Awe is that feeling you get when you look up at the beauty of the night sky or look out over the incomprensible vastness of an ocean. It's something that most humans have felt at some point in their lives. But it's only within the past few decades that scientists have tried their hand at studying this all-encompassing and often elusive emotion.
In 2003, University of California, Berkeley researchers Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt proposed that all of the ways that people may feel awe (through encounters with religion, nature, art, or even powerful people) share two characteristics: vastness and accommodation. In other words, the encounter is so expansive and mind blowing that it nudges you to change the way you process the world.
Religion has always helped people feel connected to the divine and by extension, cultivate a sense of awe. In fact, some studies have shown that awe can directly inspire spirituality, and act as an assurance when awe causes fear or vulnerability.
Religious buildings and rituals are designed specifically to give people the sense that there is a higher power in the universe. When a Catholic approaches the Eucharist, when a Buddhist lights incense at an altar, or when a Muslim touches her head to the floor in prayer -- these are all situations that evoke wonder. They fit the requirements that Keltner and Haidt had for awe, since they inspire a sense of vastness and demand accommodation.
But it turns out that Americans who are unaffiliated with a specific religious tradition -- those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or "nothing in particular" -- are also tapping into that sense of wonder.
A recent article by Pew Research Center editors takes a fresh look at the data that was collected during the center's 2014 Religious Landscape Study. Pew writers David Masci and Michael Lipka point out that while Americans are getting less religious as a whole (by the standards traditionally used to measure religiosity, like worship service attendance, for example), feelings of awe are on the rise among both the religiously affiliated and unaffiliated.
About 46 percent of the more than 35,000 Americans surveyed in 2014 say they felt a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least weekly, up from 39 percent of the same sample size in 2007. People who were affiliated with a religion experienced a six point jump between those years (from 39 percent to 45 percent). Within that group, Jehovah's Witnesses reported feeling the highest levels of awe (62 percent in 2014).
But people who were unaffiliated were also feeling awe. They experienced an eight point jump during the same time period (from 39 percent in 2007 to 47 percent in 2014).
The most significant change comes from what may seem like an unlikely place -- America's atheists. The number of atheists who reported feelings of wonder about the universe soared from 37 percent to 54 percent -- a whopping 17 points. This is a higher percentage than both evangelical Christians and Catholics reported in 2014 (48 percent and 42 percent, respectively).
Ryan Cragun, a sociologist at the University of Tampa who studies secularization, thinks this dramatic rise could have happened because more people are willing to admit that they don't believe in god or a higher power. The number of atheists has roughly doubled in the past several years.
Cragun also said that because of the growing acceptability of atheism, there's been a shift in how people within the atheist community think about spirituality.
"It could be that those who are now admitting they are atheists ... are also more willing to admit that they do experience what many people consider 'spiritual' feelings," Cragun told The Huffington Post. "Even though most of those who do experience these feelings would quickly indicate that they do not believe they have a supernatural component to them."
Still, the idea that atheists are unable to feel awe or wonder is prevalent. A conversation between Oprah Winfrey and Diana Nyad, a professional swimmer and a professed atheist presented a common perspective on the topic.
Oprah invited Nyad onto her show, “Super Soul Sunday," in 2013, after the swimmer completed a 53-hour solo swim from Cuba to Florida. On the episode, Nyad explained that she was an atheist.
“I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist, go on down the line, and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity," Nyad said. "All the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.”
But Winfrey questioned whether Nyad was truly an atheist, since the swimmer has experienced awe.
The conversation prompted many nonbelievers to express outrage on social media about Winfrey's assumption that people need God in order to feel wonder about the universe.
“46 percent of all Americans in 2014 said they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least weekly.”
The results of the Pew study seem to affirm that awe, and all the benefits that come from feeling awe, don't necessarily have to happen inside the confines of a religious denomination. The religiously unaffiliated are just as tuned in to the grandness of the world.
But where does awe come from then?
Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester who is not religious, believes that the experience of awe is both a basic and crucial part of what makes us human. He suggests that awe is "pre-scientific" and "pre-religious," meaning that it's an emotion swells up in the heart before humans try to explain it in scientific or religious terms.
"What makes the elemental human experience of awe significant is it is, first and foremost, an experience of meaning," Frank wrote in a blog for NPR. "It saturates the world with meaning. Explanations for the origins of that meaning must always come later."
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