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The Transforming Potential of Awe

Published June 30, 2016 by Dr Andy Tix

The Transforming Potential of Awe

Dr Andy Tix reflects on the centrality of awe in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim experience, and the potential for this emotion to promote peaceful relations across groups.

At the core of Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, there is a long history of transformational encounters with the Divine – often characterised by awe.

For example, in his experience with a "spirit [that] glided past", Job was reported to respond with fear and trembling. His bones shook and the hair of his body stood on end. He left mystified (Job 4:13-17).

Similarly, the women who found Jesus' tomb empty were said to be "trembling and bewildered" (Mark 16:8).

Finally, in his encounter with the angel on Mount Hira, Mohammad has been described by one biographer as feeling "utterly overwhelmed… by a force larger than anything the mind can comprehend".

Converging in many ways with classic religious descriptions – including those of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Christian theologian Rudolf Otto – psychological scientists conceptualize awe as a transformational emotional response to something vast or powerful that shakes a person's understanding of what is possible. Awe comes with a unique physiology, including goosebumps. Individuals who experience awe tend to feel small – humble – in the presence of something greater or beyond themselves.

Religion and awe are closely intertwined. Some research shows that experiencing awe promotes belief in supernatural agents, such as God. Other research demonstrates how certain prayer exercises increase the likelihood of powerful spiritual experiences, often of an awe-inspiring nature.

There are two ways that awe might promote effective relations across religious groups.

First, peaceful group dynamics may be encouraged by the recognition of a common experiential core to these traditions, as illustrated in the examples provided above. To the extent that individuals recognise that those in different traditions experience the Divine in similar ways, they may start to feel more empathy toward them as well.

Second, there may be something intrinsic to the experience of awe that facilitates connection to others.

In one particularly relevant study, for instance, Michelle Shiota and colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley instructed some research participants to focus their attention for one minute on a full-sized replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, while others were told to stare down a nearby hallway instead. Remarkably, those who stared at the T. Rex were significantly more likely to define themselves in relation to a broader group – such as a member of the broader university, culture or species – suggesting that awe broadens people's sense of self to include other people.

One unresolved question is how much awe nurtures feelings of connection across different groups, such as Jews, Christians and Muslims. It could be that awe increases a sense of "common humanity" only within one's group, leading individuals to become more willing to sacrifice for others in that group, but not across group lines. To the extent that group relations are characterised by an "us" vs. "them" mentality, this may mean that awe actually could promote hatred and violence.

On the other hand, profound experiences of awe may diminish the self in relation to something vaster or more powerful than the group, and therefore possibly reorient people to consider how they identify with humanity as a whole. Several studies show that awe generally promotes generosity, for instance.

The venerated psychologist, Abraham Maslow, once speculated that, although the world's religions originate, in some complex way, from mystical experiences featuring awe, they tend to lose connection with these experiences over time. If these great traditions could return to their experiential core – if they could elicit awe in followers in ways that transcend group membership – perhaps the world could move toward greater well-being and peace.

This article is written by Andy Tix, PhD who teaches Psychology of Religion and Psychology of the Holocaust at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minnesota. He blogs regularly at his site devoted to mystery and awe.

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