Wonder: From Emotion to Spirituality

Wonder: From Emotion to Spirituality

Wonder: From Emotion to Spirituality

Wonder: From Emotion to Spirituality


The attempt to identify the emotional sources of religion goes back to antiquity. In an exploration that bridges science and spirituality, Robert C. Fuller makes the convincing case that a sense of wonder is a principal source of humanity's belief in the existence of an unseen order of life. Like no other emotion, Fuller argues, wonder prompts us to pause, admire, and open our hearts and minds.

With a voice that seamlessly blends the scientific and the contemplative, Fuller defines wonder in keeping with the tradition of Socrates--as an emotion related to curiosity and awe that stimulates engagement with the immediate physical world. He draws on the natural and social sciences to explain how wonder can, at the same time, elicit belief in the existence of a more-than-physical reality. Chapters examining emotions in evolutionary biology and the importance of wonder in human cognitive development alternate with chapters on John Muir, William James, and Rachel Carson, whom Fuller identifies as "exemplars of wonder." The writings and lives of these individuals express a functional side of emotion: that the very survival of life on earth today may depend on the empathy, compassion, and care that are aroused by a sense of wonder.

Forging new pathways between the social sciences, philosophy, belief, and cultural history, Wonder deepens our understanding of the complex sources of personal spirituality and fulfillment.


My interest in the link between wonder and spirituality has many sources. I have been studying the psychology of religion for more than thirty years and have spent a great deal of time trying to understand the inner causes of religious experience or belief. It was, however, two fairly recent conversations that prompted me to investigate the role of wonder in the origins of human spirituality. the first was an extended conversation I had with Karen Armstrong, the author of several best-selling books on religion. Karen was finishing a book on religious fundamentalism, a project that made her acutely aware of the cultural problems created by religions that believe they possess a monopoly on truth. Karen concluded that we are probably wrong to expect religion to possess truth in the first place. She reasoned that the real purpose of religion has nothing to do with factual truth. Karen ventured that the purpose of religion is instead about “holding us in a state of wonder.” She didn’t elaborate on what she meant by this, but its basic point seemed clear. Religious beliefs and rituals aren’t about truth if by that we mean propositions that can be validated as factual in a way similar to propositions in mathematics or science. Instead, religious beliefs and rituals ought to renew our fundamental sense of mystery concerning the origin and meaning of existence.

This observation that religion—at its best—is associated with our sense of mystery and wonder resonated with the basic argument of one of my earlier books, Religion and the Life Cycle. I became curious whether fellow scholars in the field of the psychology of religion had . . .

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