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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