Can an Atheist Be in Awe of the Universe?


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 Sundayshow 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.

Written By: Michael Shermer
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  1. @OP Can an Atheist Be in Awe of the Universe?

    Awe is a property of human perception. Atheism is simply the absence of belief in supernatural gods.

    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.

    COR! THIS is BIG! – Brain into neutral – “God-did-it” – No need to rise to the challenge of thinking about details, when you can know-it-all with no effort!

  2. Atheists who are aweable, yes. Atheists who are not aweable, no. I do not look upon the Universe with any amount of awe, though I may wonder about things, it is all perfectly explainable, just maybe not yet, by us. I think much of the awe comes from size and distance, I don’t acknowledge these things as awesome.

    I can imagine that size and distance are perspective traps which fool many into a state of awe but are not in anyway unbelievable, unique or all together meaningful to me. So what? Change your mental scale and the universe becomes a tiny insignificant spec, barely noticeable and hardly worth considering. I see an eclipse as I see any other shadow, yes there is a great deal of information in there for the right person who cares about such things, but I don’t. All that is left is size and distance, so what?

    This will sound very egotistical but the only real awe I ever experience comes from me. I draw a lot, I usually suck at it. It’s my mind and my hand doing the drawing but, almost without question, I am often able to draw a great little doodle that had no plan in my mind or direction from my hand, it just happens. How I can draw something I had absolutely no intention of drawing and do it well, I have no idea. That I live mostly inside my own head, probably doesn’t help with the whole awe thing either.

  3. before reading the article my tail went a bit bushy at the loaded question but it almost points to a notion I’ve had for some time that religious believers don’t really experience awe at all, that “goddidit” puts absoultely every phenomena into one neat box.

    The agency suggested rings true for apes too. so dependent on parenting for so many years, they require agency in everything or nothing makes sense. food appears because mum put it there, cars can drive because dad knows how they work etc.. so for me I’ve always found the religious awe displayed at nature is a bit insincere, like an almost put-on “ooooh” for the stage magician.

    I also had the feeling that true awe is a bit like the moment when a rollercoaster peaks and you go weightless before the drop, many grab the rail while others put their hands in the air and experience the second of nothing holding you.

    Oprah’s awe is a put on for sky-daddy, the right face and noises but inside resisting the real feeling of personal nothingness compared to the abyss you’re looking into. Oprah was apologising to her skydaddy on behalf of Diana Nyad which is pretty damn rude imo

    This study strengthens my view. maybe we should ditch the word “awe” and find another to use. let the religious keep it for whatever they claim to feel and maybe to describe some nice fireworks or a school play.

  4. Awed as in ‘afraid’ and somewhat ‘intimidated’ by the enormity of the universe. I’m not sure why a non religious person would aspire to that?

    Awed as in amazed but lacking the superstitious fear and dread associated with religion, then yes. In this sense non believers have no less appreciation of their existence than theists. They do though have the additional advantage in that, this appreciation is allied to reality and truth, rather than the dogma and delusion of religion.

    The inference that non believers are lacking something and are inferior to those of faith, as implied here, is really just insulting.
    Like, ‘how do you get by being a loser without faith, and nothing to live for and no spirituality or anything, you poor pathetic unbeliever’? Bugger Off!

  5. It is interesting that awful once had the meaning of commanding respect/reverence as well as fearful reverence. To be full of awe. It was usually used in reference to God. But it was mainly a reverence mixed with dread and fear.

    Awesome is a late-comer by many centuries, being recorded at the end of the 1500s, and the meaning was more about the marvellous, wonderful awe-inspiring, without the negative connotations of awful.
    I often speculated about whether this was due to changes in outlook, so it was interesting to see the aversion to uncertainty they talk about here. Is it just a coincidence that the word awesome arose in the time leading up to the Enlightenment, when previously, when it was connected to the Divine it had that negativity?

  6. One of the many troubles with religion and the thing that I feel the most sad about on behalf of my Christian friends is their ability to feel awe at the universe. The seem to instead need to bundle their awe in the hope of a super person rather than the universe itself. I suspect it may have something to do with an inability to anthropomorphise the universe and simply that many do not have the patience to get to a point of understanding the connection. They feel, I think, that because the universe can’t love them back that it is meaningless.

