A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder
August 31, 2011 3

Initial thoughts on awe in a secular age

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The following post is an edited part of an article originally published on the ABC Religion site.

In a Nietzschean world without God or gods, is enchantment still an option? In a world bereft of the Platonic forms of beauty and goodness, in a world where we “know” that love and wonder boil down to brain chemistry and synaptic firings, is it pure superstition to hold on to a sense of transcendence? In other words, can a secular world be re-enchanted?

The disenchantment of the world has long been a theme of thinkers who have seen the advance of science on the one hand and, on the other hand, the retirement of religion from public life; that “melancholy long withdrawing roar of the sea of faith” as Matthew Arnold describes it in Dover Beach.

Almost 100 years ago sociologist Max Weber wrote, “The fate of our times is characterised by rationalisation and intellectualisation and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world’. Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life.”

In his review of The Joy of Secularism, edited by George Levine, literary critic James Wood recounts the tale of an atheist philosopher friend who tosses in bed at night fretting over the ultimate questions of meaning and purpose, and of the cosmic irrelevance of life and of love.

But despite a widespread view that awe, mystery and transcendence can only find their rightful place in a religious outlook, some avowedly non-religious people refuse to relinquish their rights on wonder.

Richard Dawkins, the New Atheist luminary, and perhaps the most extreme anti-religionist in the public eye, is adamant about his right to wonder and, yes, even to give thanks.

For Dawkins secularisation and atheism are no bar to living in an enchanted world, a world where it is appropriate, even obligatory, to wonder, to give thanks and to look with awe upon the works of nature.

As Dawkins says, “The world is anything but dull; the world is wonderful. There’s real poetry in the world. Science is the poetry of reality.” And at last year’s Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, Dawkins encouraged his followers to give thanks for the ‘gift’ of life, while recognising that some find incongruity in “giving thanks in a vacuum.” Dawkins opened his talk at the convention this way:

The fact of your own existence is the most astonishing fact that you will ever have to confront. Don’t you dare ever get used to it. Don’t you dare ever say that life is boring, monotonous or joyless.

Dawkins’s dual quest – against religion and in favour of a scientific enchantment – sets up the traditional face-off with religion and science in opposite corners of the ring.

But others see another polarity at work. David Tacey from La Trobe University locates the line of fracture within secular culture rather than along religious/non-religious lines. In his book Re-Enchantment: The New Australian Spirituality, he claims there is a deep-seated tension in Australian life between artists and intellectuals:

The artists are advocating (re)enchantment from the depths of a prophetic imagination, while the intellectuals are promoting disenchantment and an ironic vision of the world.

The possibility of re-enchantment through the arts is explored by philosopher and Anglican priest Gordon Graham in The Re-enchantment of the World. Graham surveys the possibilities of writing or music or painting or architecture to remedy the secular problem of disenchantment. But he concludes:

The abandonment of religion, it seems, must mean the permanent disenchantment of the world, and any ambition on the part of art to remedy this is doomed to failure.

In his magisterial A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor offers what is perhaps the most profound recent commentary on secularism and transcendence. Taylor talks of the “buffered self” which is desensitised to transcendent realities. In doing so he makes it clear that transcendence for him is not about merely subjective feelings but is a fact of experience that can break in upon us: “the sense that fullness is to be found in something beyond us.”

Finally, let me point you to a piece referred to us through the Sense of Awe Facebook page. Theodore Dalrymple a self-described non-theist writes in City Journal:

Few of us, especially as we grow older, are entirely comfortable with the idea that life is full of sound and fury but signifies nothing. However much philosophers tell us that it is illogical to fear death, and that at worst it is only the process of dying that we should fear, people still fear death as much as ever. In like fashion, however many times philosophers say that it is up to us ourselves … to find the meaning of life, we continue to long for a transcendent purpose immanent in existence itself, independent of our own wills. To tell us that we should not feel this longing is a bit like telling someone in the first flush of love that the object of his affections is not worthy of them. The heart hath its reasons that reason knows not of.

