- Every thinking person must be filled with wonder and awe just by looking up at the stars. [Albert Einstein]
For a Humanist and scientific naturalist, the palpable reality of life is sacred; and if all life ceased, the laws of nature that generated life in the first place would have the potential to do it again. This conception of sacredness is about everything: our hopes, dreams and realizations, our joys and sorrows, and nature itself.
Looking at things this way is a choice. Some people think they cannot do it because it reminds them of belief systems with which they disagree, or because this is the same language used by the many people who believe in a supreme being or agency in an inanimate universe. It is not for me to tell you what your idea of the sacred should be, or even whether you should entertain one, but I can tell you that a scientific naturalist can also embrace a conception of the sacred, or the divine.
People are not satisfied with uncertainty. I say that as someone who revels in it, recognizing the important role uncertainty plays in shaking us loose from our assumptions and challenging us to do the hard and time-consuming work that is necessary to knowing just a little more. Throughout these pages, I have drawn a visual distinction between true narratives (background in light red) and fictional narratives (background in light blue). I did this because I agree with my fellow non-theists that blurring distinction between fact and fantasy has caused suffering throughout our history.
Knowledge of that distinction prohibits me ethically from shunning all metaphors and symbols as though they were fact claims. A Humanist who values being grounded in reality must acknowledge, accept and work with the nature of the human person. That is why I believe, as Einstein did, that a concept of the sacred is important.
This does not mean that we should compromise our Humanist beliefs, to any degree at all, even the slightest degree. It means that traditional religious ideas, found within the various theisms, have their genesis in human longings and aspirations. Our challenge as scientific naturalists is to cut through the supernaturalist elements in those ideas to the core human aspirations. Once we do that, we find a wealth of meaning within these traditional religious ideas. If we so choose, we can adopt them as our own, without sacrificing our commitment to reason, empiricism and scientific naturalism.
I can explain my experience to someone who has never known the sense of awe and natural wonder that Einstein and others have described but perhaps not adequately to someone else’s understanding. Thomas Aquinas said: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” This statement by the noted scholastic philosopher has rankled disciples of reason for centuries, and has encouraged theists to proclaim a superiority of knowledge by personal fiat. However, Aquinas presumed to claim knowledge of an objective reality: the existence not only of a god but of the particular god he described in his Summa Theologica, in which he expounded at length on what he argued were God’s necessary characteristics.
This distinction between the sacred as a statement of fact and the sacred as an experience seems to be difficult for many non-theists to grasp, or perhaps they are concerned that seemingly innocuous language will be used to push into magical thinking, as has often occurred in the past. That is a legitimate concern but it does not justify rejecting and opposing a good and uplifting experience that makes no fact claim.
We Humanists do not make claims of that nature. When I describe my experience of the sacred, or the divine, I am not making, implying or suggesting a claim about the ultimate nature of reality or the origins of all things; I am describing my experience, in commonly used terms that people can understand. People who not had, or have not identified, such experiences, may have difficulty understanding the explanation; but for those of us who have had spiritual experiences, and identified them as such, they are uplifting, and they provide a sense of orientation without any call or need for unsubstantiated fact claims. The understanding of it may be similar to the experiences of people who attend a funeral and try to sympathize with the bereaved parents: they have an idea what the bereaved may be experiencing but they cannot fully know without experiencing it themselves.
This distinction between the sacred as a statement of fact and the sacred as an experience seems to be difficult for many non-theists to grasp, or perhaps they are concerned that seemingly innocuous language will be used to push into magical thinking, as has often occurred in the past. That is a legitimate concern but it does not justify rejecting and opposing good and uplifting experiences that are fully consistent with our Humanistic commitments to scientific naturalism and scientific methods.
No fiery hell awaits you if you disagree. As with everything else in this model, I am noting an invitation: noting because I am in no position to offer it to you, as it is already present. These pages lay out a vision, a framework and a method. I hope you will find it valuable.
Documentary and Educational Films
- Jacob Jordaens, Madonna and Child Wreathed with Flowers (c. 1618)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Musicologists call Beethoven a Humanistic composer. Though he was a Catholic, outwardly at least, Beethoven's music speaks to and of human concerns. His symphonies, which as a whole are his grandest works, address heroism (the Third), perseverance (the Fifth), community amid nature (the Sixth) and exuberance (the Eighth). In his Seventh Symphony, I hear an invitation to life. His Fifth piano concerto, entitled "The Emperor," seems to express Beethoven's idea of leadership. I have offered many of his works as musical illustrations of Humanistic values and ideals.
Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in D minor, Op. 125 ("Choral"), which many musicologists consider to be his magnum opus, expresses my idea of the sacred. Mahler's Third Symphony is also features this theme, with its expositions on nature, animals, humanity and Love. In many ways, these two symphonies are two expressions of the same idea. Several complete recordings are available on YouTube, including the poignant rendering by the Berlin Philharmoniker under Furtwängler, performed in Berlin in March 1942. Many years later a Jewish conductor, Leonard Bernstein, recorded a historic performance, offering the symphony as an ode to freedom. Other performances include those conducted by Karajan in 1962, Toscanini in 1936, Furtwängler in 1951, Böhm and Harnoncourt.
The descending statement of three notes that opens the symphony in the first violins (listen at 4:11) and is repeated many times in the second (listen to the opening bars) and third movements (4:55), can be seen as Beethoven's essential statement about life and/or nature. Listen to how this statement switches to an ascending mode beginning at 5:20 in Toscanini's 1952 rendition of the third movement, and then is repeated throughout the remainder of the movement, as the mood turns toward optimism and hope. The three-note statement begins to evoke a heartbeat or a gentle wave lapping repeatedly onto a beach, and the corresponding underpinnings of life in the beating heart or the ocean in which life began. In this understated manner, Beethoven brings everything together into a coherent whole, expressing the essence of religion. Beethoven summarizes his religious attitude through the Ode to Joy and concluding bars of the final movement, in which he expresses an optimistic view of humanity's future. One can easily hear the symphony to express a view of the entire sweep of life from the formation of the first cell or first heartbeat.
