Moving Beyond Awe

The nineteenth-century German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy, popularized the term “numinous”, an adjective describing the sense of mystery and wonder that purportedly stems from the presence of a deity. According to Otto, the sense of the numinous had two main characteristics: the mysterium tremendum, the sense of fear and trembling that comes from the presence of that which is wholly other, and the mysterium fascinas, the sense of fascination and curiosity that such an experience evokes.

Otto’s theology concisely sums up the categories of religious experience. But the problem with his conception of the numinous is that it lacks one very important quality – understanding.

For Otto, as for many theists, the numinous is not something we should seek to comprehend. We should cower in its presence, or chase after it, or both, but there is no mention of penetrating the mystery, learning what it truly is and how it works. There is no mention made of pulling back the curtain of our ignorance, nor of plumbing the depths of the strange and unknown until it becomes known and familiar.

This idea may seem sacrilegious to theists, but I answer that it’s what humanity has been doing throughout its history: piercing the mysteries that surround us, drawing them back one by one, and learning ever more about who we are and what our place in the world is. We are great solvers of mysteries; we have never been content to live in ignorance.

After all, to primitive people, the world was a strange and terrifying place ruled by forces they could not comprehend. To them, everything they encountered was a mysterium tremendum et fascinans: thunderstorms and lightning, sunrise and sunset, the cycle of the seasons, the fall of the rains and the coming of prey, the growth of crops and the bearing of children. Every one of these things, and many more besides, was once a religious mystery before which we worshipped in terror and awe.

But through science and reason, we have pierced the veil of these mysteries. We have learned that natural forces, which once must have seemed like mighty and capricious gods, were in reality grand clockworks, controlled by the predictable unfolding of the mathematical laws that govern the cosmos.

Thunder and lightning are not the spears of the gods, before which we cower in terror; they arise from the buildup of electric potential between cloud and ground, and the shock wave caused by the rapid superheating of air when that potential is discharged. The seasons come from the earth’s axial tilt as it orbits the sun. Fertility is no longer a compelling mystery, but a section of the evolutionary trajectory of life as it perpetuates itself. These mysteries and many more we have solved, setting aside primitive superstitions of ritual and sacrifice, and learning through reason how to use the laws of nature for our benefit.

What, then, of the numinous? Is every religious experience doomed to fade as our understanding grows?

I think not. Or, rather, I think the religious experiences of our childhood, born of superstition and fear, will die – but when understanding comes, they can be reborn in a stronger and purer form. Far from science robbing the world of awe and wonder, I think it’s only science that makes true awe and wonder possible at all.

I remember standing in the rain of El Yunque, touching the leaf of a plant and contemplating our kinship, our both belonging to that unbroken tree of evolutionary history that unites all life on Earth. My sense of the transcendent was not undermined, but deepened and magnified by that knowledge, the insight into the vastnesses of time and space and the twisting paths of contingency that led to we two living things side by side in the rainfall. I look at my hands with the knowledge that they are shaped from the dust of exploded stars, and that looking up at the night sky, I am looking at the place of my origin. Many more examples like this could be given, proving that true understanding does not diminish awe, but enhances it immeasurably.

The religious experience is, at best, a stunted variety of this feeling. Awe without understanding, or at least the desire for understanding, degenerates into mysticism: viewing a mystery not as a challenge to be solved, but something to be worshipped for its own sake. Mysticism states that ignorance is a desirable condition, a state we should glory in. This attitude only keeps us frightened and ignorant, and worst of all, robs us of the deeper and more genuine awe that comes with comprehension. I say, let us explore. There may be problems too high or too deep for us, mysteries we cannot penetrate – but so far, we haven’t found any, and if there are any, they will not need to be protected from our investigations.

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About Adam Lee

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  • mikespeir

    If you want to experience mysterium tremendum under controlled circumstances, stand at the base of a high mountain and look up, or even on the street of a large city and look up at a towering skyscraper. It’s intimidating. You’ll tremble as your own smallness and insignificance dawns on you.

    Don’t have a convenient mountain or skyscraper? Not to worry. Close your eyes and imagine one. Better yet, invent some new but similarly imposing something in your mind, instead of the mountain or skyscraper. You’ll get the same experience. And that’s telling. Our imaginations can produce the effect without any reality at all.

  • Timothy Mills

    Don’t forget rainbows. Here’s my account of a numinous rainbow experience (due in part to a passage in Dawkins’ excellent book, Unweaving the Rainbow).

    I am delighted to have realized that similar sorts of experiences are available everywhere – in the trees, the birds, the cracks in the pavement. With practice, one can instantly move from the “plain” experience of everyday life to a profound awe at just about any aspect of the physical world around us – and my experience is that the insights of science usually help to enhance the experience.

  • Brian Zaboski

    Great article, Ebon.

    Not long after my deconversion I can remember looking into the vastness of space, thinking about the unknown depths of the oceans, and grasping what it means to be alive for only a handful of decades—a being created solely by nature; a culmination of millions of years of evolution.

    That understanding took my breath away. It drew a stark contrast from the feeling I got when contemplating god, a being whom I’ve often been told was not even meant to be understood.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    What, then, of the numinous?

    Well, if the whole presence of a deity thing doesn’t work out, it would make a good name for a type of cloud.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    When I start feeling every one of my forty-two years, I go to the beach. Billions of years of ephemeral waves.

  •, Tommykey

    Ebon, did you mean to write “standing in the rain forest of El Yunque”?

    My family and I had a nice day trip there this past February during our vacation in Puerto Rico. Didn’t get to see Arecibo like you did though. That will have to wait for another trip.

