The topic for this year’s Easter sermon at the Seattle Atheist Church was “awe without woo”. In other words, can an atheist experience the same awe as a believer in supernatural religion?
A common criticism of atheists is that they have denied themselves the opportunity to experience the full wonder of the universe. Without a belief in the supernatural, an atheist’s life has no meaning. Atheist have been accused of “unweaving the rainbow”.
During the discussion after the sermon, the topic of “authentic awe” was raised. Some people argued that the idea of “authentic awe”, as opposed to just “awe”, did not make sense. Awe is purely an emotional experience and you either feel it or you don’t.
I disagree. And I want to take advantage of this brief blog post to defend the notion of “authentic awe.”
Here’s my argument. People often talk about emotions as being “justified”, “warranted”, or “rational.” For example, imagine that a spider crawls on your screen while you are reading this. You might feel fear. If someone comes along and explains that the spider is not poisonous and it is not dangerous then you might be convinced that your fear was not justified.
Another example, imagine that your favorite aunt dies and you are overcome with sadness. You feel a great sense of loss because you will never interact with your aunt again. However, someone explains to you that your feeling of sadness is not warranted because you will be reunited with your beloved aunt in heaven. If you are convinced that your loss is not real then your sadness might go away.
The general idea is that each human emotion represents something about the world that makes the emotion warranted or not. Fear is justified by danger, sadness is justified by loss, anger is justified by injustice.
(There are exceptions to this. For example, neuroscientists can invoke emotions by direct neural stimulation. In those cases, people can experience an emotion such as fear or anger without the emotion representing anything at all. But these cases are the exception — and they are not how emotions work in daily life.)
Just like the other emotions, awe can be justified or not (authentic or unauthentic). I believe that you experience awe when you believe that the world is greater in some way than you previously thought.
For example, I am about to inflict awe on you (prepare yourself):
In November 2013, astronomers reported, based on Kepler space mission data, that there could be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like stars and red dwarfs in the Milky Way – Wikipedia
There could be 40 billion planets with life? Now that is authentically awe inspiring!
If your awe is based on false beliefs, however, the awe would not be justified. If someone tried to convince me that the entire universe was created by a pink kangaroo then I would not feel awe — I would just feel sadness over the opportunity costs of not learning how the universe was actually created.
So please don’t give me false awe — I want the real stuff!