Awe, With and Without the Gods

Category Atheism, God

A friend of mine sent me this glorious article, and the Spook of Kryasst who is also somehow magically Him magically inspired me to share it. And, of course, it is possible to experience awe without a belief in God. I experience awe at the incredible beauty of nature every time I hike out in the Alaskan wilderness.

In a 2006 article for the Los Angeles Times, Sam Harris identified 10 myths about atheism, among them the idea that “atheists are closed to spiritual experience.”

Harris explained: “There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly.”

And in a post last week, my fellow 13.7 commentator Barbara J. King also wrote about atheism and awe. “Atheists feel awe, too. Everyone does. That wondrous sense needn’t be described by invoking the sacred.”

Yet the idea that atheism and awe are at odds is a common one. In a 2013 interview, for example, Oprah Winfrey refused to accept a woman’s self-ascribed atheism after the woman shared powerful experiences of awe and a love of humanity. Winfrey controversially responded: “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.”

Of course, “the awe and the wonder and the mystery” could just as well describe what motivates many scientists, whether or not they believe in God.

So why the persistent idea that awe is inextricably linked to theism? And are “scientific awe” and “religious awe” fundamentally different, or deep down one and the same?

To be sure, awe is a multifaceted emotion, and one that’s only recently become the target of systematic psychological research. In an influential 2003 paper, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt argued that awe is characterized by two central features: vastness and accommodation. Vastness describes the experience of something larger than the self, whether that vastness is a matter of physical size or of metaphorical size, such as great power. Accommodation refers to the need to modify one’s current mental structures to make sense of the experience — whether or not such modification is actually enacted or succeeds.

These features of awe can help us understand how science and religion both elicit awe, and also how either theism or atheism could ensue.

The full article is here: