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August 31 2012

Buffy, Angel and Spiritual Atheism. Writer/author Steven Lloyd Wilson via Pajiba shares his take on four TV shows that illustrate a certain kind of "spiritual atheism," including both "Buffy" and "Angel."

Good grief, another guy who 1-thinks he's profound when he isn't, and is making points when he doesn't 2- writes about material he doesn't really understand. And his comment about Jews, yuck.
I allways took most of Josses work to be more agnostic than atheist, even when i think he has defined himself as an atheist... If my memory serves.
Darkness: As an atheist myself, I've read Buffy and Angel to be a combination of agnosticism and humanism.
I know this sounds exceedingly existentialist: "..when nothing you do matters, the only thing that matters is what you do." And I know it has become the key to all of Angel. But every time I parse this it does not make sense to me. It is a tautology of a sort. But it never adds up meaningfully.
I dont, and im an atheist too. But thats art for you: to each his own. :)

Never liked humanism: its too much like a religion.
The key to the phrase "if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do" is that there is a slight shift in what "matters" means between the two statements, which reflects a change in conception of what meaning *is* to Angel. The line works for me because the epiphany actually lies in the gap between the two clauses in the sentence. The correct way to parse it is, IMHO (and based on the sentences preceding and following it),

"If nothing we do matters [in the sense of having significance beyond the present in a cosmic, karmic fashion -- i.e. our actions do not have externally-imposed meaning], then all that matters is what we do [in the sense that the only meaning comes from the actions themselves and how they interact with the present.]"
Yeah, the line is about how we often focus on "making a difference" in the sense of changing the world, of leaving a mark for the ages, but it's actually much more important to realize that the things we do probably won't change the world and that that's exactly why it's important that we do the things we see as right -- because instead of focusing on the big picture, you will see that focusing on something real and 'now' will probably mean more, now and in the long run.

It means that, instead of becoming a politician and trying to create jobs, I want to help one person get a job that's right for them. Instead of trying to solve the entire homelessness problem, you give a few homeless people a roof or a plate to eat. You won't make a worldwide difference that way, but to that one person you make a difference wide as worlds.
Well, yes, I do get that, in the sense of standard existentialist thought- it is what we do that gives meaning to our life. But the construction of the sentences seems to imply some greater and perhaps more cosmic meaning and I cannot seem to tease it out.
Beautifully put, WilliamTheB.

sentences seems to imply some greater and perhaps more cosmic meaning

No, I think the whole point of the first part ("nothing we do matters") is to say "there is no 'cosmic meaning'" to be had. Then, as WilliamTheB said so well, in the context of that absence of "cosmic meaning" the only thing left that "matters" is how we choose to act--making that choice in the sure and certain knowledge that there's no larger "cosmic" story out there that our actions are advancing or hindering.
I think it's always worthwhile to re-watch Joss' explanation of that great line from Angel. He also explains his whole experience of belief:

I don't actually have anything against anybody, unless their belief precludes everybody else's. I am an atheist and an absurdist and have been for many, many years. I've actually taken a huge amount of flak for that. People who have faith tend to think that people who don't don't have a belief system and they don't care if they make fun of them. It's actually very difficult: atheists are as a group not really recognised by the American public as people to be taken seriously. This does not mean that I rail against religion, however. The meaning of life, and the meaning of what we do with our lives, is something that is extremely important to me. I have included characters from many different religions particularly in [Firefly], but also in the other shows as well, because I'm interested in the concept. I think faith is an extraordinary thing. I'd like to have some, but I don't and that's just how that works. …
One of the few times that I really got to say exactly what I think about the world was in the second season of Angel, episode 16.… He basically decided that ... the world was meaningless, nothing matters, and he said … “the only thing that matters is what we do.” Which is what I believe, I believe that the only reality is how we treat each other; that morality comes from the absence of any grander scheme, not from the presence of any grander scheme. But then the next thing that somebody says to him is, ‘well, you burst into my apartment without being invited, which a vampire can’t do, which is like a little miracle,’ and I just sort of let that hang. I said the thing I believed in most and then I contradicted it right away. Because ultimately it’s the confluence or the conflict of those ideas that’s actually really interesting.

