Awe of Nature is One Component of My Secular Spirituality

Lake Mcdonald Glacier National Park

I considered some of the reasons I haven't written more about secular spirituality. I decided that none of them were good reasons to avoid a topic that interests me. And it is a topic that interests me. But that doesn't mean I know where to start on such a large and ill-defined subject.

I've decided that it makes sense to start with the awe of nature. This strikes me as the most obvious component of secular spirituality. Many non-religious folks won't view this as having anything to do with spirituality. That's up to them to decide. It is an important part of what secular spirituality means to me.

Feelings of Awe

When I refer to "awe," I have in mind something subjective, emotional, and primal. I can try to describe my experience, but I can't assume that everyone else has the same experience. I struggle to find the words to describe my feelings. These experiences seem to defy attempts to capture them with mere words. They transcend the limits of my understanding.

For me, awe is something quite different from appreciating the beauty of nature. It may exist on the same continuum but represents the extreme end of the continuum. When I appreciate the beauty of nature, this is more of a cognitive experience. Awe is more than that.

I can stand in the woods, look around me, and marvel at the beauty of my surroundings. This may remind me of awe but would be a mild version of anything I'd describe as awe. I enjoy it and need to do more of it, but it isn't awe.

Then what is awe like? I can remember driving across a stretch of Montana on one of those perfect-weather days. At one point, I had to pull over and sit in the dirt beside my car because I was overcome by the beauty around me. It was my first time in the state, and I'd never seen anything like it. Feelings of awe had built up to the point that I could no longer focus on driving.

It is hard to describe what this felt like. As overused a phrase as "better than sex" is, it would fit here. Of course, that phrase is only meaningful to those who enjoy sex a great deal. What I can say is that it seemed like all the pleasure centers in my brain were being flooded. "Ecstasy" would be a good word for it. "Spiritual" might be another.

A Connection With Religious Spirituality

I have experienced the awe of nature as a Christian and as an atheist. When I compare my experiences, I find that there's only one small difference. As a Christian, I attributed these feelings to the god in which I believed. As an atheist, I have the same feelings, but I no longer add the god attribution. The experience itself is the same.

When I've compared notes with Christians, our experiences sound quite similar. They usually interpret theirs as a form of religious spirituality. I interpret mine as a form of secular spirituality. Could it be that we're both experiencing an aspect of spirituality?

I realize that some Christians will protest that I am experiencing their god even though I am an atheist. They'll say that my experiences of awe are evidence that their god is affecting me. I disagree with that assessment. I don't find the addition of any gods to be necessary, but I'm not interested in arguing about that here. I'm looking for common ground.

There are plenty of meaningful differences between religious people and secular people. I'd hate to think that we're missing some commonalities because we can't agree on what word to use to describe our experiences. "Spirituality" might not be the word I'd choose if it was up to me, but it isn't up to me.

Can Some Places Evoke More Awe Than Others?

There's a stretch of roughly 50 miles of coastline in the state where I grew up that has always affected me. When I'm there, I'm at peace. I'm grounded, centered, and whole. I've never lived there, but I always feel at home there. I haven't been there in over 20 years, but it is never far from my thoughts.

My mood always improved the second I got there. No matter what I was dealing with at the time, everything looked brighter. My senses seemed heightened. The air felt like it was charged with electricity. The feelings of awe were ever-present, but they were manageable. They didn't overwhelm me.

I've never understood how a place could have such an effect. It has always felt like my spiritual home, even though I'm not inclined to believe in such things. Hooey? I could dismiss it like that, but that doesn't change the fact that no other place has ever affected me in the same way.

In considering some possible explanations, none fit. It isn't the natural beauty. That's there, but I've found that in many other places that didn't affect me as this place does. It isn't that I've spent more time there than in other places. That's not the case. Even when I lived in that state, that wasn't true. And it isn't that I have more fond memories there than in other places. I can identify at least 3 other locations where I have more positive memories. None of them affected me in similar ways.

Awe of Nature is a Component of My Secular Spirituality

Experiences of awe are often considered to be a component of spirituality. Profound feelings of awe have always been part of anything I'd count as spirituality. This was true when I was a Christian, and it didn't change when I realized I was an atheist.

I view "spirituality" as a higher-order label some of us use to refer to a variety of experiences. Awe is one of these. If I wanted to talk only about awe, I could do so without referring to spirituality. But if I wanted to talk about awe and the other components, "spirituality" is more convenient.

I understand that many atheists don't want to connect these experiences to "spirituality." I'm not interested in persuading them to do so. I share their reluctance, though I am trying to reconsider and work through it. I'm intrigued by the possibility that we aren't as different from our religious neighbors as it often seems.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay