The Sublime is For Everyone

Why should religion have all the good words to describe how we feel?

Apparently atheists should not use words like sublime, awe, wonder, or miraculous when looking at the universe, and in particular those of nature. So an article in “The Guardian” implies accusing documentaries of inspiring something that is at best stealing the language and hierarchy of religion and at worse trying to make humanity just another bunch of cells making up a mammal of less significance.

The crucial question, though, is who is doing the worshipping. Cox and co make much of their own humility in the face of natural marvels. They express wonder and we are meant to follow suit.But it’s too easy for the meekness we feel in the face of extraordinary facts to blur into deference towards popular scientists themselves, with their public profile and their privileged access to those facts. Like priests, they occupy an elevated position in relation to the phenomena they admire. While putting on a good show of being amazed, they function as powerful gatekeepers to a mystical beyond. Cox may not look like a boffin, but it’s telling that he’s always called professor.

The article does not consider that the credentialed presenter is not a new phenomenon. Think AJP Taylor as a talking head on history fifty odd years ago. That they are professors, dons, experts in their fields which is preciously why they are worth listening to. These facts are available to anyone that can read, go to a library/bookshop, surf the net, enrol on a science course or use a remote control. The only barriers are imagination to be curious.


Clearly though, Elaine Graser (a BBC producer) is suggesting that atheists are lauding such people for not believing in God. Yet atheists maybe, as all genuinely curious people are, passionate about science, how things are, and want to actually listen to someone that can explain to the best of our knowledge how things are. Beating a sermon reading from Genesis on a Sunday as to why.

The old chestnut that the more we know the less mystic about what makes us human means we less see us reflecting the image of God is also a subtext of the article:

While all this reinforces the status of scientists, it downplays the extraordinary uniqueness of the human mind. Could it be scientists’ inability to explain why we are so different from other animals that leads them to minimise this genuine wonder of life?

Thing is the more we learn, for example that the eyes of squid are far superior to our own, suggest that calls on considering us superior (which is what unique means here) are without the foundation that traditionally are used. The biblically inspired caveat that we are stronger, more capable and have a God given right to make this world as He wants us to.

Gradually, and yes Darwin did help in making this possible, we are seeing ourselves as a product of the universe. Of the stars, chemical reactions, organic bio-chemical electrical cells made up entities getting to grips with our environment. Most of humanity, and not enough of it, has moved beyond hand to mouth existence. We choose to use our time to stop and stare. To marvel at the world and universe we live in – and to make sense of it. We were probably doing this long before we learnt to paint in caves. Our understanding has moved on since then.

The article in suggesting humanity is unique, and religion has a central place in describing human ecstasy at creation, is reinforcing the very religious monopoly it accuses public profile scientists of usurping. Thing is we want to know the “how” and increasingly the clergyman is not the first port of call anymore, just as witch doctors are not when we get sick.

If moved by watching such things, that is not only because I am human. It is also good quality television.

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

Follow @JPSargeant78



Filed under atheism, Science

2 responses to “The Sublime is For Everyone

  1. Brilliant post! (Please excuse me for using big words. I am an atheist too and I should know better.) Surprisingly defensive bit of text from the Guardian. I always thought people called Brian Cox ‘professor’ because there is another quite famous Brian Cox, but maybe he really is aspiring to be the high priest of particle physics.

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