The Empty Secular “Sense of Awe”

Let me introduce you to a fictional boy named Johnny.

Johnny grew up in a very typical, middle-class family with loving parents and a good education. His family was nominally Christian – meaning that Johnny grew up going to Sunday school and learning to recite prayers before dinner and bedtime. Aside from that, his parents seldom discussed religion. Johnny enjoyed the social aspect of going to church and the sense of community that it brought, but could never really understand those odd “fundamentalist” types who took the Bible so seriously.

When he went off to college, Johnny’s tentatively-held identity as a “Christian” melted away after just a few weeks of classes. He began identifying as “spiritual, but not religious”. He spent his sophomore year as an agnostic and his junior year as “sort of a Buddhist”, before finally succumbing to the inevitability of atheism and secular humanism.

Although confident in the logical framework for his beliefs, Johnny nonetheless found himself yearning for the community and the sense of purpose he remembered seeing during his churchgoing days. So he set about looking for a substitute for religion – a way to appreciate the beauty and mystery of life without all that outdated “religious baggage”.

This substitute is what I refer to as a “sense of awe”, which seeks to replace religious beliefs with a generic feeling of wonder, mystery, and humble respect for our place in the universe. To illustrate this, I’ve included below a couple of short videos. You might recognize them, as they’ve both made the social media rounds. They’re actually very similar.

The first is a poetic monologue from Carl Sagan, in which he cleverly inserts his naturalist worldview and criticizes “the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe”. Sagan paints a rather bleak portrait of humanity’s place in the cosmos, yet his soothing voice – assisted by some soft background music – helps to establish the desired sense of awe and beauty.

The second video is from Neil deGrasse Tyson, who champions a similar brand of humanism. His tone is soft – almost spiritual – and the background music aims straight for the heartstrings. “The universe is in us,” you see. Sadly, atheists who crave a sense of wonder and “connectedness” eat this stuff up.

I do think Tyson hit on something important in the video, when he said, “That’s really what you want in life; you want to feel connected; you want to feel relevant.” This innate human desire for a sense of meaning is exactly what fuels the popularity of this “awe-oriented” outlook among many of the non-religious. They are seeking to regain a sense of relevance in a universe devoid of true, objective meaning.

The truth is that humans were created for a specific role – to bring glory to God. It’s tragic, then, to witness people like Johnny basking in the wonder of Creation while willfully refusing to acknowledge or credit his Creator.


17 thoughts on “The Empty Secular “Sense of Awe”

  1. what would be the point of having meaning if there was no God? to whom would we mean something? and to what are we supposed to be connected to? carbon and nitrogen? is that supposed to be fulfilling?

    i think i would rather have God even if He didnt exist … hard to feel love from a burning cloud of gases.

  2. Great post. To be sure, the logical result of atheism, if accepted completely and consistently, is not a sense of awe, but of despair. The tendency to embrace a sense of awe in the ashes of atheism is a vain attempt to form its own religion, for we cannot help ourselves: We must worship something.

  3. Excellent post. Philosophically, “God” is the deepest topic or question you can possibly ponder, whether or not you believe in Him. Our contemporary culture’s facile dismissal of this question is more indicative of the shallowness of our worldview than it is of God’s existence or relevance. I used to think Paul was being extreme when in Romans 1, he accuses humanity and says we have no excuse. As I got older, I realized just how plainly honest and straight Paul is being. Dismissing God is indeed the first step toward irrationality, because no human can make the claim to have fully understood God. Is it rational to dismiss something, or Someone, as nonexistent, simply because of the difficulty involved in grasping the concept? Philosophically, no other question could have greater ramifications for life—and yet, we’ve worked so hard to kill both the question and the One we are asking the question about!! I think that’s a sign that we’re no longer interested in life, knowing, reasoning, or working hard to seek truth. Great post!!

    • So true! It brings to mind a quote from Tozer (which I think I might have posted on here before):

      “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us,”

  4. Why do Christians always have to rely on these unverifiable – ‘there was this kid called Johnny and he went to college’ – oh yeah, it’s because your belief system is unverifiable as well. In case you hadn’t noticed, nasty science put men on the moon and sent satellites into space. And if you don’t think that’s awesome – then there’s no pleasing you. Carry on believing the earth is flat and the sky is a dome set over it with Jerusalem at the middle.

