Atheists and the Sublime

  (16 November 10)
  by Greg Spearritt

David Miller writes:


When the conversation between the ABC 'Encounter' presenter Florence Spurling and Professor Donna Orwin on Leo Tolstoy reached the point at which they were discussing the relationship between atheism, nihilism and despair, I had to fight off the desire to switch them off.  I did not know whether to laugh, cry or vomit.  Yet I desperately wanted to respond.  So I continued listening in fascinated horror, waiting for a peg on which to hang my response.  Suddenly they presented it to me.  They began discussing Hadji Murad and the 'Sublime'.  Amazingly, they were doing it in a non-supernaturalist way.  And I agreed with them.  I had found my peg!


Let me start by asserting that everyone of us, believer as well as non-believer, yearns for the Sublime.  If that is too wild an assertion, then let me merely say that most of us are often overwhelmed by the Sublime.


The Sublime comprises our highest values (truth, beauty and goodness), our loftiest ideals (love, compassion, mercy, perfection, justice, freedom, creativity, etc), our peak experiences (wonder, awe, mystery, gratitude, uniqueness, oneness, interconnectedness, etc) and our areas of ultimate concern (self, family, community, nation, humanity, nature, planet, universe, etc).


We place the Sublime above and beyond ourselves.  It is 'out there'.  We give it allegiance.  We serve it.  We are subservient to it.  It is our lord and master.  We are its slave.  If necessary we are prepared to die for it.  We will even kill for it.  In return it gives us meaning and purpose.  It gives us something with which to identify.  It takes us out of ourselves, beyond ourselves, to a greater purpose.


Unfortunately, most people throughout history have preferred to symbolise the Sublime in the form of a supernatural metaphorical personification.  I say 'unfortunately' because, for me as an Atheist, the symbolising of the Sublime as gods, tooth fairies and imaginary friends is an infantile besmirching and befouling of the Sublime.  It is the Sublime that makes us human.  I am angered and frightened by the constant assumption by believers in the supernatural that we non-believers do not have a Sublime dimension.




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