People who are strongly science-minded are often thought of as being too logical for religion—and this may be true to some extent. But according to a study published this week in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, it can also go another way: If awe is part of a person’s love of science, this can actually make people more likely to believe in a god of some description.
Researchers from Arizona State University hypothesized that experiencing a sense of wonder or marvel—at science and at the universe it tries to explain—may be what mediates a connection between science-mindedness and a belief in god, or at least an openness to it.
“There are many ways of thinking about God,” said study author Kathryn Johnson in a statement. “Some see God in DNA, some think of God as the universe, and others think of God in Biblical, personified terms. We wanted to know if scientific engagement influenced beliefs about the existence or nature of God.”
In one of their studies, the team asked participants about a number of variables, including their interest in science and their belief in scientific logic—for instance, people rated their agreement with statements like “All the tasks that humans face can be solved by science” and “Scientific methods provide the only reliable path to understanding reality.” The participants also rated their experiences of awe and self-transcendence, as well as their belief in god of different descriptions, including mythical, limitless, authoritarian, ineffable, and so on.
In short, the team found that people who were more science-minded were generally less likely to believe in god, as one might expect. But people who were sciency and who often experienced awe were more likely to believe in god—not, generally, a classical or biblical type of god, but rather, a limitless or mystical one.
“When people are awed by the complexity of life or the vastness of the universe, they were more inclined to think in more spiritual ways,” said Johnson. “The feeling of awe might make people more open to other ways of conceptualizing God.”
In another set of experiments, the team wanted to see if the effect could be manipulated in real time. They had participants watch one of two videos about quantum physics—one was set to music, and showed various well-known quantum physicists talking about the coolness of their subject. The other simply showed a physicist giving a short run-down of how mysteriously particles can behave. They found that people who had watched the more moving (awe-inspiring) video were more likely to then say they believed in a mystical or limitless god, or that they were more uncertain or unable to describe the nature of god in general. When the team controlled for potentially confounding variables (like the presence of music in the one video), they arrived the same results. Again, it seems to be that sense of awe that mediates, or connects, a belief in science with a belief in god.
“We found that being awed by scientific theories, the vastness of the universe, or the complexity of life can positively influence belief in God as ineffable or, to a greater extent, as a mystical cosmic force,” the authors conclude. “Yes, scientifically-minded people are logical, analytical, critical thinkers—but they are also innovative, passionate, visionary, and often awed by the complexity of life and the beauty and majesty of the universe or scientific theories.”
While the initial study used quantum physics—the tiniest level at which to study the universe and admittedly one of the most awe-inspiring—the phenomenon was also there when the participants watched videos about the vastness of the universe or how single cells work, which suggests there are different ways to elicit the effect.
As a related note on this 50th anniversary of the moon landing, astronauts who have seen the earth from way above or witnessed “earthrise” have also reported feeling a deep sense of spirituality or religiosity as a result. (Here’s a nice rundown of this phenomenon.) And for regular folks, there are undoubtedly many ways to experience awe—walking in a forest or looking up at the night sky. There’s certainly been lots of earlier research on how awe benefits us, mentally and physically—so whether it leads to a belief in god or not, conjuring up a sense of awe as often as possible is probably a very smart move.