Phil Zuckerman


The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.

— Albert Einstein

“What are you?” Since I study religious people professionally, teach courses on religion, and find myself debating or discussing religion with just about anyone whenever the chance arises, this question is thrown my way on a regular basis. People often want to know how I label myself when it comes to my beliefs, perspective, or self-designation. For quite a while, I had difficulty answering that question precisely because I have always felt that none of the common terms or labels accurately reflect my orientation. But I have finally found a term that suits me: I am an aweist.

I’d like to explain what aweism is, how it is distinct from other commonly held or better-known secular orientations, and why I think it is a useful term to describe a certain disposition or personal perspective. I am not writing this explication of aweism in order to argue that being an aweist is somehow better or superior to other orientations—I am not seeking to win any converts. Rather, I offer up this piece on aweism with the simple hope that others out there may relate to my musings and perhaps feel some familiarity with what it is I am trying to describe and assert. And should this be the case, then maybe others might find the term aweist as useful as I do when confronted with the common question: “What are you?”

‘Atheist’ Is Fine, But . . .

Of course I am an atheist; I don’t believe that any of the gods that have been created by humans actually exist. O.K., so as a confirmed nonbeliever in God (and Thor), the designation of atheist is one I readily accept. But it is not one I feel comfortable using when people ask me to label myself. Here’s why. First off, the term is one of negation rather than affirmation. It declares what I don’t believe in, what I don’t think is true, what I don’t accept. That feels like a real loss to me, for when people ask me what I am I would like to offer a positive, affirming designation, not merely one that negates what others (however wrongly) believe. To use an analogy, describing oneself as an atheist is a bit like describing oneself as “nonwhite” rather than “Tibetan,” “Black,” or “Nez Perce.” Second, the label “atheist” doesn’t adequately capture the joy of living that I often experience—the general sense of amazement and deep, almost mystical appreciation that I regularly feel sweetly, wistfully, mournfully churning through my marrow when I listen to good music late at night, see peppertrees, make love, smell autumn, remember my grandfather, read a good book, am lapped by green-blue waves in the summertime, act altruistically, or chase my children in the backyard at dusk or take them to a rally protesting an unjust war. Because I have a real love of life—not to mention a deep sense of the profound mystery that is existence, the beauty that is creativity, and the power that is justice—I find that the self-designation of “atheist” simply falls short, falls flat.

‘Agnostic’ Is O.K., But . . .

I also find that the label “agnostic” falls short. Here’s why: for many people, being agnostic means that one neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of God. In the words of Julian Baggini, an agnostic “claims we cannot know whether God exists and so the only rational option is to reserve judgment.” Maybe there is a God, and maybe there isn’t—one just can’t say. This is a fine position to take, I suppose. But on closer consideration, one must ask: is it even really a position? It is actually more like the absence of a position, for it entails nothing more than admitted indecisiveness or embraced fence sitting. Let’s take an example from politics. If, before the presidential election, we asked Jody if she was planning to vote for Obama or McCain and she said, “I don’t know. I can’t really be sure. I just can’t make up my mind. I am not really convinced that either one is good or bad,” we wouldn’t call Jody pro-Obama or anti-Obama, pro-McCain or anti-McCain. We wouldn’t classify her as a Republican or Democratic voter. We’d rightly designate her as “undecided.” And “undecided” isn’t really a political position but rather the lack of one.

Now, back to the God question. A person who cannot decide whether there is a God or not or feels like it is impossible to say one way or the other isn’t really anything at all other than undecided. And there is actually a much more appropriate Greek term for such a position: adoxastos. Adoxastos more accurately refers to the inability to form a belief or opinion, to be undecided, to be perpetually on the fence. When it comes to the question of God’s existence, I am not undecided or unable to make a decision. I am an atheist. That’s one reason why I don’t call myself “agnostic” anymore.

To complicate matters a bit, there is of course a second, deeper meaning commonly associated with the term agnostic. It is one that is much more in line with the literal Greek meaning of the word: to be “without knowledge.” In this vein, being agnostic means that one believes that there are certain aspects of existence that simply cannot ever be known or understood: the human mind may be limited and some aspects of reality may transcend our understanding and comprehension. This type of agnostic believes, in the succinct words of David Eller, that “to use the human mind as the measure of all ontological possibility is a scary thought.” Perhaps the nature of time and/or space falls into this camp—do they end or begin, and how is either possible, let alone conceivable? And what is outside of the universe? (If you say “nothing,” you face more questions, such as: how far out does this “nothing” extend, how is this “nothing” to be measured, and how long has it been there?, etc.). And even if some brilliant scientists can one day work out the answers to these perplexing questions, there is still the unavoidable biggie: why is there something instead of nothing? [See Adolf Grünbaum, “Why Is There a Universe at All, Rather than Just Nothing?,” Parts 1 and 2, Free Inquiry June/July 2008 and August/September 2008 for a dissenting view of that question’s validity. — Eds.]

