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A Marvelous, Godless Universe

Jonathan Bellot

The Spectacular in the World We Live In.

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by Jonathan Bellot

"it is hard to see how our senses of awe could wither away unless we simply confine ourselves into little dark dungeons of despair

One of the most persistent criticisms against giving up one's religious views I encounter is that the world would thereby become bleak, dull, meaningless, absurd, a place more worthy of death than life. You can see why this might dissuade. In more extreme versions of this argument, life without religious views is equated to existence without any sense of beauty, a life deprived not simply of art but the very ability to perceive that something may be artistic, a life that is but a Platonic shadow of life. It is striking how often this argument seems to come up. Though it says nothing about whether or not a god or gods exist, it has tremendous potential emotive power, and it's enough to keep many theists from abandoning the beliefs they may have already begun to question.

The argument, of course, is not without precedent. Tolstoy wrote in his Confession that "My question—that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide—was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder….'Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?' It can also be expressed thus: 'Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?'" In a short essay on suicide, the famously pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer went so far as to imply that the one truth contained in Christianity is "that suffering (the Cross) is the true aim of life," while Albert Camus devoted the greater part of The Myth of Sisyphus to explaining why suicide was not the necessary response to finding out one lives in an absurd, godless world (though I do not believe we in fact live in an absurd world). One can almost imagine Steven Weinberg devilishly grinning at the thought of what the religious would make of his infamous claim in The First Three Minutes that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless" and—were that not enough—that the "effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some grace of tragedy." Richard Dawkins, currently perhaps the best-known atheist on the planet, likewise cheerily describes the universe in River Out of Eden as containing "no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

On the other hand, Weinberg says in a PBS interview from Faith and Reason that "although we are not the stars in a cosmic drama, if the only drama we're starring in is one that we are making up as we go along, it is not entirely ignoble that faced with this unloving, impersonal universe we make a little island of warmth and love and science and art for ourselves. That's not an entirely despicable role for us to play." And Dawkins maintains—against the crowd of reductionists that would assume a world without god is equivalent to a world without art, love, or anything worth living for, really—that he sees no reason why a godless, purposeless world must be one without ambition, art, love, all of Beauty's resplendent train. Like the atheistic existentialists, he says we must make our own meaning in life; from this, everything else will blossom where it may.

The argument appears, in baroque form, in that most extraordinary of chapters from Herman Melville's Moby Dick, "The Whiteness of the Whale." In this chapter, the religiously skeptical narrator, Ishmael, has decided suddenly to discourse on the many facets of whiteness, spurred on by his captain's quest to capture Moby Dick, the white whale. What is striking about the chapter is that Ishmael associates whiteness not only with its stereotypes—innocence, purity, beauty, etc.—but with horror, emptiness, and negation. Whiteness, he writes, "is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian's Deity; and yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind." He then wonders if we are afraid of whiteness because it suggests a kind of meaninglessness: "is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?" What if, Ishmael asks, this whiteness underlies everything in the world? Are our little quests and desires nothing more than our desperate (if conscious) attempts to color over this whiteness, to give ourselves a stage on which to stand so we do not fall-float through our meaningless existences forever? It is interesting to think that the white whale of the title, much as it seems like some incarnation of a god, may simply be a whale Ahab has painted over with his manias, and the ultimate demise of all but one of the Pequod's crew may be the necessary annihilation, the vanishing, that results when one comes into contact with the nothingness, Ishmael's dumb blankness, underlying the world.

Why these depressing templates for a godless world? Do we really have to lose the sacred? Not if you ask architect Alain de Botton, who claims that we nonbelievers must reclaim whatever is good in religion for our own purposes—sermons, community gatherings, special buildings, even. It is de Botton, after all, who announced not long ago that he wanted to construct a temple for atheists, an idea those who like to paint atheism as a religion would surely find appetizing. (And that Dawkins found decidedly unappetizing.) And the mere fact that one is an atheist does not separate one from things usually deemed religious, like churches; there is a growing number of nonbelievers who attend church, as well as the case of other architects like Oscar Niemeyer, who, despite his well-known godlessness, has constructed a number of churches, the most extraordinary (if perhaps concealing a joke with its toylike angels) of which is in Brasilia. But what does all this mean? Is there something we need to, or should, reclaim?

