Why There Are No Atheists at the Grand Canyon

All it takes is a little awe to make you feel religious

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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.

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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.

All awe contains a slight element of fear or at least vulnerability, and the sooner we have an explanation for what it is we’re seeing and how it came to be, the more reassured we are. Think how often we comfort a child who’s just been frightened by something new and scary with an explanation like, “It’s just thunder” or lightning or a blimp or a parade balloon. And think how often it works. We do something similar with ourselves when we seek a spiritual answer for things we can’t otherwise explain.

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“This is very much an intuitive relationship between an emotional state and a religious state,” says Valdesolo. “We can make you feel awe and that’s going to trigger your belief in the presence and power of a supernatural being.” Valdesolo and Graham wisely sidestep any question about the validity of those beliefs. They could hardly prove the point one way or the other, and the issue was irrelevant to their work anyway. They were only looking at what does and doesn’t elicit religious feelings — regardless of the legitimacy of them.

A final, very clever element of the study was to ask people who either had or hadn’t been awed to look at several 12-digit strings of 1’s and 2’s and to guess, on a scale of one to 10, the likelihood that they were either randomly generated by a computer or designed by a human. The numbers were in fact computer generated, but the subjects who’d experienced awe were likelier to attribute them to a human.

“Awe makes people want to see events as the result of design,” Valdesolo says. “That could be God or humans, depending on context.”

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If that’s so however, couldn’t the awe-inspiring also be explained by the random interplay of chemistry, physics and time — nature in other words — rather than a spiritual being? And if so, couldn’t scenes of space or the Grand Canyon make you seek answers by becoming an astronomer or a geologist, rather than looking to religion? Maybe, but Valdesolo believes that’s a less common reaction.

“The laws of nature do not seem to be what satisfies the sense of uncertainty that awe elicits,” he says. “If I throw 10 people at the Grand Canyon and ask how many come away with a secular answer and how many come away spiritual, I’d tip the scales in favor of spiritual.” Like it or not, awe trumps empiricism — and like it or not too, we’d probably be a poorer species if it didn’t.

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179 comments
WesleySherman
WesleySherman

Why have we let the religious co-opt the word and feeling of "Awe"?  Its a silly assumption.   Just take a look at the Hubble Deep Field and 'Awe' and 'Wonder' come out in abundance.  There's no need to assume one of the thousands of years old god proposals for answers.   We can be perfectly comfortable with 'WOW'.. and "Unknowing' at the moment.   I think its absolutely awesome to be stunned and overwhelmed by beauty, immensity, etc...Embracing the unknown is healthy!   


I think with what we now know about geology, climate, weathering, the immense age of the earth, the Grand Canyon is not the mystery for which we need to propose a magical being to explain.  This doesn't stop us from looking at it and saying and feeling 'WOW'!

spookiewriter
spookiewriter

Nope. I see the result of a little trickle of water long ago slowly carving out a very impressive geologic feature. It is stunning, beautiful, and indeed awesome.

No fairy godfather needed. 

fledermaus
fledermaus

So "awe" is a sign of religiosity & "proves" you are not an atheist does it?


Who is this idiot Kluger?

Does the name derive from "kludge" - as in cobbled-together rubbish?


As an atheist I can stand under Malham Cove or by the High Force (Upper Teesdale) & feel awe & an appreciation of the geology & the time passed.

Has no connection at all with undetectable BigSky Fairies, at all.

gwhilts
gwhilts

There is so much horse poop in this article it's hard to know where to begin.  If one wants to find an atheist at the Grand Canyon, I suggest you start with any of the geologists or biologists working there.  Odds are you'll find plenty of atheists without any trouble whatsoever.

yahzicoyote
yahzicoyote

Actually, the Grand Canyon produces atheists out of Young Earth Creationists.


Mistaking awe for religion is like mistaking breathing for talking. One may be necessary to the other, but if you can't tell the difference between silence and speech, you shouldn't be writing articles for Time magazine.

MichaelWylie
MichaelWylie

"It's hard to be an atheist when looking at he Grand Canyon."


No it isn't. I look in awe at the stars, Niagara Falls, insects, plants,sunrises, and preserved skeletons of old animals and humans entombed in the Earths layers, for example. Not once do I feel compelled to contemplate the idea of a higher power. Not once.

I think of the years needed for wind, floods, etc... to carve the wonders in nature. The harmony and chaos animals, plants and insects must dance on a daily basis, that we marvel at. How earths pressure causes diamonds, gas, volcanoes and earthquakes. 

