It’s pretty common for people to experience God when immersed in the beauty of the natural world. Many people report having spiritual experiences in nature.
It’s what the Bible predicts, after all: “The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship” says Psalm 19:1, while Romans 1:20 says: “Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature.” (NLT).
So it’s not a huge surprise that new research suggests that beautiful nature programmes of the kind fronted by Sir David Attenborough and physicist Brian Cox can also affect what people believe.
However, what this awe leads on to may depend on what we already believe.
The research indicates that nature programmes will lead people who believe in God to have less faith in science. It doesn’t have this effect on atheists though. For them experiencing awe for the natural world seems to affect how they perceive evolution – that it is more controlled than random, which isn’t (at least atheistically) the scientific way of looking at it.
The beauty of nature seems to touch people in a way that goes beyond our beliefs. In the same way, we can debate the rational arguments for the existence of God as much as we like – but until we experience God in some way, we’re unlikely to be certain. The human being is more than just their cognitive processes. We need to be spoken to through creativity, beauty and grandeur too.
There is some irony to this research. It showed that believers who watched nature programmes became less inclined to believe statements such as: “we can only rationally believe in what is scientifically provable."
If you follow debates between atheists and believers, you'll know that while such statements are common among many atheists, they don’t have much rational foundation. The idea that the material world is all there is and that science is the fount of all knowledge about it, is called naturalism or scientism. Such a view is rejected by most philosophers, because there are lots of things that we believe that are not scientifically provable, such as whether a painting is beautiful, if our partner really loves us, or whether or not killing a child is wrong. Science itself isn’t “scientifically provable”. Indeed, the very statement "we can only rationally believe in what is scientifically provable" is not scientifically provable - and therefore a self-referentially incoherent belief. Take that Mr Dawkins.
Even Brian Cox has recently been urging his fellow non-believers to stop polarising the debate over science and religion, stating that, "There seems to be a driving apart of people with different views and a ghettoisation of different worldviews". He continued, "I don't class myself as an atheist – I hate the label, partly because of what I've just said – I don't like the ghettoisation of thought and worldview, I think it's entirely toxic".
Science itself isn’t “scientifically provable”.
Ultimately, the conclusions we can draw from such research are limited. This study used small numbers of people, and some of the questions are loaded, as is usually the case in any social science endeavour. Such research then gets presented in the media as fact, especially if it’s negative towards faith (see this previous blog). Social science doesn't deserve the kind of faith that people often put in it.
Watching the wonders of nature might lead to people having less faith in science - but an examination of the foundations of social science research does the same job. Science can be powerful and fascinating, but it doesn't deserve the blind faith some of its most fervent proponents accord it.
So whether you look at it from a rational point of view, or a qualitative, artistic point of view: there’s a lot more to life than science.