In defense of wonder

We marginalise belief to our own detriment

Photograph: Pexels
Photograph: Pexels

I’m an Atheist. No, not the kind who troll Christian websites. I fall into the reluctant Atheist category. If the late Christopher Hitchens were alive today, some of his most scathing rhetoric would be reserved for me. I’m not sure whether I’m proud or ashamed to admit that.

Religiosity is not some abstract term in today’s world: secular Britain is riddled with it. Richard Dawkins would have us believe that something only has utility if it is true, but when most of us apply this rule to our everyday lives we find it to be flawed.

It’s suggested that in this new age of free information, we really have to suspend our rationality to be ”believers”, but the truth is that logic is so amorphous in nature as to be a pretty vacuous term. It has been commandeered by science and atheism to represent a kind of common sense approach to problems that admits of no spiritual needs or admits of spiritual needs only within very restrictive parameters. It’s a problem.

In one form or another, many of us have a yearning for the other-worldly and the sacred, we merely robe these desires in reason or refuse to acknowledge them at all. Take movies, for example.

Why is it that many of us get irritated at Neil Degrasse Tyson when he tweets about the unrealistic science of Star Wars? It’s because he’s ruining the escapism of film. Most people are not interested in the technicalities of a grand space opera, they want to be absorbed into the world they see on the screen, to feel like they have a stake in the lives of the characters.

More than this, though, we have an innate longing for wonder. It’s not that we really believe that Star Wars could be true, it’s that whenever we indulge in a cinema outing, we leave our rationality at home. It’s a choice most of us make. Sometimes subconsciously.

Fantasy as a genre is so successful because most of us, religious or not, have a hunger for the numinous that no amount of facts can satiate. Some of the best conversations we can have: what is existence, what is our purpose, what is good, are enticing because they *lack* concrete answers. The questions have value even if we can’t offer a reply.

I think, incidentally, that an absence of this kind of thinking represents a deficit in character. Besides, there are certain pursuits where pure ”logic” is not merely difficult to apply, but inappropriate. Most of us have shoddy courting skills at best, so we improvise. The results can be somewhat messy!

I defy any fellow atheist to claim immunity from impulsive behaviour when engaging in a romantic endeavour. Whether it’s working up the courage to ask that special someone you like out or striving to get the attention of a herculean specimen at the gym who is always smiling at you, people are invariably a nervous blend of hormones and obsession whenever they deal with this kind of longing. We’ve all got an embarrassing ”so, how did the two of you meet?” story.

And the undertaking is quite meaningful, right? It’s wild and a bit scary, and your brain malfunctions in all sorts of ways. Plus, it allows you to become better acquainted with yourself and what it is you’re looking for. I love the way Mathematician Eric Weinstein describes this process, ”Taking an advance on your reason”: assuming that all of your bizarre expressions of affection will conclude in such a way that you’ll be able to justify order tetracycline for acne sending those nude pics to the girl you like. If most guys are being honest, we don’t have a clue what we are meant to do or say to get attention. Oh sure, there are norms, but everyone is rushing to subvert them, that’s the problem.

Okay, so Weinstein was using this phrase to talk about innovation. Still, I think the same applies to almost everything. If the ends justify the means, most of us are quite happy to embark on some truly questionable ventures. Why not, right?

And then there’s our tidy partitioning of facts.

I love learning zany scientific ideas as much as the next massive nerd. That said, there’s something unsettling for me about the way we break everything down into the sum of their parts. I think it’s okay to be awed by something for its own sake.

Imagine, for a moment, that any sense of wonder required some explanatory validation before it could be justified. Does the rainbow, a variegated carnival of colour, become more or less attractive to you when you learn that it is light refracted from rain? Is there a set answer, or does it depend on the type of person you are? Do we have to choose?

It may be the case that some sights and feelings *shouldn’t* require explanation and to put them neatly into a box would be to deplete the very meaning you derive from them. Ritual, community, a sense of belonging, there are many ways these things manifest themselves in the world, why have we become so virulent towards the faith-based variety?

You might not agree with some of the tenets of any given religion, but is there any question that some billions of people find hope in belief? Inasmuch as a commitment to a higher power is for many an enriching experience, the actual *truth* of the religion is irrelevant. Everybody worships something.

This is what I find wrong with militant Atheism: a widespread failure to differentiate between truth and meaning. There’s a condescension involved in dismissing religious faith as if billions of people were mad, stupid, or naïve. But to do so is to misunderstand the basic principles: to believe in a power higher and better than anything the material world can offer, believe that justice does, in the end, prevail for everyone, to be forever in pursuit of some intangible standard on the horizon. Sure, there are some maniacs out there, but your average believer just wants to live a fulfilling life as we all do. Why have we decided it’s okay to judge the majority by the actions of the minority?

More than this, though, faith provides comfort in times of grief, and I’ve never been sure why anybody would be against that. The loss doesn’t need to be made harder.

I think to deny we should be concerned about how we spend our days would be a disingenuous move. If scientists want to erode religion, they must first acknowledge its spiritual value: destroying something many find sacred without knowing what to replace it with is merely sadism in another guise.

To marginalise the religious mindset in favour of ever more rigid review would strip us of something core to our humanity. No innovation or new social order has ever been introduced absent of some kind of leap in the dark. Wonder is not the sole dominion of science. Not yet.

The dreamers in our species have always driven the engines of progress, but what will happen if we don’t let them sleep?


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Daniel Hewett 6 Articles
I am fascinated by controversial and difficult topics. My articles try to be good-faith examinations of why any given idea can seem beautiful to one person and noxious to another. To this effect, I will always try my best to offer a fresh perspective and a balanced outlook.

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