“A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” writes C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy. “There are traps everywhere … millions of surprises.”
In recent years atheists have become alerted to another trap: the majesty of creation itself. According to a number of recent studies, simply watching awe-inspiring nature documentaries can make people less inclined to believe that science can explain everything; more open to the idea that the world is guided by some kind of order.
The Influence of Awe
For example, in a study published last month by Piercarlo Valdesolo, participants were:
- Asked to respond to a series of statements such as: “We can only rationally believe in what is scientifically provable,” and “the course of evolution follows certain paths, and is not just the result of random processes.”
- Divided into three groups and shown videos designed to be (a.) awe-inspiring, (b.) humorous or (c.) neutral.
- Retested regarding their opinions as per step one.
It was found that watching awe-inspiring (David Attenborough) videos altered the responses. It made believers more skeptical of claims that science can explain all of reality. It also made atheists less willing to believe in the absolute randomness of the world and more inclined to believe in an underlying order.
Awe: Bad for Atheism, Good for People
The scientists who undertook the study, regarded these results as a problem: awe is something that “drives theists away from science,” they wrote. It has an effect that is “disconcerting to those interested in promoting an accurate [i.e. fully random] understanding of evolution.”
We might question those judgements. Is randomness really more “scientific” if the universe is governed by consistent scientific laws? And surely the briefest philosophical reflection should give pause to the idea that science can explain everything when it (science) relies on axioms such as inductive reasoning that are themselves unprovable by science. A better conclusion might be that awe promotes clear thinking by causing us to look beyond the metaphysical naiveté of scientific atheism.
Interestingly, other investigations of awe support this more positive assessment. Professor Michelle Lani Shiota describes a study in which students became more sober and discriminating in their assessments of good and bad arguments after remembering an experience of awe. Other studies indicate that awe might make people less self-centred and more willing to revise their ideas about the world.
Awe and God
Yet experiencing awe doesn’t simply open us up to any new idea, it tends to make us feel that there is a person at work. As Valdesolo observed in an earlier study, awe triggers belief in the “presence and power of a supernatural being … it generally increases this desire to explain what’s in front of you”—and to explain it in terms of intention and agency.
Why this should be is a puzzle for the scientific naturalist. The pro forma explanation will be that such feelings once conveyed some kind of evolutionary advantage. But how it might have helped our (imagined) primitive ancestors to think that a thundercloud, sunset or mountain range was made by God (or gods) is far from clear.
Awe and General Revelation
On the other hand the Bible offers a framework for understanding awe that makes very good sense of such things. It tells us that heaven and earth really are “filled with God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3); that God’s invisible power and divine nature can be “clearly perceived … in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). In other words, what psychologists call “awe” sounds a lot like to what Calvin called that part of us which is built to detect the influence of God: our sense of divinity (sensus divinitaits).
If that’s so, it isn’t surprising that awe can have other positive effects on our thinking and acting. Awe reminds us of our place in God’s world. It reminds us that we are small, and that the world isn’t about us. It reminds us that creation is a good gift. It can even—if only for a little while—make us want to live as people who receive and share that blessing.
Awe: Common Grace and Redemptive Grace
By itself, awe is an effect of general revelation. It doesn’t compel people to become believers in the gospel, or even in God. It doesn’t come with any guarantee that those who experience it will be able to interpret it correctly—indeed awe might be enlisted as evidence for all manner of mystical ideas.
Nonetheless its immediate influence on both believers and non-believers is frequently good. It can help us to think better. It can make us a little less swayed by the follies of our social setting. It raises our eyes and summons us to humility.
And Scripture shows us that awe and redemptive grace frequently do go together. When God appears he typically appears under the mantle of epic natural displays: mountains covered with smoke; whirlwinds; pillars of fire, When he speaks his voice sounds like the rumblings of thunder and the roar of the ocean.
At other times the Bible makes us feel awe through poetic descriptions of creation—and connects that awe to God. Think of the way Psalm 8 reflects on the glory of God above the heavens (v 1) and then turns to the insignificance of humans beneath the stars. Think of the way Psalm 29 describes the voice of the lord thundering over the great waters, splintering the cedars of Lebanon and shaking the wilderness. Think of the contrast drawn between idols and the God of creation in Jeremiah 10. Think of the cinematic tours of creation offered in Job 38-41 and Psalm 104.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works,
who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke.
Awe is a state primed for theological reflection, and that’s the way we should approach it. We should cultivate awe by reflecting on the experience of God’s world in the light of Scripture. We should get outside, notice the majesty of creation, and let it remind our hearts of what the Bible says to our heads. We should reflect on those times we’ve experienced awe and imagine as traces of God’s majesty (think Psalm 29). When we watch nature documentaries, or read travelogues, or hear of amazing new scientific discoveries we should turns these into theological experiences that convert awe into praise.
Perhaps finally we should be more willing to try to evoke awe in our presentations of the gospel. Awe is not the gospel, but it is an inward testimony of the God who gave us the gospel. Maybe we should be more willing to use things like poetry, video and music as we introduce people to the big story of creation and redemption.
First published at TGCA on Sep 24, 2016
Photos: Nasa, Tyssul Patel
 Paul Piff & Dacher Keltner, “Why Do We Experience Awe?” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05… and Michelle N. Shiota, Dacher Keltner and Amanda Mossman, “The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept” in Cognition & Emotion, 2007, 21 (5), 944–963, 960.