In a 2006 article for the Los Angeles Times, Sam Harris identified 10 myths about atheism, among them the idea that “atheists are closed to spiritual experience.”
Harris explained: “There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly.”
So why the persistent idea that awe is inextricably linked to theism? And are “scientific awe” and “religious awe” fundamentally different, or deep down one and the same?
To be sure, awe is a multifaceted emotion, and one that’s only recently become the target of systematic psychological research. In an influential 2003 paper, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt argued that awe is characterized by two central features: vastness and accommodation. Vastness describes the experience of something larger than the self, whether that vastness is a matter of physical size or of metaphorical size, such as great power. Accommodation refers to the need to modify one’s current mental structures to make sense of the experience — whether or not such modification is actually enacted or succeeds.
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