Does religion create a sense of wonder, and does science destroy it? That's what Mark Vernon says today in The Guardian
In the scientific age the intrinsic meaningfulness of the natural world is lost. We no longer interpret the thunder; we understand it - as massive discharges of electricity. It is still spectacular but no longer mysterious, let alone portentous. The world is a little less awesome, if also less fearsome, as a result.
However, this is not quite the end of the story. Wonder survives. But its nature depends on what you make of the limits of science. For some atheists modern science can ask all questions worth asking and find answers: there are still mysteries in the world, but they are more like puzzles that can and one day will be explained by natural processes.
The wonder that someone with such a belief might feel at these things could be said to be instrumental. It is similar to that which one feels when pondering a puzzle. The puzzle might amaze with its ingenuity, confound with its complexity, and leave one in awe of its subtle resolution. But ultimately this wonder fires a desire to unravel the mystery.
I think it's just, just possible that Vernon does not know what lurks in the minds of unreligious folk like....me. Let's have a case study!
I took the picture above during a trip to Alaska last summer. That ethereal mass rising up behind the dark mountains is Denali, "The Great One," the highest mountain in North America. I took the picture at sunset (at 11 pm!).
So what was I feeling? Of course--awe, amazement, mystery, enchantment. Was this just "instrumental wonder," the sense of having a new puzzle to solve? Did I want to go out and weigh, measure, experiment, explain...and get rid of the amazement?
For heaven's sake...of course not. Vernon's description comes from the stereotype of the crass, hyper-analytical scientist who rushes around trying to get everything under technical control... and feels nothing.
I'm not that sort of person. My unreligious science-oriented husband is not that sort of person. My unreligious father, who is a theoretical physicist, is not that sort of person.
I grew up in a house full of art and music, getting the ability to respond to the world nicely honed. We hiked in lots of mountains, visited lots of cathedrals and art museums. I was more likely to hear my father get worked up about an operatic aria than spout off facts and formulas.
Were we the exception? Now that I'm all grown up and read books, I can see from the likes of E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins that science and wonder easily go together. I can read a book like Philosophers without Gods (Antony) and find out that many philosophers who don't believe enjoy feelings of awe and mystery.
Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I'll admit that while we were swept off our feet by the magical sight of Denali at sunset, a question did enter our minds. We wondered why clouds very often hover around the mountain top, obscuring it from view (and making our glimpse such a treat). Did our initial sense of awe and enchantment devolve into this mundane question and then disappear once we settled on an answer?
That construal is silly. It's a volley in some hyped up war between the religious and the unreligious. I'm not involved in any such war. I expect most people gazing at Denali at sunset feel roughly the same thing. Whether they do or don't believe in a supreme being is surely just completely beside the point.
* * *
A poem read atop Denali, July 28, 2002At night, deep in the mountains,
I sit in meditation.
The affairs of men never reach here:
Everything is quiet and empty,
All the incense has been swallowed up by the endless night.
My robe has become a garment of dew.
Unable to sleep, I walk out into the woods--
Suddenly, above the highest peak, the full moon appears.
Daigu Ryokan, translated by John Stevens