    Because I accept evolution however I can, any love you feel, give or recieve is a direct result of the nature of the universe. Because I and everyone else is a part and therefore expression of the universe. I don’t need to add any mystisim to feel connected it was all once in one tiny space that this tiny bit of that mass is now organised in such a way that I can be feeling and thinking is all the awe I need. What surprises and saddens me is for most this seems not to be enough.

  7. Yep, atheists can be overawed by the universe. It appears much more awesome and mystical to us than the tiny puny universe of the god of Abraham. An atheist is literally – “without theistic belief” for me that includes any supernatural belief as well.

  8. Isn’t Oprah saying that she doesn’t believe in a supernatural being either; that what she calls God is simply Nature in all its wonder. Much the same as many atheists really, it all comes down to a use of words and labels.

  9. If you get up and go for a walk along the beach in time for sunrise, you cannot fail to be awed by the magnificence and beauty of the world around you. Awe is the only unaffected response of a rational animal to such experiences of the world. Study and analyse the world all you like – and we do need to do that – but do not miss out on the moments of bliss in life. Of course theism has nothing to do with it.

  10. In reply to #9 by Hilary:

    Isn’t Oprah saying that she doesn’t believe in a supernatural being either; that what she calls God is simply Nature in all its wonder. Much the same as many atheists really, it all comes down to a use of words and labels.

    She should call it nature instead of god.

  11. I’ve always thought it was odd that an atheist can look at, say, a picture of a distant nebula only recently revealed to our knowledge via the Hubble Space Telescope, feel great awe at the immense majesty of the universe and laugh at those who still think it was all created for our benefit, while a theist will look at the same picture and be in awe at God’s handiwork.

  12. I would say only an atheist can tuly be in awe of the universe. Because if you believe in gods you are not really in awe of the universe, but a fairy tale.

  13. I think the researchers have a point when they stipulate that awe has to do with uncertainty and the inability to understand something. I think that’s why children tend to experience this feeling to a much larger extent than adults. I also think this is why scientists usually are quite restless and almost obsessed with discovering new things. Once you understand something it’s tends to not be all that interesting anymore. Almost like a drug addict people who are awe-prone seek new experiences to fulfill this “awesome” experience. In that sense, it makes sense that certain religious people are less awe-prone. They are satisfied with the religious explanation. Many don’t really want a deeper or better understanding of the world. In fact they are often afraid of change and alternative explanation. On the other hand, we of course have the “seekers” who switch religions and beliefs on a constant basis. Perhaps because they are addicted to the feeling of being in awe. In that sense, these people could be described as scientists gone wrong. They want to know about the world and they are interested in the unknown. They just are looking at all the wrong places.

    I know from personal experience that I tend to get bored quite quickly when I learn or discover something new. Although it makes me learn more and prevents me from stagnation it can also be a negative thing. For example, I love music and play the guitar. Still, I remember the awe and wonder I felt when I started playing the guitar. Every riff and new song I learned to play seemed almost magical. Like I was discovering an ancient secret or something. I knew I liked music and it was thrilling to find out the secrets behind it. At the same time I realize, that early feeling of complete awe is lost. Yes, I love listening to and playing music. Still, the fact that I can pretty much replicate or at least theoretically understand most of the music I love sort of takes away the magic. At the same time, of course it has enabled me to appreciate music in a whole different way so I guess it’s a double edged sword.

  14. I think that the word “awe” is context sensitive — not in the grammatical sense, but in that it describes an intangible state of the speaker. We each have our subjective experienced concept of it, and often project that onto what we imagine others must feel. Believers in gods may experience awe as something external, delivered to them by their god(s), and perhaps fail to understand how anyone without a connection to gods (or even their particular God) can experience anything similar. Likewise, some non-believers may think that those who get it from their imagined god are not “really” experiencing awe, or are misattributing it.

