New Study Shows Awe Bad for ‘Science’ (If by ‘Science’ You Mean Atheism)

By Douglas Axe Published on September 15, 2016

Psychology professors from Claremont McKenna, Yale and Berkeley have just published a study that should be “disconcerting to those interested in promoting an accurate understanding of evolution.” Specifically, they’ve identified an insidious factor that has crept into science films and videos, undermining the ability of viewers to be good Darwinists.

Awe is the culprit, they say. All those jaw-dropping nature documentaries have been messing with our minds.

Most wildlife shows are packaged with the usual Darwinian narrative, spoken in an authoritative tone that isn’t supposed to be questioned. But it seems that wildlife itself, in stunning visual display, is conveying a different message — more powerfully, in fact.

Everyone is awed by life, and experiences that accentuate this awe seem to affect us, whether or not we believe in God. The new study suggests that these experiences affirm a sense of faith in theists and a sense of purpose-like natural order in atheists and agnostics, both of which cause problems for instructors wanting to churn out good Darwinists.

An Awful Blind Spot

Maybe “good” isn’t the right word there. I mean, if something as obviously good for science as awe works against a “scientific” idea, wouldn’t that suggest this idea isn’t really so good or scientific in first place? How good can a way of viewing life be if excitement about life undermines it?

Common sense provides the clearest take-home message here. Since awe and wonder have always drawn people to scientific exploration, any form of teaching that calls for policing those emotions can’t possibly be in the best interest of science.

As clear as that seems, the people who did the study don’t see it that way. This is a perfect case of academic researchers being so constrained by their materialistic worldview — so convinced that the physical world is all there is — that they can’t see the implications of their own work clearly.

Awe Explained Away

In fact, they can’t even get their heads around awe itself. They assume everything boils down to physics, which physicists have fully explained. There should be no surprises, then. No occasions for wonder. Our jaws should never drop. Awe is an anomaly — a hiccup. In nerd-speak: “Awe involves an ‘immediate failure to assimilate information into existing mental structures,’ and accompanying states of uncertainty trigger motivations for explanation and meaning-making.” In English: Awe is nothing more than mental panic.

So that feeling you get when you see a baby being born or a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, or when you drive your kids far away from the city lights to lie on the roof of the car and take in the full night sky — what that feeling really amounts to is: Oh pooh! I thought F=ma explained everything, but now I’ve got a sinking feeling it doesn’t.

Awe: Good Medicine for Science

Now, if you happen to be a materialist, maybe that is where awe and wonder take you. And maybe you should follow them. Maybe your head needs to pay more attention to your heart. But for those of us who see all of this as a God thing, awe is the complete opposite of an anomaly. And that has always been good for science.

The authors of this study think “awe drives theists away from scientific explanations,” but they only say that because they’re using a distorted definition of science. To them, anyone who doesn’t see science “as a superior, even exclusive guide to reality” is unscientific. They assessed this by asking participants in their study whether they agree that “we can only rationally believe in what is scientifically provable.” According to these professors, then, the very definition of science marks people of faith as scientific outsiders.


Perhaps this only shows how ignorant that definition is. Do these psychology professors honestly think that reason is a product of science? Do they think someone in a white lab coat somewhere has proof in a test tube that science is the only reliable source of truth? Do they not detect a hint of absurdity to that logic?

As a person of faith, I can assure them that their does-not-compute interpretation of awe is entirely foreign to people of faith, many of whom are scientists. When we behold the wonders of God’s handiwork, we’re not at all driven away from studying these wonders and making them known. Quite the opposite. Like so many scientists before us, we’re driven toward those activities, seeing them as part of our very purpose in life.

That, I think, is science in its purest and most compelling form, which may be why the inscriptions at the entrance to one of the world’s greatest centers of physics — the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge — have since 1874 quoted Psalm 111: “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.”


Douglas Axe is director of Biologic Institute and author of Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life is Designed. His research uses both experiments and computer simulations to examine the functional and structural constraints on the evolution of proteins and protein systems. After a Caltech PhD he held postdoctoral and research scientist positions at the University of Cambridge, the Cambridge Medical Research Council Centre and the Babraham Institute in Cambridge.

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