Purpose and Religiosity

Ed linked to an old article by Mark Oppenheimer which laments a trend in which college campuses discourage single-minded purpose. Oppenheimer’s idea of single-minded purpose is a bit eccentric, as he cites some odd reminiscences

They say it would take a lifetime simply to copy out the works of Bach or Telemann. Much the same is true of Wodehouse. I know: at school I hammered out all of his novel Fringe Assets on an electric Remington in an effort to teach myself to touch-type, an effort that took me a term and a half.

This particularly eccentric pass time aside, Oppenheimer mentions physicists and poets, so his concerns are broader than the welfare of the almost OCD. I’m less interested in Oppenheimer’s article itself, which I am often in agreement with, so much as the influence of his religiosity.

Oppenheimer is not concerned with our lack of ability to sustain attention per se–the sort of concern which can be articulated from the viewpoint of soulless careerism. Instead, Oppenheimer is concerned with what the lack of devotion present on college campuses shows about our view of the good life. Fry’s patient transcription of Wodehouse has touch-typing as its product, but this is hardly what gives the image of Fry its gravity. We are told to “reflect for a moment on the elegant asceticism of Fry’s project” and this project exemplifies “something provided by college life at its best, something all too rare afterwards, to be cherished while one can: the uninterrupted moment.”

Respose can be a commodity. The dominant careerist aesthetic includes yoga, meditation or gardening as ways to take a little bit of time for yourself, which enhances your concentration and keeps your mind healthy. But Oppenheimer’s vision of what validates repose is different. His description of the values which are the opposites of repose is curt and dismissive: “well-rounded and liberal is a perfectly nice way to be — I hope it describes me — but it connotes no particular meaning or calling or purpose. It’s a way to be, not a reason to be.” Going by that description alone, many people would by surprised to realize that they’re devaluing peacefulness and rest. I’m belaboring this point, but I want to stress that there’s something peculiar about Oppenheimer’s point which invites you to identify with it, without necessarily understanding what motivates him.

You most often hear calls for leading a purposeful life from religiously minded commentators. If, as a secular atheist, you start to reflect on not just the concrete complaints Oppenheimer lodges but also his reasons for doing so, you might feel a substantial disconnect. The language of purpose and “a reason to be” are familiar and natural to a theist, whereas for us they leave the sense that we don’t really know what either thing would be, or they reflect nothing more than a shallow dressing up of careerism. I don’t think this difference is intrinsic. Certainly, given Oppenheimer’s examples: Campus Crusade for Christ, and Big Ten football players, one might suspect that he has a poor grasp on what activities exhibit purpose in any important sense. The inclusion of Big Ten football almost has the force to rewrite the entire article as a parody.

In any case, a religious outlook fosters a comfort with the notion of a purposeful life, whereas a reflective atheistic perspective tends to discomfit us by stripping away a layer of illusion about the purposes that our life might serve. I don’t mean to say something idiotic to the effect that atheism makes life meaningless, as I’ve heard a theist or two assert, rather, I’m saying that the task of explaining the nature of a purposeful life becomes much more difficult because we’re not allowed to cheat. In particular, despite my intrinsic sympathy for Fry and for the notion of single-mindedness of purpose and for the uninterrupted moment, I feel as if I have nothing more than a hunch that these things have anything to do with a purposeful life.


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