Oprah… Awe is as natural to Atheists as breathing oxygen.


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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”.

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6 Responses to Oprah… Awe is as natural to Atheists as breathing oxygen.

  1. Shire of York says:

    Oprah is so wrong about that. I am in constant awe of planet Earth. I delight at how given the scrappiest chance life will persevere, how a little shoot of green can make it through concrete (Japonese Knotweed anyone), at how water can move rocks and shift landscape, and at how marvellous it is that each living creature is perfectly adapted to survive in its place. Hard beaks for nuts, forward facing eyes for focus, ears that move to scan wide areas, long feet to grip trees, opposable thumbs to farm, type, build a bridge or sail a ship, a black & yellow body to warn of your danger, spots to camouflage and give you the element of surprise, 7 stomachs to process your diet, hills to breathe under water, black skin so you don’t burn, white fur to match the snow you live in, blubber to keep you warm, no eyes because you no longer need them living underground, tails to swish away flies, menstruation, birth, the way death is rebirth in the breakdown of body enriches the soil, incredible, incredible, amazing awe inspiring nature bowls me over every time I think of it. Every time I think my hardy Fuschia is dead but the sun gets it and it springs back to life I am awestruck at nature’s incredible lust for life.
    Every spring I feel awe at life’s insatiable appetite to live. That’s spring, not Easter because I am an Atheist and I do feel awe.

  2. Shire of York says:

    In fact, I can’t see how theists can feel awe when their explanation for all life on earth and Earth’s existence is “god did it”, my word that ‘explanation’ sucks the joy out of me.
    To not want to know, to refuse to learn of refuse to see the evidence in front of you for the most fantastic, sheer bloody wonderful, purely awesome story of survival, adaptation, extinction, evolution, birth, life and death in favour of “god did it” is heartbreaking to me.
    There is no awe in ‘ the all powerful man in the sky did it’.
    That is a horribly boring story.
    The real one is so much more fantastic, so much more wonderful and so much more awesome. It’s got every thing in it, literally. What makes it even better is seeing how human beings have evolved to figure out earth’s riddles for ourselves. We’ve come so far. We can talk so many languages, we can write and draw and read, we can fly, we can get to the moon, and we worked it all out ourselves. We’re awesomely adaptive.
    I just don’t know how theists can feel awe when one holy book with a primitive understanding of life is more important to them than a library of books that properly explain life and that we worked it all out for ourselves, no deity instructed us.
    Theists have faith.
    Atheists have awe.

