You may or may not have noticed but the site has gone a bit wonky. We’ve run into some technical troubles on our end and are working to take care of it ASAP, so please bear with us as we sort that out. You might notice a bit of the skeleton peeking through and some of our fancier features failing, but other than that it shouldn’t affect the site too much.

In the mean time, I thought I’d provide a bit less of a cerebral reflection for World Humanist Day and share a poem I think that has a particularly Humanist flavor. It’s “Aubade” by Phillip Larkin. I’ve never been good at writing about literary topics, but it’s a special occasion:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
– The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

An aubade is a morning love song (as opposed to a serenade, which is a love song at night), but it’s not immediately clear what this poem is professing love to. It largely seems to be a reflection on death, and how inadequate many of our rationalizations of it are. Religion, that “vast, moth-eaten musical brocade ” is of little comfort, and equally unhelpful are the ”specious” replies many atheists tend to give—I didn’t mind not existing before I was born, so why fear death? and so on. I’ve never been persuaded or comforted by either.

When I was younger, I used to spend long care rides staring out the window and imagining what it’s like to not exist. It seems silly now, but it’s no less terrifying an idea now than it was then. The only difference is that I’ve gotten good at ignoring that death is there.  But Larkin reminds us, “Most things may never happen: this one will.”

There’s an alternative, almost stoic sort of way of treating death that Larkin suggests. At certain lonely and calm moments we can simply look at death squarely, realizing fully how terrifying and awful it is. We can’t escape it and can’t accept it. So we move on with our lives. There’s no profound answer, and no way to make death okay.

But work has to be done. The world moves on. The sun rises and we get out of bed.

I find a weird sort of comfort in poetry like this. I’m always interested to hear whether readers have any other works of art that comforts them or has meaning for them specifically. World Humanist Day seems a good time to share them.
Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

Vlad’s Duke Event Audio

April 7th, 2013 | Posted by:

To anyone who was waiting for a recording of the dialogue I had with my friend Neil Shenvi last week, the audio is now online, hosted on Neil’s website.

I listened to it this morning while walking my dog and the audio came out surprisingly well. It’s not without its issues (some clipping here and there, a few moments where it cuts out during transitions, and so on), but definitely listenable.

My opening statement starts at around the 18 minute mark, and our conversation starts after a short bit of silence.

I had a great time at the event, and even met a few readers I had no idea lived in the area. 1 Neil’s a really smart and friendly guy, and we were having a lot of fun up there. If you want to hear me talk really quickly, laugh a little too much, and bash Sam Harris way more than I remembered doing, you can take a listen here! (Warning, the audio starts a little loud).

I’ll be taking some time in the coming weeks writing more about what I covered in my talk, since it involved ideas I’ve been developing for a while, and it was nice to try to articulate them for an audience. If I was ambiguous or unclear at any points, leave a comment and I’ll try my best to address it!

Thanks again to the Duke InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (who hosted the dialogue in place of their normal group meeting), the Duke Secular Alliance, and of course, Neil Shenvi for making the event a lot of fun.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

Notes:

  1. I’m always down to grab coffee and chat with anyone in the area. You can hit me up on Twitter (@vladchituc) or my email address (vladchituc@gmail.com) to schedule something!

NPS: Lenten Reflections 2013

April 5th, 2013 | Posted by:

It’s been nearly a week since the end of our 40-odd days of Lenten fasting, and we’d like to take some time to briefly reflect about the process. This post will be updating as we get more perspectives, and it seemed like a good place to aggregate all the links and writing we’ve done on the topic for easy reference.

Vlad Chituc
It wasn’t until compiling this post that I realized how much time I’d spent and pixels I’d rendered on the topic of secular Lent. It seems like a lot of fuss has been made over of what was really just an innocuous, fun, and challenging practice we decided to take part in. You might imagine from some of the push-back that I’ve seen on Facebook and a few other blogs that our actions amounted to nothing short of an endorsement of all of Christianity, as well as a command that all atheists suddenly drop all pretenses of rationality to join the religion-loving horde we were apparently amassing. It might be somewhat cynical to note that none of this really surprised me, and I can’t say that this somehow opened my eyes to many of the more unsavory and dogmatic elements that can pop up in the atheist movement, particularly online. It did, though, serve as a fairly clear illustration. The problem isn’t religion, but rather dogmatism, and I think a lot of the push-back has shown exactly why this is the case.