The above statement is as ignorant as Opera saying atheists can't feel awe. We feel awe all the time. We just don't feel the need to attribute the cause of that awe, to a higher power.

Emerie
Emerie

Wow....  an awful lot of people bashing an article that truly doesn't deserve it and doesn't seem to be understood.  I am a psychological researcher myself who happens to get psychological science (which is what brought me here), and it is a respected peer-reviewed  science journal, not just crack-pots out to "ret a rise" out of atheists.  What they are basically saying is that the participants in their study who reporting feeling more awe also reported more belief that there is a master plan to the universe.  Furthermore, these type of results aren't exactly new - awe has been linked to religiosity for quite some time. 


Now, that does not mean it is an attack on atheists.  The title of THIS article is where the attempt at news-making and getting your ire up comes in (and I agree it was titled poorly).  But if you actually read and understand the article, it is about the results of the study.  The case is simply made that as humans, on an emotional level, the SCIENCE is now pointing to us having a very strong tendency to explain spiritually/magically/supernaturally what we can't quite grasp logically yet as a whole.  And what is interesting (and what they found), is that even what explanations do exist, the primal feeling of wonder and awe can still arise from time to time, and with it, for some people, that feeling of "this is all much bigger than me" goes hand in hand.  After all, the centers of your brain's limbic system controlling emotional reactions are ancient structures - they are primal and they make automatic reactions - while the conscious "thinking" centers of your brain in your frontal cortex would have to work harder to quell and label the feeling. 


Whether or not you actually believe in god or a higher being may have nothing to do with your ability to feel awe.  BUT... if you do believe in god, or if you are at least somewhat spiritual - these results simply suggest that awe has a strong correlation with spirituality (again, something that was already known) and is likely to bring your spiritual feelings positively to the surface.  If you are not at all spiritual, it doesn't mean you won't feel anything, but you are more likely to attribute your feelings to another cause or label. (notice the quote from the research was feeling awe could "trigger YOUR belief" .. it must be pre-existing)


For the record, I don't consider myself devoid of spirituality, but I do generally consider myself an atheist.  An oddly, neither these results or this article surprised or insulted me.  Even if you are an atheist, you are still a human, so of course you can feel the entire range of emotions.  However if you feel so personally insulted by a scientific study (oddly, something atheists are usually interested in), then perhaps you need to re-examine your conclusions.  No one was attacking you.

CharlieLeDoux
CharlieLeDoux

I regret to inform the writer of this that as an atheist I've been to many wonders of this earth including the grand canyon. You don't see us because we aren't proclaiming the greatness of science every 5 seconds. Anyone regardless of or lack of theism can be in awe of a waterfall or the caress of a soft breeze through the trees or a huge canyon created by millions of years of erosion.

EarthMoonColony
EarthMoonColony

Kluger. You're a senior editor!  With regard to the hypothesis, I thought the null hypothesis is how the scientific method was applied, i.e there is no relationship between awe and religiosity.  What college did that professor go to?  And you, you should be ashamed of yourself. 


BCRationalist
BCRationalist

"the sooner we have an explanation for what it is we’re seeing and how it came to be, the more reassured we are."

Notice that there's nothing in this statement about whether or not the explanation has to be true or not. 


"A final, very clever element of the study was to ask people who either had or hadn’t been awed to look at several 12-digit strings of 1’s and 2’s and to guess, on a scale of one to 10, the likelihood that they were either randomly generated by a computer or designed by a human. The numbers were in fact computer generated, but the subjects who’d experienced awe were likelier to attribute them to a human."

And this shows why it is more likely that God is the creation of man and not the other way around.

gsuk92
gsuk92

Jeffrey Kluger is an idiot, and it's a shame that a person who is supposed to know something at all about science or technology finds it necessary to attribute mankind's achievements and awe to a Krishna, Zeus, or really anything other than that which needs no supernatural assumption.