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3 Responses to “Initial thoughts on awe in a secular age”

  1. David says:

    Can there be a sense of awe in a secular age?


    I totally agree with the comments of Richard Dawkins that Chris quoted.

    Some of the most wonderful, most awe inspiring images of recent times are those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and by the various NASA missions to the outer solar system. And then we have the amazing stories being revealed in biology, geology, physics, even mathematics.

    In my opinion these endeavours represent humanity at it best.

    Yet none of it makes any mention of religion. Religion has its place, but in our modern times ancient philosophy and superstition cannot compete with the study of reality for the ability to generate awe and wonder.

    We have a right, indeed a duty, to continue our exploration of the universe as far as we possibly can. But it is a duty we owe to no-one but ourselves.

  2. sysyphus says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the invitation to participate.

    I have a lot on at the moment, so I don’t know how much I’ll be able to contribute.

    Some thoughts I had regarding the quoted passage from Theodore Dalrymple:

    I recognize three positions in realtion to transcendence and ‘meaning’:

    1. There is no ‘actual’ transcendence or ultimate meaning, there are only imagined transcendences or believed-in ultimate meanings.
    My response to this position is to point out that such things as ‘transcendences’ and ‘meanings’ (like ‘the self’, ‘love’, ‘free will’ and so on) are not themselves empirical objects and therefore cannot, by definition, be observed. However we do know that we may experience a sense of transcendence higher meaning or free will.If we interpret the word ‘actual’ to mean ’empircally observable’, then it is true there is no actual transcendence or meaning. But whether there is in some sense ‘something really there’ that underpins our experiences is always going to be undecidable in a rational sense and our beliefs regarding this question a matter of personal predilection.

    2. There are really things that transcend our possible experience.For example the ‘Big Bang’or the ‘Origin of Life’, which time and physics preclude us from ever witnessing.Beyond even these is the ‘Nothing’, out of which the Big Bang is believed to have evolved. This cannot be nothing, according to our definition of ‘nothing’, because according to this definition “something cannot come out of nothing”. Still, while keeping with this view, we may acknowledge that we have no other means than imagination to even begin to try to fathom transcendence and when we do we become tangled in defintions and reified meanings.

    3. There really is a transcendent reality and we have some means (faith,intuition, sacred texts, discipline, the arts,sex, drugs or some combination) of experiencing or at least approaching it.But there is only one truth and we may use any or all of the above means and still be mistaken and deluded.

    The thought of death may be more terrifying if we believe we are to be held to account, than if we belief we are simply annihilated.
    The extreme of this would be the Calvinist belief that only a very limited number are saved and that redemption is fully determined and pre-ordained by God. If we grant the existence of God or some higher transcendent reality, what exactly are we to believe about the details of an afterlife. Is it preferable to remain uncommitted on the question or else simply assume the reality of a mysterious, unknowable transcendence, where accountability of the soul may be a reality, and then simply live as well (ethically) as we can?

    I think it is important that notions of transcendence and ultimate meaning never be allowed to contribute to a devaluation of this life, as lived ‘down here’.

  3. Sue says:

    Ooh, Chris, I’m really loving this space you’ve opened up here (squeals a little).

    A few rudimentary thoughts, more random than usual seeing I’ve not been awake for long.

    You said: ‘Dawkins encouraged his followers to give thanks for the ‘gift’ of life, while recognising that some find incongruity in “giving thanks in a vacuum.”’

    I think the spaces between what science is discovering and what religion has said (I HATE that word so much – it signifies less than it indicates; so many people think of the outside shell of conformity and dogma when I am always talking about the inner centre of experience) are so compelling. The chair you are sitting on, and you yourself, is more spaces between the particles than it is the particles themselves. How could there not be a sense of awe living in a world where that is so?

    How could we not live in awe knowing that everything in our world is energy, and has its own frequency?

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