I love that little speech so much, Bishop. I have held it up as an example of what I believe -- though I came at it from the other side. I believe in God... but I might be wrong.

And thank you for parsing that out, WilliamTheB, I've quoted the line to so many people and gotten so many blank looks. I'll remember your analysis for the next time.
Ditto being skeeved out by the author's "he's a Jew" comment. I get that it was probably written to play as funny, but sheesh. Not cool. Sidelining Judaism through a flip remark reinforces the misconception that atheism solely interacts with Christianity. There are many, many religions out there, many theological concepts of god/s/esses, the devil, good, and evil outside of Christianity, and many of the atheists I know (myself included) are interested in and at least somewhat knowledgeable about them as we negotiate the world and our beliefs! Sort of paints the world in terms of this "you either believe in the Christian God or you're an atheist" binary, which is inaccurate to say the least.

Also ditto deep gratitude to WilliamTheB for explicating that quote. It's one of my mantras. I like to think of "Let's go to work," the very last line of Season Five and Angel itself, as the natural continuation of that sentiment. I love the idea that in the absence of overarching theological/cosmic significance, not only can we imbue our temporary existences with meaning through action, but we can do it with a determination both of direst sincerity and with gritty humor, even snarkily restrained enthusiasm, if need be. "I don't know about you, but I kind of want to slay the dragon."

[ edited by Mare on 2012-09-01 01:47 ]

[ edited by Mare on 2012-09-01 01:47 ]
Just for clarification, mare, the "he's halfway there" line (which I hadn't seen on my first read through the article, hence me going back to look it up) refers to him being a jew as being halfway to atheism, not halfway to hell as you wrote.
Ah, thanks for the clarification, counti8, I misread that. But does that make the comment better, or worse? : )
mare, for the point he was trying to make (that athiests grapple with spirituality in their works in ways that strike him as more interesting than religious creators do), it would seem he means it as praise/a compliment.

Aside from what he meant? I think Joss sometimes asks those kinds of questions in his work — how we create families and communities based on common desires or visions of living, and what actions we have to take when individuals demonstrate behaviour that opposes that (I think specifically of the Jayne/Mal airlock scene). If a religion can admit they don't have answers, or openly invites skepticism, doubt and questioning, it's closer to my definition the basis of an inclusive community I'd have fewer qualms with. (Then again, I'm of the belief that most conflicts about religion are actually conflicts about the communities/cultures that try to draw lines using religious doctrine.)
I love that little speech so much, Bishop. I have held it up as an example of what I believe -- though I came at it from the other side. I believe in God... but I might be wrong.

ManEnoughToAdmitIt: As a Catholic, the words "I might be wrong" make me think of the opening chapter of Pope Benedict's book "Introduction to Christianity". I think conversations between athiests and Christians (or, between any two parties) would be much more productive if we took this view:
The believer is always threatened with the uncertainty which in moments of temptation can suddenly and unexpectedly cast a piercing light on the fragility of the whole that usually seems so self-evident to him. A few examples will help to make this clear. That lovable saint Teresa of Lisieux [...] says, for example, "I am assailed by the worst temptations of atheism." Everything has become questionable, everything is dark. She feels tempted to take only the sheer void for granted. In other words, in what is apparently a flawlessly interlocking world someone here suddenly catches a glimpse of the abyss lurking -- even for her -- under the firm structure of the supporting conventions. In a situation like this, what is in question is not the sort of thing that one perhaps quarrels about otherwise -- the dogma of the Assumption, the proper use of confession -- all this becomes absolutely secondary. What is at stake is the only remaining alternative; nowhere does there seem anything to cling to in this sudden fall. All that can be seen is the bottomless depths of the void into which one is also staring. [... Similarly,] for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world. [...] Anyone who makes up his mind to evade the uncertainty of belief will have to experience the uncertainty of unbelief, which can never finally eliminate for certain the possibility that belief may after all be the truth. It is not until belief is rejected that its unrejectability becomes evident.

Interesting idea, though as a professional editor I might have phrased it a little differently. I have that book on my shelf and I've been meaning to read it, though I'm about as far from Catholic as you can get and still be in the same spiritual family tree.

The universe, whether "it was made, or just happened," seems to be really well set up for doubt.

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