Many months ago I read a fascinating article by Connor Wood about awe and its effect on religious belief.
A pair of experimental psychologists performed a series of experiments that measured and correlated subjects’ sense of awe with their commensurate impressions regarding the existence, or non-existence of some sort of intelligent agency behind the cosmos and our place in it. Several studies also measured the needs of individuals for cognitive closure and discomfort with uncertainty. Lack of tolerance for this discomfort has the tendency to drive people to religious faith and greater belief in the supernatural.
It seems that when our lives are filled with anxiety and uncertainty, we have a great need for relief, often found in the idea that someone (Someone?) is in charge of everything.
(I am significantly truncating the ideas and conclusions arrived at by the researchers; you can read the entire article here.)
I found an idea at the end of this article particularly interesting. Wood mentioned previous studies that seem to show that people who live in a general state of experiencing awe in their lives apparently have less need for cognitive closure, rather than more. If that holds true in general, he wonders if it could be possible that living in a state of wonder might be counterproductive for inculcating religious belief:
This means that while the transient experience of awe (apparently) decreases tolerance of uncertainty, experiencing a lot of awe over a long period of time has the opposite effect. This counter-correlation raises the question of whether longterm awe erodes religious belief. According to Valdesolo and Graham, religious faith is boosted by intolerance for uncertainty. But if awe over the long term decreases people’s need for cognitive closure, then seeing awe-inspiring sights every day for a year might “inoculate” people against religious belief.
Wood himself finds that conclusion unlikely, and I agree. I have always believed the opposite; in fact, have found my own life to be an example of one who finds connection with God through the majesty and wonder of nature, both here on our planet, and throughout the majestic mysteries of the universe. I am in agreement with the ancient Hebrew king David who wrote: The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. (Psalm 19, verse one).
But I have communicated with people who go through the same existential trembling at the wonder of it all, who do not translate that experience into a dumbfounded gratitude towards a creator. They are equally moved by the glory and the grandeur, and they have the need to express their emotion at the mystery and beauty of life, but they do not necessarily equate what they have seen and felt with any need to connect with a “higher personality.”
I respect that, because each individual is unique, and has freedom to come to their own conclusions. Where I see majesty that is a pale reflection of the incomprehensible transcendence of a Being possessing unimaginable power, love and greatness, they see the same majesty merely displaying random, unconscious, undirected power.
Are we are all here through a process that–no matter how astonishing–is mindless and random?
Or are we significant beings created in the image of God–a Personality uncreated, eternal, omnipotent–who dwell in a cosmos this God created for purposes we cannot yet fully fathom?
Really, it comes down to this: Your presuppositions profoundly impact the manner in which you process your sense of wonder. And of course, what conclusions you draw.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou readst black where I read white.
(William Blake, “The Everlasting Gospel”)
I have discovered and experienced connection with my Creator in deep oceans of soul. In that connection, I experience continually increasing levels of awe and wonder. I learn humility; I glimpse majesty. I comprehend that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, and I am overwhelmingly loved.
Believe this, or do not believe: There is a throne greater than the cosmos, and from the throne flows a river that gives life, sparkles like crystal, and engulfs and refreshes all who will “come and drink freely.” This is not mystical poetry, it is reality.