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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Are Religious Experiences Evidence for God?

The particular wing of Christianity that I was a member of for 20 years did not really emphasize mystical experiences. As a matter of fact, we were very critical of Charismatic Christians who claim to experience the supernatural on a regular basis. Our wing emphasized the "born-again" experience as a life-changing experience but even that was not always accompanied with any type of unusual feelings except maybe relief and gratitude. We were more concerned about doctrine and dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" when it came to our theology. We were quick to judge other groups whose doctrines weren't as perfectly aligned with the Bible as we perceived ours to be. We also criticized those Christian groups that seemed to minimize doctrinal purity in favor of personal experiences of the divine.

While the description above is definitely true of certain elements of evangelicalism, especially those with an allegiance to Reformed theology, the fact is that the majority of Christians and the majority of religions seek to experience the divine. The great popularity of "worship music" in the evangelical church, I think, is emblematic of this trend. People will sing the same few words over and over again as they close their eyes and look toward heaven. They are looking to experience "the presence of God." Others meditate and pray in beautiful cathedrals with stained glass windows and inspiring organ music and sit in silence and awe of the majesty of their God. These uplifting emotional experiences are Christianity for many people. They interpret them as proof that they have a real relationship with God and that their faith is real. This sense of transcendency is what draws many people to religion.

Neuroscientists are making some interesting discoveries relative to these "religious experiences," and it has some Christians worried. A recent article in Christianity Today the mouthpiece of evangelical Christianity in America is entitled: "The End of Christianity as We Know It," by Mark Galli. He writes:
This sort of thing makes many a Christian nervous, and for good reason. We live in an age in which religious experience is the centerpiece of faith for many, many Christians. We disdain faith that is mere intellectual assent or empty formality. We want a faith that is authentic, that makes us feel something—in particular, one that enables us to experience God. When we describe the one time in the week when we put ourselves in the presence of God, we talk less and less about "worshipping God" and more about "the worship experience." The charismatic movement, with its emphasis on experiencing the Holy Spirit, has penetrated nearly all churches. This religious mood, which characterizes our era, is epitomized by the title of Henry Blackaby's continuing best seller, Experiencing God.

A decade ago, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg did a series of scans on Buddhists while they were meditating. What he found was fascinating. Bob Holmes in New Scientist Magazine (21 April 2001), reported the following:
The researchers found intense activity in the parts of the brain that regulate attention--a sign of the meditators' deep concentration. But they saw something else, too. During meditation, part of the parietal lobe, towards the top and rear of the brain, was much less active than when the volunteers were merely sitting still. With a thrill, Newberg and d'Aquili realised that this was the exact region of the brain where the distinction between self and other originates.

Broadly speaking, the left-hemisphere side of this region deals with the individual's sense of their own body image, while its right-hemisphere equivalent handles its context--the space and time inhabited by the self. Maybe, the researchers thought, as the meditators developed the feeling of oneness, they gradually cut these areas off from the usual touch and position signals that help create the body image.

"When you look at people in meditation, they really do turn off their sensations to the outside world. Sights and sounds don't disturb them any more. That may be why the parietal lobe gets no input," says Newberg. Deprived of their usual grist, these regions no longer function normally, and the person feels the boundary between self and other begin to dissolve. And as the spatial and temporal context also disappears, the person feels a sense of infinite space and eternity.

More recently, Newberg has repeated the experiment with Franciscan nuns in prayer. The nuns--whose prayer centers on words, rather than images--showed activation of the language areas of the brain. But they, too, shut down the same self regions of the brain that the meditators did as their sense of oneness reached its peak.

This sense of unity with the Universe isn't the only characteristic of intense religious experiences. They also carry a hefty emotional charge, a feeling of awe and deep significance. Neuroscientists generally agree that this sensation originates in a region of the brain distinct from the parietal lobe: the "emotional brain", or limbic system, lying deep within the temporal lobes on the sides of the brain.
Neuroscience can now duplicate the mystical experiences claimed by religious people over the years in two different ways. One is through the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as ketamine and psilocybin. The other is through electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain.

