Monday, January 31, 2011

Reverence and gratitude -- 1

A line from a review in the NYT Book Review: "All Things Shining rightly argues that our culture suffers from a dearth of reverence and gratitude."

Is this true? And, if so, is it because (as the authors of the book under review apparently believe) we live in a secular age? Do we require a supernatural referent to be reverent? Do we need a transcendent giver to be grateful?

Let's leave aside the question of whether or not we live in a secular age. That would seem to depend upon where one lives and the degree to which one has been educated in contemporary thought. It is certainly true that the Western intellectual tradition in recent centuries has moved in a secular direction. The great majority of members of the National Academy of Sciences are atheists or agnostics. But an equally great majority of the general population of the United States believes firmly in God and immortality. Europe has become significantly more secular, but worldwide supernaturalist religion seems as entrenched as ever.

Perhaps we do suffer from a dearth of reverence and gratitude, but I suspect it has little to do with whether or not we believe in God.

If we are irreverent it is likely because we have an exaggerated view of our own extraordinary powers to shape our environment. We can move mountains, travel halfway around the world in a matter of hours, make deserts bloom. What is there to revere when there is seemingly nothing in our environment that we cannot manipulate?

And gratitude? If we lack gratitude, perhaps it is because of our sense of entitlement. We expect the world to be at our beck at the flip of a switch. In place of gratitude we cultivate resentment when things go even slightly awry.

Science may be the child of secularism (or is it the other way around?), but technology has no religion. Believers and non-believers alike have iPhones and flu shots. Hubris and entitlement are the prevailing sins of our meta-technological age.

Are reverence and gratitude qualities worth nourishing? And, if so, do we require a supernatural referent to be reverent and a giver to be grateful? Where does that leave the religious naturalist? More tomorrow.