  3. Once upon a time a man could speak his mind those who heard his cries feared echoes in the night.
    He never did agree, lean too far to the east, nor tormented the beast, which lies, loyally at his feet.
    He worshiped in none, couldn’t relate to ONE and so it has begun, the story of this ONE.
    The scorch from the heat, kept warm his feet if he moved at a hurried pace.
    And if he stopped searching, the burn was a certainty, a chance he was happy to take.
    He believed NOT what they preached; seen through the lies and deceit, for THEIR father HE spoke of shame.
    ONE could say “Teach me again, how to free from your sins, as I seek yet a glorious day…”
    ONE continued “…yet, I have traveled the world, and witnessed myself, the mayhem your tales have caused.
    ONE slammed his foot on the floor and screamed to their conscious, “EACH MAN HAS HIS OWN FLAWS!
    He calmed for a moment, stared down his opponent and the room grew intrigued.
    And in a moment of clarity, ONE pursued his goal, of setting trapped minds free.
    A student of life, confident and wise ONE began his claim “Your acceptance of life, confirms souls exist, are we not all born the same? Tell me why is he rich from inherited wealth and the poor suffer from hunger each day? “
    ONE never understood how so many, could agree to and conform, to faith based slavery.
    “In the darkest of times, YOU committed such crimes, and YOUR crusades gained followers through tears. YOU recruited by sword, gave no choice to those souls, and preyed upon their fears.”
    “Burn eternal you will, if you do not heed to OUR faith” was the claim that you had laid.
    “OUR father is love, OUR father is good and full of forgiveness, and he never makes mistakes”
    “Yet I have seen plague and disease, and I ask that YOU define the love in each occurrence of these.”
    These men seemed so wise, and ONE was surprised that although they had eyes, they would follow so blind.
    The room’s mercury rose, as steam rose from his foes, from where their hair once grew.
    Said THEY “The disease and this plague was to separate they who don’t believe that OUR father is love”
    “HE steals breath away from those souls who stray, and turns his back to those who don’t obey”
    “Yet I assure you the choice was not HIS but they, and WE know that he loves each man of faith.
    ONE replied “Well tell that to the child whose father can’t play, while he is off fighting YOUR wars”
    “Explain that to the beggar who was cheated from lands he once owned and eats from trash because he is poor.”
    “More would believe if YOU practice what YOU preached!” ONE said with no shame.
    “I don’t need a GOD to tell me what’s right; I treat each man just the same”
    Before he could finish, the crowd yelled “blasphemy!” and carried ONE outside.
    THEY screamed “You insulted OUR father, and are clearly not worthy of life!”
    They proceeded to beat him and cut him with glass, ONE fell to his knees.
    ONE said “Kill me then for I fear no death, let us see if your claims are true. But as I descend to this life after death, remember so will you!”
    ONE welcomed the journey, and darkness took over where his spark once shined.
    They could steal his body, and rejoice in the streets, yet they could never enslave his mind.
    And after some time, no man could count, ONE was reawakened.
    He opened his eyes in dream to a glimmering light, and right there before him stood the source of life.
    ONE started to weep as he bowed at the feet no doubt this was a GOD.
    “Forgive me of my ignorance…and for turning my back on you, I am ashamed in myself for…”
    Before he could finish the GOD of ONE spoke. “All you needed was truth. I love you my son, the ONE, fear not any repercussion. I witness everything from your first breath, to your final discussion. You see I am YOU, WE are ONE, and you were sentenced to death. But when they killed you they rejected me, they stole OUR final breaths. The wicked lay claims in my name and will never be enlightened. In each man is their very own spark, a GOD who sees like me. THEY were unaware of themselves, created their hell, and will forever be filled with guilt. THEY searched high and low, through valleys and mountains seeking out this truth. Yet I hide in the open as a matter of fact I exist inside of each one of you. Each man makes his choices, and only punish themselves when souls collide and fight. Those who remain true to themselves will never fear me, for I only live inside. I know what love is, as equally as you. Yet if you were to teach me hate, eventually I would relate, I experience life as you.”
    ONE, lie there still as can be just staring into time.
    As he thought about what he was told, what was HIS GOD trying to remind.
    “I exist in your heart, and live on through your actions, which always speak louder than words. For offering bread to those who hunger, fill their stomach unlike verbs. So let us awake, forgive THEIR mistakes, and move on through this glorious ride. Tell them all I don’t live on a star, rather I live inside.
    ONE snapped back to life, and though it was minutes, he felt as if he was gone forever.
    His conscious grew quiet; as ONE found that he had not yet perished.
    The angry crowd was gone, yet ONE was not alone.
    A small boy walked by kicking a stone.
    He looked at ONE and said “Are you alright mister?”
    ONE looked up at the child and smiled, he said “Your compassion is honorable, think for yourself and fear not what others preach, we are perfectly flawed you and I, the way it’s supposed to be.”
    The boy looked around confused and thought that this man must be lost.
    The reality was, ONE had found himself, HIS GOD and HIS cause.
    ONE closed his eyes, as he gave up on the fight, he gasped for one last breath “I am loved by ONE, the ONE who matters and HE lives inside MY heart”
    The boy grabbed his hand and continued ONE’s words,
    “And from HIM you could never part.”
    Peace laid ahead, no heaven or hell, only a quiet sleep.
    To believe in ONEself, until the end, is to believe in ME.
    ONE died there on the cobblestone that day. He never was afraid. Yet if he had one wish, one day left, he would look in their eyes and say “I forgive you and wish you the best in this life, love each other and do what is right. Free yourself from the shackles and chains, for YOU represent no ONE but your name.”

  4. […] just don’t understand awe and beauty. This is of course ridiculous, and I addressed it here. It is awe and beauty that drives curiosity and scientific inquiry. The same is true of purpose. As […]

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