Awe, Shux

Here is what one might consider another installment of an on-going discussion we’re having here about religion and the way its defenders and supporters and promoters and fans re-define it for purposes of persuasion or coercion. One example is from an article by Paul Davies in an old Atlantic (September 2003) I happened to read the other day: ‘E.T. and God.’ It’s basically about what the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe would mean for human religion, but along the way he makes this strange (yet very familiar) comment, after calling the dismissal of religion by the director of the SETI Institute’s Center for SETI Research ‘rather naive’:

Though many religious movements have come and gone throughout history, some sort of spirituality seems to be part of human nature. Even atheistic scientists profess to experience what Albert Einstein called a ‘cosmic religious feeling’ when contemplating the awesome majesty of the universe.

Well, what does that ‘though’ mean, for instance? Why is there a ‘though,’ why is there anything surprising or in need of explanation or at least acknowledgement via a ‘though’ in the fact that atheists can profess to experience some sort of emotion, probably awe, at the awesome universe? What is Davies actually saying there? That awe at the universe is the same thing, or the same sort of thing, or more or less the same thing, as believing in a deity? That is surely at least what he’s implying. Though the usual weasel-word, escape-hatch word, ‘spirituality’ appears in the middle to make the implication slightly more fuzzy. But what does spirituality mean then? Just awe at the universe? If so, surely it’s not incompatible with not believing in a deity – is it? Not in my book. I can feel awe at all sorts of things. I never call the feeling ‘spiritual,’ because that’s a word I’m violently allergic to – but I don’t mind calling it the sublime, for example, and at any rate I have some idea what it is. And it does not require belief in an omniscient benevolent omnipotent person who created us for a purpose and is taking care of us. And I think it’s a kind of cheat to pretend that it does, to conflate the two things, to mix them up and imply that they are inseparable.

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