Does Atheism Lack Wonder?

In The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, Eastern Orthodox Theologian David Bentley Hart writes that he believes true atheism must be “nurtured by an infantile wish to live in a world proportionate to one’s own hopes or conceptual limitations.”

I’ve already written a post about DBH, and I won’t belabor the points I made in that post. Rather, I want to explore the above assumption. Now that I’m a nontheist, it’s an assumption I see everywhere, where it was previously invisible to me.

The assumption goes like this: if you had an adequate understanding of the vastness and mystery of the cosmos, the hard problem of consciousness, or the sheer inability of physical stuff to explain why physical stuff itself exists at all, then you would understand that God is the only logical explanation. Because you don’t believe in God, that must mean you don’t have a truly expansive sense of wonder in the face of reality.

It’s also an assumption I myself held about atheism, nontheism, and naturalism. Perhaps it was the strident assholery of Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. which led me to assume (naively) that all naturalists and atheists lack a fundamental curiosity about the universe. But now that I am myself a nontheist, I understand how misguided an assumption this is.

It’s hard to describe why this assumption is wrong until one crosses that formidable chasm between theism and nontheism. The mystery of the universe is, in fact, bigger and more astounding to me because I can’t easily rely on God as an explanation for existence.

Sure, I can use God in a “Ground of Being”, or “First Cause,” sort of way, but that for me is just a semantic trick, and has little relation to the material claims of world religions, and could be interchangeable with many other terms, like Ultimate Reality, or Brahman, or simply “Reality.” I’m not opposed to these uses of the word “God,” and in fact I quite like them. But they still, ultimately, leave me far outside theistic religions which make claims that I can’t sign off on until they have been verified, such as virgin births, resurrections, and what not. So all this leads me back, in a huge circle, to wonder — and not knowing much of anything about ultimate reality.

I generally agree with Hart’s criticisms of naturalism — that it can’t explain consciousness, qualia, or being. I agree that when we remove God from our worldview, these fundamental aspects of the cosmos (what could be more fundamental to human experience than consciousness?) are left inexplicably, magically mysterious. The annoying assumption then becomes: “well, you must not take seriously the real depth of these problems, and that is made evident because you don’t believe in God in the same way I do.”

But we do take these problems seriously. In fact, it is atheistic scientists and philosophers themselves who call it “The Hard Problem of Consciousness,” presumably for a reason. We don’t know what consciousness is, or how it exists at all, and we may never know. That leaves us with a mystery so deep, so profound, that it literally keeps me up at night.

As Kathryn Schulz explains in this TED talk, we make a series of unfortunate assumptions about those who disagree with us:

The first assumption is that someone is just misinformed. If they see the same data that we have, then they would obviously find that we were right all along. But when that proves not to be the case, then we just assume they are stupid: they have all the data, they just aren’t smart enough to properly put it all together. But that often proves untrue as well, which leads us to a darker conclusion: if our interlocutor has the same data we have, and is not stupid, that must mean that they are evil, or (in my own interpretation) have a fatal character flaw.

The assumption that nontheists lack wonder, as articulated by David Bentley Hart above, strikes me as a variation of the final argument. We see the same universe, many atheists are clearly very smart, and as a result we must be inclined towards a world proportionate to our own humdrum view of things.

But what could be a more honest assessment of mystery than saying, “I don’t know — this all kind of blows my mind?” And that’s exactly what many atheists and nontheists say. We are just unable, for whatever reason, to make the leap from mystery to God the way theists do. That doesn’t make us evil or unimaginative, and that doesn’t make theists stupid. Instead, I’m convinced that it is generally our integrity that informs our belief or unbelief.

Could I be wrong about the universe? Do I find myself doubting everything I think I know? Of course I do. So do many nontheists I know, as well as many Christians. For threat of tooting my own horn, I think such self-doubt is a sign of integrity. And it leaves me in this place of crushing humility: my methodological materialist vision of reality could be all wrong, and I acknowledge that there are some serious problems with it. But, it’s the model I’m working with right now, until a better model of reality comes along for me.

The excellent Goodreads reviewer Nostalgebraist expresses this beautifully in their review of Hart’s book:

I doubt you will find many atheists who are unmoved by the deep mysteries Hart discusses. Hart and his opponents agree that these mysteries are deep, and that they are very difficult, perhaps even impossible to solve within the framework of naturalism. Indeed, this is repeatedly emphasized in the very naturalist writing on these problems which Hart brings in for criticism. (I was shocked that he didn’t mention Chalmers’ “water into wine” turn of phrase, and I’m not sure he even brought up the phrase “Hard Problem of consciousness.”) There is a very basic confusion running through the book: Hart believes that these problems are obviously unsolvable in a naturalist framework, and so he assumes that the naturalists working on them must not realize the full severity of the problems. I think they do, and that is precisely why there is so much interest in working on them, and so much excitement over proposed solutions. If you were a young philosopher, which would you want to work on: the plodding completion of some little piece of the dominant system, or on some problem that seems impossible within that system? (Either you prove the potentially-impossible can be done after all, and thereby win eternal glory, or you prove it really is impossible, and overthrow the current order entirely — either is exciting!)