KevinV.Russell
KevinV.Russell

I think there might be a bit of "making the news" going on here. It's just so easy to get a rise out of atheists today because some of use still feel defensive about our views. It's a typical tabloid tactic, call it atheist baiting. You can just as easily approach it from the other angle and look on it as a parody. If I wanted to send up religion I could hardly do a better job. Kluger could have added in a few examples of other "miracles" that have been performed by "god" (although not regrowing limbs for amputees - he must be saving that trick for later). They could get Benny Hinn to write it.

jess20x
jess20x

Terrible assumption.  Awe is not connected to religion.  I am an atheist and have boated the entire grand canyon 4 times and have always experienced awe and wonder at being in such a remote and breathtaking place.  Morality, humanity, and emotion are in NO way connected to spiritualism.  

steve8888888881
steve8888888881

As an agnostic I didn't feel any awe when I visited the Grand Canyon.  Cold yes, awe no.  Its a really big hole.  I also felt a little like that when I saw Niagara.  Its a really big waterfall - now lets eat.  The universe is vast and I am in awe of that but it in no way moves me any closer to believing a higher power (aka God) had to be involved.  I know it does to some people, but I don't get it.

SW2424
SW2424

Very disappointing Time article. Makes me question the respect I've had for this company. Experiencing awe does not make me any more religious. If anything, it gives me more of an appreciation for the science we've studied about the natural world.

tzioneretz
tzioneretz

If I throw 10 people at a refugee camp in Somalia and ask how many come away with a secular answer and how many come away spiritual, I’d tip the scales in favor of secular.  All this proves is that people have a desperate need for something higher, bigger, more powerful than they.  What an incredibly asinine "study" and an even worse article that puts this claptrap in the Science section.  Time, hang your head in utter shame.

SenneKuyl
SenneKuyl

I've been both, a raving pentecostal and an atheist. I cannot tell the difference between the euphoria of my faith filled experience and the awe of my experiences with nature --- except I have some evidence my experiences as an atheist are somewhat verifiable and exist outside my head.

I once flipped a flat tipped screw into a standing position. I didn't thank any deities but I did dance around cheering. I also tried to do it again. Try doing that with religion. My brand would have considered that testing YHWH.

denisemstevenson
denisemstevenson

I am an atheist.  I've been to the Grand Canyon.  I'm still an atheist.  

Calilasseia
Calilasseia

I don't need to think about an imaginary mythological magic man, in order  to appreciate the wonders of the natural world, including wonders that the authors of the relevant mythology were incapable of even fantasising about, let alone placing into a precise, usefully predictive quantitative theory in the manner that science has done. Has Kluger not read the words of Carl Sagan on this matter? Here's a little reminder:

"In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed"? Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way."

As for the idea that people sometimes have unconscious thoughts about mythological entities, even if they don't think that those mythological entities are real, is this in the least surprising in an environment where supernaturalists are bombarding us with propaganda for their mythologies on a continuous basis? In some parts of the USA you cannot get away from 24/7 proselytising, so it's hardly surprising that this has an effect, though in the case of those of us who recognise the absurdity of numerous mythological assertions, it simply induces nausea. Look up "priming" and the work of John Bargh amongst others, to see how insidious this effect can be, even with respect to supposedly benign influences, or influences that aren't the product of any sentience.

This article is just another puff piece for the purpose of pandering to supernaturalist presupposition, and has nothing of real substantive value to offer with respect to the majesty of science. Next time you go for a flu jab, remember, it wasn't religion that gave you this, it was science.

Alqualisse
Alqualisse

Since when was awe or inspiration analogous with religious belief? I have looked upon vast geological works far more ancient and awe inspiring than the Grand Canyon. Was I humbled, felt the majesty of the vista around me, speechless and emotion? Yes. Do I believe in God, any God. NO!


Hard to find a more facile treatment of the incredible, vast power of our planet, our solar system and our universe than this piece. Well done, Mr Kluger (and editors, publishers etc.). This piece could not be more self indulgent than if you had written about licking your own reflection.

UDunlap
UDunlap

I've been to Grand Canyon 6 times, and many other places equally awe-inspiring. Even if I was still a believer, religious thoughts would be the last things on my mind in places like that!

"All it takes is a little awe to make you feel religious" - Maybe with a little awe, that could be true for some people. Personally, a LOT of awe has never made me want to feel feel aweful!



anotherme
anotherme

When is the next study coming out equating awe with irrational (emotional) thinking? Isn't that almost what we're saying here?

aleroi
aleroi

Why the idiotic headline with a claim that is entirely unsubstantiated by the article? Has TIME turned into News of the World?

JDStockman
JDStockman

"All it takes is a little awe to make you feel religious."


