A Good Pushback

Elaine Glaser probes:

Instructions to appreciate the wonder of science are everywhere. There’s the Wonder season organised jointly by the Barbican and the Wellcome Trust which starts tomorrow; the Science Museum’s World Wonders Trail; the parliamentary select committee report on introducing wonder to the national curriculum; and the 2011 TED conference titledThe Rediscovery of Wonder. But am I alone in finding this cheerleading problematic?

It’s ironic that the public engagement with the science crowd is so pro-wonder, because they’re so anti-religion. “All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation,” writes Richard Dawkins. “And it’s exactly this feeling of spine-shivering, breath-catching awe – almost worship – this flooding of the chest with ecstatic wonder, that modern science can provide.”

“I’m an atheist,” said maths professor Marcus du Sautoy when he took up the Charles Simonyi chair in the public understanding of science at Oxford. “But for me the important thing is the wonder of science.” Advocates for science can’t seem to give up on religion’s selling points: the awe, transcendence, and worship.

Maybe this awe is little more than the opening of new pathways in the brain because of a new experience. The experience of otherness or vastness?

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  • MatthewS

    This reminds me of Keller’s “A” beliefs and “B” beliefs, where “B” beliefs are those ingrained beliefs against Scriptural teachings but “A” beliefs are roughly congruent with God’s wisdom, probably influenced by common grace. Perhaps an admiration for this sense of wonder is something like one of those A beliefs?

  • dopderbeck

    Modern science establishments don’t want to admit that the content and practice of science is teleological through and through. And yet, wonder, purpose, hope, joy, all always bubble up!

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I agree with doperdeck. I think that the science establishment needs to embrace and enjoy the wonder that science creates in people. Not only will that thrill scientists, but it provides a much more difficult ground for religious people to reject science on.

    Randy Gabrielse

  • The closing 2 sentences attempt to sound scientific but are just hugely speculative, and really say nothing. I think there a number of issues going on here:
    1. Scientists do genuinely feel a sense of wonder when observing/understanding the nature of how things work, but the a-religious would not see this as transcendent (i.e. not confined to the natural physical order) any more than they see consciousness/self-awareness as transcendent
    2. There is also no doubt that some of the most ‘militant’ atheists/secularists, as well as those whose job/motivation is to enhance public understanding of science, recognise that there is a problem with large numbers in society who don’t ‘get’ science, and see it as something abstract or ‘clinical’ or ‘other.’ In an effort to communicate better with those who don’t get it, they are seeking to tap into the success of religious faith in the element of ‘wonder.’ (This seems to be particularly popular amongst those pushing a secularist agenda).
    3. There is however a fundamental difference between much religious ‘wonder’ and scientific wonder. The latter often comes from understanding better how things work, or at least wanting to; whereas the former is often happy to persist in a state of ‘not knowing’ or ‘mystery.’
    4. It is right to be sceptical about the reason why some scientists are pushing the ‘wonder’ agenda. However, it seems to me that there are also vast swathes of people of faith who fail to engage with God’s truth as revealed by scientific methodology, and who are either resistant or hostile to it. This not only does the “ambassador” role a disservice, it’s a failure of worship (Heart soul MIND and strength). All truth and revelation have their source in God, innit?

  • Andrew

    “so anti-religion” . . .here come the requisite ‘victim violins.’ Go to any science museum in the U.S. and I don’t see any exhibits bashing religion. I don’t remember any “religion disproved” sections in my science textbooks.
    To the contrary you’ve had a loud contingent of evangelical Christianity screaming at the evils of science, the ‘myth’ of evolution and denying climate change.

  • What is the connection or contradiction that makes this ironic? If some people want to re-invigorate a sense of wonder about the universe, how is that related to whether they do or do not have particular religious beliefs, or no such beliefs?

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I agree with Mike @ #6. That said, this also reminded me of a classic xkcd cartoon – and it is very pertinent to this discussion: