A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder
September 16, 2011 2

Is awe still possible? – George Levine responds

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George Levine has kindly responded to my original article which posed the question, “Is awe still possible in a secular age?” In that article I mentioned Professor Levine’s book The Joy of Secularism which contains chapters by 11 authors, including Charles Taylor. Levine’s introduction to the book explains its purpose this way:

This book was conceived from a totally secular perspective. It will explore the idea that secularism is a positive condition, not a denial of the world of spirit and of religion, but an affirmation of the world we’re living in now; that building our world on a foundation of the secular is essential to our contemporary well-being; and that such a world is capable of bringing us to the condition of “fullness” that religion has always promised.

In response to my recent article, Professor Levine writes:

I undertook my recent books, Darwin Loves You and The Joy of Secularism, because I knew without hesitation that “Awe is still possible in this secular age”; because the current strident debates (or screaming matches) between atheists and believers were making things worse – if better for book sales; and because the religious revival was threatening that separation of powers on which modern democracies are built.

With no illusions about how one might actually persuade believers, I nevertheless felt it to be critically important to affirm a secular position with something other than contempt for those who seemed to need fairy stories to make themselves feel better. Rather, it must build around a recognition of the kinds of normal human needs and longings that religion had been thought to satisfy.

Secularism is not a negation of religion, but an assertion of value, although I would hope without dogma and with energy to make things better. A sense of awe and wonder comes willy-nilly to us all, scientist, reductionist, atheist, agnostic. The question is what we do with the experience when it comes.

The sense of “fullness” that Charles Taylor describes, need not pull us relentlessly upward. It can give us a very earthly sense of connectedness to the here and now and to the rest of us, who have turned our corporeal life into human culture, and who are the only sanction we will ever need.

“Fullness” infuses all these molecules with a sense of value and breaks us from the dualisms that suggest that if we can explain what we used to think of as spiritual by the movement of neurons, those movements, of love, and generosity, and care, are somehow made worthless. Just the reverse: the miracle survives its explanation. It hasn’t been explained away but rather made more energizing and astonishing.

The Joy of Secularism was published this year by Princeton University Press and the introduction is available online as a pdf download here. James Wood reviews the book at The New Yorker here.

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2 Responses to “Is awe still possible? – George Levine responds”

  1. Kaarl Tietze says:

    A full response would take hours because it derives from a lifetime of experience and thought, but let me just “fly a few kites” to stimulate directions of thought because so much of the debates is founded, I believe, on limited imagination – like “The physical is all there is.” and the idea that God is an old man on some throne in another dimension.

    1. When man “sinned” in the garden of Eden, God actually said something like “Well, if you think you’re as smart as me, see if you can run a world.”

    2. Science cannot prove anything – only disprove (Popper?). Similarly, relying on the statement that “creation” was an accident is also saying the unprovable, since it implies knowledge about the presence or absence of an intent by someone/something undefined.

    3. How CAN we know if this world is “real” – not just an up-market version of “Second Life”?

    4. The Christian God is described in terms which speak of the infinite. If there’s no such God, our reference point falls back to either our individual selves, or some notional zero. So Levine is seeking to follow a psuedo-existentialist path – to describe humanity’s aim as becoming God (Sartre?) – an asymptote to religion. This implies a communal project but the apparent fact is that, in the absence of God and the presence of other humans, it seemingly makes more sense to satisfy my individual desires if I can get away with it.

    5. Levine correctly identifies the tendency of the militant atheist to speak from and to a perspective of comfortable affluence while ignoring or glossing over the state of the less fortunate – even to the point of seemingly sneeringly suggesting they deserve their fate for not being as “advanced” as themselves.

    To summarise, I can’t see how – and I want to underline that word HOW – a purely physical entity CAN REALLY have any spiritual existence.


  2. Sue says:

    Why the need for the term “fairy stories” here? It read as a contemptuous description anyway. I don’t know where I personally stand with regards to the issue of whether there is a god or not, but I don’t believe it’s anyone’s business to denigrate other people’s subjective experience by calling them “fairy stories”. How does he know? How do any of us know what is the real?

    But then, I am reminded that Professor Levine is talking about religion in society, and there my hatred for organised religion is as wide as my contempt for fundamentalist atheists at the other end of the spectrum. A secular culture allows the freedom for people to respond to their subjective views of reality however they see fit, and that is a wonderful thing.

    As an aside, fairy stories have provided amazing deep, deep, psychological insight into humanity for hundreds of years before Disney co-opted them, glimpses into the dark forest to help people understand themselves better and therefore live better and more courageously. It might be viewed pejoratively, but it doesn’t seem such a bad idea to me, to frame your live around a few narratives. It’s a real necessity, at least for me, to make some sort of meaning out of what I see.

    PS: I just read back my comment, and while it sounds like I was referring to Prof Levine as a fundamentalist atheist, it wasn’t my intent.

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