The Feeling of Awe
by John Bryan, 15 October 2017
Awe—three letters that define the feeling of reverence as it intermingles with fear and wonder. In the simplicity of those letters is captured the emotion felt by all who witnessed the eclipse this August. It is difficult not to have been overtaken by the event: Joy and fear mixed into a single voice as the thousands of people around me began to howl and cheer at the sight of a blackened sun. A decidedly secular event marked by the smell of food and gasoline quickly transformed into a sacred and spiritual experience for everyone in attendance.
It’s as if our brains are prone to spirituality. Even when the sun is rising, we can’t help but be overcome with its awe and majesty. It is a primal and visceral response that resonates into and out of every corner of our being. A desire to worship even when we know not what. Atheistic scientists are not exempt from this feeling. The late Carl Sagan wrote “when we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual (Sagan, 1997, p. 32).
Two researchers recently found that feeling “awe” increases a person’s belief in the supernatural (Valdesolo & Graham, 2013). They defined awe as “perceived vastness,” the sensation that there is more than enough time available. In their experiment, participants were shown one of three videos: a news clip, a comedy clip, and segments of vast landscapes from BBC’s Planet Earth. A survey then measured the participant’s sense of a greater power (gods, karma, etc.). Results showed that participants experienced greater spirituality after viewing the sweeping landscapes, as opposed to the other two clips.
In the face of overwhelming grandeur and mystery our minds incline towards reverence. We can look to all the world’s religions and see the results—man worships the creation rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). Idols exists for every sun, moon, star and awe-inducing natural phenomenon in our universe. Even the nonreligious have simply swapped ancient idolatry for a new scientific spirituality. As the father of American psychology, William James, wrote over a century ago: “Science in many minds is genuinely taking the place of a religion. Where this is so, the scientist treats the ‘Laws of Nature’ as objective facts to be revered” (James, 1902, p. 49). Such a sentiment is demonstrated by the founder of The Skeptics Society, Michael Shermer: “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 (Shermer, 2014). Spiritual but not religious—that is their catchphrase.
Like John the Apostle, humanity has always quickly bowed at the feet of angels (Revelations 22:8, 9). How interesting that when the world embraces spirituality, Scripture warns us of it; to be aware of our unanchored emotions; to not be wrongly pulled by them. It cautions us of “great signs and wonders” that may “lead astray, if possible, even the elect”—as if knowing the weakness of our minds in the presence of such wonders (Matthew 24:24, ESV).
As I stood there in the presence of an eclipsing sun; as it veiled its face with the moon; as I saw my own emotions overtake me and the thousands of people around me; the following verses came to mind: “Beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven” (Deuteronomy 4:10, ESV).
Berkowitz, B. (2017, August 16). The strangest, scariest eclipse myths throughout history. Retrieved from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/lifestyle/eclipse-myths/?utm_term=.7fee413ab716
Hawking, S., & Mlodinow, L. (2010). The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books.
James, W. (1902). Varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. London: Routledge.
Sagan, C. (1997). The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark. London: Headline.
Shermer, M. (2014, March 14). Can an Atheist Be in Awe of the Universe? Retrieved from Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-atheist-be-in-awe-of-universe/
Valdesolo, P., & Graham, J. (2013). Awe, uncertainty, and agency detection. Psychological Science, 25 (1) 170-178.