Cardinal Cormack Murphy O’Connor caused a stir last month with his claim that atheists are not fully human because they don’t have a sense of transcendental. Now, atheists mostly aren’t transcendental almost by definition – the word refers to a belief in something for which there is no evidence.
But do atheists also lack more common human emotions, like a sense of awe and wonder? After all, these emotions are also irrational – they depend upon imbuing a quality to objects that isn’t intrinsic to them. The sense of awe exists only in the eye (or rather, mind) of the beholder.
Catherine Caldwell-Harris, a psychologist at Boston University, ran a small study that compared the spiritual beliefs of atheists with Christians and Buddhists. The unsurprising news was that they all scored equally on values like whether they find meaning in their life experiences, and whether they thought their life had a sense of purpose.
The atheists were also given a free-response question, which asked them “Have you ever felt wonderment or felt as if you were part of something greater than yourself?”
71% of them answered “yes”. Of these, half felt this way about nature, and nearly a third about science. When asked, 46% attributed these feelings to ‘science’, and 17% to the universe, or a feeling of something greater than themselves. A third left that one blank though.
Why don’t the atheists believe in gods? Overwhelmingly, they said it was due to a preference for logic and rationality. Which brings us back to Cardinal O’Connor. Yes, atheists are not transcendental. But they’re no less human for all that.
And, for those who missed it, here’s Cardinal O’Connor explaining why he thinks atheists are less than human…
This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.