AI: Awe, and Science


One of the common misconceptions that religious and spiritual people sometimes have about atheists like me is the belief that we do not experience awe. I once had a dear friend ask me “How can you not believe in anything bigger than yourself?” I laughed when he said it, and said that the universe was big enough for me, thank you very much.

I can understand why some religious people might suspect that I don’t experience awe, especially if their only experiences with it have been related to their faith. Religion is often designed to create the experience easily. It causes believers to feel connected to a larger community both in the present and through history, and tells them that there is a god or gods that they are connected to as well.

I recently went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. We didn’t have time to see everything, so I insisted that my fiance and I go to the meteorite room. We got there, and I started at one end and began reading every single plaque and inspecting tiny little rocks (mostly ignoring the huge ones in the center of the room. My fiance got bored, and told me to come find her in the next room when I was ready – she was going to look at gemstones.

I made my way through the room alone, slowly, inspecting small bits of the universe and reading detailed descriptions. Then, unexpectedly, right in front of me were 5 pieces of Mars. I stood in awe. In a room full of kids and annoyed parents my eyes filled with tears, and I stood there trying to read the display. I let myself stand there awhile, in the presence of something amazing from so far away. It was simply amazing.

I think my reaction was so strong partly because I didn’t expect to find them there. If I had known that the museum had martian meteorites I probably would not have responded so strongly. Some would use the term “spiritual experience” for what I felt, but I don’t. Maybe it was an “awakening of awe” or something, but it was definitely a sensation of connection to the universe, and an experience I cherish.

Have you ever had an experience of awe and wonder at something outside of a religious context? Has science ever made you cry? What makes you feel connected to the universe?

his way? Would it be the same no matter who you attended with?

The Afternoon Inqueery (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Queereka community. Look for it every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at 3pm ET.

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  1. Two things, both astronomical:

    1. Standing on a mountain, at the edge of a valley, watching the moon rise. As the light from the sun, as reflected by the moon, swept across the valley, I had a profound sense of vertigo. It’s a little crazy to realize that, in some sense, the earth is upside-down, and you’re just sort of stuck to it because of a force you don’t really understand, and in another sense it doesn’t make any sense to say whether anything is right-side-up because everything’s just swinging around in space.

    2. Discovering that, in a similar kind of way that rocks and stars are kind of grouped together into solar systems, and solar systems are kind of grouped together into mind-bogglingly massive structures called galaxies, galaxies are kind of grouped together into insanely mind-destroyingly large structures called galactic clusters, which themselves can be organized into galactic superclusters, which are so large that my ability to make adjectives breaks well before I can conceive of that scale.

    This universe is ridiculously proportioned compared to what I’m used to, and I would have to be nuts to think that it was all put here for my personal amusement.

  2. There have been two times so far, but I expect many more in my life.

    The first time was when I was a child on a field trip to see the relics of Pompeii. I was in elementary at the time, not even sure what grade I was in, but I was one of the few kids who found themselves looking at so many amazing things. Some kids hit the entrance and raced to find the exit so they could get to the gift shop, food court, or just to get out of there and sit and talk with each other. I and a few other students were slowly working our way through. The only people behind us from our school were the teachers, who were in equal awe of everything we were seeing. Even with my limited experience in the world, I knew how amazing everything was. And I drank that into myself in every room.

    The second time was far more recent. I managed to convince my wife that a family trip was in order to go see the bones of “Lucy” which was down in Houston at the time. That was probably one of the closest locations from where we live in Oklahoma, and it held other trips to NASA and the gulf too. I remember standing there looking down upon the actual remains that has been celebrated in our evolution and I was lost in thought for everything it brought to science and our humanity.

    And I remember the security guard asking me not to lean on the case. Oops!

    One of the things I found funny was that a school field trip was in the same place and like the Pompeii exhibit, there were students who raced from entrance to exit, some who only hit the high points, and a few who hung back and examined the various antiquities from Ethiopia before finally getting to see Lucy. I looked at the kids standing there around the same case and hoped for each of them a life of excitement and adventure in discovery of all the great wonders that we have out there.

    Then we went and looked at dinosaurs, which my son really liked a lot more.

  3. Sky-watching fills me with awe at the magnitude of the universe: stargazing, stunning cloud formations, Texas summer thunderstorms that last for days, and lightning storms. The power of nature, at once stunning and terrifying and ever beyond my ability to fully comprehend. Those are for me what might be called spiritual experiences by others. When I got to visit the new Perot Nature and Science Museum in Dallas, I might have teared up a little at the quote on some of the benches: “The iron in our blood was formed in stars, billions of years ago, trillions of miles away.” WOW. (pic:

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