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Atheism and Wonder

Nicht wie die Welt ist, ist das Mystische, sondern daß sie ist.

(The mystical is not how the world is, but that it is)

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

— Christopher Hitchens

Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and in our time Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have all espoused a militant form of atheism.

Are they right? Is there no place for God and religion in the modern world? Is religion just a pernicious remnant of a pre-scientific era which only serves to exacerbate and indeed create sectarianism, bigotry, ignorance, intolerance, and bloodshed?

To begin with we should make a distinction between organized religion and what Freud called das ozeanische Gefühl (the oceanic feeling)It is worth quoting Freud’s thoughts on this concept in full:

Ein Gefühl, das er die Empfindung der »Ewigkeit« nennen möchte, ein Gefühl wie von etwas Unbegrenztem, Schrankenlosem, gleichsam »Ozeanischem«. Dies Gefühl sei eine rein subjektive Tatsache, kein Glaubenssatz; keine Zusicherung persönlicher Fortdauer knüpfe sich daran, aber es sei die Quelle der religiösen Energie, die von den verschiedenen Kirchen und Religionssystemen gefaßt, in bestimmte Kanäle geleitet und gewiß auch aufgezehrt werde. Nur auf Grund dieses ozeanischen Gefühls dürfe man sich religiös heißen, auch wenn man jeden Glauben und jede Illusion ablehne.( A feeling that he would like to call the feeling of “eternity,” a feeling of something unlimited, boundless, “oceanic,” as it were. This feeling is a purely subjective fact, not a belief. There is no assurance of personal continuity, but it is the source of the religious energy that is seized upon by the various churches and religious systems, distributed into certain channels, and thereby consumed. It is only because of this oceanic feeling that one should call oneself religious, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion.)

Although Freud freely admits that he himself had never had this oceanic feeling/religious impulse he is well aware that millions of people, if not billions have.

Is science in a secure position to cavalierly dismiss this subjective fact/feeling?

Yes, there can be no historical doubt that this feeling has been exploited for all sorts of nefarious purposes leading to torture, bloodshed, and war. The history of organized religion is filled with horrors. Yet, one could also argue, as Freud did in Moses and Monotheism (interestingly enough his last book) that religion has had a positive effect on the development of man as well. In the Jewish case; it was the birth of high-level abstraction as represented or thought of in the object of the unseen God. Indeed, Freud views this event as an historical big bang (even if Freud maintains that its origins are Egyptian rather than Jewish). The advent of thinking in terms of an abstract God opened up man’s mind to abstraction in general and introspection in particular. In a sense, the microcosm (man) was able for the first time to enclose the macrocosm (God) within the confines of his own personal conscience and experience.

If Freud is correct in his interpretation, this was no small step for humanity.

Religion, in particular, the Christian religion whether intentionally or not has also served as the spiritual origin of significant secular movements such as modern day mass democracy, human rights, socialism, and even, arguably, Marxism.

Thus the oceanic feeling has a dual pedigree of producing both light and dark along the historical path of humankind; as have most ideas and inventions.

In light of these historical and subjective facts, it would appear to be the height of folly and intellectual presumptuousness to dismiss and worse yet to attempt to uproot this evidently essential and productive oceanic feeling in the human breast.

Rather than advocate its total destruction one should perhaps adopt an evolutionary position of care, guidance, and a balanced humanism and enlightenment.

Indeed, from a strictly scientific point of view the following propositions of whether or not there is a God, an afterlife, a soul cannot be definitively proven or disproved. They remain open questions till this day. Therefore, the appropriate position for a scientist regarding these questions is that there is not enough conclusive evidence either way to definitively close these questions. And, frankly, there probably never will be.

Thus, the honest philosopher, scientist, skeptic can only assert a strongly agnostic opinion about matters of faith and spiritual feeling.

Yet, this of course does not bar him or her from pointing out the sociological, educational, cultural, scientific anomie that often arise from these beliefs. This is perfectly acceptable. For example, a faith that demonizes, limits, or effaces women, homosexuals, blacks, non-believers or any other group should be vigorously combated on the grounds of a universal humanism. A humanism which, in itself, initially developed out of the Christian faith even as it has now transcended it.

As Wittgenstein pointed out (see above); the very fact of the existence of our world is a cause for wonder for human beings. It gives rise to questions; to a myriad of questions some of which may be answered in time; many of which may never be answered.

Indeed, this sense of human wonder at the facticity of existence; of the world; of ourselves; of others may be the very source of our being; of our Dasein (Being-in-the-World).

Perhaps the universe does not wonder that it is. But in us; that wonder is alive. It should never be extirpated if we are to continue to be a vital, creative, indeed, loving species.

Human love itself is, at its purest, an ineffable leap into the unknown; a faith in ones own powers of giving and the other’s reciprocal potential leading to new paths never quite seen before.

In this sense, the oceanic feeling is man’s expression of universal love for not only his own kind but the very fact of existence. A fact which as Wittgenstein has told us, is in its very essence: mystical.

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