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The Awe Delusion

published March 2014
What does the magnificence of the universe
have to do with God?
magazine cover

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 aweinspiring 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.

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5 Comments to “The Awe Delusion”

  1. King Dave Says:

    Imagery is everything. They could have just asked an expert in advertising. Sad disheveled children works well to elicit donations. Attractive women and scenic locations are great for commercials to sell cars.

    So religion’s success is based on advertisement and pushing the hot buttons. A divine retirement plan where you can complain or get your money back when the policy matures

  2. Cramer Says:

    Michael Shermer,

    “find our spirituality,” “the author’s hand is…,” and “God is…” are confusing statements coming from someone who claims to be an atheist.

    Diana Nyad announced, “I’m an atheist.” She then spoke about being “moved by all of humanity” and said her “definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.” This statement sounds like John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

    These types of statements are typically used by closeted atheists. History is likely loaded with closeted atheists. They are the ones who have twisted the meaning of words like spirituality.

    Why do you choose to use religious terminology? And not understand why it could cause confusion?

    As an atheist I would respond exactly like Oprah, “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then,” if you are spiritual and believe in “the author’s hand.”

    I am sure some will claim that “God is…” and “the author’s hand is…” are metaphors. They could be, but don’t be surprised when misunderstandings occur. Growing up a Catholic in the early 70s, guitar masses will filled with lyrics such as “God is love.”

    [Note: To be clear, I am NOT defending Oprah’s “But you’re in the awe” statement. That is soft bigotry.]

  3. arjun jobil Says:

    I’m pretty sure Oprah is an atheist.

    BTW, “god talk” is just part of western culture, though a lot comes through Shakespeare. It doesn’t make someone a believer. If delusional religious folk want to make something out of it, that’s their problem, not the problem of someone who says something vaguely sounding like a believer.

  4. Cramer Says:

    arjun jobil Says: ““god talk” is just part of western culture…”

    “God talk” was created and propagated by CLOSETED atheists throughout history (e.g. Shakespeare, Einstein, pantheists, etc). It is analogous to a gay using “straight talk” (e.g. referring to their partner as a “friend”). Should culture not change? Especially a culture created out of fear by a CLOSETED minority?

    “It doesn’t make someone a believer.”
    There was no claim that ‘god talk’ makes someone a believer. The claim was that it causes miscommunications. If someone believes it is good for more atheists to come out of the CLOSET, it might be more effective to also quit the ‘god talk.’

    “that’s their problem”
    Then those that believe this should not complain and become “inflamed” when a miscommunication occurs. Otherwise, it is your problem.

  5. Wyn Wachhorst Says:

    Something is missing in describing testing the hypothesis. Of course the Planet Earth clip will trigger more awe than the other two clips and the watchers attribute their awe to a supernatural belief. This just restates the hypothesis; it doesn’t test it. Nothing is said about the other two groups. What was their function? I imagine the experiment revealed something more and this article has unintentionally omitted it.

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