That said, I’m happy to report that I’ve been continuing my veganism this week, for what I hope will be indefinitely. It went much smoother this time around (internet comment abstinence met some success, but not nearly as much), and I’m glad I did it. I’m happy for all the support, and for everyone who reached out to let me know that they thought what we were doing was cool. It meant a lot, and even though they weren’t as loud as many of the negative voices, my impression was that there were more of them.

Keith Favre
I don’t think I did this on purpose, but my two commitments actually represent quite well the two categories of sin in Christian theology: omission (not doing something that you should) and commission (doing something that you shouldn’t). They’re represented by procrastination and eating meat, respectively. This Lenten journey has offered valuable insight into the nature of self-improvement. The main lesson I’ve learned is that the easier half of making a change is stopping a bad habit; the real challenge lies in starting a good one. My commitment to give up meat went wonderfully — to the best of my knowledge, I’ve consumed absolutely no meat in the past 46 days (the closest I’ve come is chicken broth). My performance on my commitment to stop procrastinating has been far less commendable. I get the feeling that I’ll be struggling with procrastination for a long time. I’ve had small victories, but I’m far from solving my procrastination problem. One was so easy to maintain and the other so difficult because it’s much easier to stop doing something than to stop not doing something (which is basically what procrastination is).

In short, what I’ve learned from Lent is this: All commitments for personal change could be categorized as omission or commission commitments. A commission commitment is easy to maintain (you may feel tempted, but as a rule, it takes zero effort to not do something) but less likely to have very significant rewards. An omission commitment is much more difficult, but if you’re successful, you’ve managed to make a positive change in your life.

Adam Garner
As I originally predicted I failed hard. I was keeping up my “don’t obsessively check my cell phone/ Twitter/ Facebook/ every 30 seconds” promise for about 10 days before I ran face first into my lack of self-control. Well, it wasn’t just going cold turkey catching up with me. I took a trip for work that for some stupid reason I thought required me to relax my curtailed phone usage. I guess by itself wouldn’t have been a problem if I would have been able to shift back into my austerity plan right after. Problem is, I let myself cheat a little bit after I got back. That little bit very quickly evolved into a-lot-a-bit.

Without really realizing it, I was back where I started.

To me this emphasized the power of habit and actually the importance of things like Lent. To me, I see it as a tool that break up the crushing weight of habit and allows the critical distance that’s necessary to fix things like bad habits. It reminded me about the importance of stepping back and taking stock of who I am as a person and my short falls. I mean, I still ultimately failed, but it was a worthy experiment nonetheless.

Chelsea Link
Primarily, this whole Lent exercise has made me even more certain that I need to get out of the atheist “movement” as soon as possible. How it is possible for people to become offended that I choose to participate in a practice that I find meaningful, without any effort to force that practice on anybody else, is beyond me. It’s disgusting how much I’ve had to justify the simple decision to not drink alcohol for a few weeks. So yeah, that’s been disheartening.

But it’s also been an interesting experience in itself, independent of haters hating. It felt more like a mindfulness exercise than anything else. I became much more aware of when I drink because I want to and when I drink because it seems necessary within certain contexts. I already knew that adult socialization is often built around alcohol, but I didn’t even realize the extent to which non-drinkers can be excluded from social life until I put myself in their position for an extended period of time. I’m not sure exactly what can be done about this, but it’s troubling.

Oh yeah, and one bartender felt so bad for me that he gave me a free juice box.

Walker Bristol
I have written so many raisin puns and saved them in my Twitter drafts folder that my phone actually has started favoring “raisin” in autocorrects for words like “reason” and “rational” and I am totally okay with that.

Unless you’ve been completely abstaining from any form of media over the last two days, you’ve likely noticed that the Supreme Court has been hearing oral arguments for the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8—two landmark cases for gay rights.

You may also have noticed that the pink and red version of the Human Rights Campaigns’s logo has been circulating on many people’s Facebook walls and profile pictures. For yesterday and much of today, Facebook feeds were inundated with the HRC’s red and pink, as well as a few snarky or clever derivative images.

There’s been a somewhat predictable backlash, though, and contrarians from many different ideological backgrounds have been criticizing this campaign as if it were #KONY2012 all over again. There are definite problems with slacktivism, particularly when it replaces legitimate work that might have otherwise been done to help solve a problem. But I think images like this are misguided:

I saw this on Facebook at least a half-dozen times

The edgy provocateur-extraordinaires at Vice Magazine wrote an entire post about how useless a gesture the Facebook campaign was, noting that it would be more helpful to do things like donate money, write representatives, and take other proactive measures to ensure that gay men and women can share in all the same privileges and responsibilities that the rest of the country enjoys.

