Why There Are No Atheists at the Grand Canyon


Any fool can feel religious around the holidays. When the entire Judeo-Christian world is lit up — literally — with celebrations of faith, family and love, you’ve got to be awfully short of wonder not to experience at least a glimmer of spirituality. The rest of the year? It can be a little harder.

But as generations of campers, sailors, hikers and explorers could attest, there’s nothing quite like nature — with its ability to elicit feelings of jaw-dropping awe — to make you contemplate the idea of a higher power. Now, a study published in Psychological Science applies the decidedly nonspiritual scientific method to that phenomenon and confirms that the awe-equals-religion equation is a very real and powerful experience — even among people who fancy themselves immune to such things.

The study, conducted by professor of psychology Piercarlo Valdesolo of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., and psychologist Jesse Graham of the University of Southern California, was actually five studies, all of which were designed to elicit feelings of awe in subjects and see how that affected their sense of spirituality. In all of the trials, subjects were primed with one of several types of video clip: a 1959 TV interview conducted by newsman Mike Wallace; light scenes of animals behaving in funny or improbable ways; or sweeping scenes of nature — mountains, canyons, outer space — from a BBC documentary. Some of the subjects were also shown more surreal, computer-generated scenes: lions flying out of buildings, a waterfall flowing through a city street.

The subjects were all then administered one or more questionnaires. One asked them straightforwardly, “To what extent did you experience awe while watching the video clip?” Another asked them to respond to questions about their belief in a universe that either does or doesn’t “unfold according to God’s or some other nonhuman entity’s plan.” Another asked them about their tolerance for uncertainty or ambiguity.

Valdesolo and Graham’s working premise was first, that spirituality and belief in God are not fixed things. While atheists on the one hand and people of deep faith on the other don’t move off their baseline positions much (though even they have periods of doubt), the rest of us are more influenced by experiences. Thus, the subjects who had felt more wonder or awe when they’d watched the grand or surreal videos would score higher on belief in a universe that proceeds according to a master plan than subjects who saw lighter or more prosaic clips. They would also score lower in their tolerance for uncertainty — and that was key.

Written By: Jeffrey Kluger
continue to source article at science.time.com


  1. I’ve tracked down the abstract but cannot read the paper, but I see no indication the Grand Canyon itself was part of the study. (We cannot be sure such natural wonders are interpreted by human brains the same way as binary sequences; for one, the latter aren’t amenable to Paley’s “logic”.) But this article’s title is highly misleading, since there’s a world of difference between “X makes Y more likely” and “X guarantees Y”. Only reading the paper itself would reveal the probability of Y with and without X.

    At most, the research proves certain logical fallacies are more likely if a brain is appropriately primed, not that the fallacies aren’t fallacies.

  2. The hypothesis stated that firm atheists and theists stuck to their convictions.

    What did the experiment find? It hasn’t been stated in the article, which seems to concentrate on reporting that fence sitters lean to the theist side when primed with awe. Well, if you half believe that god might exist, but can’t be bothered to go to church, is it any surprise you can be emotionally swayed? Its cool that psychologists can measure it.

    I’m sure the actual paper is more interesting, but the OP report is a pig’s ear. There might be firm atheists at the Grand Canyon – the ones the article conveniently forgot about when discussing the experimental results.

  3. Ignore the title of this article; book publishers and magazine editors know that titles need not reflect what is inside, they just need to get attention. As for the content, con men and advertising executives know that sweeping images of awe inspiring, anything, help put people in the mood to be sold something. Religion has long used this psychological trick in its memeplex of mental manipulation techniques to keep itself going. Nothing new to see, here; move along.

  4. Looking at any amazing vista I am emotionally affected, awe yes at what i perceive as the beauty of it, but no linking to any supernatural agent comes to mind. Then I start wondering what forces brought this about. Again, no linking to a supernatural agency here again.

    The article is rightly called a mess, likely based on the biases of the journalist

  5. And spirituality and belief in god are the same thing????? What a flawed hypothesis.

  6. Across five studies, we found that awe increases both supernatural belief (Studies 1, 2, and 5) and intentional-pattern perception (Studies 3 and 4)—two phenomena that have been linked to agency detection, or the tendency to interpret events as the consequence of intentional and purpose-driven agents. Effects were both directly and conceptually replicated, and mediational analyses revealed that these effects were driven by the influence of awe on tolerance for uncertainty. Experiences of awe decreased tolerance for uncertainty, which, in turn, increased the tendency to believe in nonhuman agents and to perceive human agency in random events.


