Being an atheist insomniac

Next week on Facebook, the "A" Week begins, asking atheists and freethinkers to display the scarlet "A" on their profiles. There are a lot of people who don't believe in the supernatural out there, and still many who feel somewhat alone in their community.

There are a lot of positives on abandoning superstition and religion in life - how you regard each day as a treasure can be one - but there are also downsides. I want to discus
s one aspect of being an atheist that has caused me sleepless nights and how that turned around. With the help of Star Wars.

Recognizing that there is no evidence for an afterlife (and that mainstream religions' claims are flimsy appeals to a sense of comfort) is not comforting.
Recognizing, as Richard Dawkins eloquently wrote,
"After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked -- as I am surprisingly often -- why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?"
This is wonderful, and most days I do feel it. However, many nights I can't escape an existential angst so primal I cannot sleep. I feel silly; I feel like I'm failing; yet I cannot shake the feeling I am one day going to die, and sometimes later no one will ever remember me - there may be no one to remember me. I know I have an ego that drives me to be remembered.

I'm an artist, I seek to create things which will be exalted or at least pique interest beyond my numbered days. The street-artist Banksy once said, "
The holy grail is to spend less time making the picture than it takes people to look at it." I don't delude myself into thinking people when spend 20+ hours pouring over trilobites with fanciful wings, but I hope more hours will aggregate looking over those paintings over many years than it took to create them.

Simply: many nights I cannot sleep. I feel anxiety over dying. Over things not finished. Over beauty in the world I've heard of and never seen. Of leaving my wife and family behind. I lay awake, freaked out that one day I won't be here. Sometimes I have to get out of bed and pace a little, or play video games to distract myself.

Having moderate persistent asthma doesn't help. Wheezing, tight-chested, thinking about mortality. It's where this painting comes from

Asthma Incubus:

Once, I was informed by a (well-meaning, I'm sure) atheist Buddhist transhumanist that my fear of dying was not a very mature response that I would have to come to terms with. It surprised me people could come to terms with it: how to do it so you aren't just ignoring it?

A couple of years ago, when the sleep-loss was becoming a particularly acute pro
blem, I read my way through book after book, hoping for some sort of atheism-based mental anaesthetic to help me sleep. Didn't find it.

Until I re-read one of my favourite Star Wars series. Star Wars came out when I was 3 years old. My lifelong artistic fascination with creating living things that don't exist is hugely influenced by Star Wars and the artists like Ralph McQuarrie (and so many more!) who breathed life into ideas.

I was re-reading the X-Wing series by Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston (cover art by the awesome Paul Youll.) The series doesn't focus too much on Jedi and the Force, instead it focuses on the pilots that won the war, and are continuing to fight while dealing with attrition in their unit.

I got to Aaron Allston's first book in the series, Wraith Squadron, one sleepless night. I came to a part where the unit's commander, Wedge Antilles was in the uncomfortable position of writing a letter to a deceased pilot's family about her death.

I read this (p 242):
"I no longer believe that the momentum of a life headed in a worthwhile direction ends when that life does...(the pilot) shot down five enemies, all of whom served evil men. Had she not done so, their actions would have led to further evil, but her actions take their place instead, broadening like a firebreak into the future theirs would have occupied...I will never know how much good surrounding me is a legacy of Jesmin's life. Her future will be invisible to me. But invisible is not the same as nonexistent. I will know that her deeds and accomplishments still move among us, phantoms..."

I feel asleep, pondering this immortality.

I still turn to this passage on occasion when the silly, primitive part of my mind looks at the dark of night and sleep and feels fear. I know some of the comfort comes from it being part of a childhood fable I remember fondly.

But that idea, that whatever actions I take may ripple outward into the future, hopefully for the better gives me comfort enough to sleep. As Dawkins pointed out, I have existed, and I'm lucky to rise from the bed, to do good work and enjoy the universe. Allston's writing points out to me that my existence can never be removed the history of the universe.


- - - - - - - -
Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Flying Trilobite Gallery
*** Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop ***

Star Wars: X-Wing: Wraith Squadron, by Aaron Allston is published by
Bantam Books and may be purchased here.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is published by Bantam books
and may be purchased here.

Artwork Mondays: Untimely Rabbit

For this Artwork Monday, I thought I would start off in a different direction on an idea I've had on the back burner for a while. (Back burner? Who says that? Perhaps a more modern saying should be coined. Like, "I've had this marinating for a while," or, "I've had this painting waiting to be rolled in seaweed for a while." Ahem.)

