14 February 2012

Never mind the label, feel the wonder

Jim Putnam, towards the end of his second Let's try again post a couple of days ago, commented that “People don't have to be religious to be inspiring.” From my own, atheist point of view, the reverse is also true; being religious doesn't stop people being inspiring. As I commented to Jim, it's a pity that religious and nonreligious people so often find each others' existence an affront rather than a cause for celebration.

I differ from many people on my side of the fence (including the admirable and inspiring Dr C) in finding Richard Dawkins an embarrassing millstone around the neck of not just atheism but also humanism and secularism (about both of which I am passionate) ... though he can be brilliant in many ways, his arguments against religion are too often straw man fallacies. Nevertheless, I have just quoted in a lecture the following (from the opening paragraphs of The God delusion, about which I otherwise have little good to say). It is a wonderful statement of the human capacity for wonder which all of us, religious or otherwise, theist or otherwise, secular or otherwise, share.

The boy lay prone in the grass, his chin resting on his hands. He suddenly found himself overwhelmed by a heightened awareness of the tangled stems and roots, a forest in microcosm, a transfigured world of ants and beetles and even - though he wouldn't have known the details at the time – of soil bacteria by the billions, silently and invisibly shoring up the economy of the micro-world. Suddenly the micro-forest of the turf seemed to swell and become one with the universe, and with the rapt mind of the boy contemplating it. He interpreted the experience in religious terms and it led him eventually to the priesthood. He was ordained an Anglican priest and became a chaplain at my school, a teacher of whom I was fond. It is thanks to decent liberal clergymen like him that nobody could ever claim that I had religion forced down my throat.

In another time and place, that boy could have been me under the stars, dazzled by Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way, heady with the night scents of frangipani and trumpet flowers in an African garden. Why the same emotion should have led my chaplain in one direction and me in the other is not an easy question to answer.

[Correction, four days later: Oops ... thanks to Ray Girvan for a proof reading correction. Dawkins does refer to Ursa Major (as now corrected) and not, as my inadequately OCR had it, “that most incontinent star” (Ray's words) Urea Major.]

Not directly connected to my starting point, but thematically related (in a steam of consciousness sort of way) and also quoted in the same lecture, here is another favourite passage – lifted, this time, from Vincent van Gogh.

Study Japanese art and you find an unquestionably wise, philosophic and intelligent man who spends his time how? In study of the distance from earth to moon – no. In study of Bismarck's policy – no. He studies a single blade of grass.

But this blade of grass leads him to draw every plant and all the seasons, the broads aspects of the countryside, then animals, and the human figure. Thus he passes his life, and life is too short to do it all.

  • Richard Dawkins, The God delusion. 2007, London: Black Swan, 2007. 9780552773317 or 055277331X (pbk) [first publication 2006, London: Bantam Press. 9780593055489 or 0593055489 (hbk.)]
  • Vincent Van Gogh [but my own dodgy translation], in a letter to his brother Theo, from Aries, 23 September 1888. Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, inventory numbers b586 a-b V/1962. Original language:
    “Si on etudie l’art japonais alors on voit un homme incontestablement sage et philosophe et intelligent qui passe son temps – à quoi – à étudier la distance de la terre à la lune – non, à étudier la politique de Bismarck – non, il etudie un seul brin d’herbe.
    Mais ce brin d’herbe lui porte à dessiner toutes les plantes – ensuite les saisons, les grands aspects des paysages, enfin les animaux, puis la figure humaine. Il passe ainsi sa vie, et la vie est trop courte, à faire le tout.”

1 comment:

Geoff said...

I was about eight years old sitting on a hard pew, in a church cold with stone, at just the right height to see the feet of the organist dancing this way and that. The music soared and flew through mote filled shafts of sunlight and travelled through the body of the building, the trembling pew and tingled up my spine. I, ecstatic, flew with the music and wondered why a god who could, through the soul of man, create such beauty, had treated me such. I didn’t have a faith to lose yet even now, sixty five years later, will, when afraid in the lonely dark hope my prayers will be heard by……