Religious Experience

In a HuffPo essay entitled “Why I Love Religion,” Rabbi Alan Lurie writes:

I love the holy texts, the rituals, the art, the histories, the practices, the mystical teachings and the sacred spaces. I love religion, while very aware of its obvious dangers and limitations, because for the last 15 years religion has provided insight, intellectual growth, friendships and inspiration that continue to transform my life for the better.

We're really not on the same page here. I agree with him about the art, and I'm not sure what he means by “the histories,” but I find nothing to admire in the remaining items on his list. I am not only unimpressed by the world's various alleged holy texts, but I frankly dislike the whole idea of a holy text. Most religious rituals and practices leave me beyond cold, I think the world's “mystical teachings” should be discarded in toto, and I think better uses could be found for sacred spaces. But I am interested in what came after this opening. You see, Lurie attributes his currently warm feelings towards religion to an experience he had:

Although I grew up in a Conservative Jewish home with parents who encouraged us in Judaism, until the age of 37, I wanted little to do with religion. Religion seemed to be no more than a crutch for those who are too afraid to face life directly, or a backwards tradition that had nothing to do with modern life. And I could not imagine how any intelligent adult could possibly believe in some kind of super-being who created everything, gave us texts, and cares about us in some way. I firmly believed that if only humanity could get past these ridiculous superstitions the world would be a much better place.

All this changed in a moment when suddenly, unexpectedly, and from a normal state of awareness, my defenses were stripped away and I was given a glimpse of the spiritual realm. Such moments are very difficult to describe, and always lose their reality to the limitation of language -- like reading about sex compared to having (great) sex. I can say, though, that what I experienced was beyond anything I could have conceived. In that moment I saw with microscopic clarity of vision, felt an unrestricted connection to others, and was surrounded by a loving embrace. And in that moment I received a message from a “voice” that spoke with endless compassion and wisdom. It said simply, “I love you, and you must change.” I cried for the first time that I could remember, and audibly answered, “yes”.

I now know this moment as grace -- the spontaneous, unwarranted, self-revelation of spirit: God's wake-up call.

In my interactions with creationists over the years I have heard essentially this story many times. From my perspective as an atheist, these stories can be a bit frustrating. Other aspects of religion I am permitted to discuss intellectually and come to some reasoned conclusion. The various traditional arguments for God's existence have received clear formulations from philosophers, making it trivial to see their faults and inadequacies. The Bible can today be read by anyone willing to invest the time, and I can find in it not the slightest reason for thinking it has a divine origin. A variety of academic disciplines shed light on the persistence of religious belief despite the frequently incredible character of its dogmas and theologies.

But now it seems that all this time I have been missing the point. Apparently religion is actually about having sudden moments of insight into the reality of a spiritual realm. Writing in the 1930's, theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote:

Let it stand as merely an indication of the major fact that multiplying numbers of
people, when they think of religion, mean not a church, nor a system of theology,
but a saving experience of inner spiritual devotion and daily spiritual power! . . . [W]hen the modern mind hears the creeds upon which many of the
churches still insist, with all the corollaries brought out by controversy and
urged as indispensable of religious truth--old cosmologies, doctrines of
Biblical infallibility, miracles like virgin birth or physical resurrection--the
reaction is not simply incredulity, although incredulity is undoubtedly
emphatic--but wonder as to what such things have to do with religion.

Since I apparently lack the sensitivities of people like Lurie or Fosdick, I am expected simply to make due with the stories people tell me about such experiences. If they sound incredible or implausible to me, that can only be because I have never had such an experience myself. This becomes especially annoying when people argue that the claimed religious experiences of others should count as evidence in favor of the existence of God. For example, Richard Swinburne writes:

If some people do not have these experiences, that suggests that they are blind to religious realities--just as someone's inability to see colors does not show that the many of us who claim to see them are mistaken, only that he is color-blind.

Now, I can think of all sorts of really good reasons for being skeptical of religious experiences. For example, it seems like a poor analogy to liken religious experiences to sense experiences, since the latter are subject to a variety of cross-checks and verifications while the former are not. I have confidence in the correctness of my sense perceptions both because of their internal consistency (I hear the glass break at the same moment I see it smash into the ground), as well as the corroborating testimony of other witnesses (they all saw the glass break at the same moment I did). No such cross-checks seem possible in the case of religious experience.

