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Atheists Feel Awe, Too

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In Elizabeth Gilbert's brilliant novel The Signature of All Things, Alma Whittaker, the central character who was born in Philadelphia in 1800, is destined for a highly unconventional life as a woman in science.

Consumed by a love of botany, specifically of mosses, Whittaker grapples with questions that preoccupied many real-world minds of the 19th century, including Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace as they developed their theories of evolution. How can we understand the astounding variety of life in the natural world? If animals and plants are not after all created and fixed once and for all by God, by what mechanism did so many species arise?

These questions came to life for Alma when she discovered mosses. As a young unmarried woman confined to her father's estate in Philadelphia, her formidable sense of curiosity was dulled by familiarity. On those acres, she knew inside and out every tree, plant, insect and bird, and yearned for something new to explore. By accident, she found it one day — mosses, gloriously alive on a boulder:

Nearby, on that same boulder, Alma soon saw:

As a result of that slight variation in climate, Alma realized, the mosses in that patch varied from those in the first patch. Years later, and before the 1859 publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (an event noted in the novel), Alma comes to grasp something like the process of natural selection.

I was captivated by the way Gilbert painted the clamors of the intellect — and of the heart, too — through Alma's character. Another striking passage came in a conversation between Alma and the evolutionary scientist Wallace, whom Alma meets late in her life. Wallace asks Alma if she believes in an afterworld. At first, she demurs, telling him, "I do so try not to say things that make people feel upset." When Wallace presses her, Alma tells him:"

Why did this passage strike me so powerfully? I think it's because I have encountered, as have other atheists I know, the persistent view expressed by some people of faith that the world is necessarily meaningless without belief in God or gods or an afterlife. "How can you stand to live in a world without meaning?" is a question many atheists hear in their lifetime.

Fictional scientist Alma feels real to me because she finds meaning in the natural world in a way that I fundamentally understand (although it's not mosses that do it for me, but bison and bonobos and bees and almost any other animal).

Alastair Reynolds' science fiction novel Blue Remembered Earth contains a similarly striking passage. The ideas here are expressed by a young artist named Sunday — born on Earth and now a resident on the moon — who is making her first visit to Mars. Sunday found the Martian landscape "literally awesome," with mesas, pyramids and other geological formations shaped by "rain and wind, insane aeons of it," forces that have sculpted "deliberate-looking right-angled steps and contours [that] began to assume grand and imperial solidity, rising from the depths like the stairways of the gods."

Sunday invokes the gods only metaphorically, however. Here is what she really thinks:

For both Reynolds' Sunday and Gilbert's Alma, recognizing that they are products of biological and physical forces isn't cause for anxiety about meaningless or despair. On the contrary, that recognition brings them a satisfying sense of connection to the whole universe.

Atheists feel awe, too. Everyone does. That wondrous sense needn't be described by invoking the sacred.

Atheist awe is mind- and heart-expanding. I love seeing this real-world feeling mirrored in works of contemporary fiction.


Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.
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