Monday, 29 December 2008

Life and Lille

Lille in northern France is perhaps not the first place you might think of when contemplating a European city break. In August my wife and I spurned Paris to take the Eurostar to Lille for a few days. I had been told that Lille was a bit like Birmingham. The city boasts a surprising array of museums, art galleries and picturesque squares.
Some of the architecture is interesting. The photograph below was taken in Avenue Le Corbusier close to the railway station. Le Corbusier was a famous architect who designed “machines for living in”.
The photo below was taken at the other side of the railway station.
The train journey from London St Pancras through the channel tunnel passed quickly, which is more than can be said for the initial leg of the journey to London, as someone decided to jump in front of the train coming in the opposite direction. The title of my blog references the writings of Albert Camus and the first sentence of The Myth of Sisyphus is “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” Camus thought suicide signified the lack of strength to face “nothing”. He thought life an adventure without ultimate meaning and though in some sense absurd it is still worth living. If there is nothing else, then life should be lived to the full and we should derive meaning from human existence. Camus thought it was people that gave life meaning, but the realization of your own extinction, indeed the ultimate extinction of all life, results in a deep sense of anxiety, what some people call “existentialist angst”.

"A world which can be explained, even through bad reasoning, is a familiar one. On the other hand, in a world suddenly devoid of illusion and light, man feels like a stranger."

In the end, Camus rejects both suicide and the evasion of the absurdity of life through religion, which he thought to be philosophical suicide. He concluded that this life, this vale of tears, should not merely be accepted, it must be embraced.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Io, Saturnalia!

Merry Christmas. You might consider it hypocritical for a non-believing Humanist like me to be celebrating Christmas. Well, I could talk about the pagan origins of many of our Christmas traditions such as the Roman feast of Saturnalia, held at this time of the year, which involved the giving of presents, eating, drinking and merriment. 25th December is the Winter Solstice in the Julian calendar and the 4th century Christians chose it as Christ's birthday because the pagans already celebrated that day as a holiday (a wise decision that modern Humanists should emulate). The holiday evolved from Saturnalia to the feast of Sol Invictus which was celebrated on 25th December - Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, "the birthday of the unconquered sun." Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor declared dies Solis – the day of the Sun (Sunday) to be the official Roman day of rest. The picture is Christus helios, the 4th centruy mosaic of Sol in Mausoleum M, under Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, which is interpreted as Christ-Sol (Christ as the Sun).
I could also talk about the cult of Mithras who was also supposed to be born on 25th December and was widely worshipped in the British Isles, but the point is not that Christmas is nothing to do with Christianity. There has been an evolving tradition going back millennia, a large part Christian, which has retained some traditional elements and at the same time mutated in to new forms appropriate for whatever beliefs are current. I am a cultural Christian even though I don't have any literal belief in the nativity story. I am just as aware of the influence that Christianity has had on our society as many people calling themselves believing Christians. If future generations decide to leave behind the explicitly Christian elements of Christmas, that is a matter for them. I am quite happy to look at art inspired by religious themes and to enjoy listening to Christmas carols, see

Below is a photograph of a statue of Mithras that I took in the Vatican museum this year.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

BHA Vice-President Sir Bernard Crick Dies

One of the Vice-Presidents of the British Humanist Association, Professor Sir Bernard Crick died on Friday aged 79. He will be remembered as the philosopher and constitutional expert who invented citizenship education and devised the 'Britishness' test for immigrants to the UK. The thing that I will remember him for is his articles in the Guardian and the New Humanist magazine where he insisted that Humanists need to be less fussy about working with the religious who share our commitment to social justice, saying that this age of fanaticism is no time for non-believers to make enemies of moderate, liberal religious people. He was of course referencing the probably apocryphal story of François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, on his deathbed, when a priest bursts in on him crying, "Renounce the devil and all his works!", to which Voltaire replies, "This is no time to make enemies." I would agree with Crick that Humanists should build good relations with moderate believers of all persuasions in order to unite against the enemies of enlightenment, democracy and freedom. I am a member of the Hull and East Riding Interfaith ( and recently gave a talk about my own beliefs and how they contrast with the beliefs of religious members of the community. I would prefer this kind of dialogue to be called a "Religion and Belief Network" rather than "Interfaith" because I don't consider Humanism to be a Faith, but by any name, these meetings can help to create mutual respect between diverse believers, even if they do not increase respect for the diverse beliefs themselves. We can still maintain our intellectual honesty and criticism of religious belief and our commitment to rationalism, science, scepticism, freethought and the open society.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Why Sisyphus Happy?

The title of my blog, Sisyphus Happy, comes from the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus written by Albert Camus in 1942.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it roll down again.

Camus concludes his essay, "The struggle enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."