Hail or Frost? What, Exactly, Does Awe and Wonder Mean for an Atheist?

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?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to Hail or Frost? What, Exactly, Does Awe and Wonder Mean for an Atheist?

  1. Pingback: Awe And Wonder For Atheists « First Time Novelist

  2. It is the appearance of design in the absence of design that makes for atheist wonder, is that right?

    Actually, no. It doesn’t. I know it is wrong since we have an explanation so overwhelmingly supported by evidence from quite disparate lines of inquiry that it can only be considered as fact.

    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!”

    Again, no. I have yet to say “Darwin is awesome!” I find nature to be awe-inspiring. But I do recognize Wallace and Darwin’s insights as being of incredible importance to our understanding of speciation and how life diversified into the amazing array of organisms we see today.

    I don’t know if the universe has an author. But the very possibility makes for an interest that atheism prohibits.

    We don’t prohibit it. We do recognize that at this point positing a creator is unnecessary.

    I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding of atheism. In terms of the state of knowledge, I consider myself agnostic as well. But I think we wil both agree that there is little we have in common. You like mystic stuff whereas I am repulsed by it. Mysticism and its scion religion have a well-established history of stifling free inquiry. My statement of belief is atheism and it is entirely compatible with agnosticism.

    But agnosticism is not a statement of belief at all, even though you try to use it in that manner. You can not know that you don’t believe in a god or gods. So what is your statement of belief? From your statements I would suggest you are deist but for some reason refuse to acknowledge this to yourself.

  3. Jared Burton says:

    Furuike ya
    kawazu tobikomu
    mizu no oto
    – Basho

    The old pond,
    A frog jumps in:
    Plop!
    Translated by Allan Watts

    What of the Taoist … is s(he) atheist? agnostic? theist? The complexity of nature has no central authority, and in that infinite space nature is wholely the central authority.

  4. Jared K says:

    Santi,

    I think you are right that atheism is distinct from agnosticism and that it does put up bariers to further inquiry, contra Shamelessly. To even the extent that one adopts a weak variety of atheism, one is adopting a weak prohibition or road block to one’s considering transcendent possibilities in the future. That said, I think that modest atheists who say “probably, there is no God, but of course I’m not certain” are perhaps rational–as are modest theists who says “probably, there is a God, and I believe I have even experienced God, but I could always be wrong about it”.

    I think the danger is bedrock fundamentalism on both sides: “There is certainly or almost certainly no God and only nincompoops would even consider such a ignorant notion” or “Of course there is a God, what are you, a heretic/pagan?”

    It does sometimes seem like your definition of agnosticism is anything in between these two extremes.

    I think that Shamelessly might be on to something with respect to your deistic tendencies. I think you could still call yourself agnostic in a sense, but (and I’m happy about this…) it does seem like you now lean at least vaguely in the direction of some sympathizing with theism.

    Maybe now you are agnostic with respect to evidence, but no longer agnostic with respect to your preference? It does seems as though in the past you were more hostile to the very idea of a higher power.

    I would ad that Karl Barth, for example, found no natural evidence for the existence of God (I’m sure you are aware of Barth’s attacks on natural theology), but he was, of course, a devout Christian theist. I wonder if you would consider Barth an agnostic?

  5. santitafarella says:

    Shamelessly Atheist:

    You said: “In terms of the state of knowledge, I consider myself agnostic as well.”

    Shouldn’t you then be calling yourself “Shamelessly Agnostic”?

    As for the overwhelming evidence you detect for atheism, I don’t see it. When I ask myself—What would an atheist world probably look like?—I wouldn’t expect mind in it. Oh, and I wouldn’t expect qualia in it (like the experience of the color red), I wouldn’t expect freedom in it, and I wouldn’t even expect matter in it! And if there was matter in it, I wouldn’t expect it to be governed by such elegant laws from the very get-go. And I wouldn’t expect blind matter to generate such high levels of information as appears in even the simplest cells. These are just some of the curiosities that are surprising, if atheism is true.

    There are discordant elements to the theist universe as well (the problem of suffering is just one of them). But my point is that neither theism nor atheism is “obvious.”

    As for my apparent deism, I do confess to having a fond liking for exploring the possibility that mind does not reduce to matter and may be behind the creation of matter. At my blog I’m trying to make that case as strong as I can for myself so that I can think it through. I want to see the holes in it. So far, it feels more plausible to me than strict materialism. But I’m agnostic about it. I do admit that I’d like some form of eternal life and theism to be true. I want to see my wife and kids after death; I want to see my mom and grandmother; I would like to see poetic justice for those who now suffer. I admit it’s a seductive desire, and it could certainly cloud my thought (and no doubt does). But materialism just doesn’t seem very convincing to me, either. I’m not impressed with materialist explanations for all that much. I fail to see why you think that there is so much evidence in favor of it.

    —Santi

  6. santitafarella says:

    Jared Burton:

    You ask a great question. When I wrote the above post I admit that the old and wise atheist Buddha whispered at my conscience: “How do you explain me? Am I, wise Buddha, not in touch with nature and wonder?”

    I think that, perhaps, those who may be choosing atheism as a life path should study Buddhism for clues into wonder and awe via atheist routes. I do admit that Buddhism is an atheist path (an anatman as opposed to a Hindu atman path). It’s the great split between Hinduism and Buddhism—whether the Atman exists.

    But I also think that Buddhists should think about how the Chinese Tao takes on properties akin to law and mind and wisdom that are not too far from Western notions of telos. It seems that to arrive at the sacred you almost have to anthropomorphize nature as somehow a wise mother or father. I suppose a middle path between wonder at mind and non-wonder at an atheist universe, is wonder at the laws of nature as a kind of pseudo-intelligent principle.

    —Santi

  7. santitafarella says:

    Jared K:

    You said: “Maybe now you are agnostic with respect to evidence, but no longer agnostic with respect to your preference? It does seems as though in the past you were more hostile to the very idea of a higher power.”

    I think you said it perfectly. That’s where I’m at. As for my hostility in the past (for you and I have talked online for a couple of years now), I agree I’ve shifted of late. I’m Hamlet. I’ve always been a Hamlet. “To be or not to be. To do or not to do. To believe or not to believe.”

    As for Barth, I think he is a Christian. He wasn’t on the fence.

    I find near death experiences a curiously compelling piece of evidence that human life may have more meaning than meets the atheist eye. I’m still thinking.

    —Santi

  8. santitafarella says:

    Shamelessly Atheist:

    You said: “You like mystic stuff whereas I am repulsed by it. Mysticism and its scion religion have a well-established history of stifling free inquiry.”

    Your passion is admirable. I like your righteous anger at the evils of religion and mysticism. Somebody has to notice these evils and feel righteous anger about them. You are one of those people. On the other hand, I’m one of those people who, for whatever personality reasons, sees the good things about mysticism. It’s not that I don’t see the abuses, it’s that I see some things that I (personally) find redemptive and valuable in them. But we also need people like you who say: “This is bullshit.” (Because there is indeed a great deal of bullshit in religion and mysticism.)

    I think we simply have (to echo Ramakrishna) our hands on different parts of the elephant.

    —Santi

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