Earlier this week, on one of the few real Spring days we’ve had so far this year, I decided to go to a nearby park. With my ongoing PhD, I rarely have the time to read fiction, so I was looking forward to sit on the grass and start Daphné du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. But I ended up reading only a few pages. Nature was simply begging for my attention. Instead of reading, I looked around me, taking everything in. The daisies flecking the grass. The birds chirping in the bushes. The soft soil under my fingertips. The clear, cloudless sky. The warmth of the sun on my cheeks.
I was enjoying nature for nature’s sake.
This may not seem to be a great achievement. Yet for me, it’s one of the many freedoms I’ve discovered since I began living a secular life. In the Christian, Evangelical worldview I was brought up with, you’re taught to see nature as a pointer towards something greater: a theistic, creator God. According to the Bible, nature is part of divine general revelation. In other words, simply by observing nature, everyone knows deep down that God exists. Therefore people who don’t have any belief in a god are “wicked”, “without excuse” and condemned to hell*. I’m not going to address this assumption here because counter-apologetics is not the purpose of this blog (if you’re interested in seeing it debunked, have a look here). The point is, in the religious (or at least the theistic) worldview, nature is not something to be enjoyed for its own sake. In fact, pleasure of any kind is always linked to the glory of God, unless it’s considered “sinful” (I’ll blog about pleasure sometime soon).
In a secular worldview, nature is not god, or a sign of god’s presence. It is not under divine control, nor is it the creation of a god. It’s just nature. That doesn’t mean that it’s not special. It’s beautiful, fascinating and at times frightening — but in its own right. This leads me to the following points:
Nature doesn’t point to a God, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be awestruck by it. Whether its because we’ve witnessed stunning scenery or because we’re humbled by the scale of the universe, we’ve all experienced moments of wonder.
Nature isn’t a gift from God, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be grateful for it. And cherish it, and strive to protect those parts of it which are within our influence. It is, after all, the only thing that supports human life. If humans don’t take care of it, there’s nobody else to do it. And remember, gratitude is a secular value. There doesn’t have to be a “to” for you to be “thankful for“.
Nature wasn’t created by God, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t feel connected to it. In fact I feel more connected to the rest of nature than ever before because I know that it wasn’t created for me, and that nothing about me makes me intrinsically any more special than any of the other animals that live on this planet (sorry Adam and Eve!). Those birds whose chirps I was listening to in the park? We share 65% of our DNA with them (well, technically, it’s with chickens). Hell, we’re even deeply connected to non-living matter. As astronomer Carl Sagan famously stated, “the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff” (carbon, nitrogen and oxygen). We share the same atoms as stars. We are, quite literally, stardust.
So yes, for the secular humanist, nature is just nature. And that’s awesome enough as it is! So let’s cultivate a sense of wonder towards nature. Marvel at it. Explore it. Treasure it.
*It’s no surprise that proponents of creationism / Intelligent Design deny the reality of evolutionary biology: it removes the need for a first cause.