The Account of a Lifetime

August 27, 2012

Sceptic, Cynic, Stoic: Atheism+

I’ve been away this last week. I had some little opportunities to do some travelling and hobnobbing, so I seized them.

In the middle of the last week, I took the opportunity to spend a day out with many ol’ friends in Edinburgh. We dallied at the festival, perused some shows, drank coffee & tea, visited bookshops and all that jazz. Oh, we laughed. How we laughed!

This weekend, I was treated to an excursion to Glasgow to visit the big ‘Collectormania‘ event. There were hi-jinx and escapades and so forth, but largely it was an extremely enjoyable time to just geek out. That is: indulge in geekery, chat writing, chat TV, chat sci-fi and fantasy, to speculate and remember, to indulge and be inspired. It was an extremely enjoyable weekend!

However, perhaps the most endearing outlook of the entire weekend (excepting the acquisition of some lovely new [err, old] Star Trek books, including a long-desired copy of Robinson’s A Stitch In Time) was a brief conversation with an old friend which eventually hit towards the topic of Atheism+ which is broadly dealt with in Jen McCreight’s BlagHag blog posts ( Conception, Definition, Clarification 1, Declaration, Clarification 2, Greta’s Nuances). Suffice to say, it’s enlightening. Perhaps a tad more than that. It bears something of a story. Gather round, sit down, get comfortable. Everyone has tea? I shall begin…

Scepticism and Ostracism

It’s a critical element of ‘the Emperor’s New Clothes’, the idea that you’re seeing a truth that other people aren’t, a distancing from others by a subtle realisation. Though as a child I suffered from what could be described as an ‘ill’ temper, by teenage years I was basically your average, run-of-the-mill, white, cisgendered male. Even on making it to University, I had precisely the average entry grades taken on by the Uni’s Scottish Students. An average person, if you will. A life of privilege, certainly on a global scale, but hardly unwarranted or setting myself beyond my peers.

Nevertheless, there were elements that didn’t fit. Football wasn’t big for me, I was Catholic and fairly invested in it, even as a youngster, I was distant from most of my cousins, I didn’t have a close circle of friends in the same manner as most other folks of the same age. It’s a bit of an odd one to look back on, indeed it seems almost as if I’m complaining, nay: whining! I might be, everyone’s the hero of their own story, I suppose.

That’s all beside the point, the key elements that relate to Atheism+ were inherently important and noticeable in my youth. I had almost no truck at all with idle chauvinism, racism or bigotry. Homophobia in the subtle, socially acceptable way vanished extremely early, if it even existed at all. I may have started a rumour about a friend I’d bitterly fallen out with (the rumour being that he was in the majorettes…), I only found out a year or two later that he was gay. Whilst there are many awful things in the world, my shoddiness as a friend is my own burden to bear, not one of the principal pillars of A+, that’s much more in the fall-back territory of ‘don’t be a dick’.

The point, here, is that despite being a fairly devout (if also unorthodox) Catholic, I was already recognising critical bits in terms of equality. Gender equality, overt prejudice based on certain parameters were supposed to be long-gone. I suspected I was late to the party and just unfortunate to find myself surrounded by a pile of Fifers who also happened to be backwards and late to ‘get with modernity’.

By the time I got to University, this certainly seemed to be the case, arguments and offence massively went from ‘trivial and quibbling’ to ‘profound (in my esteem) and fundamental’, which seemed like a good move. Give it three more years and I was quite ready to abandon the vestiges of my Catholicism and take up a new place in the world. There’s not really a special place in the world for me to take up a cause without it being somewhat condescending, so atheism and science were always my natural go-to places. No hurdles, no exclusions and no ceilings to overcome or break-through, just whether I myself was competent enough. (I wasn’t.)

The critical outcome, however, crystallised the vague beliefs, the vague notions and the querying that’d permeated life before that: scepticism. Finally being able to put a finger on that played pretty importantly, it unified a lot of my thoughts on science in general, about progress and endeavour and improvement and… all that jazz.

