Dawkins’ spirituality

Here’s Dawkins painting his eulogistic rainbow, minus the soundtrack.*

After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings. To put it the other way round, isn’t it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?


There is an anaesthetic of familiarity, a sedative of ordinariness which dulls the senses and hides the wonder of existence. For those of us not gifted in poetry, it is at least worth while from time to time making an effort to shake off the anaesthetic. What is the best way of countering the sluggish habitutation brought about by our gradual crawl from babyhood? We can’t actually fly to another planet. But we can recapture that sense of having just tumbled out to life on a new world by looking at our own world in unfamiliar ways. — Richard Dawkins (Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder)

And, although presumably there is no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, the Professor endorses the perspective of Dr. Flicker… and Bertrand Russell:

“Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions and millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out — at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation — it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.”

Dawkins praises the late Carl Sagan‘s special talent for evoking the feeling of awed wonder that science can give us… one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable, a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver… one of the things that makes life worth living.

With that last phrase he’s channeling William James too, in On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings: “Life is always worth living, if one have such responsive sensibilities.”  Open your eyes, indeed. It’s a vast and sprawling cosmos, and we’re its mind. Transcendence is just an eye-blink away.


* And here he is barnstorming middle America, affirming (J & M notwithstanding) transcendence and repudiating the supernatural. And here, speaking at length with Dan Dennett. This may not be the way he would put it, but I say (again, to the distress of J & M) Richard Dawkins is “spiritual, not religious.”


Postscript. Got a tweet this morning from Dawkins, directing me to the latest from the Hubble Space Telescope. I’ve commented before on how this marvelous eye in the sky keeps on boldly going where we’ve never gone before, so far away across the daunting expanses of space and time.  Seems to me the Dawkins-Sagan brand of spirituality is crucially concerned with our taking ever-longer and wider pan-spatio-temporal views of our species– as is the Long Now Foundation, with its Millennium Clock. That was the import of John Dewey’s “continuous human community,” too. I think it may also be part of what Jeremy Rifkin is saying in his new book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis.

So, though it may be true that nobody really worries about what’s going to happen to the universe in another few billion years, it’s still not unimportant that we’re now technologically capable of peering 13+ billion years into our cosmic past. Long-term thinking may be our only salvation. I say we deserve it. We owe it to ourselves.


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8 Responses to “Dawkins’ spirituality”

  1. osopher Says:

    Post-postscript. Some are disturbed by the thought that the universe might be “a glorious accident,” as opposed to a metaphysico-cosmologico-Leibnizian necessity (as we discussed in class yesterday). Not Dawkins. The key to his spirituality, what gets him out of bed: the sacred contingency of existence, and the feeling of great good fortune to spend another day with open eyes. There’s nothing negative in that view at all. I’m for it.

  2. Kristin Says:

    I agree that no part of this is to be scoffed at, no matter the side from which we’re coming at it. Either way, my “dust-ness” doesn’t conjure indifference in me, just more and more awe. There’s a cool website we used some in astronomy – http://www.atlasoftheuniverse.com – that could possibly lose some people altogether. You work your way out and get smaller and smaller, like almost truly incomprehensibly smaller, and you’d have to either be inspired or doomed by it.

  3. osopher Says:

    Very cool, Kristin. Have you seen “Cosmic Voyage” (linked at https://osopher.wordpress.com/2009/07/08/our-place/) or the opening scene from “Contact”? Both play with “powers of 10” to put us in our place: small, but big enough to admit it. I’m inspired.

  4. osopher Says:

    That last link was broken, try this https://osopher.wordpress.com/2009/12/08/thrilling/

    or this

  5. osopher Says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2cmlhfdxuY Powers of Ten

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2cmlhfdxuY Fantastic Voyage

  6. Joseph Says:

    Kristin, scoffing is a part of academia… 🙂 If something needs to be scoffed at, scoff at it. Very nice link btw.

    I would have to agree that merely the prospect of discovering new things, and continuing to experience (at least through my limited human perspective for the time being) is enough to get me out of bed every morning. I was raised Christian, but as I progressed into adulthood I realized that such a system of belief and understanding (or lack thereof) is unnecessary and only serves as a conceptual impasse toward true understanding of how things in our universe work. Thus I now consider myself an agnostic with strong atheistic leanings. There is currently no indication of an intentional (or intelligent) creator…

    Those who may claim that our universe appears to be designed for our existence… I urge them to look around and observe the fact that the 97% of the non-dark-matter in our universe is in the form of super hot ionized hydrogen clouds. Not a suitable place for life! We are lucky to have this small pocket in which we can grow. We are probably an accident in the sense that there was no reason for us to exist other than to embody the fact that the universe is constantly seeking to organize itself (even if we leave out abstract things like biology and thought).

    There may be some greater intelligence beyond our universe, but as for whether they created us… that is too much for our currently unaugmented minds to grasp.

  7. Kristin Says:

    Ok, I admit that occasionally do indulge in scoffing. In response to your post, while I respect your point of view, I label things somewhat differently than you do and have had some indication of an intentional and wildly intelligent creator, with an equally ambiguous label, it seems. (Still entertaining the variety of offerings and still not sure any of them fit or are/would be necessary.) If super hot ionized hydrogen clouds are scary, even at 97% of only about 5% of what’s out there, just imagining what all that dark matter could be could drop people where they stand. But it’s exacly that perfection that I find harder to believe is chance, especially given my personal experiences. Point of view has always been funny to me. I think one of the most revelatory and overlooked movie moments is in “Dead Poets Society,” where the teacher has all the guys stand up on their desks and look at the room from there. Sometimes even in my own place, I’ll go stand in a spot in a room where I just never have to go, just to check out the view.

  8. Kristin Says:

    Dr. Oliver, those are great links, by the way. It surprised me that the Powers of 10 one was made so long ago.

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