Oprah Winfrey caused quite a stir last year when she accused swimmer Diana Nyad, a self-proclaimed atheist, of not being able to experience awe. “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then,” she said. “I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder, and the mystery, then that is what God is. That is what God is. It’s not the bearded guy in the sky.”
What exactly is the relationship between awe and religious experience? Is awe, wonder and mystery “what God is”? Or can awe be independent of our view of God?
The challenge is that when we think of “awe,” we often think about two very different domains in which it can be evoked. One is indeed through a religious or spiritual experience. But the other is through the natural world – often times through science.
That’s a main reason that Oprah’s comment caused such controversy – when Nyad spoke about “awe,” it wasn’t about God. It was about the natural world. And although both science and religion can serve as sources of meaning and explanation, the content of those explanations can sometimes be in conflict.
Research in psychology has indeed confirmed that awe can increase belief in the supernatural. In a recent study, participants who were made to feel awe were more likely to perceive random number strings as having a certain order to them. In other words, they were more likely to perceive random events as having been the consequence of intentional agents or a “creator.”
Why does awe have this effect? Experiences of awe tend to confront us with things we can’t readily make sense of – like the vastness of the universe or unimaginable natural beauty. It can make us feel unstable and nervous, which may in turn motivate us to seek explanations.
People often turn toward religious frameworks in situations such as these. A religious explanation allows individuals to explain natural occurrences by appealing to God. But religion is not the only source of meaning and explanation. Science and religion both share motivational similarities, and if awe motivates us to see order and meaning in the world around us, awe might similarly motivate people toward science.
Piercarlo Valdesolo and I investigated this idea in a recent paper. Specifically, we grouped people as either self-identified theists or non-theists, and we wanted to know how awe would make the non-theists – those who don’t explicitly endorse explanations involving God – evaluate scientific explanations.
Our experiments had participants watch either an awe-inspiring video or a neutral positive control one. Perhaps not surprisingly, the theistic individuals were less likely to endorse science after feeling awe, presumably because they were more interested in religious explanations instead. But what happened for the non-theists?
We found mixed results. Awe did not make non-theists more likely to increase their explicit attitudes toward science. But in a different study, we asked people how much they believed in two different forms of evolution. One was a traditional Darwinian view of evolution, which typically emphasizes the role of randomness and unpredictability in natural selection. The other option stressed the role of order and structure in evolutionary theory.
Here, we found that after experiencing awe, the non-theists were more likely to prefer the orderly view of evolution. This finding may seem worrying, since the orderly view of evolution may not promote an accurate understanding of the theory. But this finding also told us something theoretically interesting: since awe can lead people to seek meaning and explanation, it could lead non-theists to endorse the kinds of scientific explanations are framed as providing order and structure – which is usually the role religion plays.
So while Oprah was wrong in her assessment – the experience of awe can be associated with meaning both in and beyond the realm of religion – this research has demonstrated for us how awe does often lead both theists and non-theists to seek order and structure, which is the realm where religion is strongest.
Ultimately, we live in a chaotic world, and we crave that order and structure. And awe – whether coming from religion or from science – can help us in our search for meaning. And that’s something we all need, regardless of how we identify ourselves.