Where are the scenes of awe in atrocity that implements a loss of faith? They showed someone something pretty and called it a day. The world is hardly all "flowers and rainbows." For most people, it is the opposite, yet they are aware of the "flowers and rainbows" of the world. This is why religion is most prevalent in naturally terrible places. If you compare a map of the heavily religious with the areas struck most commonly by natural disaster or environmental strife, you will find a correlation. Faith is a last ditch effort to have control over an uncontrolled life. It takes a level of acceptance that you can't control everything in your life to recognize what you can control. Until that point, you are a child grasping at the invisible daddy that you think should be there because someone else has a real one. Seeing the flowers and rainbows for someone else is only reminding you of what you think you are entitled to, so you push of this personal desire on an entity and then make all of your magical wish-thinking the target of this entity. Sometimes it turns out good and you thank the sky daddy. Sometimes it turns out bad and it must be because you were a bad kid.

In order for this study (mislabeled in the "Science" area) to have credibility, you first need to not relabel an outcome to fit your agenda, and then you need to provide equal and opposite testing for a cross comparison. Where the atrocities also shown, you would finds certainty in the atheists and doubt in the faithful: a result that would have made this study a lot less supportive to any agenda.

JessicaOccupyDawn
JessicaOccupyDawn

This is posted under "science"? That's hilarious. Get new writers, this ignorant drivel makes your whole company look bad.

CraigBrown
CraigBrown

lol I feel awe, so its my cultural god or goddess. there is some limited thought for you.

KevinV.Russell
KevinV.Russell

At the last count there were around 2780 official gods. The writer of the article simply believes in one more than me. I don’t believe in any of them.

GaryJenkinson
GaryJenkinson

I m sure I would be in awe of such a sight. Time and money permitting perhaps one day I will. In the mean time however I will look at the beauty of the coast line and countryside where I live and in the eyes of the people and animals I love and marvel in natures glory and thank the Stars for what they have created. NO GODS REQURED.

Especially gods who require the sacrifice of goats and revel in forced admiration under threat of some hell. 

Am I an atheist? You bet :)

KevinV.Russell
KevinV.Russell

Next Time will be telling us that the U.S. is the lost tribe of Israel. Henry Luce must be turning in his grave. He would be disgusted to see what has become of his once fine journal of record.

AlexVasiliou
AlexVasiliou

This is a 6-year old reasoning? "Awe, spirituality or love for nature and the universe equals God and atheists can't feel none of the above because I say so" ? 

The writer either has an obvious certain agenda or is just way too plain for anything above FoxNews. I hope it's the latter. In any case, having him as a "science overseer" can only be seen as ironic.

Tehlanna13
Tehlanna13

This guy oversees the science reporting? Kind of like having Michelle Bachman on a science council. Pretty stupid. 


Get some better editors, Time. You're showing your age.

IsleFreeThinker
IsleFreeThinker

I'm a loud and proud Atheist who visited the Grand Canyon on June 2nd of this year. Took a helicopter tour, landed at the bottom, had lunch then continued on our way. As an Atheist, I was blown away by the sheer beauty of what the Colorado River was able to carve over millions of years.

The wonders of nature and reality are astounding!

Stooshie
Stooshie

What on earth has feeling awe at the world around you go to do with believing in a god? (Atheism is nothing more than not believing in a god).


Atheists are just as capable of of feeling awe as anyone. What is even more amazing is we realise that we are the universe looking back on itself.

JTDraper
JTDraper

An atheist can have a sense of awe or transcendence.  This is total crap.

RoddyHovey
RoddyHovey

This is one of the most uninformed things I've read in a long time. I'm glad I did though, now I know that 

Jeffrey Kluger knows nothing about actual science to to never read an article with his name attached to it again. 

FarazTalat
FarazTalat

Is this for real? So the scientific world practically teeming with atheists, is just hopelessly devoid of awe and wonder?

It's fortunate that with an overwhelming majority of the world's population (and potential readers) being religious, this piece is poised to be a quick hit, regardless of how ludicrous and condescending the argument is.

KevinV.Russell
KevinV.Russell

Well I'm an atheist and I have seen what religious people do. Fly jets into buildings. You'll excuse my cynicism. Happy holidays.

ValerieFinnigan
ValerieFinnigan

@MichaelWylieBased on the study cited, you might actually feel less awe than a more spiritually inclined person would. A spiritually inclined person would be more likely to feel such awe that would motivate reverence, profound gratitude, and a desire to worship. You don't experience awe that way.

JoseDaza
JoseDaza

@Emerie

I understand your perspective, however, no one links earthquakes, tornado's and other natural catastrophes with celestial beings and their awe. 

