Thursday, July 07, 2005

Awe, strength, responsibility

On a day when it's easy to be pessimistic, do not to lose sight of positives in human experience and capacity.

Tim Radford writes prose poetry in his description of the Deep Impact mission:

"[It] was more than a triumph in human patience. It was also a lesson in humility...It was a stunning exercise in human cooperation, celestial sharpshooting and cosmic curiosity."

(you have to read the detail of his short piece rather than this summary to get the poetry - full text here)

The fact that human scientific endeavour at its best enhances the capacity to wonder at existence and appreciate beauty is enormously important not only as a truth in its own right, but also for its political significance.

Awe and wonder are essential for maintaining the spiritual strength needed for tasks ahead, including the energy and climate challenge which, yes, does present a greater threat than terrorism.

Spirituality is not “just” something for those who adhere to established religious traditions and cultures. The alliances that will be necessary will have to cut across the religious/non-religious divides. Shared sense of wonder can help.

A BBC online article published yesterday gave a snapshot update on what could be part of a significant trend in the US in which evangelical Christians begin to take climate change seriously (see also the Hot Politics! post “Faith and climate change” from back on 18 May).

Secularists like me should not forget the vital role religious people have played in great movements for social change. George Fredrickson, for example, is right to remind of the vital role of Quakers and evangelicals in the fight against slavery (his point that Enlightenment thinking was no bar to slavery but rather allowed it to be put on a new “scientific” base is not especially helpful: both religion and free-thinking can be horrendously debased, but that does not in itself undermine the potential of the latter any more than it does the former) .

Equally, religious people should not to dismiss the spirituality that agnostics and atheists may experience. What may seem like a contradiction to a religious person (who, for instance may see evolutionists as a "cultural elite, out of touch with [American] society") is in fact a vital truth: better understanding through science can increase one's sense of wonder and, crucially, the motivation to act responsibily.

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