I had one of my atheist epiphanies the other night.
I love it passionately. Ingrid and I never miss it if we can possibly avoid it. And last night, I had an epiphany about why.
The Edwardian Ball is a near-perfect example of what I think of as the atheist meaning of life.
When you don’t believe in God or an afterlife — when you don’t think that the meaning of your life is determined by a perfect divine force, and when you think that humanity is just a tiny, fragile, absurdly mortal fragment in the immensity of space and time — you have to seriously rethink the whole question of what life means. The meaning of life isn’t pleasing God and going to Heaven, or perfecting your soul for your next reincarnation, or working towards the enlightenment of the World-Soul, or anything like that. And humanity isn’t a singularly beloved creation with a special destiny. We’re just an unusually complex biochemical process on one small rock whizzing around one nondescript star in one of billions of galaxies. And when that star goes Foom in a few billion years, that biochemical process is destined to go Foom along with it, with no traces left but a few bits of space junk floating in the vast emptiness of the universe.
The Edwardian Ball looks at all this, and says, “Let’s celebrate.
“And let’s connect.
The Edwardian Ball is one of my favorite examples of Stone Soup culture; of people who know that the party will be more fun if they bring their share of it. It isn’t just about hearing other people’ music, watching other people’s stage shows, looking at other people’s art. Everywhere I looked, people were dressed to the nines: in rigorously accurate historical costumes, in fanciful imaginings of fictional history, in elegant formal dress, in irreverent and hilarious re-interpretations of formal dress, in complicated technological marvels, in artfully lascivious displays of flesh, in elaborate configurations of black on black on black. And people were dancing, creating a delightful whirlpool of giddy, ridiculous glamour whizzing around the dance floor. The audience was as much a part of the event as the performers. This event is not about sitting back passively and waiting to be entertained. It’s about participating — being part of the show.
Which is exactly what I think of as the atheist meaning of life.
The Edwardian ball reminds me that permanence is not the only measure of consequence or value. The Edwardian ball reminds me that, as fragile and transitory as they are, experience and consciousness are freaking miracles. And the fact that we can share our experiences and connect our consciousnesses, even to the flawed and limited degree that we do, is beyond miraculous.
Let’s participate. Let’s be part of the show.
And here’s the final thing that struck me this year about the Edwardian Ball: All this celebration and magnificent silliness isn’t done by ignoring death.
This event is not about dealing with death by pretending it isn’t real or shoving it onto the back burner. This is about dealing with death by transforming it into art, and costume, and ghoulish humor. This is about dealing with death as if it were an urgent To Do reminder. This is about dealing with death by incorporating it into life.
I’m not saying everyone who attends or creates the Edwardian Ball is an atheist. It would surprise me tremendously to find that that was true. I’m saying that for me, as an atheist, the meaning of life is to participate in it as fully as I possibly can; and to connect with others as richly as I can; and to minimize suffering and maximize joy to the greatest degree that I can, for myself and anyone I can connect with. Sometimes that means staying up until four in the morning writing about atheism and sex. Sometimes it means singing the James K. Polk song to my best friend’s new baby. Sometimes it means doing copywriting and website maintenance for a hippie/ punk/ anarchist publisher and book distributor. Sometimes it means cramming twenty people into our apartment for a sit-down Christmas Eve dinner. Sometimes it means going to see our friend’s co-worker’s band as a dutiful favor, and becoming obsessed fans overnight (how we discovered Rosin Coven in the first place). Sometimes it means donating money to earthquake relief in Haiti.
I think I can live with that.
Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen
Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence
For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour
Why Are We Here?