I like to paint some of my Mythical Flying Trilobite Fossils on pieces of shale, as seen in my Page 3.14 SEED interview last year (shameless self-aggrandizement!). This painting will be a little different, and I hope lots of fun for the viewer, especially those who see it in person. (Sorry bloggy folks!)

When I was reading the excellent, brilliant, those-who-find-flaws-or-use-the-word-militant-obviously-didn't-read-it, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, for the first time, I was struck by a quote of the late biologist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane. When confronted by a creationist, asking what it would take to falsify Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, Haldane replied, "Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian".

Okay, this photo might be a little hard to make out, but here's a sketch of a hare's skeleton on nine pieces of paper. I may put in an "imprint" to suggest long ears on the final paper. You see, I have these 9 beautiful shale drink coasters from Pier 1 Imports that will make a terrific shale puzzle.

"What!?" you may gasp, "has that Glendon-trilo-mellow-yellow guy lost his rigorous, scientific outlook?" Or you may say, "who? oh the Darwin-staircase guy, yeah what?"

No, silly. The creationist-configuration will prove to be false.

It's a puzzle. And if I piece it together this way... can see there are numerous green trilobites sketched in. The shale pieces will have two configurations, the "false-rabbit" and the 'true-trilobite". I may emphasize the point by putting in some simple math that only works correctly the one way. Or I could paint the rabbit bright pink, but that may upset some people, since it is a blessed colour.

This piece I will likely dive right in and begin painting. I've used a clear, acrylic-based gesso to prime the shale pieces, and I'll start with the rascally rabbit.

While you're waiting for me to pointen my brushes, check out Heather Ward's birdies, drop by the Daily Mammal, or see Bond's scintillating Tsintaosaurus.
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All original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details.
Book in the background of top photo is an excellent reference, Skeletons by Barbara Taylor, Firefly Books. The book in the bottom photo is the indispensable Fossils by C. Walker & D. Ward, Dorling Kindersly Books.

Random News & Made-Up Hominid

-The Flying Trilobite is now on Fish Feet's blogroll!

Fish Feet is a fascinating site by Sarda Sahney, and she has added The Flying Trilobite to her blogroll. Sharks and Tyrannosaurs! Sweet!

-Next, may I introduce our drawing this evening, a made-up hominid I drew when I really felt like drawing some sciency (sciencish?) anatomy. Note the nifty cranial ridge for enlarged jaw muscles. It was fun to smudge the graphite for the skin on the lower left and draw really tight lines for the muscles next to it. Juxtoposition plays with you.

-While reading the May 21st 2007, edition of Maclean's today I note with sadness that The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is sadly, no longer in their Top Ten Non-Fiction. Yes, lads & lasses, hang ye heads low. Lower. Ok stop.
Maclean's is kind of like Canada's answer to Time magazine, and I have been agreeing or disagreeing with their articles very strongly, which is what I look for in a magazine. The God Delusion hung on to a Top Ten spot for at least 28 weeks here in the Great White North.

-In other news, God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens has debuted at #1 on the Maclean's Top Ten Bestsellers, Non-Fiction. Way to carry that torch! Check out an exclusive excerpt here at Slate Magazine online.

-For fans of astronomy, I have been fascinated all week by a few pictures from the Cassini probe of a strange hexagon cloud system on the pole of Saturn. It's so creepily hexagonal, I'm sure conspiracy theories will run rampant over this. My vote is that the Saturnians are harboring weapons of mass destruction. Check it out over at the Jet Propulsion Labs' site.


Symbiosis contains many of my favourite themes. The candles have DNA wicks, as a symbol I often use of mortality. The tardigrade, or "water-bear" is a lowly (read: small) organism we share puddles of water with. I was especially pleased when at a university exhibit, a zoologist friend recognised I painted a tardigrade right off. The distended belly (full of bacteria, of course) and the atmosphere suggests ( I intended) one of shared mortality.

I have a deep appreciation for the genius painters of the Renaissance. My feelings are best summed up in this paragraph of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion:

"If history had worked out differently, and Michaelangelo had been commissioned to paint a ceiling for a giant Museum of Science, mightn't he have produced something at least as inspirational as the Sistine Chapel? How sad that we shall never hear Beethoven's Mesozoic Symphony, or Mozart's opera The Expanding Universe....what if....Shakespeare had been obliged to work to commissions from the Church? We'd surely have lost Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth."

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, p 86-87, Houghton Mifflen Co. 2006. Reprinted without permission but with the deepest respect. )

The world as revealed by the scientific method contains so many wonders. There is so little time to paint. To the linseed oil!