    In an attempt to post a data point on what I experience as “awe”, I’ll give an example of what it feels like to me. I feel a sense of awe whenever I’m in high mountains. It’s not because they’re fearful or incomprehensible or even unfamiliar — they’re my natural habitat. When I live among them I feel it all the time — no diminution with familiarity at all. One of the forms that it takes is a very pleasurable tingling sensation (heck, it might just be hypoxia) that’s similar to a sexual experience or a drug high. I tell people that I’ve never had a bad day above timberline. Oh some of them didn’t appear to be survivable, but they nonetheless were very good days. The feeling is strong enough to be life defining. A large part of my identity is as a denizen of the High Country, and when I’m not there I feel less than fully alive.

    I’ve never been the least bit religious, but I think that I can partly see how those who are might feel something similar attributed to their deity just as I do to my beloved Rocky Mountains. Is either belief true? Is either false? Does it matter? I could argue that the mountains are actually there, and that gods are mental constructs, but that’s beside the point unless one is making factual claims about the source of the feeling of awe. I don’t imagine that the Rockies are a wellhead of awe any more than I imagine that they make Coors beer whatever it is. My awe in their presence is a response of my brain to something that I deeply love. I don’t know whether someone who is religious feels that their god is the source of their awe, but when they can’t seem to understand how anyone without their god attachment can experience it, it makes me think that they do. I feel as sorry for them as they probably do for me.

  15. This is religious awe. This is one atheist’s awe.

    Personally, this is entirely an aesthetic issue. How closed or open is the Universe of Possibilities with us as agents in it? Am I just a chip off the old block condemned to live at home with an overachieving parent? Or am I washed up on some lonely cosmic shore having an adventure?

    Some agoraphobics are thrilled quite enough, thank you, that their father’s house has a lot of rooms. Others simply want to be out and doing…

  16. Can an atheist be in awe of the Universe? I don’t know. I suppose that depends on what we mean by “awe” and “atheist”. What exactly do we mean by “awe”? Why exactly do we mean by “awe of the Universe”? The word “awe” means different things to different people. Is being in awe of the Universe a virtue? Does it increase wellbeing? Could it in fact be a barrier to wellbeing? The words “atheism” and “atheist” means different things to different people. There is no agreed definition of atheism among those who identify as atheists or among those who are not atheists.

  17. Perception indeed. I find awe in the images of distant galaxies and small things such as a realistic model railway that one can’t tell the difference from the real thing when photographed. Also from experiences such as when I swam for the first time amongst millions of bioluminescent plankton at night – the movement of my body through the water agitated the dinoflagellates causing them to burst into illumination trailing off my feet and hands like the tail of a comet. Not so awesome an experience anymore now that I understand it, but at the time I found it so awesome that I precariously swam too far away from the shore and this event inspired me to write a poem.

  18. I think one of the best examples of tapping into “AWE” is Brian Cox’s “Wonder Series” of TV shows:-

    Wikipedia – Brian Edward Cox OBE (born 3 March 1968)[1] is an English physicist and former musician, a Royal Society University Research Fellow, PPARC Advanced Fellow at the University of Manchester.[13][14] He is a member of the High Energy Physics group at the University of Manchester, and works on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)[15][16] at CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland.

    • Wonders of Life
    • Wonders of the Universe
    • Wonders of the Solar System[11]
    • ATLAS

    He and Eric Idle also revamped this DNA version of a famous song for his “Wonders of Life Series”!

    Eric Idle’s Galaxy Song

  19. as someone who has been living in spain for almost seven years (since I was 17), and who has been a life-long atheist, I find the necessity to write this kind of article repugnant. I have personally never thought of this question, and the whole idea of spirituality pisses me off. I am as atheist as one can be. I am very rational and I think I fit in with the people who feel uncomfortable with the feeling of “awe”. When I look at the nightsky (and the word itself brings me a sense of ecstasy) though, I feel something else. I feel a sense of thrill, joy, and mainly pleasure. I feel a sense of fascination as I think of all the things that could be up there. I am an artist, and profoundly spiritual, and am atracted strongly to buddhist though, but I hate the word spiritual, and the idea that there may be a god. I think they are terms and ideas that we need to drive out of our heads, because they are useless.

  20. Oprah is a vapid shithead who has ruined more than she has helped and every single act of seeming kindness she has publicly committed has been for her own advancement and well being. She shit all over James Frey (the author of A Million Little Pieces). She sent her money to Africa to open a school for girls. At face value, very noble. In reality, she abandoned it as soon as the tour of publicity was over and many of the kids in the school ended up abused and disabused. She is a megalomaniacal egotist who I’d rather do without.

