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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.

Categories: Atheism
  1. Dan
    September 25, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    “If it’s just matter and nothing more,” we’re asked, “what’s the point? Where’s the meaning?”

    I’m offended when Christians ask me that, and feel pity for them at the same time. How on earth could they think my loved ones don’t mean anything to me? And at the same time, why don’t their loved ones mean anything to them, if there is no meaning without gods?

    • September 26, 2009 at 12:39 am

      I think the problem is that it’s easy to cast everything in intellectual or philosophical terms when writing a blog post, but that doesn’t translate into most people’s everyday experiences. We can all build elaborate cathedrals of the mind in which to house our notions of beauty and the like, but I don’t think those matter in the slightest when we’re actually feeling the emotions they’re supposed to explain.

  2. mikespeir
    September 25, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    “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?”

    I’d ask instead, “In other words, does religious wonder amount to a tepid substitute for atheist wonder in which blind mechanisms that just happen to build wonderous things are replaced by the mind of God?”

    And, BTW, I can’t imagine myself saying, “Darwin is awesome.” The charge arises out of the theist’s mistaken, but unconquerable opinion that we must all worship something.

  3. 1minionsopinion
    September 25, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    This seems to be the issue of the day. I keep running into it. I went into my own little diatribe this morning on my own site over this kind of thing as well. I see freethinker has a great post today about the differences between agnostics and atheists and theists and gnostics, too.

    Weird trend. Wonder if there’s some mystical being behind…Oh wait, no I don’t. Things can just happen that look like design when it’s just coincidence or commonality. There doesn’t have to be a bigger motivation, but I certainly understand why people wish to credit one.

    • September 26, 2009 at 12:41 am

      I don’t see any problem with wondering about mystical minds or supernatural beings or any of the rest of it – it’s fun, and who knows, there’s always a chance we’ll stumble onto the real deal someday. Emphasis on ‘someday’, though, because right now I don’t believe that anybody has found anything even close to what they say they have.

      • mikespeir
        September 26, 2009 at 4:10 pm

        This is what the first movement of Brahms’ Third is SUPPOSED to sound like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Wd3fUTFV10&feature=related

        • mikespeir
          September 26, 2009 at 4:11 pm

          Oops. This was supposed to go with your comment below, gonovelgo. I’m sure you figured that out.

  4. September 25, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    I’m trying to get these exact points across to santitafarella. He claims he’s an agnostic, but I find that very hard to believe and I’ve challenged him on it. I think it would be more accurate to describe him as a closet deist, but he also thinks that glossolalia is something to be admired (*facepalm*). I’m probably just tilting at windmills, though.

  5. September 25, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Oh, and if you like Brahms Symphony No. 3, you’ll love Symphony No. 1. It blew me away the first time I heard it.

    • September 26, 2009 at 12:36 am

      In that case I’ll do my best to track it down! Although having heard No. 3 played live for the first time, I’m almost afraid to listen to it on CD. I have pretty decent headphones, but I somehow doubt that those, combined with my iPod Shuffle (yes, I know…) will be able to create quite the same effect 😉

      • September 26, 2009 at 6:19 pm

        It took 20 years for Brahms to write his first symphony. Not surprising when you consider who he had to compose after for immediate comparison. (Mozart can take a flying leap off a cliff. Beethoven was the greatest. Mozart was good, but he was still a product of his generation. B defined his era.)

        I find listening to classical (which I don’t do much anymore for some reason) demands one’s attention. Best to put the headphones on, pump up the volume and watch the sun go down. I spent my later university years with a cd player (they were relatively new then) and a set of Bose speakers on either side of the bed. Worked wonders!

        • mikespeir
          September 26, 2009 at 9:26 pm

          I’m glad to see someone else doesn’t think Mozart was such hot stuff. Oh, he was a genius, all right. Maybe if he had lived another 20 years he might have been the one to revolutionize music. But that’s not for certain at all. Some of his later stuff showed he was trying to break out of the classical mold, but I’m not sure he could ever have really done it. If he had lived longer, he might actually have prevented Beethoven’s revolution or, at least, put something of a damper on it.

          Although my personal tastes run more to Chopin and Brahms, I recognize that Beethoven is aptly called “the colossus.” Musical time is divided into pre- and post-Beethoven.

  6. mikespeir
    September 25, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    I love both Brahms’ symphonies. (I’m slightly less crazy about 2 & 4.) I still remember the first time I heard the first movement of #3. I was blown away! I played it over and over and over. To me, that’s the way to start a symphony. (He “borrowed” what would become the main motif from Schumann’s Spring Symphony–a tiny, otherwise nondescript connecting phrase from the first movement. Very common practice–no crime.)

    Then, of course, there are the first and glorious fourth movements from the First.


    So, what were we talking about?

    • September 26, 2009 at 12:37 am

      The theme of No. 3 seemed eerily similar to me – to the point where I kept being about to say ‘Wait, I’ve heard this before!’, but then it would change at the last second and turn into something different. Those little bits of interconnectedness are nice, despite what I wrote in the post itself 😛

  7. September 25, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    Closet deists who think mystic crap is something to aspire to.

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