Sunday, 13 April 2008

A Sense of Wonder

I grew up in a very religious household, and Christianity (a peculiar modern version called "Pentecostalism") was very much a part of my daily life.

Even after I left the Church, which wasn't my decision at the time, everything I had been taught stayed with me for a long, long time.

I was able to let go of my belief in the Church as a worthwhile institution almost immediately, largely through my anger at being thrown out. But that was the easy part.

Letting go of all the theological belief I had absorbed was much harder.

That was fifteen years ago. I can now look at the world as a true non-believer, and compare it to the way it looked when I believed.

As a believer, everything in the world seemed to be awash with miracles. I could colour all my thoughts with a veneer of holiness, and I could see everything that happened in terms of the Master's plan.

To me, the universe was a playground for the Almighty. I felt special and chosen, because I was one of His children. When I stopped to think about it, which I did often, I got a sense of awesome wonder and crushing humility.

I felt superior to all the poor damned souls around me who didn't believe as I did. I had a sense of unbreakable belonging to the small community that felt the same way. I had an immediate connection with anyone who shared those beliefs, and I felt unbridgeably separated from anyone who didn't.

I remember exactly how that felt, and I can understand exactly how someone still in that mindset might see me.

They would see someone whose faith was not strong enough to withstand the Devil's temptations. They would see someone who decided that the broad path of sin was easier than the strait and narrow path of righteousness. They would see someone who had closed their mind to The Truth.

But now, the real truth is that I have left that very narrow world, and because of that, I can see so much further.

I can look around me and see all the amazing things that we, mankind have achieved, without the help of any God to guide us.

Under our own evolutionary steam we have worked our way up from the primordial soup. We have gotten stronger and stronger, generation upon generation, our achievements building upon the achievements of those who came before.

We have done this. You and I and all the others we share this planet with. It's our own achievement, and we should be so proud.

And it's not over. Far from it. Our evolution as a species has not ceased. This point in time is just a moment in our great epochal story.

We stand on the brink of a new chapter, as we take our first faltering steps towards the stars, and get the first inkling of what it might be like to leave this world behind.

All this is so much more awe-inspiring to me than anything any religion can offer. The sense of wonder that it gives me is so much greater than anything I've ever heard from the pulpit or read in an ancient text.

Instead of belonging to a small elite group bound together by belief in the evil of Man, I belong to Humanity.

And I marvel at the place we are forging for ourselves in our universe.


Shannon said...

Beautifully written Matt...

Spoon said...

I think it's great that you do see a "Sense of Wonder" (an X Minus One reference?) in the world, and I think that it's even more important that people who do believe in God understand this. I have had many conversations with religious people (and you may have been one, once) who seem genuinely concerned for me because I don't see God in every thing, and who wonder how hard it must be to go through life like that. As I am sure you know, it can be infuriatingly difficult to explain. And I don't have your deep love of science to fall back on.

But that brings me to another side to this anecdote which I am wondering if you're missing.

You pretty much admit that you used to be completely one eyed, seeing only your own side of things, and not allowing room for the other. But the tone of your recent posts increasingly indicates to me that while the point of view has changed, the narrowness has not. You are still being exclusive, it's just those you are excluding are the ones you previously included.

You say that you "felt superior to all the poor damned souls around me who didn't believe as I did". Can you honestly say that now you don't feel superior to the poor religious souls around you?

I would like to think that the opportunity to "see so much further" that your life-change has given you could be better applied to your attitude to those who don't share you beliefs, rather than to the beliefs themselves. You can see that how you used to think, and that that way of thinking was unhelpful. I am worried that you're simply heading down that path again, simply with a different agenda.

I don't want to end up being told that if I'm not working for science, I am actively working against it.

Kate said...

Mr Spoon, your comment may be vaild, science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge, but. . .this entry is very honest and exceptionally emotionally brave when you have to work through what Matt has.