It is the something often called the "marvelous" that I believe we should reclaim as nonbelievers (if you do not wish to go as far as temples). Those of us who wish to, anyway. The marvelous is the sense that something, if not the world, is awe-inspiring—i.e., it contains marvels. As a concept, it goes back centuries; really, the marvelous can be found in many societies or artistic texts throughout history, though it has found new usage in discussions of the genre of magical realism, most famously by Alejo Carpentier. And there's no reason it shouldn't be accessible to us today. It's not the same as love or the ability to appreciate art, which we nonbelievers supposedly also lack (though, of course, we do not). But it can connect to both.

Still, the "phenomenon of the marvelous," Carpentier, the Cuban critic and writer tells us in his seminal essay of 1949, "On the Marvelous Real in America," "presupposes faith. Those who do not believe in saints cannot cure themselves with the miracles of saints, nor can those who are not Don Quixotes enter, body, soul, and possessions, into the world of Amadís of Gaul or Tirant le Blanc." Not long after, Carpentier writes that "the marvelous invoked in disbelief—the case of the Surrealists for so many years—was never more than a literary ruse"; in an essay from 1975, Carpentier writes that the Surrealists' "fabrication of the marvelous was premeditated." Purely from looking at surrealist art, this criticism makes some sense; at very least, there is little sense that many surreal images are meant to correspond to or complicate any undreamt reality (since real life should be able to supply those marvels). What Carpentier is after is reality that's recognizable as reality and that yet seems awe-inspiring, astonishing, full of marvels. When European explorers ventured to foreign lands for the first time, for instance, they often brought back tales in which the dull and prosaic mixed seamlessly with the fantastical. This was partly because they often had predispositions about what they might find—"background books," in the memorable phrase of Umberto Eco—and thus labeled many things as they thought they should be labeled, liberty-taking-with-likelihood-notwithstanding. Thus Marco Polo could describe a rhinoceros as a unicorn, though he realized the pachyderm was a somewhat less elegant creature. He had "unicorn" in his background books, you see, in his book of expectations. And mistake though it was—well, sort of a mistake—it was a marvelous one, in all senses of the word.

Now, the marvelous is not necessarily something wrongly assigned. Nor need it be positive, contrary to the word's popular usage. But one must be able to see these marvels in the world, even in the everyday, in the first place. And if there is a sense that atheists must somehow be denied access to this sense of wonder and awe—this marveling—then the polls would seem, at first glance, to confirm that atheists are at a disadvantage here. There is statistical evidence that the non-religious tend to be less happy than the clearly religious. According to Sandra Upson's "Healthy Skepticism" in the May 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind, for instance, a National Opinion Research Center survey of Americans that was conducted between 1972 and 2008 found that 48% of those who go to religious services more than once a week reported themselves to be "very happy," compared to only 26% of persons who never attend religious services at all. But this is famously religious America, secular foundations despite; surveys of famously nonreligious nations tend to find that low religiosity need not be connected to low happiness at all. Denmark and Sweden, for instance, have the lowest statistical church attendance in the world; and yet they are also statistically well-off as far as happiness goes. Strikingly, even those who do attend church there need not be considered churchgoers, per se, since a large number of those are more or less nominally religious atheists. According to sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who spent 14 months interviewing people in Denmark, "even the vast majority of the clergy don't believe in God." The idea that life is cold and absurd without religion won't work there, then. But in nations where religiosity is high, this idea is persistent.

It's a strange one, isn't it? Reduced to mere fortunate and intelligent animals on an unspectacular planet in a universe vast enough to drive an honest person insane, reduced to the kin of grinning chimps and bonobos and, later down the line, to the dogs we toss Frisbees and sticks for, to the fish in our tanks, to the very microorganisms inside and outside us that keep us going, whispering their presence by making us fart and belch—so reduced, we may feel slighted, cheated, stripped and abused and disabused. This is assuming, of course, we were at a sufficient height of cosmic self-importance from which we could be flicked down a notch. But if we were, how striking and painful it can be to realize that, maybe—in all likelihood—we simply happened to be, and we live, and then we die, and then that is that; the universe does not notice, and scarcely does the Earth, if at all. Perhaps we are special, since we're the only planet with life we know for sure. But not special in a way that should invest us with a cosmic swagger. "Just a bit lucky" might be better.

But why should that prevent us from living, from seeing the marvelous in the everyday? There can be grandeur in this view, after all, to paraphrase Darwin. A grandeur that doesn't presuppose faith.

