Why There Are No Atheists at the Grand Canyon


Why There Are No Atheists at the Grand Canyon

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

By Nov. 27, 201353 Comments
Joe Klamar / AFP / Getty ImagesThe Grand Canyon in Arizona on July 1, 2013

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

If I had the ear of this entire generation for 15 Minutes. Get out while you can.

If I had the ear of this entire generation for 15 Minutes.

The day of Pentecost 34 A.D.

Men and women from all over the world are crowded into Jerusalem.  Suddenly 120 people pour out of an upper room with supernatural flames appearing over their heads and speaking in the local dialects of the thousands of foreigners visiting the city.

Whatever your view of the origin of the Church of Jesus here is the real story.  It was not born in a musty guilt-ridden gathering.  It is not the product of weak minds or social escapists.  On this day it became clear that a truth would impose its reality on all cultures and all levels of society. It was born in plain sight of one of the most multicultural events of all time.

Skeptics can dredge up whatever failure of man done in the name of Jesus but it does not touch the power of the real source of the Gospel.

When it became obvious that a miracle has happened, Peter, the spokesman for the 120 begins to explain that this is the fulfillment of a prophecy that was given 753 years before.   Joel 2:28 says, “I will pour out of my Spirit on all flesh.”

He says in essence, “Our ability to speak your language is further proof of what has happened here in the last 4 years.  Proof by healing miracles, proof by fulfilling over 200 direct predictions of the messiah and proof by the resurrection from the dead!”

They saw the flames over their heads, they heard them speak in such detailed accuracy and even accent of obscure tongues from their remote villages. But some still mocked and said that they were drunk.  Some people will mock in the face of absolute proof but  mocking Jesus does nothing to disprove Him.

 Peter finishes with a heart-felt warning.      He finishes with a warning.  Acts 2: 40 And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.”  The Message Bible says it this way, “He went on in this vein for a long time, urging them over and over, “Get out while you can; get out of this sick and stupid culture!”

In 37 more years Jerusalem would be totally destroyed.  It was one of Jesus’ final predictions fulfilled in painful detail.   I want you to get out of disaster:  Every current crisis of the world is laid out in the Bible.  Every cast member on the stage and plainly seen.

You may not have much in common with any Christians that you have met.  But what you do have in common is problems and the need for love.  You see the protests of the Occupy Movement and the extremes of many today.  They are not just seeking justice on a natural plane but they are feeling the convulsions of their soul.  They sense that our way of life is far more unnatural that we think.

Just because it is simple does not mean it is not absolutely true!  Victory over any adversity may be found by living for Jesus Christ. Whatever you are going through, there is hope in Jesus.

God is real. Jesus is alive! He loves you and is concerned for your well-being. He is the absolute Reality on which all truth is ultimately grounded. His message for you and your world is contained in the collection of 66 books called The Bible. Its transcendent teachings have stood the test of time, the scrutiny of scholars and the furnace of practical experience. They speak not only about history but how to live today in every level and facet of life.

You must make a deliberate and conscious decision to surrender your life to Christ as your Lord and Savior.

What you must do:

Get real: You must face for the first time the truth about your wrong. To do this you must be utterly real. Many plead with God to prove He is real.  The cure is in doing the very opposite: prove that you are real to God.  God will not do business with people who do not mean business with Him. “He that covers his sins shall not prosper; but whoever confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy.” (Prov.28:13)

Repentance: “I confess that I am a sinner and I cannot save myself from sin.” True repentance means turning completely from your selfishness, with the determination to sin no more.

Faith: “I believe that God is real, and that Jesus Christ is His son. I freely confess He died on the cross for the penalty I deserved. I believe that I can receive both His forgiveness and a new life through the power of His Spirit living within me.” This act of faith is neither an idea or a feeling but an intelligent and deliberate act of the will. Give Him your doubts, your weakness and your loneliness. Your heart will never have peace, your doubts will never clear up, you will never get relief from the cruelty of this world until you trust, surrender, believe from your heart!

It is your turn to experience the power, proof and love of God that has given humanity for over 2,000 years.