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Finding God at the Grand Canyon

Why our country’s natural wonder turns so many into believers.

Adam Hunter's feet dangle over the Grand Canyon.

There Are No Atheists at the Grand Canyon.” That’s the somewhat facetious title Time magazine gave to an article I read not so long ago.

The story concerned a study conducted by two southern California psychologists, which examined whether experiences of awe and wonder can influence a person’s stance on God and spirituality.

Among the images and video the researchers showed to the study’s subjects was a clip from a BBC documentary about America’s most-stunning natural landmark.

The results were conclusive–subjects who viewed these “awe-inspiring” scenes were more likely to believe in the possibility of a higher power. Even those who didn’t previously hold any religious beliefs.

“Awe makes people want to see events as the result of design,” concluded one of the study’s lead researchers, Claremont McKenna College professor of psychology Piercarlo Valdesolo.

Last week, I had the chance to visit the Grand Canyon myself, on vacation with my wife and brother-in-law.

We arrived at night, checked into our lodge and woke before dawn the next day to hike along the rim and set ourselves up in the perfect position to witness the sunrise light the canyon walls.

It was my first time seeing it in person–not in a movie or a photograph. I instantly understood why such a sight could move someone to find their faith.

I mean, just look at the enormity of it:

The awe-inspiring Grand Canyon. Photo by Adam Hunter.
      For larger view, click image.

I sat on a rock at the edge and stretched my legs out over the chasm, feeling very small, vulnerable, insignificant. Far in the distance, I could just make out the Colorado River, little more than a trickle from these heights, still flowing along its path of destiny.

Everything I saw, science told me, was the result of the Colorado quietly carrying away the soil for 17 million years, as the Earth’s tectonic forces simultaneously uplifted the plateau around it.

I suddenly understood why some people would question that explanation. A tiny river winding through an arid wasteland created all this?

As naturalist John Muir once wrote, “It seems a gigantic statement for even nature to make, all in one mighty stone word, apprehended at once like a burst of light, celestial color its natural vesture, coming in glory to mind and heart as to a home prepared for it from the very beginning.”

Yet, in that moment, I didn’t doubt the science–the almost laughable idea that an ordinary river could create something magnificent enough to stir our feelings of awe and wonder.

To me, it was entirely possible. After all, isn’t that what the true stories in Mysterious Ways teach us? Spectacular things arise from the ordinary more often than logic or reason tells us they should.

When we ask ourselves “how,” our minds open up to a reality beyond what we see.

That’s when all of us–even the most skeptical minds–find room for God.

Adam's feet dangle over the Grand Canyon.

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