Here’s a story that’s gotten some attention this past week — reports that when people look at awesome scenery, like the Grand Canyon, they are more inclined to attribute them to God (whatever that means).
The emotion of awe has been described by psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt as a combination of two elements: a sense of vastness — in terms of size or power or prestige — and a “need for accommodation,” a desire to somehow accommodate the experience into one’s worldview. When you look at the Grand Canyon, the scale of the thing overwhelms you, and its magnificence challenges you to find some explanation for its existence. In other words: Wow! How?
This disorientation sets the stage for magical thinking. Humans tend to flee from uncertainty, and they respond to it by looking for patterns in the world. They sometimes see patterns where none exists, and those patterns sometimes involve supernatural phenomena. Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky have reported that making subjects feel out of control leads them to see shapes in random noise, to see false correlations in financial reports, to see coincidences as conspiracies, and to rely on superstitious actions.
So here I have a chance to to set down what seems to me a rather obvious observation, to those not blinkered by religious awe. To wit: why would it be that *certain* experiences in the world evoke this god-feeling? Seeing the Grand Canyon, or the immensities of space; or, to those more easily impressed, a simple rainbow, or the glow of sun from behind clouds.
Now think about this: if there is a god who made the universe, then this god is responsible for every part of it. The Grand Canyon, the dirt beneath your feet, the rainbow, the dead squirrel lying in the road — and even more repulsive circumstances I will refrain from suggesting. Everything you find impressive or disgusting and anything in between. So: if you find some of these experiences evocative of God and not others, then something is going on in your head that is not about experience of the world evoking God. Here is where we can cue the psychological biases discussed in this article. Perception of God is not about experience of reality; it’s about something going on inside your head.