I can understand that the writing technique used is quite common, we are in an era where people understand the fundamental difference between theism/deism/superstition and nature and take the mixture of both as a direct offense to ones ability to reason and ones understanding of it all, up to a point where some may find it detrimental to others ability to reason.

loonytalker
loonytalker

@Emerie  - While I would agree with you that the article does not in itself deserve ridicule, certainly the headline attached does.  Not only is it inflammatory, but it is directly contradicted by the article ("...while atheists on the one hand and people of deep faith on the other don’t move off their baseline positions much..." so the research states clearly that atheist are atheistic at the Grand Canyon)


1000Demons
1000Demons

I was going to comment on how ridiculously asinine this article was, but when I read this... "This piece could not be more self indulgent than if you had written about licking your own reflection." ... I realized better wordsmiths than I had already gotten to it.  XD

ValerieFinnigan
ValerieFinnigan

@JoseDaza@EmerieWhoa, you might want to reread the Bible, then, because there are examples of linking the full range of natural phenomena to divine power. I'm fairly certain all other religious traditions make similar links. God (however different religious understand God) is not just a God of fluffy kittens and pretty panoramas, but of storms, earthquakes, floods (yes, there are more than two global cataclysmic flood stories in all the world's mythologies), every valley being exalted and mountain made low, et cetera.


In a great many traditions, there only difference between theism/deism and nature is an entirely artificial one people made up. Meanwhile, the only similarity between theism/deism and superstition is what atheists and religious people who are intolerant of other religions imagine.

Emerie
Emerie

@loonytalker  -  I generally agree with you about the title.  It is misleading, and I would guess it was chosen simply to incite controversy and make people pause. And of COURSE atheists go to the grand canyon (I've been a couple of times, this year most recently).  


But we have to get beyond a title or even how a message is framed.  Particularly atheists who seem to love to feel like a picked on minority group (they are becoming less and less minority).  Everyone loves to play the victim, get defensive and wonder how something is attacking them personally.  But when you get defensive - does it say more about an inquisitive group of researchers who carry out multiple studies on a subject... or does it say more about the person who gets defensive?   Interestingly enough, emotionally speaking awe is a mix of joy and fear and can be felt in response to things we don't fully understand.  Yet people also sometimes attack things they don't fully understand as well.  Is that fear without the joy?



DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@Emerie@loonytalker Given the fact that atheists have been fired from jobs because of their lack of beliefs, that people of faith are constantly trying to impose their moralities on them, and that too many people are degrading our species by infecting it with irrationality in place of science, I have to say your point about atheists "becoming victims" is invidious at BEST.

Since you re a psychological researcher, how would you classify the mental state of someone who said to you all of the things a Christian would tell you about their faith, only instead of God, heaven, Hell and Satan, they use "Bunny, Garden, Briar Patch and Fox". By definition, you'd have to classify them as clinically delusional.   There is no quantifiable difference between religious beliefs in deities and delusional beliefs in hallucinatory phantasms because both are pure conjurations of a mind that, willfully or not, is irrational.

The only difference is that "religion" is a socially acceptable delusion.  Unfortunately, given the harm it does to so many people psychologically (I'd argue it does far more harm to people than it does good, but regardless of that, it still does great harm in a myriad of ways no matter the balance), one could rationally argue that those who are "victims" of the wide-spread, socially-acceptable, psychological disorder that is religion are defending reason and rationality in the face of an overwhelming LACK of them.  When one considers the constitutional issues involved as well, a person's beliefs, or lack thereof, should have no bearing on how they are treated before the law, but religiously-based organizations are constantly trying to change the laws to impose their beliefs on others.  That, too, is defended against by those who, for a lack of a more politically correct way to put it, have a better grip on reality than have those who are trying to change the laws

You also ignore the fact that "victimization" is what the majority are whining about when the minority who believe in the true separation of church and state fight against the imposition of faith-based ideologies on them.  We see the hypocrisy between what their faith tells them, and what they rationalize they can do, and the others do not.  By that definition ALONE, they are clinically delusional

So please throttle back the notion that atheists are "victims".  We are defenders of reason against a surging tide of human nature irrationality combined with diminishing human intelligence.  After all, if they just kept it to themselves, most of these problems would disappear.

daniel.r.kegel
daniel.r.kegel

@Emerie @loonytalker Yup.  The headline is linkbait.  I mean, who would click on a more accurate headline?  It'd be too long and boring.


It's not easy being a headline writer.