At last April's Lyceum after-party I met a board member from Nashville's Sunday Assembly. Learning that I teach courses on Atheism and Happiness at MTSU, she invited me to come and speak to them in December. This coming Sunday at 10 am, at Scarritt-Bennett.
Where to begin? With William James, naturally. "If we were to ask the question: 'What is human life's chief concern?' one of the answers we should receive would be: 'It is happiness.' How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure."
Then to Bertrand Russell, author in 1903 of "A Free Man's Worship" and in 1930 of Conquest of Happiness. The former reflects an early Platonic phase, happily transcended in time, but both are concerned with how to accept godlessness in a finite and indifferent cosmos. The former was later described by Russell as written for unhappy people, a young author's sermonizing attempt to buoy the spirit against tides of unhappy despair. The latter is a mature author's lighter report on what he's learned about living well, a call to all to "conquer" happiness based on his own life experience.
Godless people are often assumed, by believers, to be unhappy. It isn't so. The literary critic James Wood recalls the godless "life-loving heroes" of his adolescence as providing "reasons to be cheerful."
There was plenty of happiness in our household, but it was rarely religious happiness. The self was viewed with suspicion, as if it were a mob of appetites and hedonism. As an adolescent, I was often told that “self, self, self is all you think about,” and that “selfishness is your whole philosophy.” Life was understood to be constant moral work, a job that could never really be “done,” because the ideal was Jesus’ unsurpassable perfection. My mother and I quarrelled over the corpse of my religious faith. She told me that at night she prayed I would “come back into the fold.” As a young man, I lined up my pagan, life-loving heroes—Nietzsche, Camus, D. H. Lawrence, Keith Moon, Ian Dury—in glorious defensive formation: reasons to be cheerful. "Lessons From My Mother"So that's going to be my message on Sunday: secular folk have plenty of reasons to be cheerful, plenty of historical allies, and plenty of proven strategies for living good, honorable, meaningful, constructive, happy lives. Believe me.
Postscript. Secular scripture from Lord Russell: “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man's place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.” -What I Believe
7 am/6:46, 57/33, 4:30