    • Templar: It would be great to hear your comments on the actual topic — the sense of awe that mankind embraces in a post-God age — than a double-straw-man rant on religion. Lest the Christians get the impression non-Christians are in fact that irrational 😉

    • Templar: If you’re interested in checking out some of my older posts, I think you’ll see that I’m a science enthusiast like yourself. I just don’t believe that science and faith are incompatable (though I’m willing to at least listen if you’d like to argue otherwise).

  5. Brian Green in his excellent book and video made on the subject of how unique our little speck of dust is, makes the point that only a God creating a perfect home for man could have provided this place. In one place he talks about our position between the bands of material in space which gives us an almost unique position to look out on the universe and wonder at what God has created. Two minds look at the same speck, one sees only the smallness, the other sees God’s care in creating a home for man.

    By the way Brian Green has been forced out of Academia for refusing to disavow the Christian God.

  6. I enjoy your posts Matt. If I may….

    Regarding “What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?” and Tyson’s reply to the elements of the stars. I actually see that as a pretty astounding and appropriate answer. To me, Tyson is providing us with the factual, scientific reason as to why we are connected on a universe level. Not only that, but in the process, his scientific answer serves as confirmation of what is written in Genesis. God created everything ~ the stars as much as man and woman. From Him everything comes. I am personally not bothered by that answer. Anytime we can have scientific fact confirm spiritual truth is a cause for celebration. After all, everything comes from God, including the sciences.

    Tyson’s answer should not be a letdown. Instead, it should be an opportunity to see how our design reflects our connection to God and the universe even at the chemical base level. This may be a knowledge that most of us received in school during a science class but we tend to see it strictly from a scientific point of view. Unfortunately, science and spiritual concepts get separated as if we must see them as one or the other, when we ought to bring them together to reflect God’s truth. When we do, then we can see that Tyson’s answer holds not only scientific value. That’s pretty astounding to me.

  7. Great post! Need awe inspiring? I think it takes more faith for those who think there is no God, to believe creation somehow was a random, chance happening. Check out this youtube video of Louie Giglio, I’m not sure if this link will show up on the comment.

  8. Common Creator or Common Origin which do you prefer? When I get to ask and finish the thought most prefer Creator.
    Creator – someone actually thought about making us the way we are.
    Origin – the blob that survived a toxic soup to become your grandpa

    Great Post

  9. So let me get this . . . we want to feel relevant, but we can’t do this any other way than to bring “glory to god”? I could ask which of the two thousand or so gods, and why – being gods – we would need to bring glory to them, but instead I want to use the same words as used in the post . . .

    I too find it tragic to see so many people diminishing the wonders around them by making up stuff in explanation for said wonders.

    Cultures through the ages developed belief systems to explain what they did not know or understand. Every one of those belief systems has ceded to the hard-won knowledge humanity has slowly accumulated toward the understanding of what is.

    For some it is not enough. They do not have the patience to wait and see how our understanding grows. More important, they do not see the wonder in asking the question in the first place.

    They prefer answers now, even if said answers (based on the track record of thousands of years) are likely wrong. Even if said answers are demonstrably the fruit of the imagination and desires of mortal men.

    It is perhaps convenient to forget people had just as much faith in humanity’s previous “understanding of god” and of “its glory” as the current batch of believers. Perhaps more so.

    To put it in a broader context, there are people who seriously believe in The Force, a clearly made-up belief system. They diligently work on developing the powers of Jedi Knights.

    Lest the religious dismiss these “wacko” believers out of hand, know that to me they sound no less sincere and sure of their beliefs as any follower of one of the many gods humans have invented.

    I ask you . . . what is more arrogant? Claiming a relationship with an imaginary all-powerful being which is at best indifferent to the suffering of humans, or claiming that eventually man will understand all there is to know about the universe?

    I don’t normally comment on these kinds of posts, but this particular one struck a discordant chord.

    At the very least I would ask believers to acknowledge that just as they look at us non-believers and see our lives as tragic, we too, the non-believers, look at you and all we see is the tremendous waste of the one life we know for sure to have.

    For even the most ardent believers can’t say for sure there is an afterlife, or even a god. After all, the very basis of belief is not knowledge, but faith.