It is striking to note that many prominent authors of magical realism or literature one could justifiably regard as "marvelous" are either atheists or willing to, at very least, joke around about religion. I say this is striking because it goes against that idea that the marvelous view of life is somehow cut off from the skeptical. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the literary symbol of magical realism, identified when he was a freshly married man as an atheist and may still be; Salman Rushdie is an atheist; Jose Saramago was an atheist; Angela Carter was an atheist; Italo Calvino was a skeptic; Pablo Neruda was an atheist; and so on. So entrenched are some of these names with their beautiful language, those who only know Neruda as a love poet, for instance, that it may come as a shock for certain persons to find out they disbelieve. One need only read Neruda's poem to his dead dog, though, to see that even a godless materialist can grieve. The same goes for music, a domain long held under the stereotype that only those who believe in some higher power can create beautiful compositions; but this cannot be, if Verdi, Brahms, Debussy, and others are the composers involved. (Though it may also help if you turn yourself into a god, as the increasingly insane Alexander Scriabin appears to have done before planning a vast worldwide composition that would usher in a new age of humanity.)

I myself have lived most of my life in the island of Dominica, where superstitions and everyday life are often braided together, and so when I read my first piece of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude, I knew immediately that the style could capture the atmosphere of the island. Even as a skeptic, this doesn't usually bother me, really; magical realism (poor as the term may be) merely describes the atmosphere of life in places where the two seem interwoven, and when you live in that kind of place long enough, it just seems natural to describe that place in such a style, whether or not you literally believe in the ghosts, spells, obeah soucouyants, loogaroos, Mama Glo, or whatever else the grandmothers and fathers might tell tales about. It's all about capturing an atmosphere, a portrait of a certain home. At another level, it's an appreciation of these myths and ideas, as well as of the idea of the marvelous. And when you live in the mountains and the night is dark and the rain so heavy it drowns out all sound, it's difficult not to see where the ghosts might come from.

Really, in the vast, extraordinary universe we live in, it is hard to see how our senses of awe could wither away unless we simply confine ourselves into little dark dungeons of despair. And we need not even look far for the marvelous. It is potentially all around us, in every pencil, coffee table, pair of beat-up sneakers, iPad, stick of deodorant, alarm clock, every mundane object we pass by in our day-to-day routines. If we stop and examine each object for what it is, we may discover or rediscover a sense of the marvelous even in the seemingly mundane: the fact that our species has created things like pencils and coffee tables and the like is, when you stop to mull it over, marvelous.

Lest I fail to convince you of this, though, let us step back in time for a moment—well, perhaps longer than that—to conduct an experiment. Take a cell phone, tablet, or something similar with you. Imagine, if you will, how unspectacular our phones and tables often seem when we become accustomed to their features and learn to use them functionally; and then imagine how extraordinary they would appear to someone in the distant past who has never seen a telephone, much less its cellular variety, and must come to terms with not simply the ability to hear another person's voice on the other end (we'll pretend our phone service has faithfully followed us back through time, too) but the electronic screen and buttons. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," Arthur C. Clarke is endlessly quoted as saying; and this otherwise mundane phone would undoubtedly seem magical to a person sufficiently unfamiliar with such devices. There is no need for there to be ghosts for there to be ghosts, in another sense of the phrase.

The critic Viktor Shklovsky described a similar process in a famous 1917 essay, "Art as Technique," as "defamiliarization." We become so accustomed to the world around us that we stop seeing objects for the potentially marvelous things they are. If our routines don't vary, we become like automata. But when we slow down and look at an object again, we may see it as if it hasn't already become too familiar—that is, we might defamiliarize the object. Rachel Carson says it beautifully in The Sense of Wonder—that we tend to "look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, 'What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?'"

Good stuff, if you ask me, this defamiliarization. But if you want a shorter word, marvel should do just fine.

Comments (now closed)

Matt B.

03 Jun 2012 · 20:56 EST

What a well done article! Nice quotes, and very logical style of argumentation. Love the tie in to Melville. I have to admit I'm not an atheist, but nevertheless, I can appreciate where you're coming from as the traditional explanations of the universe don't satisfy me.

esther wit

12 Jun 2012 · 15:20 EST

Great article! thanks for that

esther wit

12 Jun 2012 · 15:20 EST

Great article! thanks for that