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The following is my personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Secular Student Alliance.
My group does an “Ask an Atheist” table pretty regularly, I’d say roughly once a week when the weather is suitable. This question is at least among the top 10 we get. I’m going to give you my answer.
In a word, it’s “transcendence.” In 1500 words:
Tuesday is a pretty special day for me. My favorite musician, Fiona Apple, is putting out her new album. It’s been 7 years since her last release.
I’m myself a musician, and I listen to all kinds of music— I like everything from radio pop to classical/art music to funk to mid-20th-century jazz to rock. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Hindu classical music. My all-time favorites besides Fiona Apple are Metallica, Ani DiFranco, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dave Matthews Band, Billy Joel, Wah (the Sanskrit/Hindu mantra group, not the rock band), Bramble, and Gooding. I’ve taken several classes at Berklee College of Music; I taught private lessons myself for years, and I made my living as a musician for several years, too. So when I say she’s my favorite, I’m just saying that I want you to know where I’m coming from.
In philosophy, there’s a subfield called “aesthetics.” It’s not something I’ve ever studied formally so I’m not going to try to get into that. I am going to say why I think music in particular draws so many atheists AND so many religious people, and how this ties back in to the point of living.
I was talking to my boss recently about something strange in our office: A very large proportion of the staff at the Secular Student Alliance has a background in music, my boss included (she has 2 degrees in it). Several of us are former professional musicians out of a staff of 12 + 2 interns. She also mentioned that campus music departments are surprisingly good places to put up atheism group posters, in addition to the old stand-bys of philosophy departments, computer science departments, and so on.
I hypothesized that this might be the case because musicians are accustomed to feeling transcendence in day-to-day life—getting “lost” in the beauty of music—and they understand that it’s because of thousands of hours of practice, effort, energy, and dedication, and not because of anything else.
Any really incredible musician, in my experience, has talent, but they also have skill. They are not synonymous. You are born with talent, but you develop skill by practicing a lot. Not everyone has the neurology and dexterity necessary to be an excellent musician. Of those who do, the ones who actually develop expert levels of musicianship invariable practice constantly.
I’m currently reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast & Slow, which I highly recommend and will be reviewing at some point on this blog. He talks about two “systems” of thought, System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the impulsive, intuitive, heuristic-guided system. System 2 is the critical-thinking, rational, slower system—the “upper” system.
There’s quite a bit more to it than that, but one example is driving a car. Most people can hold a conversation while driving. The exception is new drivers (who have not yet gotten the skill down to an automatic procedure), and drivers who are attempting something difficult, something that requires “System 2″ thinking (merging into heavy traffic, doing a U-turn, etc).
Musicians, after lots of practice, are able to go into a state of “flow” while playing their instruments—relocating the concentration required to play from “System 2″ to “System 1.” It certainly takes a level of brainpower to play an instrument, but a musician who has gotten to the point of not having to think about playing can simply let loose and allow emotion and passion to take over, since she doesn’t have to “think” (even though, of course, we are ALWAYS thinking on some level). It’s like driving down a highway with no cars around. You can sing if you feel like it, and you don’t have to worry about crashing your car, because driving is second nature.
Musicians are accustomed to feeling transcendence. It is part of what we do. Because of this, we know that it’s available on tap. When you can do something at will, it takes some of the mystery out of it. That doesn’t mean it’s any less powerful to watch or experience, I think, but it does effect your thoughts on transcendence.
In my experience, there are basically two ways you can respond to this “transcendence-on-tap” thing, as a musician. One is to recognize that you are causing it through your effort and practice. The other is to throw up your hands and say, “I can’t explain this, therefore God.” I have seen a lot of musicians go that route, basically calling it a “God-given talent” or a “blessing” or a “gift” or even a “ministry.” We can explain perfectly well where these things come from – it’s a combination of genetics and hours put in – but some people just refuse to accept that, or just don’t know, or just don’t care.
