The noticeable retreat of traditional religion hasn't lessened people's desire to recreate many of its trappings. Today people speak about green tea the way Catholics chat about holy water. In cosmopolitan cities many residents under the age of sixty have a bullpen of fasting/"enlightened" concentration/homeopathy/organicness they phone when in need of transcendent relief. They'll grind their bicuspids about how SOCIETY NEEDS TO PUT SCIENCE BACK ON THE FRONT BURNER...right before they tell you they need to run off to work on their qi.
Atheism--which some evidently feel can be best expressed by bashing "organized religion" (facing Mecca is more sound if always performed in solitude?)--is more public than it used to be. This hasn't resulted in people finally freeing themselves from the pursuit of "enlightenment." Instead of using atheism as a backstage pass to fun and folly, many instead still seek "transcendence" through painful rituals like fasting; something the religious have done for centuries.
Unlike the Buddhist monks who often withdrew from already simple lives, today's cosmopolitan transcenders dip their pinky toenails in similar antics while living a life of nonstop stimulation. They talk a good game about hating "consumerism," but have enough electronic devices to make Batman's utility belt look like something that came with a Happy Meal. Phones that purr like kittens and apps that update you whenever your friend gains a pound do not change the fact that this life is all there is, same as it was before everyone looked like Inspector Gadget. Unsurprisingly, some people respond in much the same way as the ones who have long organized (cue Home Alone scream face) themselves into religions.
The sequence is simple. After some introspection, a would-be transcender comes to the painful realization that this is all there is. He then turns to more introspection and pain as a means of resisting the fixity of his existence. Unfortunately, attempting to overcome pain--that is to say life--by pursuing more pain is like overcoming aspirin by taking more aspirin. By fasting, you have not overcome anything. You have become hungry. You will eventually have to eat, because you are still bound to the same physical laws as all other Earthlings. You cannot meditate your way around this. Existence has no service elevator.
Many of today's capital A atheists are as judgmental of hedonism (put less scandalously: the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake) as subscribers to traditional religions. They can't believe everyone wouldn't want to "think of something greater than themselves." If this reminds you of statements you've heard from organized religion adherents, it isn't a coincidence. We cannot transcend what we are, but we can try to make ourselves feel better about it by trying anyway. All religious pursuit, organized or otherwise, could be given the same name: Placebo Effectism.
But fear not, there's no need to be so gloomy about it all. Humans want to feel they're more than a slowly sinking buoy in a sea of chaotic and indifferent energy. No problem. Here is an easy, relatively painless, (and cheap) form of "transcendence" you can try at home. Every morning when your alarm goes off, your initial urge is to go back to sleep. But instead, you get up. Why not tell yourself you have transcended sleepiness? And throughout the day, remember to pat yourself on the back for overcoming your urge to strangle your boss and seeing beyond your desire to take a six hour lunch. Everyday drudgery suddenly becomes triumphant when you feel you've walked in the bare feet of Parashurama.
And if you like your transcendence drastic, you can always go old school and set yourself on fire. Just tell everyone all that stopping, dropping, and rolling you did was just an advanced form of Bikram Yoga.
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