“Whosoever can not do this, whosoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no further.”
You can find these lines describing “religious experience” in Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy. This slim volume is part of the cannon of academic religious studies programs across the world. The book was published in 1917, and Otto, a liberal German theologian, used it as an attempt to direct discussion about religion away from theoretical gymnastics and focus instead on experience. With typical German precision, he uses a razor-thin scalpel of analysis and metaphor to understand the character of these experiences. In one potent example, he invokes being overwhelmed by great music as a cousin of “religious experience,” be it a Bach etude or Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” (hey, it works for me).
Otto wants to make clear that awe is not simply appreciation, but something much deeper and elemental. Religious experience is, in his words, “awe-ful.” It is exactly at that point that we can step away from Otto’s ultimate concern with the metaphysics of deity (not my thing) and find a powerful and potent path to think about science and human spiritual endeavor.
Time and again, when people encounter the universe revealed through the power of science, they will use the term “awe” to describe their experience. It’s a common reaction to Hubble images of dying stars, electron microscopy of viral nano-worlds, or even enveloping descriptions of evolution’s elegance in the development of new species. I know people have this reaction because they tell me about it. After giving numerous talks on science, I can count the people who come up afterward and describe their reactions with the word “awe.” Something, for them, has happened.
Awe can mean overpowering or overflowing. That makes sense to me in this context. Sometimes it will be defined as “dread.” That seems too negative for my tastes, but from these same talks some people tell me that the grand scales revealed by astrophysics make them feel uncomfortable and displaced. So perhaps, for them, dread was a part of the experience, too. Definitions aside, the point here is simple—you know it when you feel it. And there lies the crux of the biscuit.
I have tried to argue that a more enlivened perspective on science and religion could begin with experience. The experience of awe is a good place to start. Why? Because there are many open-minded and thoughtful individuals who come from different perspectives. Some call themselves atheist, some are agnostics, and some are believers. Finding a common ground for these folks would be a good thing. Building a language that goes beyond easy antagonism and touches something true about human experience would free us all to think more creatively and in new ways about our place in a world saturated with the fruits of science.
So if Otto identifies awe as the defining characteristic of experiences traditionally called religious, and if that same sense of awe is characteristic of encounters with science’s grand vision, why not start exactly at this point? Why not use this kind of experience, freed from metaphysical speculation, to identify a new axis around which discussions of both science and human spiritual endeavor can turn? This capacity for awe is ancient. By focusing on it, we might learn more about ourselves, our response to the world, and the real context of the science we cherish.
Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.