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What Inspires Your Belief in God?

A recent psychological study from Claremont McKenna College and the University of Southern California confirms that belief in the supernatural occurs more readily in people who experience awe at the wonder of nature. Though many researchers attempt to provide a naturalistic account for these beliefs, the explanation falls short.

In the late 1990s, skeptic Michael Shermer and sociologist Frank Sulloway surveyed a number of people about their religious belief. When asked why they believe in God, people most cited the design, beauty, perfection, and complexity of nature.1 This result matches my experience as a Christian apologist. As I travel around the world, speaking about the scientific evidence for the Christian faith, people in the audience consistently tell me that the elegant designs in nature inspire their belief in God.

Sense of Awe Inspires Belief

New research by psychologists from Claremont McKenna College and the University of Southern California highlights just how impactful nature’s magnificence can be. The researchers found that people have a greater tendency to believe in the supernatural after experiencing a sense of awe.2

Test subjects in the study viewed only one of three short videos designed to elicit either a neutral response (news interview from 1959), positivity (comedy clip), or awe (footage from BBC’s Planet Earth) and then answered a series of questions. Based on the responses, the investigators found those subjects who watched the video designed to cause awe consistently displayed greater belief in the supernatural. These subjects also more frequently “detected” patterns in random sequences of numbers, attributing the perceived patterns to human agency.

To explain these results, the researchers pointed to the additional finding that those test subjects who experienced awe were also less willing to tolerate uncertainty. The researchers concluded that greater belief in the supernatural (and a greater capacity to detect purpose/agency in events) stems from a need for certainty. In other words, the subjects were more willing to look to supernatural causes and agency in order to ameliorate uncertainty.

A Naturalistic Explanation

Many people cite results such as the ones generated in this study as evidence that belief in God (and the supernatural) is strictly a naturalistic phenomenon, stemming solely from the psychological make-up of the human mind. In turn, they postulate that our tendency to believe in the supernatural arose as a way to fulfill a need that exists because our brains and minds—which have an evolutionary origin—require certainty when we feel overwhelmed, in this case, by awe. Accordingly, this need finds fulfillment through belief in the supernatural and by finding purpose and meaning, even where none exists.

The problem with this view is that we live at a time when the things that cause us awe have scientific explanations known to most and shouldn’t require an appeal to the supernatural to alleviate uncertainty. We understand what causes the beautiful colors in the sky during a sunset, but this insight doesn’t make the sunset any less spectacular or awe-inspiring. Perhaps there is a better way to interpret the results.

Scripture teaches that creation reveals God’s glorymajestypower, and righteousness. By examining the world around us, we gain a sense of God’s eternal naturelove, and faithfulness. Scripture even teaches that God’s fingerprints are to be found in nature. If this is true, it only makes sense that the elegance and the awe-inspiring beauty of the world around us would orient us toward belief in God. When we contemplate the grandeur of the creation, whether at the microscopic level or at a cosmic scale, who “does not know the hand of the Lord has done this?

  1. Michael Shermer, How We Believe: The Search for God in the Age of Science (New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1999), 74–85.
  2. Piercarlo Valdesolo and Jesse Graham, “Awe, Uncertainty, and Agency Detection,” Psychological Science, published electronically November 18, 2013: doi: 10.1177/0956797613501884.