I first heard Fiona Apple’s music when I was 12. It was the first time I remember feeling transcendence. The song that did it was “Never is a Promise,” which was track 7 on her debut album, “Tidal.” If you want to listen, here’s the video. That song is what made me realize I had to become a musician, rather than becoming a writer, which was what I had always wanted to do up until then. I listened to is at least hundreds of times when I first heard it. I taught myself to play it on my parents’ piano, and later I got out my dad’s dusty old guitar and arranged it for guitar, too. It was an unbelievable experience for me, having music move me like that for the first time.
Over the years, many other things have caused me to feel transcendence. Art is a major one. I have a modest art collection, but I don’t tend to look at my art—most of it is actually wrapped up rather than hanging—because it can be overwhelming for me. I have a very clear memory of seeing an installation piece in the St Louis Art Museum when I was 16 and nearly passing out from it. I had to leave the room and find a place to sit down, and my heart still flutters a bit when I’m typing this now thinking about it. It was a huge roped-off display of broken glass pieces arranged all over the floor, taking up nearly the whole room, and also sticking out in gigantic pieces from the wall. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but that was the first time I realized art could make me (involuntarily) feel the same transcendence I felt from music.
When people ask me, “What is the point of living if there is no God?” my reaction is generally one of puzzlement. What difference does is make if there is a god or not?! There is so much beauty in the world; what more do you want??
I think that when people ask this question, what they are usually really asking is, “What am I supposed to do with my life if not worship some god, if there is no afterlife?” These are pretty different questions. According to Islam, the purpose of life is to submit to God’s will. According to Christianity, the purpose of life is to give glory to God. (If you disagree, tell me why in the comments).
But if you’re neither of these, what’s the purpose of life? If you don’t believe in an afterlife, why not give up when all seems hopeless?
Because you never know what will happen next, and this is the only life you know you’ll have. And that makes it special, because it’s unique. I value my life more than any Christian or Muslim values his. I can say this because I know how incredibly, ineffably lucky I am that the atoms that make up my body have come together in such a way that I am able to experience my existence consciously. Most atoms don’t get to do that. It’s very unlikely that all the atoms in my body will get to do that again, or even most of them. There is an ancient Buddhist proverb made famous by Carl Sagan that says, “We are the universe experiencing itself.”
Say you had always loved the idea of Paris, and went to visit for a vacation, knowing it would be your only time there. Would you appreciate that trip more, or less, than if you knew you were going to retire there someday? I would appreciate it more. I wouldn’t sleep the whole time. I would enjoy every moment of it, every breath of it. I would meet as many people as I could and see as many sights as I could and buy as many little Eiffel Towers for my friends as I could. You’d have to physically force me to leave.
But if you believe you’re going back to live there in 20 years, what’s the hurry? What even bother soaking it in other than some cursory touristy stuff? Vacations are for having fun and catching up on sleep, right? So you spend 1/2 your time there in and around your hotel. You’re going to live there someday! What difference does it make?
It makes a huge difference.
What makes you feel transcendence? Is it kissing your boyfriend? Is it tucking your children into bed at night? Is it listening to music, or playing it? Is it making the perfect Julia Child strawberry tart, as I suspect it is for my mother?
Is it praying? For some people, it truly is. It was for me when I used to believe in a god. I can still feel the same thing when I meditate, which I still do on occasion—it’s good for your blood pressure. But the thing is, you can get the same feeling of transcendence from meditation (inward “prayer”) that you can from “actual” prayer. The transcendence is in you, not “out there.”
Daniel Dennett said it very well in this video: “The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are, and dedicate your life to it.”
You just have to find makes you feel alive. There is something in your life worth living for. Gods are not needed. If what makes you feel alive is your belief that some agency is out there, watching over you, then let me say I’m glad have found what gives you transcendence. But I hope that you realize that I said “your belief,” not that there is actually someone watching over you.
I think that really, the major difference between theists and nontheists is that nontheists have found something better to live for, and realized that it doesn’t make sense to live for something that may not really exist. For me, the meaning of life is writing, it is art, it is music. For some people, it is family, or cooking, or photography. But whatever it is, find it, and live for it. No gods necessary!
Until next time,
Dave Muscato is the 2012 Writing Intern for the Secular Student Alliance in Columbus, Ohio. He is also Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!