Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Can religious people experience wonder at the universe?

I’m returning to this question since I’ve just read another post about Oprah Winfrey’s exchange with distance swimmer Diana Nyad in which Winfrey refused to accept Nyad’s atheism after Nyad had mentioned her sense of awe and wonder at the universe.

This tendency – and it’s a dishonest tendency, whether that’s intended or not – to equate an awestruck appreciation of and joy in the natural universe with “spirituality,” thus claiming it for religion, is a common problem. One sociological study that bothered me immensely when I read it and continues to raise my ire when I think of it today was Ecklund and Long’s 2011 “Scientists and Spirituality,”* and it was precisely because they played these sorts of games with “spirituality.” Having found that scientists are generally nonreligious, the authors set out to mine for “spirituality” amongst them. Instead of defining the variable they intended to measure (spirituality) at the outset, they argued that they were going to let the scientists define it for themselves. This doesn’t make sense in a study in which the prevalence of an attitude is being measured, of course, but in any case it isn’t what they did in practice. What they did was to lead scientists to characterize some of their attitudes as spiritual and, worse, label any positive orientation – a concern with ethics, a sense of responsibility to students, a curiosity about meanings and the world – as spiritual. This practice, which is not good science, is similar to what Oprah was doing when she refused to accept that Nyad’s wonder at and joy in the world could be nonreligious.

But the Ecklund and Long study and Oprah’s comments are tangential to the deeper problem, which is a failure to recognize the fundamental invalidity of religious experiences themselves. It’s not just that religious people try to monopolize awe, wonder, love, joy,... More fundamentally, the claim that these religious experiences are genuine is itself dubious. By its very nature, religious belief engages with the natural world, including ourselves, in a manner that’s distorted by false beliefs about it. Whether the god, gods, or spirits of religious people are believed to sit outside or form part of the natural world or the universe itself is seen as an embodiment of god or spirit, the natural world itself isn’t understood in terms of its real attributes.

If you feel awe at the universe as God’s creation or the embodiment of Spirit, then you don’t feel awe at the universe. If you love other animals, human or nonhuman, as God’s creatures, then you don’t love other animals. Because you’re not in awe of the universe, you’re not in awe of the universe. Because you don’t love other animals, you don’t love other animals. In other words, appreciation based on attributes external to the being or thing itself isn’t genuine appreciation of that being or thing. You can’t experience a genuine relationship with the entities of the world unless it’s a relationship with them, as they are.

That religious people feel an awe or a love or a connection that is not genuine – is mediated and distorted by false projection – is evident from their view of the world with these religious-spiritual elements removed. This is the vision they have of atheist materialism. The world without their gods or spirits is a bleak, empty, sterile place, defined by absence and devoid of everything beautiful and awe-inspiring.

I’ve quoted Bakunin from God and the State before:
Idealists of all schools, aristocrats and bourgeois, theologians and metaphysicians, politicians and moralists, religionists, philosophers, or poets, not forgetting the liberal economists - unbounded worshippers of the ideal, as we know - are much offended when told that man, with his magnificent intelligence, his sublime ideas, and his boundless aspirations, is, like all else existing in the world, nothing but matter, only a product of vile matter.

We may answer that the matter of which materialists speak, matter spontaneously and eternally mobile, active, productive, matter chemically or organically determined and manifested by the properties or forces, mechanical, physical, animal, and intelligent, which necessarily belong to it - that this matter has nothing in common with the vile matter of the idealists. The latter, a product of their false abstraction, is indeed a stupid, inanimate, immobile thing, incapable of giving birth to the smallest product, a caput mortuum, an ugly fancy in contrast to the beautiful fancy which they call God; as the opposite of this supreme being, matter, their matter, stripped by that constitutes its real nature, necessarily represents supreme nothingness. They have taken away intelligence, life, all its determining qualities, active relations or forces, motion itself, without which matter would not even have weight, leaving it nothing but impenetrability and absolute immobility in space; they have attributed all these natural forces, properties, and manifestations to the imaginary being created by their abstract fancy; then, interchanging rôles, they have called this product of their imagination, this phantom, this God who is nothing, "supreme Being" and, as a necessary consequence, have declared that the real being, matter, the world, is nothing. After which they gravely tell us that this matter is incapable of producing anything, not even of setting itself in motion, and consequently must have been created by their God.
The significance here of their having declared that “the real being, matter, the world, is nothing” is that the awe and wonder and curiosity and love religious people express toward the natural world are awe and wonder and curiosity and love toward the natural world only to the extent that the world is seen as the creation or manifestation of divinity or spirit. Therefore, they aren’t awe and wonder and curiosity and love toward the natural world. Removing the real attributes of the natural world and locating them outside that world renders authentic relations with the world as it is impossible.

It’s not that people who believe in gods and spirits are incapable of having these experiences. It’s that the religious impulse is fundamentally contrary to them and that the experiences are corrupted to the precise extent that the natural world is believed to be infused with divinity. (This corruption isn’t limited to religion, but is true generally: the genuine experience of relations to the world is corrupted to the precise extent that false beliefs are projected onto it.)

I call attention to this issue not only to reveal the irony of the religious attempts to monopolize the experiences of awe and relatedness and suggest the problem with the “Atheists experience that, too!” retort. Nor is my intent to argue that all atheists have these experiences. The important point is that projecting false beliefs onto the natural world – and thus onto ourselves – is alienating and contrary to the development of positive relations. Our capacity to genuinely relate to beings and entities in the world is directly tied to our knowledge and understanding of them as they are in reality. As Fromm argued, this understanding is necessarily founded on respect – in the form, here, of seeking to make our knowledge objective by working to avoid projecting our wishes and beliefs onto them and to see them as they are.

*Ecklund, Elaine Howard and Elizabeth Long. 2011. “Scientists and Spirituality.” Sociology of Religion 72 (3): 253-274.


  1. Thanks SC. This covers very well several of my issues with both the 'unspiritual' taunt leveled against atheists and one of the standard answers.

    In what I think is a very closely related thing: I really do think it's one of the more corrosive aspects of certain religions at least, that they attempt to cast the world as a dross, a miserable thing of no value, a mere warmup for some main event later. In my more suspicious moments, I do also suspect it is no accident; it is done by design, indeed, because the false reality imposed by the religion has or had an end, and a rather dark one, in preserving certain current social arrangements, and overselling itself, and selling short reality itself, is just a part of that. It's a borrowed ladder, and a costly one; religion imposes itself deliberately to steal some credit, and in doing so does pollute experience, teach people falsely this is what you are to do, this is your highest calling, to gush and grovel, whatever it is that might briefly impress you as remarkable.

    And I think this, too, is one of the reasons taunts like Oprah's anger me. Not just offend, anger. Because I think these are very damaging lies, and not just to unbelievers. Believers who buy it are effectively sold a bill of goods about what is even worth thinking about, what's interesting, and why. And they are thus effectively denied the possibility of seeing certain beauties. It just isn't the same thing, or even close, to gush 'Oh isn't Jesus wonderful' upon being told how old is the Grand Canyon or how the process that formed it proceeded. Our brains will strain to comprehend deep time as it is; throwing in the god is like offering them a too easy escape route, a soft couch into which to sink rather than really trying. I continue to cringe, hearing people say things like that, in reaction to whichever aspect of the natural world.

    1. Thanks for that great comment, AJ. I agree with everything you say.