Moreover, experiences get interpreted in terms of the norms and tropes of the society in which they occur. There is a reason that people immersed in Christian societies tend to have experiences of Jesus, while people in Muslim societies have experiences of Allah. Writing in 1938, philosopher John Morrison Moore explained the significance of this:

Within any given culture people learn to find particular religious meanings in
certain types of experience, while in another culture these experiences might not
be regarded as religious at all or might have a very different religious significance.
Th e pluralistic nature of religious experience implies also that no general
answer can be given to the problem of the cognitive value or authority of religious experience . . . It must be remembered, furthermore, that interpretations which seem to come from the experience itself may in reality have been
furnished as a framework of the experience from outside it. It is misleading to
think of an interpretation simply as “growing out of” an experience, for our
categories and established modes of reaction are present before any particular
experience, and condition the form which the experience itself takes.

I have also grown a bit cynical from the sheer ubiquity of experience in the discourse of religious believers. In Lurie's case, for example, what was initially a sudden and unexpected intrusion into his normal routine is now a common occurrence. He writes:

In order to help understand this I started reading all kinds of spiritual books -- mostly non-religious -- and began to discover that my experience was by no means unique. Others had described similar encounters, and their description aligned almost exactly with mine, as though we were tourists who had visited the same lands. And I continued to have spontaneous mystical experiences, which encouraged me to continue my search.

In my interactions with the creationists it seemed they were endlessly attributing the most mundane occurrences to the actions of the Holy Spirit. Where most people would say simply, “I decided to do X,” a creationist would say, “I felt the Holy Spirit leading me to do X.” Somehow when creationists tell me about their religious experiences, there always seems to be a hint of defiance in their voice, like they're defying me to challenge them in some way. But what can you say to someone who says his faith is based on a private experience to which you do not have access?

I wonder also about the theological explanation of religious experience. Lurie describes an experience that he understood to be a clear communication from God telling him that he needed to change his ways. Well, I have never had such an experience. Does that mean God does not think I need to change? Perhaps he has simply given up on me, but if that is so then he has given up on a lot of people, since most of us do not have experiences of the sort Lurie describes.

Lurie writes:

I gradually discovered that religion is, in its essence, a compilation of experiences and teaching from those who have glimpsed the spiritual realm, have known of its transformative power, and have tried to communicate this to others so that we may be more fully alive.

Similar thoughts were expressed in a 1930 essay by philosopher C. D. Broad:

Let us, then, compare tone-deaf persons to those who have no recognizable
religious experiences at all; the ordinary followers of a religion to men who
have some taste for music but can neither appreciate the more diffi cult kinds
nor compose; highly religious men and saints to persons with an exception-
ally fi ne ear for music who may yet be unable to compose it; and the founders
of religions to great musical composers, such as Bach and Beethoven.

But why are people gifted to differing degrees in their ability to perceive the spiritual realm? Why does God reveal Himself clearly to some but not to others? Some people are granted experiences that seem to them to provide unambiguous evidence of God's existence, but the rest of us are expected to make do with inadequate, second-hand accounts. Where is the justice in that? This seems especially pressing in the case of religions like Christianity, where getting it wrong on the God question earns you an eternity in hell. Nothing of eternal significance is riding on people's differing abilities for music or writing. But in seeing our way clear to the proper path to salvation it seems that God gives some people a head start.

So, as I said, I find all sorts of reasons for being skeptical that some people are actually receiving communications from a spiritual realm. As evidence for God, the reported divine encounters of others seems to have little value. Still, experiences with the power to so transform a person's life are not to be dismissed lightly. A sudden change in lifestyle based on a religious experience is evidence, at least, that something significant happened, even as its highly debatable that supernatural intervention was involved.


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'And in that moment I received a message from a âvoiceâ that spoke with endless compassion and wisdom. It said simply, âI love you, and you must change.â'

I finally understand this new way of knowing.

