Thursday, September 4, 2008

Atheist Spirituality

Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one’s place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond ourselves. There are many sources of spirituality; religion may be the most common, but it is by no means the only. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality — art, for example. Consider the 1889 impressionist painting The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. It is a magnificent swirl of dark and light, punctuated by stars, with the sky and land delineated by horizon, and the infinite vastness of space hovering over humanity’s tiny abode.

The Starry Night is awe-inspiring art, but it is the product of centuries of scientific discovery, coming after Nicolaus Copernicus displaced us from the center of the cosmos; after Johannes Kepler discovered the laws of planetary motion; after Galileo Galilei discovered the moons of Jupiter, mountains on the moon, and sunspots; after Isaac Newton united celestial and terrestrial physics; and after Charles Darwin put us in our proper place in nature’s ancestry. No one, especially an emotionally volatile impressionist painter like Van Gogh, could look up at the night sky and not be daunted by the vastness of the minuscule portion of the galaxy we can observe from Earth (about 2,500 out of the approximately 100 billion stars in the Milky Way).

Van Gogh painted the conflict between body and soul, between objective and subjective, and between outer and inner experiences. As he told his brother Theo: “I retain from nature a certain sequence and a certain correctness in placing my tones. I study nature so as not to do foolish things — however, I don’t mind so much whether my color corresponds exactly, as long as it looks beautiful on the canvas.” In fact, Van Gogh described The Starry Night to his brother “as an attempt to reach a religious viewpoint without God.” Read spiritual for religious.

As magical as The Starry Night is, Van Gogh painted it decades before astronomer Edwin Hubble expanded our universe by orders of magnitude through his observations from the 100-inch telescope atop Mount Wilson in Southern California. On October 6, 1923, Hubble first realized that the fuzzy patches he was observing were not “nebulae” within the Milky Way galaxy, but were, in fact, separate galaxies, and that the universe is bigger than anyone imagined. He subsequently discovered through this same telescope that those galaxies are all red-shifted — their light is receding from us, and thus stretched toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum — meaning that all galaxies are expanding away from one another, the result of a spectacular explosion that marked the birth of the universe. It was the first empirical data indicating that the universe has a beginning, and thus is not eternal. What could be more awe-inspiring — more numinous, magical, spiritual — than this cosmic visage? Darwin and the geologists gave us deep time. Hubble and the astronomers gave us deep space.

Michael Shermer

An excerpt from Shermer's article Why I Am An Atheist.

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