Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Awe at the beauty of the world

One summer when I was 17 years old, I taught swimming lessons at different lakes in he region where I lived.  One stint was a couple weeks in the Duck Mountains on the western edge of the Canadian province of Manitoba.  These so called mountains - it's the prairies, so to call them mountains is quite a stretch - are a beautiful collection of tiny lakes surrounded by knobby spruce trees dripping gauzy moss from their drooping limbs.  I was staying with a very nice family.  One of heir daughters was my age, a devout born again Christian, and I had a crush on her.  I was deep in my most religious phase at that time.  Everywhere I went I brought with me a collection of religious books I was studying.  The two of us would often stay up talking about our faith, about various doctrines, and the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism.

One night the two of us took a drive.  We stopped at one of the small unnamed lakes by the side of the gravel road that wound it's way through the provincial park and sat on the small dock.  There was no wind to disturb the stillness of the moment.  The moon shone bright on the glass-like surface of the water, a lazy mist clinging in patches to its contours and wafting about lazily.  The sky was clear, filled with clouds of stars.  The trees stood, pointing to heaven, their ragged silhouettes eerie in shadowed light.  It was a moment of serene awe-inspiring beauty.  As we looked on it, we asked How can anyone look on such beauty and doubt the existence of God?   The sheer beauty of our planet encapsulated in that perfect moment seemed, to us, to be evidence of a divine creator.  It filled us with awe.

This was not the first such experience, or the last.  Many times have I marveled at natural beauty and felt it to be a justification of my faith.  Even throughout my years of wandering in the desert after I had lost conviction, but still searched for truth and hoped for god, that awe never left me.  Only its meaning changed.

Now when I look on nature as an atheist, with something of an understanding of evolution, natural selection and the natural history of our planet and it's place in the greater universe, do I feel any less awe?  No, I feel more awe.  Much more.  Previously, I thought the world the product of the imagination of an omnipotent being; a divine work of art, created with no effort.  He simply willed it, and it was.  The mechanism he used to create it, whether he guided evolution, or if it was the magical creation of Genesis, wasn't so important to me at the time. Now what do I see?

Now I see the current world as a snapshot in time of an astronomically long and improbable natural history.  Just think, there are billions of galaxies, our own Milky way just one among them.  Our sun is just one star among billions in our galaxy alone.  Our planet, Earth, one among who knows how many countless planets.  And on this rock, life took hold.  The simple unalterable laws of nature, plus time, allowed that life to proliferate into millions of species.  And those species have interacted with each other and with their environments to form an incredibly complex set of biological systems that are always adapting, changing, evolving.  98% of all species that ever lived are now extinct, yet we still have an estimated 8 million species on the planet at the moment.  We alone, among all of those creatures, and even among our close relatives the primates and our cousin hominids, have developed intelligence that goes beyond simple tool use.  We alone have developed civilization.  And we are still a very young species, our history as a species to date a mere speck on the timeline of life on earth.  And our very existence is highly improbable.  If the ancestors of vertebrates had not survived mass extinction events, we wouldn't be here.  If the ancestors of mammals had not survived the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, we would not be here.  If the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs had missed the earth and not brought about their demise, we would not be here.  If our hominid ancestors had not survived against impossible odds, adapting to climate changes and extinction level events that at times reduced our numbers to the point we were an endangered species, we would not be here.  But here we are, the only species capable of contemplating our place in the universe.  And each one of us the unique outcome of a one in a billion pairing of a specific ovum and a specific sperm from two specific people, themselves the outcome of a similar pairing, dependent on two people among billions meeting and procreating, which was dependent on their ancestors surviving the wars and plagues and other dangers that have culled our numbers throughout our history.  Knowing all this, and knowing that it occurs by natural observable processes, and not just the magical wish of an omnipotent being, fills me with more wonder and awe than my previous faith ever could.  The very improbability of our existence and the opportunity we have as the sole species on this planet that we know of to ever have had this level of awareness is mind boggling, stunning and humbling. 

So now, when I sit amidst nature and marvel at its beauty, I no longer think there must be a god to have dreamed all this up.  Instead, my mind reals at the vastness of it all, and I am awed and grateful that I, a tiny insignificant creature, have a place here and an opportunity to live a life.

Here are a couple of videos that inspired me.  I hope they will also inspire you.


  1. WOW, I have often thought of the beauty of nature as proof of the existence of something bigger than me - but as a recent athiest wondered how I could still marvel at the world and yet not believe someone else made it that way. love the way you describe this new greater awe!!!

    thank you

  2. Outsource your atheists to Bangalore.