I’ve been fortunate in life to have a fortifying sense of awe . . . or maybe I’m just sophomoric and easily impressed. I’m serious about atheism and secular humanism, but the most accurate label that fits my day-to-day living is, to use sociologist Phil Zuckerman’s term, aweist. I’m regularly flipped out by new facts and experiences; they don’t even have to be monumental or useful.
Part of the satisfaction is that as we age our accumulated experience need not make us jaded, for there always exist sources of awe we haven’t known about until, well, just a few minutes ago. That’s pretty cool!
This month’s announcement confirming gravity waves is a good example. “The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.” I wish I’d thought of that, but it was Eden Phillpotts, an agnostic English poet. So much marvelous wonder just awaits our becoming sufficiently clever to find it! Maybe the greatest awe of all is realizing our knowledge will never overtake the supply of things yet unlearned. Running out just isn’t one of the options.
Obviously, aweism is an attitude, a very present sense that being alive overflows with wonder. But wait, I don’t mean aweism promises peaches and cream. It doesn’t carry with it perpetual exultation and it doesn’t prevent occasional unhappiness. And even though aweism often embraces a child-like quality, it neither requires nor need it cause gullibility.
Last year I titled a post “The heavens declare the glory of god” (June 10, 2015), taken from the Biblical psalmist who poetically expressed pure awe. In that post I shared a quote from another English poet, Sarah Williams, “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” As a kid, my budding astronomy interest fueled overwhelming intellectual curiosity, but Williams’s unscientific quote augmented it with a warm comfort. To an aweist there are many sources of the sublime; for me just looking up was enough to tap into a formidable dose, and the more I learned of the physical heavens, the greater the treat.
The psalmist, just like everyone of his day, linked his awe to creator myths of his time, a practice still echoed by Christians and religious Jews of today. But awe exists apart from whatever in a given culture is considered its source. Albert Einstein, not a theist, spoke of “emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.”
We all differ in what results in our awe, as well as how much awe we experience. I’m awestruck by, among other things, exceptionally kind behavior, brilliant technical competence, astrophysics, neural development in infants, the discipline of the scientific method, and generally the openness of life to delight and playfulness.
Many people are awed with religious events, political formulations, the beauty of the human body, or sports events. Whatever awe’s source, it is a wonderful enhancement of life that repeatedly draws us to the grand adventure of life, whether privately within one’s own mind or shared in the company of others. It need not diminish the experience to understand that the awe of new love . . . or old love, the awe of a splendid speech, the awe of a magnificent mountain, or the awe of a religious experience is not—and need not be—proof that the love will last, the speech is honest, the mountain survives erosion, or the religion is true. The splendor may not be so much in the stimulus, but in the marvelous natural capacity to be awed that we carry with us.
I, and maybe you, will never know the awe of great discovery as did Galileo, Darwin, or Al-Khwarizmi, but we do have sources of awe all around us, mostly in the daily flow of the banal. But the splendid feature—it’s awesome actually!—is that an aweist’s life requires only, in the words of philosopher Paul Kurtz, the intent to embrace and experience “joyful exuberance!”
I came across the idea of aweism several years ago and felt immediately that it captured a way I look at life. The source was “Aweism” a short piece by Phil Zuckerman (Free Inquiry, April-May 2009, pp. 52-55). So it is to Dr. Zuckerman that I’m indebted for the captivating term.