Can Atheists Experience Awe?

Chris Stedman, assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard, has a piece over at CNN's Belief Blog entitled "What Oprah gets wrong about atheism." He takes as his point of departure the recent contretemps between Oprah and swimmer Diana Nyad.

In his reflection, Stedman raises this concern:
Winfrey's response may have been well intended, but it erased Nyad's atheist identity and suggested something entirely untrue and, to many atheists like me, offensive: that atheists don't experience awe and wonder. 
Now - and I speak as something of a theist...Jesuits do, in fact, believe in God - I don't get the sense from Oprah that she is erasing Nyad's atheist identity. Instead, what Oprah experiences as a sense of awe, of the mystery of creation, is what she calls an experience of God. In quoting Karl Rahner yesterday, I attempted to shore-up Winfrey's response. Rahner, one of the theological giants of the 20th century, understood the experience of God seldom to come under an explicit label. He was convinced, nevertheless, of everyone having such an experience.

The philosopher William Desmond, whose thought has captivated my imagination for the past year, places at the start of his philosophical system the experience of astonishment. His writing tends to be rather dense and poetic, so let me simplify a beautiful passage from an essay he wrote entitled "Wording the Between."
We do not open ourselves; being opened, we are as an opening. The experience of astonishment awakens the openness of mindfulness to being... 
For Desmond, the experience of "awe at" and "the mystery of" creation, of the cosmos, does not give us some strange idea of a God who is going to intervene in our daily affairs. Nor does it furnish us with proof of Jesus' divinity, the authenticity of the Mandylion of Edessa, the Immaculate Conception, or Transubstantiation. Our experience of being overwhelmed by Awe/Astonishment/Mystery exposes us to our being opened to all of being, the whole of creation.

We are in awe when we marvel when we sense that what is does not have to be. I think Oprah is getting at this impulse: the experience of awe is not merely a feeling, but an address from without. We are overwhelmed by something outside of us, something that penetrates into the depths of our core. The experience of "awe" comes from something "awe-full" washing over us, coming toward us from without, awakening us to our openness toward being.

The theist contends such an experience of awe, of being "rocked back on one's heels" renders us silent, forces us to ask, "Is this just a feeling or am I being addressed, summoned, called from without?" Oprah isn't denying the experience of awe...it's just that, as a believer, this primordial experience points back to the God who sings creation into being.

I'm not trying to offer some proof for God's existence. Instead, I'm simply giving Oprah a more generous interpretation than her critics seem to be doing. Just as Stedman advocates reasonable discourse between theists and atheists, so too may we consider Nyad and Winfrey:
Oprah: "Ahhh, Diana, your experience of awe, to my understanding, points back toward a God who sings creation into being...we are joined in this experience of awe, this experience of God!"
Diana: "Ahhh, Oprah, your experience of awe has never spoken to me and I'm not sure that it can speak...we are joined in this experience of awe, this experience of the beauty of creation!" 
The conversation between theists and atheists may need to turn on this very point: from whence our common experience of wonder? What does it mean to experience awe, to feel ourselves overwhelmed from without? Is this simply an oceanic feeling or is it an address from without?

In short, I don't think there's any denial that atheists can experience awe. It'd be equally ludicrous to say that theists have cornered the "awe market." Instead, within the shared feeling of awe, I think a rich conversation about the meaning of awe is possible.

Aristotle contended, in the Peri Hermeneias, "The knowledge of opposites is one." In Latin, eadem est scientia oppositorum. Meaningful discourse between atheists and theists will begin with a discussion of the God one accepts and the other rejects. It may be far more basic than this: is there a common experience between the two which, for one, rests joyfully in the awe of creation that is just there and, for the other, experiences the awe of creation as pointing to a creator, a god, who sings it into being.


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