All this said, let’s make a deal, dear theists, Christians, and believers. I won’t assume, as some unpleasant atheists do, that you are stupid, naive, mentally ill, or evil for believing in a God and the supernatural. In fact, I will assume that it is your integrity which leads you to your conclusions. And I will ask that you give me the same courtesy. do not assume what the universe looks like to me, because I’m willing to bet that you have no way of knowing. Don’t assume I want to protect myself, like a fragile old man, from the hostilities of a preposterous universe, and that I am simply too comfortable in my materialist world to ever go outdoors and look at the sky and wonder at it all. I do just that, on a daily basis.


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12 thoughts on “Does Atheism Lack Wonder?

  1. I think I get why DBH indulges in assholery at times. It doesn’t excuse it, though. From our point of view physicalism isn’t just a popular philosophy, it’s a corrosive, assumed metaphysic that ever increasingly objectifies the natural world and other human beings to the point that society increasingly atomizes, consumerism becomes the dominant religion/lifestyle and the biosphere as a whole is mortally threatened. Again, it doesn’t make his ad hominems justified, they are called a logical fallacy for a reason. Yes, you’re correct that physicalism and atheism are unfairly lumped together, in the same way that I, as a liberal Christian am lumped together with fundamentalists all the time. It’s understandable I suppose, in both traditions the extremists are the loudest and therefore the most commonly encountered public face.

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    1. Aaron! Thanks so much for commenting. I always appreciate your thoughts. I guess I’m suspicious of the claim that physicalism is popular. I think that, both anecdotally and empirically, it’s pretty obvious that atheists are a minority of the human race, even in Western countries, and that physicalism (however one defines it) is even more rare. I’m at work, so I don’t have the stats on hand, but my understanding is that the vast majority of unchurched or “nones” still have some occultesque and supernatural belief. Also, atheists generally are perceived (again, I’ll hunt down these stats later) as less trustworthy than other people. So, from my perspective, I see Hart engaging in maligning an already untrusted and misunderstood group of people.

      Consumerism is definitely destroying the planet, atomizing the cosmos is certainly problematic, but I fail to see these as intrinsically or necessarily linked to “physicalism” as a philosophy. That to me feels like a conflation.

      And even if physicalism does destroy the planet – which I’m enormously skeptical of, given that the vast majority of the population doesn’t adhere to physicalism and actually maligns it and finds those who do untrustworthy — all that is separate from whether or not it’s true.

      Perhaps you could help me understand — or point me in the direction of an author who can explain — how physicalism and and consumerism necessarily go together. The argument Naturalism = bad because it’s destroying the world seems very exaggerated to me.

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  2. I will assume that it is your integrity which leads you to your conclusions”. My faith matured my integrity—that’s when I finally admitted I didn’t believe any of it. Here’s hoping…I think it’s the other way around though, that integrity is denied it’s due by the cost of leaving religion.

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  3. I would have assumed it was the other way around. That is, that Christian’s lack wonder, or at least curiosity. When I watch shows on the Discovery channel about “The Edge of the Universe” for example, I find these educators are really into it. Certainly they are almost always athiest. Still science or not, I think we are almost always dabbling in mystery. Ecspecially when we try to think about what start the “big bang” or what we now call inflation.

    Furthermore, I think that people that resort to “gaps” as their proof of God are missing the point. I have a feeling that someday we will understand everything coming from nothing. It might take a few hundred or even thousand years, but I think we will understand everything within the universe having a logical answer. That doesn’t change my faith. That could very well mean that God is intelligent, and created the world in a logical way.

    Anyway, thank you for this wonderful article. It’s very honest and shows fallibility of both side of this issue.

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    1. David, thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. Yes — that has been my experience as well. No matter how huge, grand, and cosmic my conception of God, science was always able to astonish me more. I think that’s because I could never have imagined the revelations of science, as they are so far beyond our day-to-day experiences of the world, but I could at least apprehend some sort of God. However, I acknowledge that might not be the case for everyone.

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  4. I don’t believe faith is an intellectual experience. I don’t think we can “think” understanding and hope. If determined, we can think just about anything, but that doesn’t make it real. One thing: we aren’t god. But to believe there is no god, or make that claim, is to believe in God, for only a god could know everything to know there is no god. In everything we say or do, we are showing we actually know there is a god. It’s inescapable.

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    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and respond to my post. One small clarification, which I’ve written about elsewhere but maybe not in this post: my position is not that God does not exist. Rather, my position is that God could exist, but that I find evidence for him lacking, so I withhold belief. There is a huge difference between *withholding* belief in God and actively believing there is no God.

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      1. I totally get what you’re saying. I wondered about this for many, many years, so I totally get it. What turned my belief was realizing I had only been here a short time, so where did my consciousness (The me inside this body and not someone else.) come from. From that, I knew I had been created with all the others on this planet. I also realized there is truth, some of which I call understanding (Where does this understanding come from because it’s different than information.): “Ah haaa” experiences. From there, I slowly “saw” other things, but that’s my road. Each person travels down their own paths. I never pretend to know the reason for everything. But those two things were significant. On the science level, I understood why a big bang couldn’t have happened (It has to do with time.), then learned that the simplest forms of life could never have self-evolved (Not possible.). It continued from there.

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