It's called hearing voices.

Why do some people hear voices and others do not?

Should we ask theologians or psychiatrists?

Why should sceptics be impressed by stories of people hearing voices?

Christians used to whip themselves to produce religious experiences.

Has their god decided to stop communicating through the lash?

Christians used to starve themselves to produce religious experiences.

Has their god decided to stop communicating through the pangs of hunger?

By Steven Carr (not verified) on 18 Dec 2011 #permalink

' I encourage those who are totally opposed to religion to look at it realistically and with an open mind.'

How? How can I look at Islam with an open mind when I am forbidden to visit Mecca?

As we all know that religions are nothing more than people being wonderful to each other and to outsiders , why are whole cities declared off-limits to non-believers?

Who exactly is closed-minded here? Non-believers, or believers who ban non-believers from their prescence?

By Steven Carr (not verified) on 18 Dec 2011 #permalink

The experience is quite common.
In Asian belief systems it goes under the name of "enlightenment".
During the last wave of feminism I tried to learn self defence, and not a long time after I got used to meditate (breath regulation)and Tai Chi, (slow movements), I´ve experienced and experience it fairly regularly.

1. Why do people connect this brain state with a god?
2. Even if, how do they jump from that to forbidding abortion, birth control and euthanasia, or teaching evolution or eating ham?
I have always wished to ask Francis Collins, how does he get from intense feelings in the presence of a monument of nature to a belief he had to destroy it by enforced overpopulation?

By prochoice (not verified) on 18 Dec 2011 #permalink

There seem to be a small number of people for whom the McGurk effect just doesn't work. I think this is a much better analogy than the color-blindness one that Richard Swinburne puts forth. Clearly, these sorts of religious epiphanies are an illusion. It's an illusion that many, but not all, people are capable of experiencing. Unlike the McGurk effect which is simply just mildly interesting, religious epiphanies are rather pleasurable illusions, and I much confess that if you've truly never experienced one I do think you are missing out (hold on till the end for a clarification on this).

The problem, of course, comes in taking it seriously, as if a pleasurable neurological sensation could yield some sort of valid epistemic approach. Heh, it occurs to me that the analogy between theology and masturbation takes on yet another dimension here. I feel very sad for anyone who has never experienced an orgasm, but on the other hand this does not diminish the unwisdom of choosing a lifelong partner based solely on the quality of the sex. Mind-blowing orgasms are nice, but they do not yield knowledge; it's the same with religious epiphanies.

As for myself, I have not found that I experience the religious epiphany naturally. This, I'm sure, had something to do with my early rejection of my Mormon upbringing. However, when I tried mushrooms in college, I do very distinctly remember a moment -- lying on the floor in the doorway between my bedroom and the kitchen, to be honest -- when I was like, "Oh, now I get it!" heh...

I am very glad to have had that experience. It was both enjoyable and eye-opening. This does not diminish the fallacy of going from that sort of experience to a belief in a personal god, of course.

> and I much confess that if you've truly never experienced one I do think you are missing out

In much the same vein, someone who hasn't tried psychoactive drugs are missing out on something too.

This one doesn't seem to gel with the ones wanting religious experience any more. It used to be de rigour.

It's one part of the brain playing toesy with another part.

By piffletosh (not verified) on 19 Dec 2011 #permalink

In that moment I saw with microscopic clarity of vision...

...And if that clarity could be independently verified, by, say, you reading something microscopic you didn't know about by other means, then you'd have a real claim. But such experiences, like OOB experiences, never withstand verification. So they join all those revelations about how to fix the world we get when drunk or high, in being merely a result of an altered brain state.

James Sweet - There's a part of the brain that tells us 'how important' an event is. It sometimes misfires and tells us trivial thoughts/events are really, really important. In extreme cases, this tends to produce the exact same effect in nearly everyone - a feeling of an ineffable presence and a feeling of connectiveness to everything. Which ineffable presence and how it is intepreted varies by culture. Is that related to the McGurk effect?