- Analyzing the symphony in greater detail, the first movement expresses the challenges and grandeur of life, hope (7:44) longing and desire (0:16). This is to be a work on a grand scale (listen beginning at 4:30). The opening three-note theme sounds repeatedly throughout the movement, often being reduced to two notes in descending sequence (for example, at 2:32 and 2:47), and varied in progression (4:52, beginning at 5:28and 6:02), tempo and tone (contrast 5:28 with 8:38), as though Beethoven was telling us about the diversity and richness of life and nature. Like life, the movement's development is extended and gradual, with alternating steps in one direction and then in the other (for example, contrast 1:28 with 1:37 and then with the gradual progression of intensity beginning roughly at 1:42). The movement ends with an anti-climactic statement that suggests much of the story remains to be told (4:12).
- The second movement picks up almost as an extension of the first, with a driving theme that suggests challenge and dynamic activity (the beginning here). Occasionally Beethoven emphasizes the already emphatic theme for greater effect (0:48) and then returns to the everyday business of life (1:13). Constantly present is the "pum-pa-dum" triad of notes that evokes the essence and rhythm of life, evolving and varied (begin at 1:28 and then again at 2:14, as only two of many examples; listen also to the percussion at 1:41 and thereafter), as though Beethoven understood the evolutionary principle. Occasionally, the composer provides a few moments of joyful leisure (3:37) and gentle reflection (3:51), only to return to the theme of challenge, as one might return to work on a Monday morning after a weekend in the mountains (6:33). The descending triad reappears, leading to and suggesting the relentless march of life (7:00). Life is full of conflict (8:05) but we are up to the challenge (8:44). The movement concludes with an emphatic affirmation: the protagonist is comfortable in her own skin and all is well (9:20).
- Not so fast. The third movement opens with a poignant and reflective statement, as though the composer was questioning everything he had just stated so emphatically. The sadness in these opening bars is especially palpable in Furtwängler's rendition of this movement with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Berlin in 1942, every member of the orchestra seems to be saying "Stop! In the name of humanity, please stop." Now the triadic statement of life is pensive but notice that it is now ascending (2:23), as though Beethoven has traded the security of force and tempo for the sounder foundation of direction. Eventually, Beethoven elevates the key and the mood (5:40), as if to ask "do we have cause for hope?" Quietly but definitively, the answer is yes: beginning with pizzicato in the violins, optimism emerges like rays of sunshine (8:11). The themes are the same but now every voice expresses them in a new way. An early melody (2:35) now has a new richness and freedom (9:08). Listen to the movement again and note how these developmental themes have been building all along: as in life, a sound foundation is essential to success, and often goes unrecognized for a long time. Listen, for example, to the first pizzicato expressions at 7:04, which are then brought to the forefront at 8:04. Amid the pathos is a dance (8:11) and even moments of triumph (9:26). The old notes are being played with a new spirit, reminding us that religious and spiritual people do not look elsewhere but make the most of what they have. Acceptance emerges (0:46), and then a quiet re-affirmation concludes the movement (2:46). Circumstances have not changed (the melodies are the same as before) but we have, and that makes all the difference.
- The fourth movement begins with a statement of dynamic optimism (3:56). The triad sounds (4:46), followed by a recapitulation of other previous themes (for example, at 5:22). A dynamic tension (5:58) foreshadows the emergence of the main theme of this concluding movement: an ode to joy, which begins quietly (6:52), receives reinforcement and affirmation (7:30 and 8:09), builds in optimistic assurance (8:36) and then emerges into exuberant, full-throated expression (8:47). Beethoven seems to say that whatever conditions surround our lives, the will cannot be dominated or overcome. The mere statement of the theme by the orchestra is not sufficient: the ideas must penetrate into conscious expression, and so the singer and chorus sing "O friends, no more these sounds! Let us sing more cheerful songs, more full of joy!" and the flesh is expressed in word (0:13). The remainder of this lengthy movement is an extended exercise in revelry. First Beethoven explores the theme as a folk dance (3:36), suggesting that this way of living is available to everyone. Then he busies himself with an orchestral statement (5:09), suggesting that the Way penetrates into everyday life. Having fortified his foundation, he gives full voice to the chorus (6:45). First the male (7:34) and then the female voices (7:56) reinforce the now dominant theme, as though a new world was emerging from every corner and aspect of human existence. Can we meet the challenges that face us (0:00)? Most emphatically, yes (5:36)!
Perhaps the day will come when people will hear this music for the final time but our hope lies in the attitude the music expresses. "You millions, I embrace you, this kiss is for all the world!"
- Andreas Hammerschmidt’s tight choral and instrumental harmonies evoke a special sense of the sacred, in a more traditional pre-humanistic light than in Beethoven’s revolutionary masterpiece.
- In legend, Raga Bhairav originated with an utterance from the god Shiva. It is a solemn devotional raag for early morning (performances by Banerjee, Rashid Khan and Bhawalkar).
- Raga Hemawati (Hemavati) is a Carnatic ragam for early morning (performances by Subramaniam, Thiyagarajan and Chaurasia).
Film and Stage
- Saving Private Ryan: on the battlefield, the soldiers’ duty was to save the life of a family’s only surviving son but the salient question for each of us is whether we have “earned this”. This is a spiritual view of duty and obligation. File it also under gratefulness.
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch,
These are the measures destined for her soul.
[Wallace Stevens, “What Is Divinity”]
- Edgar Lee Masters, “Justice Arnett”