Most of us are gratified when reading others’ words that express our own view of life or emotional experience better than we have ourselves. I felt that when reading Phil Zuckerman’s short article “Aweism” in the April/May 2009 edition of Free Inquiry magazine. This post is to share how Zuckerman’s joyful experience of awe fits with my own humanism and joie de vivre.
In my life I’ve often had difficulty determining what or who I am. I don’t mean the usual classifications, like whom I’m the son of, where I live, whom I’ve parented, and jobs I’ve held. Those are important, but I’m referring to philosophical identity. During youth, my identity was fundamentalist Christian. After high school that framework was unable to contain my questions and quandaries, so in early adulthood I evolved into an agnostic identity, then atheist, and finally secular humanist, a sequence that remains accurate to this day.
Secular humanism is not atheism but it is necessary because of atheism, for in the absence of belief that a god handed down morality, we must work it out for ourselves. Atheism, while useful in determining what is not worth believing, is not a prescription for life, but a circumstance upon which a life can be built. Actually, I rarely think about my atheism, but as a humanist I think of moral principles regularly; it permeates my concepts of humanity and my relationship with others. (For example, my current reading includes Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, an exploration into the complexity of applying personal morality to that of a state.)
What Zuckerman recognized in himself, I found to be true for me as well. My captivating awe is virtually unceasing for all manner of beauty and complexity, a reverence for life, amazement for the mysterious, for the bigness of life, for the tearful joy and wonder that the universe provides us. As Zuckerman wrote, “But when I ponder the existence of certain existential questions and cosmic mysteries, I often have an emotional reaction beyond that of mere dry puzzlement or cold contemplation. I feel [my italics, JC] something.” Sometimes,” he said, he feels “existential questions and mysteries that concern life, death, being, and the universe more than I simply ponder or contemplate them.”
Aweism doesn’t rely on marveling at unproven guesses, but at the proven and the probability that much more awaits discovery, a never-ending unveiling of further knowledge, not merely the persistence of the hoped-for. Much of science is an example. I’m reminded of Isaac Newton’s reply to those who said his work in refraction of light sadly constituted “unweaving the rainbow.” He replied that he’d not rewoven the rainbow, but shown it to be even more magnificently intricate than previously known. Scientific revelation often reveals and can replace the speculative flailing about of superstitious imagination.
Aweism takes nothing away from one’s religion nor from one’s atheism. It is available without the necessity of either, for it doesn’t require a religious boost to be experienced. Much as I described in a few posts (including “The happy atheist,” May 30, 2013; “The meaning of life,” Oct. 22, 2013; and “The heavens declare the glory of god,” June 10, 2015), atheism is not a drab, unhappy, uninspired, uncaring, immoral persuasion. Vouching for myself, with infrequent exceptions I’ve lived a joyful, satisfied, even fascinating life—I’m quite happy to have found a word for it. On that note, I’ll close with Zuckerman:
“Aweism is the [point of view] that existence is ultimately a beautiful mystery, that being alive is a wellspring of wonder, and that the deepest questions of life, death, time, and space are so powerful as to inspire deep feelings of joy, poignancy, and sublime awe. . . . An aweist is someone who admits that existing is wonderfully mysterious and that life is a profound experience. To be an aweist is—in the words of philosopher Paul Kurtz—to embrace and experience ‘joyful exuberance’ sans theistic assumptions. Aweists suspect that no one will ever know why we are here or how the universe came into being, and this renders us weak in the knees while simultaneously spurring us on to dance.”
It seems to me that the most AWESOME thing of all is that rational, moral, and intelligent human beings, supposedly the random result of matter in motion, can actually experience AWE at all.
The point you make—if I understand correctly—is that a random result of matter in motion can’t explain the evolution of a sense of awe (or other deep emotions or five toes). If evolution by natural selection were that, it would be not only awesome, but impossible. The genetic variation in Darwinian evolution starts with random variations, true, but then acts upon those variations in what is a very non-random process called abiogenesis, passing useful variation on to progeny or letting non-useful ones die out. We awesome creatures are products of millions or billions of generations of that process. Now, that is really awesome!
Well said, friend John. That makes me a Christian Aweist.