Secular Awe Falls Short
Secular scientists and astronomers are only human.
They feel awe, too. But why, how, and for what end?
Christians believe that all humans, members of one human race, are created in God’s image. A sense of awe and wonder, therefore, is universal; it comes in the software. Corrupted with the virus of sin, awe is still God’s handle with which to draw people to himself. But what can secular materialists do with it? They can’t deny feelings of awe are real. Apes don’t appear to experience awe. How did it arise uniquely in the human psyche? Where did it come from? Can it be reduced to a selective advantage?
The powerful new images from the James Webb Space Telescope provide an opportunity to study the science of awe, and Stanford University professors—a cosmologist, a cultural historian and a neuroscientist—reflect on the feelings the JWST images generated in their minds.
The power of awe and the cosmos (Stanford News, 6 Sept 2022). Everyone will surely relate to the feelings of awe expressed by scholars describing it. When trying to discuss the origin and significance of awe, however, reporter Melissa de Witte reveals academic bias against the Christian worldview.
- Why Immanuel Kant and not Johannes Kepler?
- Why the Dalai Lama and not Billy Graham?
- Why Buddhism and not the Bible?
Read the article and ask if there are any satisfying answers where awe come from, why it is a universal human experience, and what purpose it might serve if just a product of evolution? Why does de Witte ignore the conundrum of awe coming from selfish genes for a nebulous quality called fitness? The ending sentence seems contradictory and nonsensical:
“We arise from stardust and we return to stardust,” said Doty. “That cyclical connection and reality that we are all part of whatever exactly ‘this is’ makes us feel, in some ways, special while also feeling insignificant.”
Whatever exactly this is? How can whatever feel special? How is specialness congruent with insignificance?
By contrast, the Bible’s literature on awe is voluminous. Awe makes sense because we have souls in God’s image, and the Creator of the heavens is more awesome than his creation. Awe becomes all the more awesome with the Biblical message that God communicates with us and reaches out to us to give us eternal life. Numerous Scriptures attest to the power of awe in the presence of God and what he has created, including the heavens. A few examples from the Psalms include Psalm 8, Psalm 19, Psalm 66, and Psalms 145-150.
Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? —Exodus 15:11
University professors, who are overwhelmingly scientific materialists and evolutionists, must of necessity reduce awe to an emergent phenomena in the brain. To them it must represent an aimless product of chance processes whose only function (if that word even conveys any meaning to a materialist) is “fitness” or a survival advantage.
Awe, the “ineffable sense of transcendence” as neurosurgeon James Doty describes it, serves no purpose to an ape. To a true materialist or physicalist, it is just a brain state of neurons and neurotransmitters. Why, then, is this universal to humans and not to other creatures? Why can we discuss it in language between cultures?
The late Dr Robert Jastrow was a materialist all his life, but he felt something was missing in his worldview. This Illustra short film, “God and the Astronomer,” gives a poignant feel to the emptiness of worldviews that leave God out of the equation.
1 Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!
2 Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his hosts!
3 Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!
4 Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For he commanded and they were created.
6 And he established them forever and ever;
he gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.[a]
7 Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all deeps,
8 fire and hail, snow and mist,
stormy wind fulfilling his word!
9 Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
10 Beasts and all livestock,
creeping things and flying birds!
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
12 Young men and maidens together,
old men and children!
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his majesty is above earth and heaven.
14 He has raised up a horn for his people,
praise for all his saints,
for the people of Israel who are near to him.
Praise the Lord!
Christianity gives answers to the worries about emptiness, loneliness and littleness one might get looking at modern photos of our vast universe. Our significance is not derived from our physical size (which is a necessity given the laws of physics for a working universe). It is derived from the the fact that we are created in his image. And when we think of the price God paid to save us for our sins, how Christ’s death and resurrection married the justice of God with the love of God, that is truly awesome!
Unbelievable, by Michael Newton Keas (2019) unmasks 7 myths about the alleged conflict between science and religion, including the “Copernican Demotion,” the Galileo affair, the Bruno execution, and more. He shows how secular materialists got their history really wrong in shows like Cosmos (Sagan) and Cosmos 2.0 (Tyson). The chapters on Johannes Kepler are especially interesting; Kepler’s own writings show how his awe of God motivated his detailed investigation of the nature and causes of celestial phenomena that gave us his three laws of planetary motion.
A Fortunate Universe by Luke Barnes and Geraint Lewis (2016) is one of the best descriptions of fine-tuning parameters in the universe since The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by John Barrow and Frank Tipler (1988). For those with college-level understanding of physics and math, the constraints on possible worlds are really mind-boggling. The authors close off any comeback arguments that these constraints can be explained by other than fine-tuning. The ending friendly banter between Barnes (a theist) and Lewis (an agnostic) pre-empt thoughts that skeptics might entertain about the meaning of fine-tuning.
The Case for a Creator from Illustra Media (2006) contains this chapter on YouTube about fine-tuning. It gives a quick look at some of the problems in supposing that a fine-tuned universe could come into existence by chance. Illustra’s classic documentary The Privileged Planet (2005), also on YouTube in 12 chapters, gives a deep dive into why the universe—though vast beyond comprehension—does not thereby demote mankind into insignificance.
The Miracle of Man, by Michael Denton (2021). Denton is not a Christian but makes it clear how extremely fine-tuned the universe, the sun, and all the aspects of Earth had to be to allow for complex, upright-walking, thinking beings to exist. Our bodies, further, are perfect for controlling fire and creating technology. Denton expresses awe over this congruence of factors without giving an answer how it could have come about, but entertains the option that it fits the Judeo-Christian scriptures.