The emotion of awe is a self-transcendent one, in the sense that the experience of awe entails a feeling of being confronted with something much greater than oneself. Many people think of awe as a particularly religious emotion and therefore seem to assume that people with no religious beliefs at all, e.g. atheists are closed to the experience of awe. This assumption is quite false and reflects a wider prejudice against atheists. An illustrative example of this particular prejudice occurred when Oprah Winfrey told endurance swimmer Diana Nyad that she could not be an atheist, even though Nyad said she was, because Nyad stated that she is “in awe” of life. Research has shown that people who reject supernatural beliefs actually are capable of experiencing a sense of awe. In fact, the experience of awe may be particularly beneficial for those who do not believe in an afterlife.
Diana Nyad seems like a pretty awesome person. She set a world first by swimming from Cuba to Florida without a protective cage on her fifth attempt to do so. In what turned out to be an awkward interview with Oprah Winfrey, Nyad described herself as “an atheist who’s in awe.” She talked of how deeply moved she is by the beauty of the universe, and all of humanity, “all the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved, and hurt and suffered.” Oprah’s rather brusque response was that she did not consider Nyad to be an atheist then, because “if you believe in the awe, and the wonder, and the mystery” then “that is what God is!”
Naturally, many people who do consider themselves atheists felt rather insulted by Oprah’s comments, implying as they do that real atheists are not actually capable of feeling a sense of awe at the wonder and mystery of life. Either that, or they are not really atheists. While some people may well use the word “God” purely as a metaphor for “awe, wonder, and mystery,” most people understand the term differently, more often than not to refer to the existence of a supernatural creator being, so Oprah’s claims are disingenuous.
Atheists have objected to Oprah's attempts to relabel them
Oprah’s remarks are indicative of a widespread social stigma associated with atheism, particularly in the United States. According to a survey of how Americans view minority groups, atheists top the list of people that Americans have a problem with, more so than Muslims or gays. In fact, a 2002 survey found that 54% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of atheists (Zuckerman, 2009). Psalm 14 in the Bible describes people who don’t believe in God as “filthy, corrupt fools, entirely incapable of doing any good” (Zuckerman, 2009). So perhaps Oprah thought she was being kind to Nyad by trying to deny that she was “really” an atheist? In spite of these negative stereotypes, research actually presents a more favourable portrait of what atheists are like, finding that compared to most religious people they tend to be generally less prejudiced and to have more universally inclusive values, e.g. atheists tend to be less racist and sexist, less anti-Semitic, less nationalistic, less dogmatic, and less authoritarian.
Oprah’s statement more specifically reflects a stereotype of atheists as cynical, joyless, and lacking the capacity for awe in particular (Caldwell-Harris, Wilson, LoTempio, & Beit-Hallahmi, 2011). Quite the contrary, in response to a survey question asking if one had “ever felt wonderment or felt as if you were part of something greater than yourself,” 73% of atheists said yes. When asked what provoked these feelings, the majority (54%) said “nature”; the next most popular answers were “science” (29%), music/art (12%) and “human cooperation” (8%). The survey also found that contrary to popular beliefs that atheists are alienated and unhappy, atheists did not differ from Christians or Buddhists on measures of sociality, joviality, emotional stability, and happiness. Clearly people who do not believe in a supernatural creator being are as much capable of experiencing awe as people who do. This is just as well, because awe can have a beneficial effect on subjective well-being for reasons that may be of particular relevance to people who do not believe in a supernatural realm.
Researchers who have studied the experience of awe have defined it as a response to the experience of vastness combined with a need to make sense of an experience so vast it surpasses one’s current understanding (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Vastness implies something that is perceived as immense, e.g. in regards to size, scope, number, or even social bearing (e.g. a powerful leader). When this happens, a person may feel overwhelmed and therefore be motivated to acquire new knowledge to accommodate such an awe-inspiring experience into their world-view. According to a series of research studies, one of the consequences of experiencing a sense of awe is that one’s perception of time is expanded, almost as if one feels that time is standing still (Rudd, Vohs, & Aaker, 2012). This is in contrast to the feeling that one does not have enough time, a great source of mental stress for many people. Hence, experiencing awe can induce a feeling that one does have plenty of time, and a sense of savouring one’s momentary experiences more deeply. Rudd, Vohs and Aaker found that it was possible to experimentally induce feelings of awe in people (e.g. by reading a story about ascending the Eiffel Tower and seeing Paris from on high) and that doing so produced not only a feeling of expanded time, but an increase in momentary satisfaction with life.
I think the connections between the sense of awe, feelings of expanded time, and increased satisfaction in the moment are particularly relevant to people who do not believe that consciousness continues after death. To many people, the belief that death is not the end is a source of undeniable comfort. On the other hand, some philosophers have argued that knowing that one’s life has a finite duration provides an incentive to cherish the time that one has available. Contemplating the billions of people who have ever lived, as Diana Nyad speaks of, might not only produce a powerful feeling of awe, but an expanded perception of one’s own time on earth. This may in turn create a deepened sense of contentment with one’s own allotted span, which may help alleviate the sense of existential dread some people experience when contemplating their own mortality. I think testing the effects of inducing feelings of awe on a person’s attitudes to their own mortality would make an interesting research study.
Christopher Hitchens provides an articulate explanation of his sense of awe at the natural universe
Perhaps Oprah felt that she was trying to be all-inclusive by incorporating Nyad’s view of the awe and mystery of life into her amorphous spiritual beliefs. In a similar way, there is a trend in the mental health field to redefine the term “spirituality” in an all-inclusive way that bundles together disparate concepts such as meaning and purpose in life along with belief in supernatural spiritual beings in a way that implies that all people are concerned with “spiritual” matters (Koenig, 2008). (I have touched on this issue in a previous post.) The trouble with this is that people may still experience a sense of meaning and purpose in life even if they do not believe in God or a higher power. Similarly, contrary to what Oprah seems to think, people who do not believe in a non-material entity called God can and do still experience a sense of awe at the vastness of the universe we live in. Trying to redefine this experience as being about “God” in some nebulous sense actually marginalises people who do not share her views. If Oprah and people like her wanted to be truly inclusive they would acknowledge that we all share a common humanity regardless of whether or not we choose to believe in something called “God”.
This article also appears on Psychology Today on my blog Unique - Like Everybody Else.
© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided. Any version of this article appearing on sites other than Eye on Psych or my blog at Psychology Today has been ripped off without my consent.
Oprah poster created by Boston Atheists – people are welcome to share these on social media
“Reality is Awesome” poster created at Despair, Inc.
Link to YouTube video featuring Christopher Hitchens
Link to YouTube video featuring Christopher Hitchens
Other posts about the psychology of religion and/or spirituality
Belief in God Supports Prejudice Against Gays and Atheists Who Supports Censorship of Blasphemous Art?
Caldwell-Harris, C., Wilson, A., LoTempio, E., & Beit-Hallahmi, B. (2011). Exploring the atheist personality: well-being, awe, and magical thinking in atheists, Buddhists, and Christians Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14 (7), 659-672 DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2010.509847
Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching Awe, a Moral, Spiritual, and Aesthetic Emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 297-394.
Koenig, H. G. (2008). Concerns About Measuring "Spirituality" in Research. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 196(5), 349-355 310.1097/NMD.1090b1013e31816ff31796.
Rudd M, Vohs KD, & Aaker J (2012). Awe expands people's perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological science, 23 (10), 1130-6 PMID: 22886132
Zuckerman, P. (2009). Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions. Sociology Compass, 3(6), 949-971. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2009.00247.x