At this point it is worth taking a bit of a digression from the bickering and squabbling, specifically a more philosophical digression. I always feel more comfortable when the members of the society fall out over philosophical ideas rather than ideas about what philosophy is. These latter meta-philosophical questions tend to lead to far more damaging and long-term splits, in my experience. There was always one philosophical question that could guarantee a room united in disagreement, a disagreement that transcended any sectarian bickering – the question of God.
It would be fair to say that most of the membership is comprised of atheists of differing levels of militancy. Many people come to philosophy to find meaning in life following the much proclaimed death of God. They are generally left disappointed. One may speculate that this is what leads to the rather pessimistic and nihilistic tendencies alluded to earlier. If post-Christian philosophy has taught us anything about how to live, it is that the responsibility lies firmly on the shoulders of the individual. The reality is that for almost every human since Nietzsche, who seemed to see this radical autonomy as a source of great joy, this responsibility has been a burden far too weighty to bear. 20th century philosophy, especially Sartre’s existentialism, tended to berate the individual for taking refuge in a belief that we are less than radically free – this was seen as a dishonest move, an example of bad faith. Rousseau famously wrote that men are born free, but are everywhere in chains. In our time, stripped (largely) of God, class structures, hierarchies, and so on, the sad truth is that these chains are largely of our own making. A few people do of course seek freedom, but as some wit pointed out, to assume that because these few seek freedom that we all seek freedom is like thinking that, because there are flying fish, it is in the nature of fish to fly. I would have to agree, such is our weakness, fragility and the undeniably weighty burden of freedom. Love of truth may be terrible and mighty; the quest for freedom is equally treacherous. Some in the philosophy society continue to dream of freedom, while the rest find some consolation in fighting for a world without God.
Unofficial leader and guru of the society’s God bashing contingent was Jackie Graziano, sailor, artist, teacher, writer, revolutionary, post-modernist, humanist and, primarily, atheist. It is difficult to imagine how hurt some people can be by religion. To me it has always seemed like fairly harmless fun, but for some the desire to overturn the oppressive power of religions was a life-long one. Jackie was one such character. In pursuit of this goal, Jackie has veered in the course of his life from Marxism to Existentialism and finally ended up with Postmodernism. If in the end, as Nietzsche wrote, every great philosophy has been the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unnoticed memoir, the same may presumably be said for every less-than-great philosophy, into which category I would reluctantly have to consign Jackie’s.