The hedonist will see you now ...

By Diogenes ( articles ) | May 17, 2005

If I had been a Heathen,
I'd have crowned Neaera's curls,
And filled my life with love affairs,
My house with dancing girls;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And to lecture rooms is forced,
Where his aunts, who are not married,
Demand to be divorced.

Chesterton's Song of the Strange Ascetic gently spoofs the unreasonableness of atheists who draw no pleasure from the indulgences permitted them by their atheism -- those who "do not have the faith, and will not have the fun."

Jeff Miller has some Chestertonian amusement at the expense of Harvard's secular humanist chaplaincy, but my own curiosity snagged on the word chaplain, which implies a chapel, which is an odd notion for an atheist to invoke, even obliquely. The Boston Globe story seems likewise wobbly on the concept:

Greg Epstein, the assistant humanist chaplain and Ferrick's replacement to be, envisions a day when humanists will be able to construct their own center to complement Harvard's churches and other student religious centers. "The two things that I think we [humanists] need to learn how to do," he says, "are to sing, in the metaphorical sense and the literal sense, and to build."

Here's what I don't get: an institutional chaplaincy makes sense where there's a gap between existence-as-you-experience-it and ultimate reality as you believe it to be. The chaplain helps you understand the sorrows or perplexities of the former in terms of the deeper truths of the latter. But for an atheist, where is there room for a gap? Experience is experience. Existence is existence. There's no place for exhortation or admonishment or reconciliation because there's nothing greater than the Self to make demands upon it. Even if a goldfish could wish to be reconciled to water, would the water itself need a Ministry of Wetness?

I wonder whether Chesterton wasn't onto something deeper than he lets on. The happy heathens weren't atheists but polytheists, who lived in defiance of the "dark gods" while they honored the holy ones. For fun to be fun, it requires an element of irresponsibility or defiance toward the enemy of human nature --"flipping off the Grim Reaper," in Dave Shiflett's phrase -- which acknowledges the precariousness of earthly life. But if there's nothing to defy, fun vanishes. And that means, for the modern atheist, pleasures and pains alike are equally somber. Going out for a beer and going into surgery differ only in the synapses to be employed. No wonder they're not big into singing.

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