  21. Well, I think the awesomeness of a 13.8 billion year old universe in wich matter was created and by some slim chance some of that matter formed ‘me’ for a tiny period of time is so much more than the childish creation stories. Creation/religion offers only a very shallow, childish awe. Maybe for people that can’t handle more of it 🙂

  22. I think that an atheist has better motives to be in awe of the Universe. Any theist will only see in the Universe something that an allmighty God made in a week off… nothing fancy, could do another if it feels like it any week now. There’s nothing to understand, there, when you die, God takes you under its protection and gives you all the knowledge you need. It’s a given. While the atheist has to be in awe and wonder: that is so big, so beautiful, and so full of mysteries, and each of us will be around only for a short time, so any mysteries solved, every Hubble picture, every explanation on how genetics works, is a gem to treasure. And if we don’t understand it, nobody will.

  23. I tried to explain to a chap the other day on the bus how astronomical spectroscopy works, after he mentioned that there is no way for us to know what the sun is made of unless we can visit the sun and that all we know about it is theory that it is only probable. This was the first face to face encounter in my life with someone like this and it was a frustrating and disappointing experience. I can only imagine the teacher’s challenge in trying to get through to such a closed mind.

  24. Can ‘an’ atheist be in awe …erm Yeah I guess…wrongly framed question…… opposed to ‘Can atheist people be in awe of the Universe’ ?…Yes of course we can…Its a recurring provoking question that we all know the answer to and so do the religiots…but they just like to poke Atheists with sticks……Atheists are more in Awe of the universe than any one else – as they take the time to understand at great lengths and accuracy what it is that they are in awe of ……..Anyway I prefer not to call it awe….as that feeds into the self righteousness of the religiots who use that word to describe the ‘Euphoria’ of their idea of godliness….Our (Atheist) euphoria at the immense size, age and content of the universe is much purer than any religiot who believes the universe was put there fully formed by a being…Atheists observation and wonderment at its beauty is innate in humans and I care not so much about why the universe began – that implies intention (which is not needed)…but that the universe is there now to marvel at……it is a birth-rite of all humans who can see and appreciate what beauty is in front of their eyes and that we are part of it all …Atheists are fully emotional and caring creatures but we have a truth filter …..That truth is evident in the visible Universe and not through any hiding god…..

    Why do religiots need a god theory to explain the wonder of the universe and Why should an undeserving god creation get any credit for something that was invented in the minds of men ?…The wonder is still there …even though I – Atheist now know the factual information explaining what the Universe is made of and how it works on a simple, logical, rational and testable level…….
    Any explanation religiots offer has a loaded answer that is not an answer but self delusion coated in blissful ignorance…..

  25. When I saw the title of this, my thought was, “Can a theist truly be in awe of the universe?”

  26. In reply to #27 by FatalException:

    When I saw the title of this, my thought was, “Can a theist truly be in awe of the universe?”

    While they may be in a limited form of overwhelming awe about something, it should be clear, that those who do not know a universe from a galaxy or a solar-system, clearly can’t be – in any meaningful sense!

  27. Spine tingling moments, like when the penny drops in films such as MOON, that’s when I’m in awe, I judge films and books by how many of these moments they generate and as a real test re-watch and re-read to see if they happen at the same time or interval.

    But when it comes to the Universe and the scale, what’s there not to be in awe of? It’s mind boggling moments like those that generate the biggest moments of awe and I don’t need anything supernatural to explain them, that would just spoil the moment.

  28. This is a nutty article. Doesn’t take a bible thumping nutter to love life and all that that involves.

  29. In reply to #25 by Mee Peestevone:

    I tried to explain to a chap the other day on the bus how astronomical spectroscopy works, after he mentioned that there is no way for us to know what the sun is made of unless we can visit the sun and that all we know about it is theory that it is only probable. This was the first face to face enco…

    A great candidate for religious studies.

  30. Fundadamentalist theists cannot be “in awe of the universe”, as they have no concept of the universe.
    What the “god-did-its” are in awe of, is their own overwhelming ignorance!

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