With that put in its place, it becomes extremely easy to suddenly look up and realise the ruin wrought around me, the blundering oafishness with which I’d approached things (and in many respects still continue to propagate). There’s a hint of blood-on-my-hands, an extremely undermining ignorance that tempered any hope of achieving almost utopian visions of prejudice-free, highly logical, spirited ways of life. With the big issues of social justice outlined for A+, and the direction being focussed towards inclusion and non-trivial diversity, it’s perhaps curious that my first reaction, appropriately sceptical as it is, was: is this for me?

Cynicism & Optimism

Another arc of this that’s pretty dear to my heart and keen in my head is a certain disenfranchisement. A dear friend of mind down in London has, I fear, been routinely exasperated with what surely must appear to be poorly rationalised laziness on my part when it comes to actually standing up for what I believe in, or standing against things which I reason to be demonstrably and vehemently arguable as being wrong. It’s the square part of me, the bit that instinctively thinks protests and strikes, that passionate action and righteous outrage simply won’t solve anything.

It’s a piece that’s kept me pretty conflicted with regards to politics. On one hand, I know the limits, the necessity of realpolitik and the stark realities of economic decisions and lessons, yet on the other hand I seem to be possessed of an unspeakable naivety: I seem to think that thinking about it for a bit longer will yield a solution. It’s logical, but it’s certainly not empirical: I’m seemingly useless at creative thinking and have no sensible reason or structure in place to point at to excuse my laziness in this regard.

This cynicism conquers disenfranchisement: as ‘all of the above’ in terms of privilege and security in day-to-day life, I’m nevertheless sitting on the outside looking in. (Largely/entirely my own fault? Certainly it’s no-one else’s.) It’s difficult to engage, especially when, frankly, the incentive is almost certainly to be thus: let room be allowed and given for other people to do their thing: encourage and approve, but don’t get caught up in the white man’s burden. In essence, stay focussed and keep a good perspective on things.

With regards to Atheism+, I can’t help but wonder if my best use, my best utility herein, is simply to be aware, to engage and facilitate where I can, but not to claim ownership (I certainly don’t feel ownership, but it’s nice to see something so close to my heart gaining speed, even if it’s effectively a bandwagon rolling away without me!). At best, I can be a ‘force for good’ (a phrase which cropped up, mainly from me, multiple times over the weekend) with respect to the people I do have a unique place with: the privileged few. Cynically, the best I can do is in further ostracising myself from my peers! To take the ‘fight’ (more accurately: engagement, raising awareness, keeping discussion going – e.g. continue being me, how difficult!) amongst the folks who actually share my particular population identifiers: straight, white, males of roughly my age. It’s a terrible burden, some of them are awful!

Stoicism & the Group

Ultimately stoicism, deontologically, is about as close to a world-view as I have. Well, I aspire to it more than practice it. Its practical use here, with respect to A+, is almost certainly a case of ‘choosing my battles’: I don’t really identify as a sceptic, nor as an atheist nor as a cynical curmudgeon (I’m too optimistic!). Much in the same way, I never really, fully, identified as a ‘Papist’ Catholic (my disagreements with Rome were many), so bizarrely I ended up sympathising more fully with vast swathes of the Protestant denominations on many, many topics… despite remaining (in my head) staunchly Catholic.

With that there, identifying as part of the Atheism+ movement is likely going to be a fairly fruitless endeavour. I’m no more a scientist, theologian or profound thinker than I am an athlete or an artist; despite Atheism+ being dear to my heart and ‘soul’, I really can’t see an easy way of catching the bandwagon.

However, that’s an irrelevant way of thinking, being aboard or not isn’t an issue. Rather, the questions I should be asking myself when I’m considering my own contributions should surely be: what can I achieve? What can I affect or influence? What is beyond my remit/reach, should it be consciously put far from my mind?

Almost certainly, it is these thoughts that’ll fill my time. It’s certainly important, but as the pithy mantra of neo-stoicism goes:

That which I cannot control has no power over me.

Sounds dubious, of course, almost Sith-like in its sinister nature, but it’s really in context of happiness. Perhaps better: “That which I cannot influence I shouldn’t personally concern myself about”, an operational razor if you will, not a moral one.

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