In sympathy with the agnostic position, I believe that there are just some eternal unknowns out there. The God question is not one of them, but other questions do persist that may ultimately be unanswerable—which suggests, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that “there are more things between heaven and earth” than can be dreamt of in any philosophy. However, although I do consider myself agnostic in this vein, I prefer not to use that label simply because I find it to be it too narrowly intellectual. It is too cognitive, too heady. “Agnostic” implies a strictly contemplative position regarding life and its vexing questions and mysteries. But when I ponder the existence of certain existential questions and cosmic mysteries, I often have an emotional reaction beyond that of mere dry puzzlement or cold contemplation. I feel something. In fact I would go so far as to say that sometimes I experience or feel existential questions and mysteries—concer
ning life, death, being, and the universe—more than I simply ponder or contemplate them. And the label “agnostic” neither adequately captures or satisfactorily conveys that experiential or emotional dimension.

‘Secular Humanist’ Is Better, But…

Last year, I participated in a university study group with some philosophers that met monthly. One night, we got into a deep discussion about morals and ethics, and when I said that I was an atheist, one of my colleagues looked shocked and said, “Phil, c’mon. You’re not an atheist! You have morals, you try to live an ethical life. You can’t tell me that you don’t believe in anything!” I immediately replied that being an atheist does not mean that one is without morals or that one believes in nothing. I believe in a lot of things: adequately funding schools and hospitals, fostering free speech, combating violence, protecting the environment, participating in philosophical discussions about the nature of morality, etc. As many know (unfortunately, my philosopher colleague being an exception), a secular orientation doesn’t mean that one is without morals or beliefs; being an atheist involves much more than (merely) denying the existence of God or gods. The term that most readily conveys this is secular humanist. A secular humanist begins with the rejection of spiritual explanations or theistic assertions but goes on to positively advocate an optimistic belief in the potential of humans to solve problems and make the world a better, safer, and more just place. A secular humanist is someone who believes in reason, science, and rational inquiry and is committed to democracy, tolerance, open debate, human rights, etc. That night, while discussing morals and ethics with my colleagues, I quickly went on to declare myself a secular humanist and ever since have proudly kept a copy of “The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles” posted outside my office door.

So I do find the designation of “secular humanist” useful and appropriate now and then. On occasion. Like when I am among academics. Or when I am invited to be part of a panel discussion on religion and politics. But I don’t like to use it most other times when people ask me what I am. To begin with, I find that secular humanism is more accurately a position or agenda that I support. Secular humanism entails a set of values, ideas, and practices that I advocate, such as the right to privacy, empowering the handicapped, nourishing compassion, celebrating the arts. There is a decidedly political dimension to secular humanism—with its emphasis on democracy, minority rights, environmentalism, women’s rights, etc.—that I wholeheartedly embrace. However, when describing what I am, I want to capture something else, something slightly more personal than the values, ideas, and practices that I support and advocate. I want to describe what I feel and experience. After all, when I first heard my eldest daughter’s heartbeat in that small doctor’s office in Eugene, Oregon, I didn’t feel like a “secular humanist.” What I felt was tearful joy and wonder. When I was dancing on a hot spring day to an amazing band with a great horn section on the Porter Quad at UC Santa Cruz, I didn’t feel like a “secular humanist.” I felt deeply alive, tingly, aroused, elated. When I found myself on a balcony with friends overlooking that dark lake in the Austrian mountains outside of Salzburg and a summer thunderstorm came bouldering through the valley while we sat in silence taking in the awesome anger of the thunder, I didn’t feel like a “secular humanist.” I felt simultaneously enraptured and ephemeral. In short, when I think of the most important, memorable, and meaningful moments of my life—moments that define who I am and give me my deepest sense of self—I find that the title of “secular humanist” leaves a bit to be desired.

Yes, I am an atheist. Yes, I am an agnostic—at least the version that suspects that there may be limits to human knowledge. Yes, I support and advocate the sane and noble goals of secular humanism. But I am something more. I am often full of a profound feeling. And the word that comes closest to describing that profound feeling is awe.


Aweism begins, obviously, with awe.

I am often in a state of awe. Granted, this isn’t a perpetual state of being. I don’t constantly walk around with my mouth wide open, my jaw slack, and my eyes brimming with tears of wonder and elation. My heart isn’t constantly expanding nor is my spine perpetually tingling. However, I do regularly experience awe. How often? Can’t say for sure. Sometimes it comes from being in nature; sometimes it comes from interacting with people; sometimes it comes from drinking beer in Scotland, reading Tarjei Vesaas, listening to Nick Drake, walking along the Kattegat Sea, or picking up my kids from school. Sometimes it comes from contemplating existential mysteries. Both the mundane as well as the profound can, at random times, stimulate a feeling of awe. But whatever the source, it is a feeling that constitutes an integral part of my life experience and is a central pillar of my identity. And while I don’t feel awe all the time, I do feel it regularly enough. It is a feeling I both cherish and enjoy. And it definitely constitutes a significant part of my perspective on—or orientation to—life and living. Hence, I would like to acknowledge it, name it, and apply it to myself when asked, “What are you?”

