Armchair awe for ardent atheists

One particularly griping misconception of atheists is that we are a cynical and joyless lot. The concept of “awe” crops up regularly from the enfaithed among us. “I wish you could feel the awe and majesty of God’s creation that I’m feeling right now,” is the all too common refrain. It’s a frustrating misconception, especially given that a full 71% of us do regularly feel as though we are part of something greater than ourselves.

I find it’s the hardest “faithy” (tm) statement to shrug off. Tell me I’m going to hell and I’ll drop a quip about saying hi to yo momma when I get there. Offer an observation that it must be hard pretending to be ethical and moral given the gaping cobwebby void where my soul should be and I’m likely to respond that on the bright side at least I have somewhere to store my keys when I’m out jogging. But give me that line about how I don’t experience the grandeur of the cosmos and I’m a spluttering, indignant mess, tripping over myself to prove exactly the contrary.

It looks like I’m not the only one for whom such statements are not unlike a kryptonite secreting tick in Superman’s underpants. Take the global cry of atheistic outrage when Oprah Winfrey generously informed one of her guests that she refused to accept she was an atheist because she experienced awe. It’s too long a story to go into here but read on if your blood pressure can handle it.

I’m not sure there’s a lot you can do to change peoples’ minds on this. And anyway, why bother? Perhaps the best revenge against Oprah Winfrey and her monotheistic minions is to go out there and get a fix of that sweet, sweet awe for yourself. Here are a few ways you can experience the vastness of the universe from the comfort of your armchair.

Look up

The night sky is an obvious source of awe. After all it’s a big galactic soup of things that are really quite a lot larger than you. This article on Edterra gives a nice little primer on some of the phenomena you can observe without optic instruments and after a few drinks.

My personal go-to is to locate Venus in the night sky. I find pondering on what we know about our sister planet rarely fails to deliver a jolt of cosmic awe. If you like your awe spiced with facts, Venus is the hottest planet in our solar system, with temperatures reaching 465 degrees Celsius. Two-thirds of the planet is covered by flat, smooth plains but it is pocked with thousands of volcanoes up to 150 miles wide. Picture that hellish landscape for a few minutes. Repeat until satiated.

Look at reality

Had your fill of space? How about a thought experiment about reality? OK this isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, I’ll be upfront about that. But while I instinctively greet this idea with a healthy dose of smirky skepticism it still fills me with something approaching awe. Perhaps it’s just that we humans can be so inventively obtuse but that still counts right?

So, with that preamble aside, you may not be real. Just FYI. The “simulation hypothesis” is not a new concept. It emerged in 2003 when University of Oxford boffin Nick Bostrom produced an odd line of reasoning suggesting that it wasn’t just possible but highly probable that we are all simulations. You can read about it here.

For me the point isn’t whether or not I find this idea remotely plausible. I just find it fun to open my mind to the possibility and relish the odd sense of distaste and existential anxiety it invokes. For some peculiar reason I end up with a feeling akin to awe. Is that just me?

Look beneath the sea ice in Antarctica

Next stop, Antarctica. This gallery documents a 36-day expedition of National Geographic photographer Laurent Ballesta, who dived to depths of up to 230 feet beneath the ice to document the rich diversity of aquatic animals and plants living there.

The trip took two years to prepare. For each foray, suiting up required a full hour and roughly 200 pounds of equipment. Each photographic expedition beneath the ice lasted up to five hours and despite their cutting-edge equipment, every moment was one of excruciating pain.

All for your benefit, you lucky armchair awe-seeking atheist! Ballesta describes what he found down there as “a luxuriant garden” and that sounds about right. But see for yourself. If you’re anything like me, the breathtaking color and diversity he photographed in an environment so outrageously inhospitable to humans will awe you up right nice.

Just ... look.

Opportunities for awe are everywhere and perhaps after all is said and done, all it takes to feel that moment of being connected to the impossible vastness is to keep your eyes open. Maybe all we really have to do to feel awe is to keep looking.

Take that Orpah Gail Winfrey. Oh yeah that’s right, I know your real name.

Got other suggestions? I’d love to read them in the comments below.

About the author

Mark LambertMark Lambert worked for over 15 years in international development, during which he traveled the world and became slightly odd. Today he writes about technology, public health and society.

Follow Mark on twitter @Trebmalkram

Find more articles by Mark here

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