If you’re an atheist, what’s wonderful about the universe? I know it’s pretty in places, and really big and hard to comprehend in detail, but if you’ve concluded that the universe consists, ultimately, of chance matter shuffling in the void, without any mind behind it, what’s to be in awe of or to feel wonder about? In other words, does atheist wonder amount to a tepid substitute for religious wonder in which the mind of God is replaced with blind mechanisms that just happen to build wonderous things?
Let me offer an analogy. Let’s say I encounter a book written entirely by the chance landings of hail upon an electric typewriter, and I read this sentence from it:
He halted in the wind, and—what was that
Far in the maples, pale, but not a ghost?
Is there anything to wonder about it? It was made by accident. It means nothing, right? It might be nice to know the blind mechanism that made it, but it has no intelligence behind it. It’s pretty and intricate, like a leaf in autumn, but to give it additional meaning you would have to treat it as if it were made by intention. Absent intention, the meaning, wonder, interest, and admiration that you might have brought to it loses its salience. If it is a product of chance, then the human imagination either must make meaning of it, or else it is nothing.
And isn’t that also true of nature, if atheism is correct? Nature is a book without an author. It happens to be beautiful and complex despite itself, and that makes for wonder, for it appears designed by an author. It is the appearance of design in the absence of design that makes for atheist wonder, is that right? It’s the sheer power of chance and natural selection that holds the atheist’s awe. If the Christian says—“Jesus is awesome!”—the atheist says—“Darwin is awesome!”
Now if I discover that Robert Frost wrote the above lines of poetry (which he did), and not the hail, suddenly my interest returns to the text itself. The meaning no longer resides in me, it now resides outside of me also, in the mind of the author, and what the author has written. I’m curious about each word, and why it’s there, and what the author is up to. I want to know what he means by putting the words in the order that he has. I want to know what he chose to leave out, and what he means to imply. But words absent an author are akin to a material universe absent mind. An ontological mystery becomes a machine, a function, and nothing more than this. Perhaps it is interesting to discover the undirected mechanisms responsible for the machine, but ultimately a blind material universe belongs to (in Paul Tillich’s phrase) the “ontology of death.”
This is one reason I’m an agnostic, and not an atheist. Agnosticism (for me) inhabits a middle position between two dubious certainties. I don’t know if the universe has an author. But the very possibility makes for an interest that atheism prohibits. Being an agnostic is like encountering a book where you don’t know whether it was written by hail or Frost (pun intended, I suppose). But so long as there is the possibility that Frost wrote it, there is something to consider outside yourself, and to speculate about some meaning out there, beyond you. Yet once you know the book is written by hail, then it loses it’s exterior meaning and wonder (unless you bring the meaning and wonder from within yourself, from your own imagination). You can’t, afterall, derive wonder or meaning outside yourself from one damn thing after another, can you?