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Can an Atheist Be in Awe of the Universe?

What does the magnificence of the universe have to do with God?



Izhar Cohen

After 64-year-old Diana Nyad completed her 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida in September 2013, she was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on her Super Soul Sunday show in what was to be a motivational reflection on the triumph of will over age. When Nyad announced, “I'm an atheist,” Oprah responded quizzically: “But you're in the awe.” Puzzled, Nyad responded: “I don't understand why anybody would find a contradiction in that. I can stand at the beach's edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist—go on down the line—and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity. All the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.” What Oprah said next inflamed atheists: “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.”

This is the soft bigotry of those who cannot conceive of how someone can be in awe without believing in supernatural sources of wonder. Why would anyone think that?

A partial answer may be found in a 2013 study by psychologists Piercarlo Valdesolo of Claremont McKenna College and Jesse Graham of the University of Southern California, published in the journal Psychological Science. Research had shown that “awe” is associated with “perceived vastness” (like the night sky or an open ocean) and that “awe-prone” individuals tend to be more comfortable with uncertainty and are less likely to need cognitive closure in some kind of explanation. They “are more comfortable revising existing mental schemas to assimilate novel information,” the authors said in their paper. For those who are not awe-prone, Valdesolo wrote in an e-mail, “we hypothesized that the uncertainty experienced by the immediate feeling of the emotion would be aversive (since they are probably not the kinds of people who feel it all the time). This was rooted in theoretical work which argued that awe is elicited when we have trouble making sense of the event we are witnessing, and this failure to assimilate information into existing mental structures should lead to negative states like confusion and disorientation.” To reduce the anxiety of awe-inspiring experiences, people who are not prone to awe engage in a process I call “agenticity,” or the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents.

To test this hypothesis, Valdesolo and Graham divided subjects into three groups. One group saw a video clip of an awe-inspiring scene from the BBC's Planet Earth, another watched an emotionally neutral news interview by the late 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, and the last group viewed a comedy clip from the BBC's Walk on the Wild Side. Subjects then took a survey that measured their belief in God, belief “that the universe is controlled by God or supernatural forces, such as karma,” and their feeling of “awe” while watching the video clip. Subjects who saw the Planet Earth video experienced the most awe and, while in this state, greater belief in both God and supernatural control. The researchers concluded: “The present results suggest that in the moment of awe, some of the fear and trembling can be mitigated by perceiving an author's hand in the experience.”

What are the larger implications of these findings? “We showed that feeling the emotion (which even low awe-prone people are capable of) elicits uncertainty and a subsequent desire to resolve that feeling by explaining events in terms of purpose-driven causal agents,” Valdesolo explained. “One interesting hypothesis might be that the dispositionally awe-prone are less likely to show our effect since the uncertainty that they feel is not aversive.”

This brings me back to Diana Nyad and those of us who find our spirituality in the awe of the natural world without a need for supernatural agenticity. Instead of fear and trembling, we feel wonder and gratitude in discovering that the author's hand is nature's laws and nothing more, but also nothing less.

This article was originally published with the title "The Awe Delusion."

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