Can atheists express gratitude about nature?

Pascal,

I’m humbled by your change of mind about how the atheist sees the world. Thank you for talking this through with us.

In your comment to EMil you said:

If all things very big, very small, or intricately related (some of the things that awe me) require no cause or no direction beyond the physical realm then there is no one to thank, and I am a fool to even dream of meeting and talking with the author. That saddens me.

You are not a fool to dream of meeting or talking with the author. I think that desire is within almost all of us. I dream of it. I think we all (almost all) hope for an eternal being who will love us forever and provide the answers for our deepest questions.

There is a desire you speak of in your post and comments. It is to believe in, show gratitude to, and eventually meet an eternal, benevolent creator who has all the answers, loves you and all your family, grants you eternal life free from sorrow and pain – the one being who knows you intimately, your hopes, despairs, and faults (or sins), and yet etched the very sunsets that move you and created the beings you’ve grown to love – the universe whisperer who loved you so much that he did all this and suffered and died in order to have a relationship with YOU. Why do we share much of this dream, you and I? A believer and a non-theist? Why do theists, and some atheists, struggle to comprehend how atheists could express gratitude for natural wonders (or if they’d even want to)?

As I see it, the desire to show gratitude for natural wonders is what we’d expect to see in at least three circumstances.

Hypothesis 1 – Our shared desire to show gratitude to a God for natural wonders is a result of evolution (including the natural, non-intuitive mental fallacies that came with it)

This first circumstance/hypothesis is one we can demonstrate empirically. Evolutionary theory explains that the most basic instincts of creatures with a nervous system are to avoid pain and to seek pleasure. As living organisms evolve in complexity, this foundation yields a drive for survival (avoiding pain or things that damage the organism, sating the appetite, etc.), then relationships (survival in groups, reciprocity in primates, etc.) and ultimately, love and other complex emotions (a latter emergent property of brains that seems to be experienced by many mammals to varying degrees in proportion to their neurophysiology). Along with these properties came problem-solving skills that were tuned for survival (not for truth) which made them heavy laden with natural fallacies like those mentioned in The Problem. As various religions began to explain the unexplainable and provide some psychological benefit via the illusion of control over the horrors and awe of nature, those stories were interpreted in light of the then-unknown priming effect (like other mental fallacies, not discovered until recently). Beliefs primed other beliefs (specifically in the form of pattern matching and confirmation bias) until some indemonstrable but desired ideas were believed to a level of certainty in the minds of most. Is that picture of a duck or a rabbit? It usually depends on which animal you are told to look for before you see it. This is the way we filter the world through our eyes of faith, seeing what we’re looking for, which further confirms our desired belief and primes us to see the next thing we’re looking for. This cycle sends our Bayesian prior higher and higher on the subject of our desire.

What we understand of the natural processes of evolution (and the resulting non-intuitive mental fallacies), built layer by layer on top of these basic pain and pleasure foundations, culminates in a theory that is sufficient to explain why we would have a pervasive belief about a creator who can answer questions, grant eternal life, keep us protected, free from pain and in a state of intimate bliss forever, and who knows us intimately, created us, and loves us so much that he would die for us. We have theories based on evidence that explain why we should expect to have these hopes about this specific type of creator because many of these beliefs are the pinnacle of what almost every self-aware being with complex emotions that evolved this way (in a herd that needed to show deference and gratitude – or even worship – to a parent or an alpha-male who provided protection from other animals, clans, and nature) would want.

For many, the beliefs about God written down almost two thousand years ago are close to the most emotionally satisfying and compelling ones we could dream of. They seem to have been surpassed only by the constraints modern morality has forced most believers to place upon how we would choose to have God act concerning Hell, tolerance, medicine, nature, equal rights, etc. At any rate, evolutionary theory is both overwhelmingly compelling in evidence and sufficient to explain our hopes and dreams about the God we want to exist. Nature itself has led us to this understanding. This hypothesis says nothing about the existence of a non-intervening creator. One may exist, but it isn’t strictly a requirement of this hypothesis.

Hypothesis 2 – We desire to express gratitude about nature to God because God intervened in nature to put that desire in mankind

A second circumstance would be if evolutionary theory is wrong and God intervened in the human consciousness by implanting these desires. This hypothesis is conveniently devoid of any risky testable claims (claims that could prove it false) and is therefore indistinguishable from pseudoscience (see Karl Popper’s problem of demarcation – I’ll talk more about this in a future post).

Hypothesis 3 – A Hybrid of Hypotheses 1 and 2

A third circumstance would be if evolution prepared the way for the desire for God but God directly intervened in nature to make us desire Him, specifically. This is the view of Francis Collins, another believer I greatly respect.

Where we differ

There are other circumstances, but these three are probably among the most common in our culture. There is evidence that the first hypothesis is both sufficient and likely. One of the latter two hypotheses are desired (at least by me), but empirical evidence seems absent. The latter two can be hoped for, but my scientific mind won’t let me believe either. Without sufficient evidence I don’t see how others’ claims to certainty in either of them can be objectively justified since their belief(s) would be supported in the same way astrology is (e.g. the previously mentioned fallacies that fuel motivated reasoning). The Bible’s specific claims about this creator seem dubious to me because The Bible compels us to certain belief while seeming untrustworthy and making inconsistent and illogical claims about the nature and desires of this God). I lean towards the first explanation, and I think you lean towards the third.

Belief and hope for non-theists

In sum, we can’t know that a creator exists, but nothing is stopping us from hoping. Atheism is the lack of belief in god(s) and most atheists are not strong atheists who strictly believe no God exists (especially not to the point that they wouldn’t even hope for one at any point). I often find it comforting to hope that some sort of deity – perhaps one somewhat similar to what is described in the New Testament – exists (but logically coherent and benevolent according to modern standards – such as would prevent the God from carrying out the eternal punishment of Hell on any being). I don’t believe the Bible is accurate and so I don’t trust its version of a creator is real (or even coherent or logically possible), but I have no problem with the hope of SOME creator (see iMultiverse), nor do I judge anyone for holding to such dreams. Maybe we are the stuff of God’s dreaming, or a set of properties in a software simulation, or a brain in a vat, or a hologram, or all the universe is a single God-particle moving incredible fast. Maybe the Muslims or ancient Greeks are right. Maybe it’s The Egg, or we are all a version of God that he intentionally limited so he can experience another part of himself. There are infinite possibilities and it is very unlikely that any we think of are correct. Even non-theists who are unable or unwilling to hope for an eternal benevolent being sometimes find eternal hope in other similar concepts. The Second Law is a big one. Many non-theists spend most of their time with the outlook that thinking about things like a creator and an eternal destiny trivializes this life, so they do their best to stop trying to figure it out. This is in contrast to some of the believers in religion X that start with the answer and get more confident with the passing of each primed event. For me, the generic or even loosely Christian-based creator-concept is often substantial enough to serve as the object for my gratitude (or the thought the universe may be deterministic to a sufficiently advanced race who may be able to see and replay our lives, thus making us eternal — e.g. the universe is like the Cloud so a future race could look at it, replay it, edit it, etc.). When all these concepts fail me, I still find life worth living and try to pour my thankfulness into people. Many atheists I know of think this:

What you do may matter for eternity. What you do does matter right now which is all the time your guaranteed. Make the most of your time and relationships here and now.

Awe

Awe, to me, is the overwhelming emotion, and I feel it often and deeply. I experience it in a deeper way than I used to because I now understand more about nature (via physics, cosmology, biology, psychology, etc.). This deeper intimacy with the universe gives me deeper appreciation than I used to have. The puzzle of nature captivates me. It used to be that the color of a leave could leave me awestruck. Now, that word has new meaning. I can zoom into that leaf with my mind and try to see the cellular structure. The proteins, atoms, and subatomic particles. The quantum and then the mystery beneath. How deep does it go? I stay awake at night trying to grasp the implications of the notion of what nature actually is at the deepest level I can. I’m after fundamentals. The transcendent, abstract mathematical constructs that, only through relationships have forces which form fields, and that lattice of relationships creates things that appear substantive and corporeal and present at some space/time point. This is all of reality. Awestruck is a totally new expression when I see the veins of a simple leaf through this filter, or a ray of light, a piece of concrete on the floor – much less the heart, human brain, or consciousness. I see a world that few notice. I zoom into and out of it regularly to expand my understanding of the mystery we’re in. If there is a creator, part of me hopes it will help me know and love its mind on a deeper level. Most of me just wants to solve one small piece of the puzzle, or smile while trying. Maybe evidence for God is hiding just one layer deeper. As a side note, one of my concerns about those who lack such a perspective is the over-readiness to honestly believe thing X or Y is not possible except for the direct intervention of the supernatural. I don’t have any special mind or knowledge here, but it seems that the more one understands the behavior of nature (including its laws and fundamental makeup), the more qualified one will be in saying what we should and should not expect to be in accord with reality, and thus what really would require supernatural intervention (and what that even means).

Gratitude

What of gratitude? Gratitude is the expression of that awe and it comes with it’s own reward. When I lack an object to express my awe (which is rare since I’m not a strong atheist and I don’t know anyone who is) I experience the awe and redirect the gratitude towards people. One thing that saddens me about the dominance of Christianity in my life is that I spend so much time thinking about it, explaining my issues with it, and wrestling with the emotional hold it still has on me, that it often disrupts my ability to find the neutral creator that I could comprehend and focus my gratitude upon. In those moments when I can’t contain my wonder and need to express gratitude, I either try to form some concept of a logically coherent creator I can believe in and bestow said feelings upon it, or I shift my emotion to something that a predecessor has done for me and express my gratitude towards him or her in some small way. This often involves a silent, heart-felt and sometimes teary “Thank you” to specific ancients or other expressions to living family or friends.

Wrap-up

This was a quick comment that got away from me so I turned it into a post. I was trying to respond to what I took as an honest curiosity about if or how non-believers express this awe about nature that you now believe they sense (in a way similar to believers). Since atheism is, in its entirety, only one position on one claim (the existence of god(s)), you’ll likely find many answers to this question. I feel awe and express gratitude for nature in my own way, when and how I can. If there’s something out there that can hear me, it knows I’m being grateful.

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

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