of us who left “the faith” (or who never had it) aren’t anti-religious or anti-god. Who has the time or energy for being against things all the time? No, most of us who identify as “other” or “unaffiliated” or maybe as agnostic, atheist, humanist or freethinker, aren’t interested in dividing the world into insiders and outsiders (that’s been done for us, sad to say, often by Religion). No, we have family and friends, colleagues and companions who are members of churches and synagogues, mosques and temples. We may even attend with them now and then. They look to God; we look to Good, and we mostly get along. We seem to find a way to live and work side by side rather peaceably.
Maybe we all need a holiday. Dare I say it, perhaps a holiday, at least now and then, from religion, faith and god. Sorry. Don’t mean to offend. Marin is full of the faithful and the unfaithful. . .I mean, non-believers. We are the Marin Heretics; the Infidels. In the land of fast-food faith, where you can channel or chant, pray or praise, sing or sit in silence, to whomever or whatever you call divine, we are the outsiders, those irritating folk who “believe” that believing isn’t everything, that distractions of theology and holy books sometimes need to be set aside. Those distractions can be dangerous, if we leave reason and reasonable discourse outside of public meetings and community issues that affect us all, believing or not.
No matter what some bestsellers are telling us, no one can say whether there really is another world out there. What we can say though is that this present (“secular”) world exists, and here we are. Now, what do we do? This is the ethical question, faith or no faith. Truth is, we live in the midst of such immense beauty that some reverent appreciation couldn’t hurt; some daily delight in the endlessly fascinating wonder of it all might actually help. Could we just celebrate that?
A non-believer’s holiday isn’t about disrespecting anyone’s religion or destroying someone’s faith. This isn’t about closing all the holy places and shoving all sacred objects into a closet. We’re only searching for a better way to piece together human community where everyone is a valued, contributing member.
Believe it or not, every day is a non-believer’s holiday. But it’s not about belief or non-belief. That’s the point.