How the Grand Canyon makes us religious: Natural wonders increase our tendency to believe in God and the supernatural
- Being awe-struck prompts people to try to explain the world, a study found
- Participants were quizzed after watching clips from the BBC’s Planet Earth
PUBLISHED: 08:11 EST, 26 November 2013 | UPDATED: 08:30 EST, 26 November 2013
Amazing natural sights such as the the Grand Canyon or the Northern Lights might increase people’s tendency to believe in God and the supernatural, according to new research by US scientists.
The findings suggest that awe-inspiring sights increase our motivation to make sense of the world around us, and may underlie a trigger of belief in the supernatural.
Psychological scientist Doctor Piercarlo Valdesolo, of Claremont McKenna College in the United States, said: ‘Many historical accounts of religious epiphanies and revelations seem to involve the experience of being awe-struck by the beauty, strength or size of a divine being, and these experiences change the way people understand and think about the world.
‘We wanted to test the exact opposite prediction: it’s not that the presence of the supernatural elicits awe, it’s that awe elicits the perception of the presence of the supernatural.’
Dr Valdesolo and his colleague Jesse Graham, of the University of Southern California, tested the prediction by having participants watch awe-inspiring scenes from BBC’s Planet Earth documentary series or neutral video clips from a news interview.
Afterwards, the participants were asked how much awe they felt while watching the video, and whether they believed that worldly events unfold according to some god’s or other non-human entity’s plan.
NATURE AND ROMANTICISM
Nature and a connection with the divine has long been observed, perhaps most famously by the Romantics.
Romanticism was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that began in Europe towards the end of the 18th century and peaked between 1800 and 1850.
Artists and philosophers who belonged to the movement emphasised the glory, beauty and power of the natural world.
Feeling alienated by traditional religious beliefs, the romantics looked upon nature as the dwelling place of God. God and the natural universe were one and the same.
They saw nature as a metaphor for the sublime – the power and mystery of forces that inspired awe, solace and self-discovery.
Famous romantic Jean-Jacques Rousseau held that humans were by nature good but were corrupted by society. ‘Natural man’ was close to nature and unspoiled by social institutions.
The main reason for the development of this strong connection between nature and God was the Industrial Revolution, which caused many people to leave the countryside and live in cities, separating themselves from the natural world.
The connection may also have arisen as a backlash against the scientific trend for enlightenment philosophy.
In addition to this, large areas of European and North American wilderness had been tamed, so that it had become much safer for people to travel to natural wonders.
Overall, the participants who had watched the awe-inspiring video tended to believe more in supernatural control, and were more likely to believe in God when compared with the news-watching group.
The effect held even when awe-inspiring but impossible scenes, such as a massive waterfall through city streets, were presented.
Another study showed that participants who watched the awe-inspiring clips became increasingly intolerant of uncertainty.
This particular mindset – a discomfort with uncertainty – may explain why feelings of awe produce a greater belief in the supernatural, according to the researchers.
Dr Valdesolo said: ‘The irony in this is that gazing upon things that we know to be formed by natural causes, such as the jaw-dropping expanse of the Grand Canyon, pushes us to explain them as the product of supernatural causes.’
However, the researchers also pointed out that the figures could also shed light on why certain individuals seek to explain the world through secular and scientific means.
The experience of awe may simply motivate us to search for explanations, no matter what kinds of explanations they are.
Dr Valdesolo said this might be why, in another experiment, participants who watched the awe-inspiring video showed greater discomfort and were more likely to believe a random string of numbers was designed by a human hand.
Based on their preliminary findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, the researchers are now looking at factors that modulate the effect of awe on belief in the supernatural.
For example, they are testing whether adopting submissive body postures, which make us feel less powerful, might dispose us to experiences of awe.
Dr Valdesolo said such a link could perhaps explain the presence of such postures in religious practice, such as kneeling, bowing, and gazing up.
He added: ‘The more submissive we act, the more awe we might feel, and perhaps the stronger our beliefs become.’
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2513796/How-Grand-Canyon-makes-religious-Natural-wonders-increase-tendency-believe-God-supernatural.html#ixzz2lrciGmI4
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