    BTW, this post has a lot in common with the Spanish Inquisitor’s most recent post.

  • jim

    Theists have been clued in to this for a long time. That’s why they built all those huge cathedrals. You walk in and feel like you’re in the belly of a giant whale, then the clergy translates that feeling of ‘awe’ you’re having as being the presence of the Lord.

  • TommyP

    Aha, good point jim. And wonderful post Ebon, good to see more people that think science enriches the quality of your life and your sense of awe. Science gets me so excited about the truth of the world that I can hardly hold myself together sometimes. It’s such a thrill, it makes me feel so small, and so damn fortunate.

  • Entomologista

    Great post. I especially like the last paragraph.

  • Wayne Essel

    Another place to go to feel this sensation is the ocean. Stand on the shore, or sit on the beach and look out. Give yourself lots of time to do this. Your inclination may be to turn and leave. Resist that and make yourself stay for awhile. It is one of my favorite things.

  • abusedbypenguins

    Or go to the Hubble and Spitzer sites to down load incredible photographs of deep space and all of the wonders we have just begun to see.

  • jim coufal

    I have a place I can go to anytime. I close my eyes and see it, feel it, hear it, smell it and relax in awe. My special place has a curving, trilling, step-across brook winding through it. On its banks are blood red cardinal flowers and deep blue wild iris. A green sward of moss and low grass lays on the outside curve of the brook, my resting place. Overhead, aspen sway in the breeze, their leaves trembling with a faint hum. For refreshment, the water is cold and clean to taste, and coldly invigorating. But enough, I have a special place waiting for me.

  • Danikajaye

    I find if I want have my mind blown I just need to go scuba diving. There is a reef called Roe Reef just off Western Australia and it has all these amazing caves and fish. Parts of the reef rise up overhead like the turrets of ancient towers. There are fish species in the caves that are never caught when fishing and MAN are they freaky-deaky looking things- they look like dinosaurs. Then there are stingrays that get curious and come over to check you out, plus there are a few dolphin pods in the area and some resident sea lions that will stop and stare.

    I find if I contemplate my diving and involve God it diminishes my experience. I find nothing wonderous about thinking that all life and activity I see underwater was created by some mystical hand wave. It seems insulting and I fail to see how anyone can appreciate anything by when thinking in those terms. I marvel at the evidence of millions upon millions of years of evolution of all the fish, plants and animals right before my eyes. I think of all the tiny but crucial chemical reactions that go on daily. That is awe inspiring.

    Personally I find God to be a human concept that makes it easier for people to compartmentalise overwhelming ideas or feelings and that relieves them of their need to investigate- and/or think.

  • John Nernoff

    Theists often appeal to the “religious experience” of “God.”

    But what is experienced? Generalized awe, profound feelings, overwhelming this or that. But when this experience is listed as one of the evidences of “God” I usually ask:

    What’s the definition of “God”? Most will respond detailing the omnimax properties of the alleged deity: omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omnipresence, the creator, and so forth. But how are these properties manifest in the religious experience? They cannot be.

    For example, how is omniscience garnered from the item of the experience? How was the knowledge of “God” tested? Obviously that task is impossible.

    Similarly with omnipotence. One cannot test the perceived “God” to determine it can do all things.

    I conclude reports of religious experience are utterly without merit.

  • Greta Christina


    I find that as I learn more about the world, I feel more struck by awe and wonder, not less. The things we’re learning about how the universe works are so deeply strange, so thoroughly counter to ordinary human experience… I don’t see how you could learn about them and not be gobsmacked.

  • Wonderist

    What you are describing here is what I mean by the word ‘wonder’. Awe is our most primal emotion. But it is formless, in a sense. It gives rise to the opposing emotions of love and fear. Here I use ‘love’ and ‘fear’ as very abstract, indistinct emotions. Love is characterized by attraction, and fear by repulsion. As such, they are in tension and opposition.

    To resolve the opposition, we must integrate them. There are two basic ways to integrate them. One is with love being dominant, and one is with fear being dominant.

    This gives rise to wonder (mysterium fascinans), and terror (mysterium tremendum).

    The core problem, as your article somewhat touches on, is that fear is stronger/more-powerful than love, and so what tends to prevail is terror. It takes an additional oomph to weaken the fear so that wonder can arise. That ‘oomph’ comes from intelligence.

    Awe is our experience of the Unknown. We naturally fear the Unknown (terror), but when we investigate, and learn, we can conquer that fear, and we no longer are gripped by terror, but are able to experience wonder.

    Wonder is a great word because it has several complementary meanings that all seem to work well with science and atheism. First, wonder is an emotion, as I’ve described. It is the ‘religious’ emotion. And so, it can be shown that wonder is a natural emotion that all humans share, including atheists. This destroys the last remaining ‘argument’ religions use, the Argument from Wonder. In fact, we can show that the wonder we experience from our naturalistic understanding of the universe is *greater* than the wonder you get from Bronze Age mythology.

    Second, wonder is a verb, meaning to explore and especially to ask questions. Clearly, this goes hand-in-hand with science, skepticism, naturalism, etc.

    Third, wonder is a noun, which indicates the great wonders we can not only imagine, but bring about through our efforts to better the world through understanding. Wonder provides a positive vision of the future, rather than merely negating superstition, proposes positive solutions to real problems.

  • jim


    I agree with you. Everything’s read back into the experience, which is why such experiences wind up getting interpreted within the context of the particular religious/cultural milieu of the experiencer.