    • Thanks for your response, as well.

      I think I can understand why you interpreted my posts as suffering from confirmation bias. I would only respond by saying that they weren’t specifically intended to explain how I initially came to the conclusions I have. So the presentation inevitably takes the form of “this is why X makes sense in the framework of Christianity”, rather than “so here’s X…let’s discuss how various belief systems explain it”.

      As Chesterton once said: “The point of having an open mind, like having an open mouth, is to close it on something solid.” You might disagree here, but I would argue that the perpetual desire for knowledge and discovery is pointless, *IF* it doesn’t ultimately point us to the Truth.

      You also say, “Believers present Faith as a virtue. I see it as a flaw. I’ve never found a way to proceed past that.”

      I think this depends largely on how you define Faith. In my experience, many people witness Christians talk about “having faith”, and conclude that this simply means “having a belief in something without proof (or even evidence)”.

      In a Biblical context, however, the word “faith” commonly refers to “personal trust in someone”. So the Christian Faith IS anchored on solid historical/philosophical/archaeological evidence…but even more importantly, it’s anchored on the promises of Jesus Christ. Is there any other person – living or dead – more worthy of our trust?

  10. “So let me get this . . . we want to feel relevant, but we can’t do this any other way than to bring “glory to god”?”

    Not at all. People can FEEL relevant believing any number of things. I believe, however, that we were designed for the purpose of worshiping our Creator. So the only way to achieve TRUE relevance is to discover this purpose.

    Regarding your references to other religious beliefs throughout the ages, I refer you to another post I recently wrote (particularly the second CS Lewis quote):

    “I ask you . . . what is more arrogant? Claiming a relationship with an imaginary all-powerful being which is at best indifferent to the suffering of humans, or claiming that eventually man will understand all there is to know about the universe?”

    Put another way, I would ask which is more arrogant: Claiming that we’re wretched sinners who are offered undeserved salvation from a perfectly Just, perfectly Loving God? Or claiming that humans are capable of eventually understanding all there is to know about the universe by virtue of our own awesomeness?

    Regarding your reference to God’s “[indifference] to the suffering of humans”, I refer you to a post I wrote on the problem of evil (particularly the last quote by Plantinga):

    “For even the most ardent believers can’t say for sure there is an afterlife, or even a god. After all, the very basis of belief is not knowledge, but faith.”

    I refer you to yet another post (particularly the quote at the very end):


    Sorry for all the links…it’s just that I’ve written on several of these issues before, so it seemed like the most efficient way to do things.

    Anyway, thanks for reading. I respect and appreciate you taking the time to explain your views, even if our outlooks appear to be quite different. 🙂

    • Thanks for your response. I debated whether to answer at all, and decided on one more reply before I leave for good.

      I read the material you linked, and immediately set into my debate mode . . . then stopped.

      All the points you raise have been discussed at length in many places.

      I once assumed everyone is the same as me; that they harbor a desire to self-question, a desire to know, a desire to learn.

      I was mistaken. The majority of people don’t really want to know; they want to be told. They do not want challenges to what they think; they want confirmation. Your own writing begins with a premise already established, and circularly lead to confirm said premise.

      Those who are interested in knowing both themselves and the world are not out to confirm what they believe, but to gain an understanding of both their belief and that of others.

      Sometime this leads them to reaffirming their belief, and sometime it leads to questioning their belief. The important thing is not that they sought one or the other, but that they sought understanding of both themselves and the world that surrounds them, no matter where that understanding leads them.

      Ultimately it’s not my responsibility to enlighten anyone. My own thirst for understanding and knowledge over the years has led me to read opposing views, to assess the merit of them, to hear people who challenge my world view, to debate them so they can prove me wrong.

      If you are the same, there is no dearth of material for you to read, and my own efforts pale in comparison to some truly gifted orators and writers.

      It could be you have already traveled that road, and your current views are the result of those travels. It does not appear so from your writings, but that’s just my opinion, and I’ve been wrong before.

      I say the following without malice, or rancor, and is not a condemnation, but rather an explanation of my reluctance to further discussions.

      Believers present Faith as a virtue. I see it as a flaw. I’ve never found a way to proceed past that.

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