And I actually don’t disagree at all with the idea that there are more pressing and influential actions that can be taken by those sympathetic to gay marriage, 1 but I think Vice and other Facebook naysayers are wrong to suggest that the heavy show of solidarity doesn’t matter or otherwise help.

Chris wrote yesterday about how momentous an occasion these Supreme Court cases are, and the hopes and futures of many gay Americans will be determined by the decision. Even if we ignore all the gay users who were very personally invested in the ruling, 2 I think it’s a mistake to suppose that everyone who took part in the Facebook campaign was trying to somehow shift the outcome of the case.

Instead, I think the gesture is done out of a show of solidarity for our gay friends and family. 3 People recognized what an important and pivotal moment this was for so many Americans, and what resulted was a spontaneous outpouring of support that turned many users’s Facebook feeds into seas of pink and red. And this hasn’t gone unappreciated. Andrew Sullivan posted a letter from a reader, who saw:

. . . update after update of friends changing their profile pictures to red equal-sign logos, and posts about wearing red, and posts on hearing updates. Even my young niece changed her profile pic to a red logo.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: the majority of folks who made these updates and posts are straight! In my circle, the biggest champions of marriage equality have been my straight friends. I am somewhat ashamed that others are fighting and believing in something for me that I never fought myself – merely for the reason that I just never thought it was possible. To be sitting here on such a precipice, with all of their support, is amazingly humbling.

So, given responses like this, I’m confused how a gesture of solidarity and support for gay Americans can not matter. Perez Hilton called this campaign the greatest idea since stuffed crust pizza, 4 but it’s somehow ineffectual because a few cynics don’t think it’ll shift the decision? I don’t think anyone expects it to shift the decision, and that was never the point.

Trying so hard to be a contrarian, responding to everything with cynicism, and taking every opportunity to try to put others down so that you can be distinguished from the red-and-pink masses strikes me as a sad and shitty way to live. This might sound strange coming from me in particular, 5 but I think that sometimes we can take things at face value. We can let our hearts be warmed by good faith gestures and showings of support without becoming gullible or overly credulous.

So I’m going to keep a different profile picture for a few days. I’m not under any misapprehension that this will drastically change the world, and I won’t blame anyone for not taking part. But if you take an outpouring of support for gay Americans as simply a chance to let everyone know how above slacktivism you are, then I’ll probably just think you’re an asshole.

Vlad Chituc 6 is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

Notes:

  1. and I encourage readers to do some of the above if they haven’t already
  2. George Takei was one of the early popularizers of the image
  3. That’s at least why I did it. I hope this post is more than simply my own rationalization.
  4. and I’m sure there are more examples than the two I’ve provided, but I’m kind of too lazy to go digging. Links would be appreciated
  5. I’m saying this as an often sarcastic and extraordinarily cynical human being who reacts to nearly every situation in life with some kind of mixture of reluctance and disdain.
  6. has been reading too much David Foster Wallace

Kimberly Winston, a reporter for Religion News Service, has a really thorough and nice write up of our secular Lenten fasting. Reflecting a bit, it’s been a really cool experience and I’m glad to see it’s largely been received so well.

Readers of the blog might find our comments to be pretty familiar. And for anyone who wants my take on Flynn’s comments and objections to our practice, check out my response from a few weeks ago. I was really pleasantly surprised to see that Winston had interviewed a Catholic theologian for her perspective. I’ll limit myself to quoting this section, but do give the whole piece a read:

Virginia Kimball, a Catholic theologian at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., who mentors people in Lenten practices, sees nothing wrong in atheists borrowing Lent. The desire to find meaning in ritual, she said, is a universal human desire.

“I give every credit to these young people who are humanists and atheists because they are sensing that human life is more than just animal processes and that is worthy of the great philosophers,” she said.

That made my day a bit. And now that I’m over my really nasty flu, I’ll be updating and reflecting more on Lent as a practice. 

And in case you missed it, it looks like we’re not the only nonbelievers who think Lent is cool. The New York Times had a recent cool writeup about a few other atheists taking part, which seems to connect more to cultural Christianity I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more of in the coming years:

Mr. Corvino, the author of the new book “What’s Wrong With Homosexuality?” says that his Lenten observance has something to do with cultural nostalgia: “I wore a black suit and a purple tie on Ash Wednesday this year. Didn’t tell anyone why I was doing it, but for me, it signaled the first day of Lent.” But he also appreciates Lent as an opportunity for “discipline and self-improvement.”

If readers have any stories to share or contribute, please don’t hesitate to contact us by email or in the comments.

P.S. The links have popped up on USA Today and the Washington Post’s On FaithCheck them out!

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.