Salamanders and hymns: secularism and beauty.


Lazy weekend mornings are the best for contemplating the meaning of life, don’t you think? I was just in the shower, listening to church bells playing Ave Maria a couple of roads over, and found myself singing along. I really do love hymns. I love that they are expressions of some of the best things about religion- that search for meaning and connection, for something greater than oneself. I love that many of them have been around for a long time, that I’m humming along to the existential longing of someone from centuries ago, that I can empathise and understand how they must have felt.
It’s a beautiful thing, that. Religion and spirituality would have been wonderfully creative and oh-so-human expressions of our common need to understand the world around us, to make explanations and connections, to make sense of our lives. It’s a pity that in many cases they can do the opposite. From outright rejection of science, to deliberate dehumanisation and Othering of those with even slightly different philosophical positions to oneself, to insisting that humanity itself is somehow different and separate from the rest of the world.
There’s an accusation often leveled at science, that it is a cold and emotionless tool for viewing and understanding the world. Scientific methods rely on documenting facts, not on human values and warmth. This is where salamanders come in. Blind cave salamanders, to be precise.
Last week I watched Hitchens debate Dembski on the existence of God. One thing that he mentioned stuck with me, about blind cave salamanders who have, over millions of years, lost their eyes, until all that’s left is little eye-shaped indentations on the front of their faces.
Think about that. There are blind cave salamanders who have little eye-shaped indentations where hundreds of millions of years ago, their ancestors had eyes. Eyes a little bit like the eyes that my ancestors had hundreds of millions of years ago. Like our common ancestors had, probably long before that. If you’re looking for connection with the rest of the world, for something bigger than yourself, for a sense of wonder, you could do far worse than the little indentations on a salamander’s face.

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