  7. I know what they mean by the awe inspiring a little wonder as to what I am etc .. but it’s just because it makes me realise just how tiny I am in spacetime and how many wondrous things there have been, are and will be. But I also find it makes the idea of a higher power who has any interest in me or indeed our little planet, completely ridiculous!

    I just think how damn lucky I am to have these particular particles of the universe assembled in a manner that let’s me see and appreciate nature for this tiny period of time before they will go to making something else.

  8. Why are there no Atheists at The Grand Canyon?

    Because the believers shove them all in.

    Because they jump in rather than being molested by RCC priests.

    Because …….

  9. In reply to #8 by Alan4discussion:

    What a silly title!

    The actual title of the paper doesn’t grab the attention. Awe, Uncertainty, and Agency Detection The journalistic title, not unusually, is deceitful, judging by the abstract.

  10. This guy has a slightly difference stance – An Atheist Photographer Focuses on Faith.

    No atheists in foxholes, err, at the Grand Canyon – ‘awe’ of experiences past have never invoked anything but a deep connection with nature, and the Universe.

    Conversely, I see believers as possessing funky brain wiring. does.not.compute.

  11. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon. It actually is pretty cool btw, I wasn’t expecting much it’s such a US cliche but it is amazingly beautiful and awe inspiring. But I was an atheist before, during, and after the visit. As others have said though I don’t blame the researchers, I think this is actually good work. The one problem I have with it is that the researchers (not just these guys but most people who do this kind of research) tend to want to reduce questions of religion and atheism to environmental and heredity factors dealing with personality. I don’t disagree with that, I’m willing to concede that I probably have an “atheist” personality being more willing to challenge accepted ideas and to fall outside the norm in my beliefs. Actually, come to think of it if anything as atheism gets more popular I tend to see the theist side more to some extent, I don’t like to agree with anyone.

    But while I think personality traits are worth studying I think it oversimplifies the issues to assume that you can say all that needs to be said only by studying what kinds of people become theists vs. atheists. Humans are also rational. Not highly rational and we compromise reason all the time but we still use it and to just ignore that aspect, that some people really will try to use reason to answer these fundamental questions and will go where their reason takes them regardless of how unpopular (or in my case popular) the idea is, I think ignoring that is a big oversimplification.

  12. I beg to differ. I have seen the Grand Canyon. It is stupefyingly beautiful, especially at sunset. It did not, however, cross my mind that it might have been made by a deity. I remember thinking (while trying to catch my breath) “so this is what happens when you leave the water running for a few million years.”


  13. In reply to #12 by bluebird:

    No atheists in foxholes, err, at the …

    Yes, that came to mind, as well. These are cases where emotional exuberation or stress can tilt the scales of the rational mind. The religious erroneously take that as revelation of spiritual truth. Actually, it’s rather more like having a few drinks before getting behind the wheel, to drive the road of life.

  14. In reply to #16 by Quine:

    These are cases where emotional exuberation or stress can tilt the scales of the rational mind. The religious erroneously take that as revelation of spiritual truth. Actually, it’s rather more like…

    In a rather convoluted way, your post reminds me of the mega-hit song ‘Jesus Take the Wheel’.

  15. Grand Canyon ? Been there, done that.

    Never found God !

    (What an amazing landscape though ! )

  16. Technically, since a person programmed the computer, the string of digits is ultimately man-made, Perhaps a random number generator would be a better choice of words. Yes, I’m being a nitpicker…

  17. Millions of years and a whole lot of water created the Grand Canyon. Erosion is awe inspiring? It’s a big ditch. Now, the crater, not far from the big ditch happened way quicker and is far more interesting because it could happen again, anywhere.

  18. I don’t know about the Grand Canyon, but I’ve been trekking in the Himalayas including Everest base-camp and was repeatedly awe-struck by the sheer majesty of the mountains and the ice flows, the power of an avalanche the beauty of a Himalayan panorama from on high. Not once did any gods occur to me to spoil the moment; nor did I ever feel “spiritual”. Nature is awesome enough without the supernatural.

