Near everyone has experience of vastness, mystery, and feelings of relatedness. We live in a world where there are things really small, really big, and really hard to understand. This is often called a sense of awe.
Barbara King started us out using two books she’d recently finished to dispel the notion that atheists can’t feel awe. She further argued that it’s an experience that need have nothing to do with the “sacred” but can be a pure response to science’s own unpacking of the world’s richness. Then, Tania Lombrozo picked up the ball by looking at psychological research showing how the feeling of awe has two characteristics: an experience of vastness and the need for an accommodation with that experience. Both the religious and non-religious have this experience of vastness, she argued. The real difference between them arises with how the subsequent accommodation is accomplished.
Often people combine this with our seemingly inherent need to explain things.
Marcelo Gleiser then drew from the ancient Greeks to explore how reason could be a gateway to a profound sense of spirituality but only if that sense eschews mysticism. In this way, Marcelo argued we might “rid spirituality of its supernatural prison.” Alva Noë finished the week taking a different path. In his meditation on the limits of rationality, he argued it’s imperative to see meaning and value as real in and of itself, something perhaps rationality can’t do.
There are a couple of things that bother me about this. One is
What makes the elemental human experience of awe significant is it is, first and foremost, an experience of meaning. It saturates the world with meaning. Explanations for the origins of that meaning must always come later.
This is not true for me and I don’t think it is for many others. I don’t sit at the top of a mountain and say “hey, there’s meaning” or “hey, what I am seeing gives meaning to my life.” Yes I do get that “wow the world is huge and I’m puny” sometimes and yes also “this is so incredibly beautiful.” But that doesn’t lead me to believe that my purpose or meaning in life is awe or based on awe. I can get that feeling from looking at the fantastic bizarre beauty of cancer cells or the amazing fuzziness of small mites that love to live on me. I can also have it at the profound worry that things are trying to kill me but it’s amazing how they do it, and I’m pretty helpless against it. Frankly the meaning of my life most of the time is food on the table, keeping people happy, and paying the bills with a few side glances and attempted mindfulness of the world at hand.
This desire to use awe as commonality misses the entire point of the distance between religion and non religion. Awe doesn’t lead to a belief in a sky daddy much less one as described in religious texts. Nor does it lead me to consider authority, hierarchy, and xenophobia as being entailed with a sense of awe. Of course we all experience awe and I guess that recognition is helpful.
But this tactic is like saying “hey, since were humans, we’re really the same.” The issue is how religions and those who practice them harm others with sacred certainty, why and how to stop it. Not humans will be humans.
Seeing a waterfall and saying it convinced them of god is as ridiculous as seeing a cancer cell and being convinced of satan. They are just using experience to reinforce what they have been raised to believe; not discovering anything.
Jim Newman, www.frontiersofreason.com