Beauty without God

Another one from the archives. This post was originally published on this site in March 2010.

One claim I’ve heard several times from believers is that, without their religion and their god, the world just wouldn’t be beautiful and mysterious and awe-inspiring. They like that sense of beauty and wonder, so they cherish their religious beliefs. I’ll share my thoughts about this method for determining reality some other time. For now, I just want to explain my objections to their conclusions — that a world without God is cold and boring, but a world with God is beautiful.

I am an atheist, but I am familiar with the type of feelings that religious people have, that sense of wonderment at God’s creation. I feel it too; I just don’t think it has anything to do with God. When I go hiking and come upon a scenic vista, or when I watch a tiny bee climbing across a flower petal, or when I see the sunrise or the starry night sky: I am overcome with awe.

And believers and I are having almost the same thought processes when we see these amazing sights in nature. We each start out thinking, “The world is so complex, the universe is so large. There are so many processes at work that make the universe what it is, make this planet what it is, allow me to be alive here to experience my tiny sliver of it. The vastness of the universe, even the vastness of our tiny planet, is incomprehensible. I am so lucky to experience any of it, and every day of my life is precious.”

The believer adds one extra step, which goes something like, “And God is great, because he made all these things, controls all these processes, and gives me the privilege of observing it.”

Someone recently told me that, while they liked learning about science and watching nature documentaries and all that, in some sense they didn’t like it because it took away some of their sense of wonder to understand the explanations. Focusing on the “God did it” belief left the precise mechanisms mysterious to them. It surprised me first of all because this is an artificially and deliberately imposed ignorance — again, something I will talk about another time — but also because I think the science is amazing enough.

Saying “God did it” definitely leaves a lot of precise questions unanswered, but I don’t see what’s really so beautiful about it. It simplifies the intricacies and complexities of the natural world into one single cause, a cause perpetually beyond our reach, a cause we’ll never really know anything about (until, perhaps, we’re dead and have left the natural world behind forever). If anything, this makes the beauty feel rather hollow. I see so much beauty in the experiences and the scientific discovery that I don’t feel any compulsion to go that extra step beyond it.

I remember learning about how plants grow in elementary school, and being thrilled to see the little bean I was given finally sprouting, wrapped in its wet paper towel. I remember the first time I dropped a tennis ball and a Wiffle ball and saw them really hit the ground at the same time. I remember learning about sediments and rock formation, and being thrilled to go for walks with my parents in the park by the river, where I’d collect smooth pieces of shale and count the stripes in the rock walls along the path. That excitement about learning is still with me today, and the more I learn, the more exciting it is. The world is a complex and chaotic place, but we are still able to extract an ever-increasing number of the basic principles that govern it — including an understanding of the chaos.

If what you want is mystery, perhaps it would help to remember that as we learn new things, we unlock more and more questions. Our knowledge increases, but so does our understanding of how much we still have to learn. (It’s not as though Niels Bohr just figured out electrons one day, and that was that for subatomic physics. There’s a lot of work still being done, and a lot of unanswered questions.) If what you want is an appreciation of things on a larger scale than we normally encounter as tiny dust specks in this universe, perhaps it’s time for some amateur astronomy. For me, a glance at NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day usually does the trick. If those images aren’t true beauty, I don’t know what is.