I have never been in a situation like Mattie's, but I have been able to stand alongside him as he has had the strength to deal with the first eighteen years of his life and the ramifications of it.

I don't think you and I can really understand what thats like. I also think that though this blog invites discussion and comment, sometimes its okay to just say well done to a friend for having the courage to doubt.

Matt said...

That is a valid point and something that I'm very conscious of.
I obviously believe the scientific view of the world is superior to the religious view, but that's not the same as believing I'm superior to anyone else because I have that view.
Religion, particularly Christianity, has a lot to say about social justice and the value of charity and the joy of doing good works.
We should all take on the New Testament instruction to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you".
I stand in awe of people who can genuinely do that.
But beyond that, religion has precisely nothing useful to say about the origins of the universe or the evolution of mankind or where we are headed as a species.
Anything religion has to say about an ultimate purpose in life or what happens to us after we die is the stuff of idle speculation and fantasy. It's not to be taken seriously.

Spoon said...

I guess, for the record, I should say that I don't believe I was being unsupportive, and I certainly didn't intend to be interpreted that way.
While I do regularly take the role of "guy who disagrees to merely show the other point of view", in this case I am actually concerned that Matt is either mis-representing himself or becoming more intolerant than I believe him to be. I'm convinced it's the former, but warning against the latter, just in case.

Shannon said...

Okay Matty... I have had a little more time to think on this subject... I'm not as quick as everyone else!!!

Personally I see your point of view clearly. I came from a somewhat religious family (but by no means pious). I had to attend Sunday school where all of the beautiful images that you speak of where presented to me many times over.

As an adult I do see things very differently. I see that the world doesn't work in the convenient ways of religion. There aren't (nor should there be) any second chances. The world is not always beautiful, it can be harsh, sad and lonely, and no amount of praying is going to fix that… hard work, understanding and tolerance will however.

The thing is that if we are made in the image of God, it shows that he/she/it is just as confused, scared and disenchanted as the rest of us, and is really in no position to be providing timely advice on how one should lead their life. In my case, this makes God a gay male and unaccepted by his own Church.

In Matthew’s case I don’t think that he has become intolerant or narrow-minded. I think Matthew has opened himself to the greater possibilities of this world and its true and unseen wonder, not a wonderful tale that easily answers questions that are not always easily answered.

What I feel Matt does here is provide himself a forum for his thought, he opens up to others and welcomes the debate. This is the very opposite of closed mindedness.

Budge said...

I think this all points to some fairly interesting questions about blogging itself. It's such a new medium and we're not quite up on its rules yet. (I should point out that what i'm about to say bears little to no relation to matt's actual post, and is more about the discussion here)

If i'm listening to the radio and Jon Faine says something I think is offensive, annoying or just plain wrong, I can turn it off. If i'm reading pretty much anything by andrew bolt, I can send in an indignant reply to the herald sun, or stop reading. It's the media, and i choose what media i want to consume.

In my personal life, if i'm at some sort of soiree, and one of my friends says something i think is annoying, offensive, or just plain wrong, there are a wide variety of options before me, ranging from a slightly arched eyebrow through to "Dude, you're talking shit." followed by a four hour argument.

In either case, we know what the rules are and how to engage.

But a blog is something different. It's somewhere in between. It's not just "the media", so to simply stop reading if it annoys you feels a little personal. However it's also not a defined group of people with their own social rules to work within.

So if you read something on a blog (particularly a friend's blog) which upsets you, what are the rules?

As a blogger this is something I struggle with at times. Is it my diary, in which case i can go to town on people who annoy me? Is it about testing out new ideas, in which case no matter how stupid or offensive something sounds, I can whack it in there? Is this a way of keeping in touch with friends, in which case I should try and avoid saying stuff that might upset or hurt them? Is it the beer garden at the gb or the loungeroom with cups of coffee?

And of course the answer is D. All of the above.

So sometimes people are going to blog things that annoy their readers. And sometimes their readers are going to respond in a grumpy way. We haven't quite figured out how to do it without causing offence, and we probably need to give eachother a break when it happens.