Me, I get comfort from literature and art, and early on got a sense of wonder and heightened awareness from nature. Even found awe in comic books. It was and is wonderful. But I think a lot of so called religious people are taught to conflate, misidentify, and naively exaggerate the import of their experiences, going hyperbolically into superstitious mode.

I once worked with a fundamentalist guy who described the chills he got from his church choir. "I get that," I thought to myself, "I've been to concerts that gave me chills." Then this guy starts going on about how this meant he was filled with the holy spirit of Jesus and blah, blah, blah... He wasn't being metaphorical either. What a total numbskull.

By I. Snarlalot (not verified) on 19 Dec 2011 #permalink

Like others here, I've had these kinds of experiences fairly regularly at various points during my life. I just haven't interpreted them as religious. When I worked as a backcountry ranger I used to regularly find myself at a particular location where I couldn't hear any external sound - it was absolutely, dead silent, and if I sat as still as I could and breathed as quietly as I could, I could enter a state where it felt as though my perception stretched out for miles. It wasn't religious, it was just really cool. So the question, I think, is not "why do certain people experience these states and others don't?" but "why do some people interpret these states as God?"

By Tiktaalik (not verified) on 19 Dec 2011 #permalink

If they sound incredible or implausible to me, that can only be because I have never had such an experience myself.

Given the ubiquity of religious experience from a wide span of cultures, I see no reason to doubt that they occur. I think your comments on their use as evidence is spot on. But that doesn't mean they aren't a real aspect of human psychology (not perception!), that scientists should study as much as other aspects.

The ubiquity of religious experiences (and their explanations), to me, only signals the ubiquity of human narcissism. I notice a fallacy at the heart of all of these apologetics when they declare that most humans believe in a god or have religious experiences of some sort, and thus there must be a god behind it all. Why assume that, when a much more mundane, and more in line with human nature, explanation is readily available?

The much more mundane, and very human, explanation is simple human narcissism. A protection of the ego; to think that religious experiences are veridical experiences instead of thinking that they are errors in the human biological and neurological machine. We are imperfect, and the usual explanation of religious experiences assumes that we are not imperfect. Hence the narcissism.

Of course, there's the added narcissism embedded in the explanation that assumes that (only human) life in the here and now is just a pitstop on our much more important journey. That the universe -- this universe -- was created just for our benefit. That we really don't die, we just live forever in some other state of being and that an all powerful all knowing and human-like disembodied mind created the universe and wants a relationship with us.

The entire religious enterprise is absolutely saturated with arrogance and narcissism.

Those who eat too little see visions, those who drink too much see snakes.
Bertrand Russell

By Brian Faux (not verified) on 19 Dec 2011 #permalink

My untrained guess is he had a stroke.

Over the weekend I saw John Rutter's Gloria performed with chorus, brass ensemble, percussion, pipe organ -- the high quality of the music and performance brought me to tears.

It was composed by an atheist -- a fact unknown or ignored by most of the listeners.

The evidence on these experiences is pretty much in - they are temporal lobe seizures, which can be induced in some people with a helmet that produces a fluctuating magnetic field.

If only we could get the effect with a portable battery-powered device, it could be a debating tool. When the religious person cites a personal spiritual experience, you break out the device and demonstrate that the experience can be produced at the flip of a switch.

Like Tiktaalik I've had these type of "religious" experiences without attributing them to anything divine. I'd describe them as a feeling of heightened awareness and of expansion, so that the boundaries between myself and the universe seem temporarily thinner. The opposite of narcisism, really.

Although I don't believe in god(s), I do think there's some "truth" in the expanded feeling. We are not really as separate from everyone and everything else in the universe as we think we are. It's quite exhilarating to feel the barriers break down, but probably just as well it's temporary because nobody could function like that on a daily basis. We need our boundaries, illusory as they may be.

What I always find strange about these sorts of account is that I did have experiences that I would have described much the same way (although I recall very few instances of trying to actually describe them in detail). I remember hearing actual voices on very few occasions, but sometimes I was "granted" an internal conviction or reassurance about how to proceed regarding some aspect of life.

And yet I stopped believing in God anyway, and don't even have much love of religious practice anymore (although I admit to a fondness for some "mystical teachings" as a form of fantasy, poetry, or inspiration).

