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As we mature most of us come to believe that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” or more generally, that aesthetic quality is a feature of perception rather than of an objective world. But even when we change our beliefs about its status, the beautiful continues to be just as wonderful as it was before. Might the same be true of religious experience?

Mystics and even many everyday believers claim to know a divine realm exists because they have experienced it. But might it not be that the “holiness” they encountered is not evidence for an objective divinity but rather, like beauty, be a feature of the subjective experience itself? And if so, would the experience lose any of its wondrousness when the theistic explanation of it is abandoned? It seems to me that it shouldn’t. And if so, atheists could be religiously sensitive without being inconsistent—just like an aesthete can consistently believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Wallace 7 Aug 1

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Well said, my brother.

I’m sitting on my patio tonight, cigar, whiskey, as I’ve done many many nights. It’s hot, humid. The frogs and cicadas are loud. The stars are bright. It’s peaceful, beautiful. Maybe more so than it was when I was a believer. At times, it does feel more lonely than it once did. Beauty in life is what you make it, what you perceive. If you look for it, you can find it, in even the most difficult of times.

Cheers, y’all.

Beautiful imagery you created...

Right on.


Thanks for this little gem of thought provoking reflections...
I still believe that there is a major difference between an aesthetic and a religious experience.
The experience of beauty still remains even if I know that it is subjective, just as the experience of an optical illusion remains and persists even after I found out that it is an illusion, and even if I am able to explain how my brain creates this illusion.
These kind of experiences do not lose their power ones you acknowledge that they are subjective.

But religious faith is different because it is based on the assumption /conviction that it is the reflection of an objective reality, not just any reality, but the very ground and foundation of reality as such. Once you come to the conclusion that there is no God after all the religious experience becomes void, it is relegated to the same status as an aesthetic experience

[I've just downloaded "From Faith to Doubt" on my Kindle. Sounds interesting!]

“Once you come to the conclusion that there is no God after all the religious experience becomes void...”

for a while.

Matias: Hope the book is not to personal for your taste. The readership I had in mind was primarily my religious extended family (neices, nephews, etc.) into whose midst I returned when I retired. Also I wanted to have in on hand to give to any who might dismissively say, "If you just thought about it you would understand that God must exist."

@Wallace I have read many theoretical books on this subject, so that a personal book might be a welcome complement, especially if it is written by an intelligent and educated person


All well and good to be sensitive to other's beliefs/feelings. However, once ones beliefs infringe on the rights of others and affect body autonomy we have to draw the line. In my experience, believers have a difficult time not crossing that line at the behest of their churches teachings. I'm sure there are exceptions.


I used to have these awesome "spiritual experiences" where I felt like I was being lifted up to another realm. Those experiences corresponded to the most stressful times in my life. I would cling to them as evidence that I was a valuable person, contrary to what my community was beating into me at every opportunity. I believe now that they were all part of a common human instinctual phenomenon meant to offset dehumanizing treatment. I interacted with many others who also had similar experiences and they were all struggling with a lot of personal trauma from their past and present. After seeing similar characteristics in virtually everyone who was having these types of experiences, I began to question my interpretation of them. That was also after I was no longer in the abusive situation for many years as well and had some time to heal a little.

6 my misspent youth, I constantly heard guys say, "beauty is in the eye of the beer holder."

If someone has got hold of your beer, that makes them all powerful.

@Fernapple fortunately for me, I never acquired the taste for the stuff.


What a wonderful way to put this question!



No, because that is like saying that to be sensitive is religious, why stick the label religious on such experiences at all. If you think there is worth in such experiences, why not call them, 'spiritual' and if you don't call them 'Woo', or to be realistic just, 'unexplained subjective experiences'. Sticking the religious label on them is no more justified than sticking the religious label on morality, which religions like to claim is theirs alone.. My random dreams often feature my dead parents, that does not mean that my parents are alive; if subjective aesthetic experiences feature images from dead religions, that does not mean that those religions are the source of them.

there's the semantic sticking point exactly - some here won't even go for 'spiritual' - I'm currently trying 'transcendental' to see how that goes over?

@Allamanda I prefer transcendental as well...spiritual still sounds like there is some part or "entity" involved...

@thinktwice Perhaps true, though for me spiritual seems vague enough to express vague feelings. Transcendental seems to mean that you are moving outside of yourself, and that is not perhaps always true, some would even say that it all comes from within anyway, and that transcedental is just an illusion.