Aweism is the belief that existence is ultimately a beautiful mystery, that being alive is a wellspring of wonder, and that the deepest questions of life, death, time, and space are so powerful as to inspire deep feelings of joy, poignancy, and sublime awe. To be an aweist is to be an atheist and/or an agnostic and/or a secular humanist—and then some. An aweist is someone who admits that existing is wonderfully mysterious and that life is a profound experience. To be an aweist is—in the words of Paul Kurtz—to embrace and experience “joyful exuberance” sans theistic assumptions. Aweists suspect that no one will ever know why we are here or how the universe came into being, and this renders us weak in the knees while simultaneously spurring us on to dance. As Einstein said, pondering mystery has an emotional aspect that is centrally captured by the term aweist in a way that is absent from other common secular designations, such as “freethinker” or “skeptic.”

Is a new term really necessary? While some might suggest that we don’t need yet another label within the secular or humanist umbrella, I disagree. When we consider labels, designations, and distinctly named perspectives among religious people, we face an enormous array of diverse terminology. There are literally hundreds of words to describe the religious: pious, person of faith, evangelical, orthodox, mainline Christian, pagan, neo-pagan, Lutheran, spiritual, reformed, believer, Sunni, fundamentalist, deist, Buddhist, devout, cafeteria Catholic, saved, Methodist, charismatic, Bible-believer, seeker—and so on, ad (almost) infinitum. And this is the way it should be; with billions of people claiming to be religious, surely there will be a vast array of labels and designations, each with its own subtle, subjective uniqueness. And yet, when we consider the labels and self-designations available to secular folk, we can count them on one or two hands. This is strange, for just as there is an impressive degree of diversity of perspectives or orientations within the religious segment of humanity, so too is there among the secular segment of humanity, which by my best estimate entails some 500 to 750 million individuals worldwide. That’s a lot of people
. Surely our secularity manifests itself in more ways than one—or ten. We should not shy away from articulating the various shades of secularity that we may experience, for it is important, to others as well as to ourselves, to accurately describe the numerous ways in which one can be godless and to name the multiple approaches to life that can be found within the secular worldview.

Richard Dawkins, in his many writings and public discussions of atheism and secular humanism, often points out that many nonreligious people still recognize the transcendent wonder of existence, marvel at life, or feel a profound reverence for the cosmos. A term that captures this common and yet under-articulated orientation is aweism.

Is Aweism a Form of Spirituality?

Many people have suggested to me that my orientation of aweism is actually a form of mysticism or spirituality. I don’t think it is. While it may smell like mysticism or spirituality, I still insist that being an aweist remains a decidedly secular orientation. I say this for the following reasons: first, when I experience a deep sense of awe, I don’t have a need to explain or interpret that feeling. I simply enjoy it. My various experiences of awe don’t convince me that there is some supernatural force permeating the universe that momentarily flows through my being. I don’t experience awe and see it as a sign that a transcendent being or mystical energy is behind every thing and every event. I don’t occasionally feel deep wonder or poignancy and then utilize that feeling as some sort of evidence for or proof of God, spirits, or past lives. A mystic or spiritual person will do just that: seek out or interpret feelings or experiences of wonder, awe, and the sense of rapturous mystery as evidence of there being something more, something else, something holy out there. But an aweist makes no such leap of faith. An aweist just feels awe from time to time, appreciates it, owns it, relishes it, and then carries on—without any supernatural, cosmic, karmic, or otherworldly baggage.

My awe stops there: at awe. I make no attempt to identify the source of my feelings of awe, and furthermore, I am perfectly content to explain my occasional sense of deep wonder or happiness or poignant joy in strictly naturalistic, neurological, or psychological terms. The source, in fact, is irrelevant to me. The awe is what I care about, and it is that feeling of awe that I consider a deeply important part of my secular personality.

Sven-Eric Liedman, a Swedish professor of intellectual history, has suggested that “religion paints the world in bright colors” while atheism, being a negation of these bright colors, “often appears to be tedious and monotonous.” But Liedman notes that this is problematic, for most nonreligious people do indeed still paint and see the world in bright colors. Our lack of theism does not render this world any less wondrous, lush, mystifying, or amazing. Our freethinking secular orientation does not mean that we live a cold, colorless existence devoid of aesthetic inspiration or existential feeling. Quite the contrary. One need not have Jesus or Muhammad or God to feel and experience awe. One just needs life.

Phil Zuckerman

Phil Zuckerman grew up in Southern California, but has lived in Oregon, Israel, and Denmark. He is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California. He is the author of several books, including Society Without God (NYU Press, 2008) and Faith No More (Oxford U. Press, 2011).

  The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. — Albert …

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