Kate said...

I still maintain that (asides from Mr Moore) Matt is the only one (albeit that it is his blog!) who has actually been brave enough to define what he really believes in. I also don't think this is just about blog etiquette, I think this is about people who care for each other, being honest about the difference that they (and those they love) have in their religious beliefs and attempting to very bravely reconcile that with their own. Because my darling boy has been brave enough to state what he thinks, so will I. But why is it that it seems to be so much safer for everyone to have this conversation online?. . .

"I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.

The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides" Carl Sagan.

Eliza said...

Matt, I'd just like to say that like Shannon I thought this entry was beautifully written and along with Kate I think it was honest and brave.

Like Mr Moore, I too was raised in a reasonably religious household. Many of our family friendships were church based, I regularly did bible readings in the Sunday service, I was an active member of the youth group and I spent many a school holiday at church camps.
Unlike you, it was my family that decided to leave the church after an outright withdrawal of church support and understanding when my gay uncle was diagnosed and later died of AIDS. It really felt like a slap in the face at the time...
Now, as an adult the bitter taste in my mouth has gone but it has not been forgotten. Although I know that religious belief is not for me, I think that it does work for some people. What scares me are the believers who do not question... those who only "believe" on Sundays... and those who will not challenge situations of hypocrisy.

Although I'm not as eloquent as other participants in your blog (or as informed as some), I did want to make some kind of comment. My experience was by no means as traumatic as yours... but look at you now!

Great blog Matt.

Budge said...

I so didn't mean to imply any criticism of matt's post... If that's what i did imply, i'm sorry.

It kind of goes to my point.
Blogs; a messy medium.

Spoon said...

Maybe it is that blogs are a messy medium. I think the problem is one of boundaries.

I am an agrumentative sod as pretty much anyone who knows me will testify. Kate, Shannon and Eliza, yes I agree that Matt has really opened up here. But as you say Kate, in doing so he opens himself up for comment. I imagine he does so to make whoever reads his blog think. And it has certainly done that for all of us. As Shannon said that is openmindedness.

But I think the problem with the medium of blog, which you kind of touched on, Kate, is that it is impersonal. You ask why we don't talk about this in person, and that's an interesting question (although after his last comment Matt and I had a long "discussion" - albeit on messenger - about science and religion and stuff).
Matt uses his blog to state his beliefs. When I disagree with them, or, as in this case, when I might agree with what his saying, but don't believe he is seeing all sides, I will pull him up on it. As a consequence I will argue with Matt on his blog as strongly about his opinions on Season 3 Battlestar Galactica as I will on his views on religion.
Perhaps that is not appropriate.

To be fair, though, Matt will argue those things with as much energy as each other, and it's easy to get caught up. And I believe that if he brought these things up in person I would pull him up just as strongly. And we have had many in person discussions about all sorts of things.

As for stating my own religion vs science opinion? I honestly don't think it's relevant to the discussion, as I wasn't really talking about Matt's opinions so much as the way he was expressing them. But for the record, since late primary/early high school I have wavered between ambivalent agnosticism to lapse atheism. Right now I don't believe in a God, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that one exists. I'm a fence sitter, who would have thought? It goes with the territory of being argumentative.

To sum up, and to re-iterate: I am not saying Matt is not brave for saying all this, and I am not saying he is wrong. Who am I to say that? I think all I am asking is that Matt looks at how he is projecting himself when stating his opinions. I look now and I can see I was incredibly wrong to bring this up as a response to this particular blog post, as it is not really relevant to this one. It was more a response to all of the religion posts that Matt has made, and the attitude that I see him portraying, but some of the things he said in this one helped (I thought) clarify my thoughts, so this is where it came out.

We really need Paul to come in here and talk about religion and cyberculture and bring it all together.

Hopefully Matt's next post is another one about how crap Andrew Bolt is and we can all sit and laugh and remember the good times.