All I can say is that whatever my experiences were, none of them forced me to accept an external source for them, and in many cases there was a fairly ordinary explanation (one of my earliest religious experiences was probably a form of sleep paralysis, during which I have intermittently suffered non-religious dreams/hallucinations for a long time).

Furthermore, even respecting those experiences that entirely went away as I became an atheist (experiences such as experiencing an inner conviction or peace that I attributed to God), they were not so glorious that I think it would be worth it to go back! Art, meditation (or even just self-calming breathing exercises), philosophy, and a dedication to moral self-improvement can fulfill similar purposes, and at a fraction of the epistemic cost.

To be religious seems to carry a hefty opportunity cost. It diminishes people's drive to discover, by postulating a world of influences that is inherently mysterious and capricious and cannot be explored by human reasoning (either you must give up or surrender to a "way of knowing" that has nothing to do with reason). It diminishes people's desire for justice, by postulating a set of principles or deities that inescapably give people what they deserve. It diminishes people's skepticism and critical thinking, by postulating that good answers to all the most important questions are to be found either in tradition or in personal feelings. It implies that "gratitude is the highest state of being", which implicitly diminishes the conception of a ideal relationship as being one between people who respect each other as equals (indeed, one definition of blasphemy is to regard oneself as on a level with God).

I think that there's far more meaning and joy in those things that are diminished by religion than in belonging to some happy club of the spiritually literate.

By Sean Santos (not verified) on 19 Dec 2011 #permalink

The fundamental problem with so-called "experiences of the spiritual world or of a spiritual being" is precisely that no one who uses such experience as evidence for his belief in a god can produce a shred of real world evidence that he's getting anything at all from a god, that what he's experiencing is anything other than emotions which he has molded according to his religious belief. (As you already mentioned, this is why, in general, the "god messages" happen to match in general the predispositions of the person based on the religious culture he happens to have grown up in.)

Why are all these gods so horribly incompetent that they are apparently utterly incapable of communicating ANYTHING AT ALL that's actually epistemologically *testable* by empirical examination? When the people who claim these experiences actually have something to do with a god (rather than being merely temporarily magnified emotions of awe, or love, or what have you) produce testable evidence that backs up their claims, then, and only then, is there any substantiation of the claims.

And I'm not holding my breath in the meantime.

By Steve Greene (not verified) on 19 Dec 2011 #permalink

What happened to that whole faith business? Now we're told that religious people are religious because of a vision they've been given? If you can reach this quasi-faith by the luck of being granted a vision, whence all the proselytizing? Unless you can induce the vision in me, your message is not going to make sense.

I think I just eliminated all preachers. You're welcome.

If some people do not have these experiences, that suggests that they are blind to religious realities--just as someone's inability to see colors does not show that the many of us who claim to see them are mistaken, only that he is color-blind.

Let us, then, compare tone-deaf persons to those who have no recognizable religious experiences at all;

Neither writer seems to understand that we don't define tone deafness and color blindness on the basis of differences in subjective experience, but on the basis of objective ability.

Most people can accurately distinguish between two tuning forks with (significantly) different resonant frequencies, simply by listening to the sounds they produce. A tone-deaf person can't do this task, but they can observe and agree that other people are successful at it.

Again, if you give most people a shuffled stack of cards of two different hues, they can reliably sort it into two smaller stacks, each containing the same cards every time. A color-blind person can't do this, but if the cards are labeled on the back or something, they're quite capable of perceiving that other people do sort them the same way every time.

Note that this sort of basic research does not require high technology or advanced science. You don't need to build machines that can detect color or pitch. Nor do all subjects with "normal" senses need to agree that a particular stimulus corresponds to the same color/pitch experience. In fact, it's fine if the experience is completely "inexpressible," as many mystical experiences seem to be. Bats can't talk, but we knew they had a "sixth sense" long before we understood anything about the mechanics of echolocation. Let a bat fly around a pitch-black room, notice that it doesn't bump into anything, done.