  19. I am an atheist, and I have crossed the Grand Canyon, rim to rim, 18 times. Once, I crossed it with two Young Earth Creationists. Prior to that time, I did not think that anyone could hike across the canyon and still believe that 6000 year old crap.

  20. I’ve hiked and backpacked in the Canyon several times. There are fossils of organisms that lived hundreds of millions years ago visible right alongside the trail in places. It’s an “awesome” natural history museum and a great demonstration of the power of evolution and geologic forces over a very long period of time.

  21. “While atheists………don’t move off their baseline positions much (though even they have periods of doubt).” Er. do we?

  22. As kraut (Comment 4) says, Looking at any amazing vista I am emotionally affected, awe yes at what i perceive as the beauty of it, but no linking to any supernatural agent comes to mind. Then I start wondering what forces brought this about. Again, no linking to a supernatural agency here again.
    And for me, it isn’t limited to geologic vistas. Every time I see a honeybee swarm leave its old home or enter marching into its new home I feel awe and also wonder what (evolutionary) forces brought this about, but have no linking to a supernatural agency.

  23. I am living proof that there are, in fact, atheists at the Grand Canyon. I’ve been living there for over 8 years. It is an awe-inspiring sight, to think that over the course of millions of years that water and wind erosion sculpted it. I think the ‘God’s work’ reaction is because we can comprehend a ‘built the world in six days’ idea more than a millions of years timespan in our teeny tiny bit of time we are existing.

  24. One wonders at the depths to which fools will descend to delude themselves and others?
    I am though reminded of the proverb that says “there are none so blind as those that will not see.” And so, for the record, I have been to the Grand Canyon and marvelled at the work that can be and has been achieved over time by the forces of nature. Namely erosion.

    All of the features of the Grand Canyon are explicable without reference to some supreme being.

    That nine out of ten or whatever ratio of people you care to mention see with ‘awe’ does not make their seeing accurate and/or factual.

    On the basis of this article, whoever edits Science needs to rethink their purpose or get some training. Unless that is the writer is on a mission to mis-inform?

  25. I have known a few Christians that are religious because they have personally felt an “awe”some moment and they use that as a basis on why they believe. In fact, they love going to Church because the music uplifts them and all the social aspects of the community enriches their lives. They don’t understand that you can have those moments without God or religion involved.

    Religion does seem to use that appeal that to grasp more followers.

  26. I’m an atheist and I find the Grand Canyon (and many other views) awe inspiring. What a silly issue. A more critical issue is “Why do so many supposed Christians abandon their principles and support cutting food stamps, cutting welfare, and generally supporting the Koch Brothers/Tea Party/Paul Ryan position. Can it be that Christians are so full of b*llshit that they are busy looking at silly stuff like whether Atheists can feel awe? IMO, we’re back to “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” as a distraction from the real meaning of being a Christian, because most Christians fail miserably.

  27. In a separate study, 10 religious people and 10 atheists were shown an awesome clip of nature — a tsunami dragging 200,000 people to their deaths.

    After the study, 10/10 atheists reported how full of awe and indifferent nature is. Meanwhile, 10/10 religious were left clutching their knees and rocking back and forth while incredulous that their Almighty God’s plan could be so cruel.

  28. In reply to #31 by RDfan:

    … Meanwhile, 10/10 religious were left clutching their knees and rocking back and forth while incredulous that their Almighty God’s plan could be so cruel.

    The way I heard it, only 7 of those 10 were that way, the other three were mumbling something about, “mysterious ways.”

  29. This sort of thing had the opposite effect on me. My head was stuffed full of religious crap that I tried hard to accept but sitting at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean on Cape Breton Island after spending days there walking through fields and across beaches and rocks made me realize clearly that it was not all about us. Also, after spending days walking through Algonquin Park and ending up toward sunset at Lookout Point.

    It was startlingly clear, almost revelatory, it was so clear that it was NOT about humans and that humans could be very silly creatures indeed. We take ourselves far too seriously for the stage we’re on and the deities we invent are pathetic and shrivelled next to what “made” us.

    The reality that inspires that awe is unfathomably vast and our gods are pathetic, shrivelled things in comparison.

    The last thing the Grand Canyon would make me feel connected to is a human god.

  30. Like it or not, awe trumps empiricism — and like it or not too, we’d probably be a poorer species if it didn’t.

    What on earth is that supposed to mean?

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