@Fernapple do you think it has a sense of external? I think of it more as above, so inward but removed from daily minutiae...

@Allamanda, @Fernapple I just use transcendental in context with my daily meditations(TM) is looking inward for strength, energy, courage, etc. by dropping most of the external daily minutia as Allamanda said...rising above the fray, so to speak...I am not going to get all bent out of shape over what any of it is called...I just don't like spiritual myself because it does associate itself with my prior religious exposure of being a godly entity/body/third party, etc. It is vague enough to include a myriad of things, so we should pick whatever works.

@Allamanda I can only speak for myself, but yes sometimes I get a feeling of deep time.

@Allamanda, @thinktwice True, I am no lover of words as such myself, I have always held that one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to give words meanings as though they are themselves a source of truth, rather than just usages, things we use to communicate ideas. I have had too much of the very short life time wasted on the meanings of words by people who made that mitake.

@Fernapple - transcendant - (without the final 'al' ) will do for me, in this context! I wonder if it will be commonly understood in the same way? I want a word that expresses this concept, but also that of aiming for 'enlightenment', with the association of finding peace, inner development, etc. without religion or practices copied from religion.

@Fernapple very good point there but when words are all we have (as here online), and we're so dispersed culturally and geographically I think it helps to have a common meaning as much as possible, also to avoid words that cause knee-jerk reactions (and oh, they are legion!!).

@Allamanda That is another tough one...I think people I know and think like me know what I mean by "enlightenment" but for many, it still sounds "religious"... I often wish I could just transmit the thought without the words... 🙂

@Allamanda You do not really need a special word. You explain it very well anyway.

@Allamanda Quite. You have to be very careful.

...hugs and a big YEP !!!

@Allamanda linguists state"our words ,they
change and morf over time" ; we jettisoned
what doesn't work/ replace OR create what
shall. So ,,,you are in charge of this , LADY.


What a very good conjecture! I personally agree totally but I suspect I will be in a very prominent minority here!

Isn't it? It's comparing transcendent experience to appreciation of beauty, the difficulty is in calling them religious, or some here will even object to spiritual. Whatever we call it, this is a commonality of human thought/mental patterns that we need ways to discuss.

  1. Beauty is not completely subjective. There is subjective variance, but I believe that there is strong genetic and social standards that cannot be completely ignored.

  2. Religious feeling, which Freud described as "oceanic" feeling, of course has secular (that is, natural) root, and can certainly be experienced by non-theists for non-theistic reasons.

Not sure how this translates to the need (or the ability) for "sensitivity" to the faithful. The problem of religion isn't individual "feelings." The problem is their collective actions, and the susceptibility for cruelty and oppression that it creates. A faithful might feel "wonderful" as he is stoning a heretic, but it isn't his feelings that I am concerned about. It's his action of throwing that stone believing that is the right thing to do.


Appreciation of Beauty and even Awe of the universe is not a religion, no God is required.

@Veteran229 Thanks to Hubble, Kepler, Cassini and other projects, imagination is not required for awe inspiring imagery as much as it was in the past.


You bring up an excellent point. Looking back on my time in religion there are some experiences that now still seem intriguing/wonderful, though in an entirely different way than I thought at that time. Aside from rolling my eyes at past, naive me I try not to be too down on myself. It's where I was at the time, though it does not/should not detract from the core of the experience.
I agree that often atheists miss out on the spiritual aspect that comes with being human - it's all about perspective & you could break it down into its components, but why ruin the sense of magic? Like the aurora borealis - gorgeous view & you can think what you will, but knowing how it's formed doesn't change how I experience it.


Screw the mystics to me it's appreciating the person for who they are have been with pretty women not worth a flying fuck and not so pretty who are preferable to pretty princess who they are is more important


And you are thinking/talking about this so we too can have "rapture"? No thanks.


Me, I see beauty in most things natural but to tell you the truth I just don't need woo to feel it or to express it.

gearl Level 7 Aug 1, 2019

that's only half the story though - this is comparing transcendent experience to appreciation of beauty, the difficulty is in calling it religious, yes?

@Allamanda I have no problem with that.

@Allamanda Yes, that's the rub! People may experience awe, and a feeling being carried away by a subjective experience, but if they interpret it as a "sign," or a "visit," they will say they've had a religious experience and take it a "proof" of their version of a god.

@BirdMan1 yes, but sometimes we're talking about the opposite case - people who seek such an experience as a transcendent 'lesson' or rite of passage or enlightenment - without wanting or interpreting it in a religious way.