So if you're going to draw an analogy between lack of religious experience and color-blindness or tone-deafness, then the question is: What can the person who has religious experiences do, that the "god-blind" person cannot? Are religious historians better than nonreligious historians at distinguishing authentic relics from frauds? Is the believer better than a similarly-educated nonbeliever at sorting religious scriptures by faith tradition? If you block a believer's vision, hearing and sense of smell, and carry them into various churches, can they use their sense of the divine to identify which church they're in? Does their reported experience at least correlate with which church they're in? Or what?

Theologians may object that religious experiences still tell us about "religious realities," but are too infrequent, ambiguous or test-shy for this sort of research. Fair enough, but in that case the analogy to the ordinary senses is a non-starter. When you experience a perception which does not correlate with any detectable external stimulus, we normally call that a hallucination.

By Anton Mates (not verified) on 19 Dec 2011 #permalink

Re C. D. Broad's 1930 essay: Isn't it at least as likely that the tone-deaf are the ones who attribute a given feeling or experience to religion? That the more tone-deaf one is the further one is drawn into religion as an explanation for what frankly seem to be mostly pretty normal events? ("I decided to do X.")

By anthrosciguy (not verified) on 19 Dec 2011 #permalink

Religious people continually confuse psychological states like contentment, intuition, insight, certainty, etc with truth conditions. I'm sure everyone has had the experience of false insight and false certainty only to find out later that you were wrong and your insight was mistaken. Warm and fuzzy feelings aren't cyphers for truth. We really are still primates.


Is that related to the McGurk effect?

Oh no, the McGurk effect is something completely different. That's where if you hear audio of somebody saying "ba", and video of that person saying "ga", then your brain (well, most people's brains) interprets it as if they are saying "da".

I used the analogy because it's an illusion that virtually everybody experiences -- can't even help but experience, even if they try and concentrate on the audio -- but there seem to be a handful of people who don't. They just hear "ba" anyway.

I think religious experience is like that. It's an illusion that is experienced by many, but not all people. It comes more easily to some of us than others. It does not come easily to me, and I am somewhat envious of those to whom it does.

But make no mistake, it's still an illusion.

What the rabbi and other religious individuals seem to be doing is equating their religious experience with an empiric event. This does seem universal and is the reason that Dawkins and other 'atheists' seem to hold out the option that maybe God does exists (he has said in his book The God Delusion that he is a level 6 out of seven agnostic with level 7 being the absolute certainty that god does not exist.). Science cannot disprove god(s), just as science cannot prove the absence of other entities.

The question remains as to what these religious experiences mean and how are they useful to us. I would say that many could be due to a sudden release of neurotransmitters or some electrolyte imbalance giving way to visions or auditory phenomena, but who really knows? And even if we measured some chemical aberration in a religious person during their 'event', how do we know that aberration was not 'created' by a supernatural being? We can't know. But sure, how do you go from Saul of Tarsus falling off a horse 2000 years ago to the Catholic Church outlawing abortion for rape victims today?

Humans are superstitious (Homo superstitious?) and seem quick to settle for answers in the supernatural realm, but this is a universal trait across cultures and even intelligence levels. I think it's just something we have to accept; even the most avowed rationalist is vulnerable to the one event that will change his/her world view. I've seen devout atheists (is that a proper term?) suddenly "find Jesus." It happens all the time.

The converse, OTOH, from religioinist to rationalist, seems to be a slower more methodical process, borne of contemplation and reason. We take the slow escalator to rationalism and the fast elevator to religion.

"...and I'm not sure what he means by 'the histories,'..."

By some definitions, religion is distinguished from things like philosophy and mythology precisely by it's focus on a shared sense of history--which is how you get culturally religious people who paradoxically may also be atheistic. It's about social binding and control as much as anything else, and it's why so much religion is more about tawdry propaganda than it is about presenting entertaining takeoffs on historical events; real, imagined or... histrionic.

By I. Snarlalot (not verified) on 20 Dec 2011 #permalink

A couple of years ago, Dr. John Vervaeke of the University of Toronto gave a talk entitled Is a Secular Spirituality Possible? in which he discussed the neurological basis for those experiences that are often interpreted in a religious context and how those experiences can be understood from a scientific point of view.