Spiritual Menu

By Sean Carroll | August 11, 2008 9:40 am

Currently reporting from a tiny, hip hotel at an undisclosed location on the West Coast. Of the various ways in which this establishment brands itself as edgy and unconventional, there is no standard-issue Gideon Bible tucked in a drawer somewhere in each room. Instead, one is presented with a small laminated Spiritual Menu — a list of texts that can be fetched up to your room by a quick call to the front desk. Options include:

  • Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation
  • Book of Mormon
  • Buddhist Bible
  • KJV Gift and Award Bible: Revised Edition, King James Version
  • The Koran
  • New American Bible
  • Tao Te Ching
  • The Torah: The Five Books of Moses, Standard Edition
  • Book on Scientology

Probably, like me, you are wondering why there aren’t any options available for atheists. (Tedious explanatory note, since this is the internet: I am not really serious. Therefore, please to not respond with a lecture on why, when faced with a “Spiritual Menu,” the proper response for an atheist is simply to fast.) I mean, there have to be more of us than Scientologists, right? Although perhaps not among people who matter.

On the other hand, it’s not clear what would constitute an appropriate choice, as atheists have never been very big on sacred texts. I can think of a few possibilities. Something like The God Delusion wouldn’t be right, regardless of its various warts and charms, as it’s essentially reactive in nature — talking about why one shouldn’t believe in God, rather than celebrating or elaborating how to live as a cheerful materialist. Something like On the Origin of Species or Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems would be interesting choices, although they are too specialized to really fit the bill. You could make a very good case for a modern post-Enlightenment book like Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, as a serious (if not especially systematic) attempt to figure out how we should deal with a contingent world free of any guidance from outside.

But I would probably vote for Lucretius‘s De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). As good empiricists, we should recognize that a classic text doesn’t have to get everything right, as our understanding continues to be revised and improved. So why not go for a true classic? Writing in the first century BCE, Lucretius (a Roman admirer of the Greek philosopher Epicurus) took materialism seriously, and thought deeply about the place of human beings in a world governed by the laws of nature. He advocated skepticism, dismissed the idea that life continued after death in any form, preached personal responsibility, and thought hard about science, especially the role of atoms and statistical mechanics. (Slightly ahead of his time.) And the book itself comes in the form of an occasionally-inscrutable poem, originally in Latin. Which adds a certain gravitas, if you know what I mean.

And, verily, those tortures said to be
In Acheron, the deep, they all are ours
Here in this life. No Tantalus, benumbed
With baseless terror, as the fables tell,
Fears the huge boulder hanging in the air:
But, rather, in life an empty dread of Gods
Urges mortality, and each one fears
Such fall of fortune as may chance to him.

It’s far from a perfect book — when it comes to sexuality, in particular, Lucretius stumbles a bit. But I’ll take it over any of the Spiritual Menu offerings, any day.

Shall we take up a collection to leave copies of Lucretius in hotel rooms around the world?


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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