I am quite used to hearing religious folk assert that Atheists do not have an objective moral base for our conception of right or wrong, and it’s so easy to refute, it’s getting tiresome to hear. But a couple of weeks back threw open a new attempt to dehumanise Atheists. This time, from Oprah Winfrey. Oprah suggested that non-believers cannot possibly experience a sense of awe or wonder, and that if you do experience a sense of awe and wonder, you are in fact a Theist. I would like to take the opportunity to point out how desperately wrong she is.
It seems self evident to me that science – the pursuit of knowledge – is itself driven by awe. We are a species blessed with curiosity. Awe is what drives science. Religion is simply a failed science that was used to try to explain the natural World when we had no other explanation. A sense of wonder drove both religion, and science. It is natural to humanity, and does not require faith.
What do you think drove the wonderful Stephen Hawking to dedicate his life to trying to understand the cosmos? Do you not think that he was driven by the awe one feels whenever we stare into the heavens and contemplate the vast blackness of space, our place within it, and the tiny pinholes of light in the heavenly canvas that we now know to be balls of burning gas millions of light years away. I took the above photo, outside of my house. I felt I just had to document how beautiful the night sky appeared to me that evening. In fact, the documentation of beauty is why I take my camera everywhere with me. It is why I can spend hours in an art gallery. It is why music can inspire. It is why the landscape of our breathtakingly diverse planet can drive people to tears. It is why the words of Hemingway can make my heart race and dream of Paris. How humbled we feel. Do you not think that when we consider those balls of gas burning millions of light years away, that we aren’t overcome with a sense of awe and wonder when we remember that the light has travelled so far for so long that many of those stars no longer exist, and that our eyes are therefore our personal time machines? That perhaps one of those balls of burning gas has a planet like ours circling it, with its own inhabitants staring back at us in their own wonder? Why does this need religion?
Is there no excited imagination in dreaming of what it must be like to stand for just a brief moment on the lip of a black hole? The event horizon, upon which light can neither escape the grip of the gravity of black hole, nor is gravity strong enough to pull it in. The moment that time itself comes to a stop. If you were to leave the slowness of time around a black hole, and return to Earth, you would find time has moved faster on Earth, and so whilst a few weeks may have passed to you; days, years, decades, perhaps centuries to those on Earth. Do you not think the knowledge that this actually exists, has us in awe? Do you think that belief in a talking burning bush is what is missing from our lives?
The awe was in the search, but also in the truth of knowing that every last atom that makes up our body, has always existed, since the moment our home sprung into existence at the big bang. We are made from the left overs of stars that have exploded in the very distant past, and those left overs from all over the universe have come together, to form you. You are star dust. Star dust that over time, has developed the ability to know that it exists, to question its existence, to acquire knowledge, to experience love, and beauty, and happiness, to produce incredible feats of art for expression, and engineering. For the brief time that each of us exists, we are a random collection of atoms that have already experienced an incredible history, and we are the universe trying to understand itself. How does this not fill you with awe? Why must you need a story of human sacrifice to atone for sins, to feel a sense of awe? Why can you not experience that in itself?
Does looking out of your window at the colourful tapestry of life, all at the mercy of the unguided design of natural selection, not make your heart race at the majesty of it all? The almost infinite number of ways your genes could have lined up, have lined up in a way that produces you. The history of your family over the centuries, the struggles and hardships have converged, to produce you. You, as a life form, are incredibly unique across the incomprehensible vastness of everything. There is nothing else like you. Your experiences and the way your mind works will never be repeated across the billions of years the universe has left to exist.
How do you not feel humbled, and thankful that our ancestors fought the harshest of conditions, to adapt, to innovate, to conceive of new ideas, to spread to every corner of the Earth and develop art, music and language. Language! A new way to express ideas that doubtlessly contributed to the development of our natural awe and curiosity. The elegance of words have us inspired daily. A single gracefully crafted sentence can change our lives…. “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal“…. and it is humanity that built the structural foundation upon which language could be expressed so strikingly. This requires neither Prophets, nor Gods. It only requires a sense of astonishment at the achievements of mankind since our birth as a species, through Socrates, Al-Biruni, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, and what we are capable of in the future.
Religion insists that we have the answers. Stop looking. It’s all in this book. To have faith is to look into the mysteries of the unknown and instead of considering all possible avenues of explanation of inquiry – most of which are incredibly beautiful propositions – simply places “God” into the gap. I see no charm in this. The wonderment and the excitement and the emotion is in the search and the truth can be just as stunning – if not more so – than the fiction. If you need faith for a sense of awe, I feel very sorry for you.
Life is a wonderful question, do not settle for “God did it”.