TAG | Meaning of Life
Writing in The Guardian, Alex Mar explains how making a documentary film “about a handful of fringe religious communities around the country” led her deep into the pagan world.
The article is an interesting account of where the search for meaning (whatever that may be) can take the credulous and the restless, and, beyond that, of the eternal appeal of the divine – and the break from the banality of everyday existence that comes with celebrating it.
The ritual was a devotional to the Morrigan, the heavyweight Celtic goddess of war, prophecy and self-transformation. In the center of the circle, surrounded by her ritual crew, stood Morpheus, with all eyes on her.
At the time Morpheus’ day job was working for a federal environmental agency, not, perhaps the most thrilling of line of work. Being possessed by an ancient Celtic goddess on the other hand….
Dressed in black, in a leather corset and a long skirt slit up each side, she wore her hair in elaborate, heavy braids that hung to her waist. She stalked the circle’s edge, flapping the vulture wings she’d strapped to her arms and staring into the crowd. Her slender body doubled over, as if suddenly heavy, and began bobbing up and down as if something was bubbling up inside her.
The sight of a possession, for those who’d never witnessed one, was alien, impressive. After what felt like a long time, she raised her head up and in a growling voice not her own, announced that she was Morrigu! Badb Catha! The roomful of witches circled closer, tightening around her, and a fellow priestess lifted a heavy sword above our heads: she directed us to take a vow. “But only if it’s one you can keep. Don’t take it lightly.”
As Morpheus (or the goddess she was channeling) continued heaving, breathing hard, hundreds of people crowded in, taking turns to raise their hand up and touch the tip of the blade.
I was one of them.
Mar, who also went on to write a book (Witches of America) on this topic, argues that there are now as many as a million “self-identified witches (typically called pagan priests and priestesses)” in the U.S.
In the past, it may have been tempting to dismiss this community as Earth-loving crystal collectors or velvet-wearing goths. In fact, the dozens of esoteric but related traditions share a spiritual core: they are polytheistic, worship nature and hold that female and male forces have equal weight in the universe. Pagans believe that the divine can be found all around us and that we can communicate regularly with the dead and the gods without a go-between. They don’t believe in heaven or hell; many subscribe to some version of reincarnation, or a next world called the Summerland.
In other words, it’s nonsense, but to each his (or her) own…
And then we get to the key point:
Throughout my life, most of my friends have been fashionable atheists of the creative classes, but it was becoming clearer to me that this does not exempt anyone from the very human need for meaning. As someone with a strong “religious impulse” but without a practice to relate to, I’d long been envious of people whose lives are structured around a clear system of belief. It seems like a tremendous relief, to be able to wake up everyday with a shared sense of purpose versus the low-level existential pain of living without something to believe in, a religious tradition to guide and ground you.
Most people, it seems do indeed feel that way: It’s hard-wired within and some of the more evangelistic atheists (for whom, I suspect, atheism is, in all probability, a surrogate religion) would do well to remember it. Religion will always be with us. What matters is the form that it will take.
But note my reference to ‘most people’. There is another group, a happy few (or perhaps not so few) who find the absence of any overarching ‘meaning’ to be something of a relief, and that, far from being a source of “low-level existential pain”, “living without something to believe in” (at least ‘believe’ in a capital B sense of the word) can be a pleasantly liberating experience.
Transcendence, no thanks.
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has just been reading Tony Judt’s Postwar (which I have yet to tackle, but plan to) and cites that book, together with Tim Snyder’s Bloodlands (which I reviewed here) for a grander thesis about the failings European civilization. There’s a lot to take issue with there, to put it mildly, but I did like this:
I don’t have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely.
Coates then lets what seems like despair grip him as a result of this discovery (odd, as if that is how things are, it’ll be a bit of a relief):
I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does.
Not necessarily. Chin up!
But then he brightens:
I’m also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us.
And gets it:
Or perhaps not.
Writing on Why I’m Catholic, “atheist convert” Jennifer Fulwiler explains why she turned to Rome, starting with concerns such as these:
One thing I could never get on the same page with my fellow atheists about was the idea of meaning. The other atheists I knew seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we’re all nothing more than chemical reactions. I could never get there. In fact, I thought that whole line of thinking was unscientific, and more than a little intellectually dishonest. If everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death. And considering that the entire span of homo sapiens’ existence on earth wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen of a 5-billion-year-old universe, it seemed silly to pretend like the 60-odd-year life of some random organism on one of trillions of planets was something special.
I guess that depends on what you mean by “special”. To family, friends, and, indeed, to oneself, a life can surely be “special” even if it counts for nothing in the scheme of that big old indifferent universe. If all is indeed random (best guess, but who can be entirely sure?) pondering that fact ought—by inserting a little proportion into how we see ourselves—to be comforting. And it says nothing to the meaning of life. To the extent that we feel that we need meaning, we can make that for ourselves. Anything else looks a lot like vanity. Who needs the universe’s applause?
And if Ms. Fulwiler wants to construct that meaning for herself through the faith she has discovered within, good for her, and one can only wish her well, while regretting, perhaps, the faux naïveté of passages like this:
I finally caved in and bought a Bible, the first I’d ever owned. Not knowing how else to approach it, I started reading at page one. I was alternately baffled and horrified by what I read in the first few hundred pages. Joe encouraged me to the second part of the book, called the New Testament, explaining that that’s where Jesus comes into the picture.
Oh come on. I know the American education system is not what it was, but is this college-educated woman implying that she had never heard of the New Testament, a collection of writings that are, for all their flaws, a foundational text of western civilization?
If so, God help us (so to speak).