I think the same might indeed be true. Whatever made humans, it made us to have these experiences, and we will keep having them whether our explanations of them are ancient or modern.

skado Level 8 Aug 1, 2019

I can get very emotional reading books of fiction and watching movies of fiction. Of course, that doesn't mean that they are true. By the same token, I can read the Bible and appreciate a lot of good things in it. As long as I keep in mind that it is fictitious, that's Okay. But if I ever buy into the scam that it is reality, that's when I'm in trouble, and become putty in the hands of preachers who will continually ask me for money, on the threat of going to Hell. I'm not buying into that scam.


I think that eliminating the theist angle, and experiencing/experimenting with different things might be pretty cool. A argument could be made that going into one of those subjective experiences with a preconceived idea of what it means (seeing God) can color the experience in the wrong shade.


All is reduced to neurotransmitter cocktails elicited by different stimuli. You can’t help enjoying the experience. They key is understanding that nothing is ontologically beautiful but rather a subjective experience (as you said) and the same happens with contemplation


I agree fully. A person’s opinion or belief about church dogma is a minor, insignificant part of that person, while the religious impulse or sensitivity is deeply imbedded.

IMO religious experience is not necessarily some sort of earth-shaking mystical event. I’ve never had that kind of religious experience myself. But I have lived my life with deep awareness and awe in the face of the stark fact of conscious existence. The implications of reality are just absolutely overpowering.


We can never experience the depth of feeling of others...they may express their feelings of deep belief and transportation to another realm, and we can wonder at how much they seem moved by their experience...what we cannot do however, is be transported with them to experience it ourselves. That must come from within us, and if and when we do, we will no longer be skeptics and atheists, we will be true believers. I don’t believe there is really any correlation between our changing perceptions of beauty as we get older, which I do agree with, and our religious experience, or perception of it. Experience and wisdom make us see things in a different, more nuanced way as we get older and we’re generally influenced less by superficial beauty, but can see the value and beauty underneath the veneer. We can appreciate the beauty and awe of the natural world at any age, but perhaps that appreciation too becomes more acute as we age. As for being religiously sensitive...I can’t say I really understand what you mean by that. What I can say is, from a purely personal point of view, I have become more tolerant of others religious views as I’ve got older, and more sensitive to their need to believe in a greater being, one which I have never ever felt I needed.


I agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that it's more a feeling the "beholder" has when presented with the beautiful.

Much the same as the feeling one has during an "aha" moment of an epiphany of sorts, or the overwhelming feeling of being "loved" by a deity, a person, or a community.

I remember the feeling I had as a child, believing that there was a god and angels who cared for me and I felt cradled in that love. The feeling was real, and I can remember it vividly, even though my belief in the source has gone.

Similarly, I remember one poignant moment during a relationship, just gazing at the beautiful silhouette of my mate sleeping, feeling overwhelmingly loved and happy, totally at peace with all in the world at that moment. The relationship ended, but I still remember that moment, years ago, bursting with love and feeling loved, even if it wasn't true, as I believed at the time.

I also can't help but feel an absolute bursting of my heart, soul and mind at the beauty of nature. There are particular scenes, sounds and smells, I have been lucky enough to behold, which have made me gasp at the utter beauty.

A sunrise, or a quiet moment with snow falling all around, and myriad other scenarios, can give one a spiritual calmness, the equivalent of a religious experience.


It’s true for me. I carry the beauty of many Biblical ideas around in my head. Sayings like ‘if you could only obey my commandments, your peace would be as a river’ or ‘and now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love'. I understand the context has been removed for me but the underlying words of wisdom still ring true.


im terrible and I know it the older and uglier I get the less willing I am to accept old and ugly and I see how it is just not right but the heart wants what it wants and id rather do without than old and ugly or average
ive tried talking to myself but im not listening to me

That makes me terrible too then coz I kinda fit into the same category and I don't listen to me either. I still see the old and ugly in older people as if I was still 16 and I HATE IT! lol But I also think that as we age the person that we are on the inside tends to show on the outside and generally speaking of course a lot of older folk become uglier on the inside (coz aging can literally suck the joy of life out of you). Just a theory.......


It is 100% a feature of the subjective experience.


I would also like to say that beauty isn't entirely in the eye of the beholder. I heard of experiments where they tracked the line of vision in infants and found that they preferred looking at faces with certain physical features. While there is definitely a subjective aspect to beauty, there is also an objective one.

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