Awe And Wonder For Atheists
Atheists are frequently accused of imagining the universe in cold, overly rational and dead terms. “If it’s just matter and nothing more,” we’re asked, “what’s the point? Where’s the meaning?”
I suppose that’s a good question, although it has its problems. Those problems are perhaps best elucidated by this post here, in which the author compares a materialistic universe to (and I genuinely love this analogy) hailstones falling randomly on the keys of an electric typewriter and, by chance, writing a book of poetry:
If you’re an atheist, what’s wonderful about the universe? I know it’s pretty in places, and really big and hard to comprehend in detail, but if you’ve concluded that the universe consists, ultimately, of chance matter shuffling in the void, without any mind behind it, what’s to be in awe of or to feel wonder about? In other words, does atheist wonder amount to a tepid substitute for religious wonder in which the mind of God is replaced with blind mechanisms that just happen to build wonderous things?
Let me offer an analogy. Let’s say I encounter a book written entirely by the chance landings of hail upon an electric typewriter, and I read this sentence from it:
He halted in the wind, and—what was that
Far in the maples, pale, but not a ghost?
Is there anything to wonder about it? It was made by accident. It means nothing, right? It might be nice to know the blind mechanism that made it, but it has no intelligence behind it. It’s pretty and intricate, like a leaf in autumn, but to give it additional meaning you would have to treat it as if it were made by intention. Absent intention, the meaning, wonder, interest, and admiration that you might have brought to it loses its salience. If it is a product of chance, then the human imagination either must make meaning of it, or else it is nothing.
And isn’t that also true of nature, if atheism is correct? Nature is a book without an author. It happens to be beautiful and complex despite itself, and that makes for wonder, for it appears designed by an author. It is the appearance of design in the absence of design that makes for atheist wonder, is that right? It’s the sheer power of chance and natural selection that holds the atheist’s awe. If the Christian says—”Jesus is awesome!”—the atheist says—”Darwin is awesome!”
Stop right there. I suppose some atheists might reply to ‘Jesus is awesome’ with ‘Darwin is awesome’, but I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t be using the word ‘awesome’ in quite the same way. (Unless by ‘Jesus is awesome’ one means ‘Jesus was an awesome person because he wrote a cool book that I haven’t read and probably never will’.)
I object to the idea that there must be conscious agency behind a phenomenon in order to make it awe-inspiring. To stick with the poetry analogy, I find it perfectly sensible to be stunned by a poem’s beauty and moved by its meaning despite not knowing who the author was or what their intention was in writing it. Knowing its history and context and literary categorization is very interesting, and I certainly wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to discover all of those things, but I can appreciate it on a purely aesthetic level without knowing anything about it. The same is true of a piece of music. I recently heard Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 at the Royal Albert Hall in London without knowing anything at all about who composed it or from what musical traditions it drew its inspiration – indeed, I purposely avoided looking at the programme until after the concert was over because I just wanted to listen to the music. Now I know much more about it, but I could still enjoy it even if it was, for me, ‘author-less’. When I let myself be carried away by the music, when I close my eyes and try to focus solely on the complex interplay of each individual thread of sound, the piece’s authorship is the last thing I’m thinking about.
Can anybody out there genuinely tell me that their appreciation for a starry night or sunlight filtering through the leaves of a tree or even a blade of grass encased in frost depends so heavily on believing that all of these things were designed? Is God honestly what you’re thinking about when you see something truly startling and beautiful? Because if Darwin is supposed to be ‘our Jesus’…well, let’s just say that the vast, tangled web of life is most emphatically not the only thing filling my mind when I see a flock of starlings dancing through the sky.
Do we really have to treat this as if it had an intelligent creator in order to ‘give it meaning’? (And no cracks about how photos are made by humans, please; you know what I mean.) Why does it need any more meaning? It doesn’t necessarily matter what causes it, although we know that as well; it is what it is, and injecting it with the idea that it was made by some designer so that we’d have pretty lights to look at in the sky really would rob it of its significance.
But apart from the rush of emotion brought on by, say, hearing a piece of music for the first time, we have available to us the more subtle delight to be found in intellectual inquiry. The two may not be initially compatible for some people, but once the initial shock of delight has worn off, it does deepen our experience of something to understand how it works; hence the reason why anybody goes into science in the first place. The aurora borealis is awe-inspiring, and so is its explanation, although it inspires awe of a rather different variety.
This is one reason I’m an agnostic, and not an atheist. Agnosticism (for me) inhabits a middle position between two dubious certainties. I don’t know if the universe has an author. But the very possibility makes for an interest that atheism prohibits. Being an agnostic is like encountering a book where you don’t know whether it was written by hail or Frost (pun intended, I suppose). But so long as there is the possibility that Frost wrote it, there is something to consider outside yourself, and to speculate about some meaning out there, beyond you. Yet once you know the book is written by hail, then it loses it’s exterior meaning and wonder (unless you bring the meaning and wonder from within yourself, from your own imagination). You can’t, afterall, derive wonder or meaning outside yourself from one damn thing after another, can you?
And why not?
Atheism doesn’t close off any possibilities, actually – or at least it doesn’t do so necessarily. I’ve toyed with the ideas of a hundred different gods and spirits and supernatural entities. And why shouldn’t I? I have no dogma to restrain me, no fear of punishment to limit the avenues down which my imagination can wander, and my identity does not hang solely on the proposition that there is one type of god and one type of god only. I currently reject the idea of there being some transcendental meaning to the universe only because I don’t have any compelling reason to do otherwise. I’ve already said that atheism does not result in a monochrome universe of middling significance, but even if it did I would still be an atheist, because my choice is not based on the amount of significance a worldview imbues the cosmos with. Everything I’ve said above becomes important once I’ve reached the stage of being an atheist (or a theist or an agnostic or anything else), but when it comes to actually deciding between those worldviews, it’s all totally irrelevant – just as it’s irrelevant to the idea of choosing Christianity that I find Biblical morality repulsive. It could still be true – the universe does not order itself to my likes and dislikes, after all.