Karl Jansen, M.D., Ph.D., a is a leading neuroscientist and a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In an article entitled, "Neuroscience, Ketamine, and the Near Death Experience," published in The Near-Death Experience: A Reader (ed. Lee Worth Bailey and Jenny L. Yates) he writes:
There is overwhelming evidence that the mind is produced by the brain. The effects on the mind of adding drugs to the brain, and the religious experiences which sometimes result, provide further evidence (p. 267).
Jansen's research shows that drugs such as ketamine produce out of the body experiences or the sensation of experiencing the divine which are virtually identical to many near death experiences.

Brain scientists have also found that
electrode stimulation of the temporal lobes evokes experiences which become part of the subjective stream of consciousness, embedded into the very fabric of the personality, such that the personality, and even sexual orientation may be altered. Moreover, patients may experience profound visual and auditory hallucinations and even feel as if they have left their bodies and are floating in space or soaring across the heavens (Rhawn Joseph, Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, Clinical Neuroscience , 3rd Edition, chapter 9).
What does this research on how the brain operates tell us about religious experiences? I think it makes clear that there is no reason to suppose there is a supernatural element at all. Thus, another one of the "proofs" for Christianity evaporates.


  1. You realize, of course, that in the CT article, Galli isn't arguing that entheogen-induced experiences demonstrate that Christianity is on equal footing with other belief systems, but rather that it shows Christianity to be unique:

    We practice religious neglect when we fail to witness to them the saving story of God in Christ and train them to be fellow witnesses of that story, so that they might share that story with a world that does not know its left hand from its right.A world which does not know God as Emmanuel, but merely as "Something." A world that knows transcendence but does not have eyes to see God with us even to the end of the age. A world that senses "attunement with other people," but does not recognize the One who holds everyone and everything together by his love.

    People will never figure this all out—and thus never be able to enjoy a full and saving encounter with God—unless someone tells them.

    He throws in the word "love", but he's arguing for the perspective you used to have - Christianity isn't about a direct experience of God, but about getting saved so you won't go to hell.

    And, naturally, the commenters take him to task for not making this clear enough! No group is so perennially concerned with what other people believe as are evangelicals.

  2. Cipher,

    Yes you are right. The article in CT is pretty lame but what one would expect from an evangelical publication that is trying to defend the uniqueness of Christianity. What he refuses to see is that neuroscience is making his interpretation of these "religious experiences" obsolete. Of course, what the die-hards will do is what they do with regard to evolution--deny that it is real science and say that its all a plot from hell, and so on.

  3. Notice how the very first comment posted on the CT article questions whether or not the author is a "true Christian." This is such a typical response. "Well, if you don't agree with me, then you are not a "true Christian." I wonder how many "true Christians" there really are? Its the "Elijah syndrome"--"I,even I only, am left," everyone else has turned away. (1 Kings 19:14)

  4. Of course. I sometimes wonder if every Christian thinks that he or she is going to be the only person in heaven.

    Jesus wouldn't have been "Christian" enough for these people.

  5. Of course. I sometimes wonder if every Christian thinks that he or she is going to be the only person in heaven.

    No. However they're often remarkably unaware of the implications of their divisions between real Christians and not-real Christians. I've actually had people approach me since I left the faith and tell me it's because I wasn't around the right kinds of Christians. Unfortunately for them, they're the Christians I was around. Quite literally, as several of the people who have made that comment were people I used to go to church with.

  6. There was a joke that I told often from the pulpit during my Christian days. Remember I was a Baptist.

    "So, a person dies and meets St.Peter at the pearly gates. Peter says let me take you on a tour of heaven. They got on an elevator. Peter takes him to the first level and they get off and there is Martin Luther and a multitude of people singing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." They go to the second floor and there is John Wesley and a multitude of people singing, "O, For a Thousand Tongues." They get back on the elevator and Peter says, "Now be real quiet as we go past the third floor." When they arrived at the fourth floor and got off, they say John Calvin and a multitude of people singing from the Psalms. The newcomer asks Peter, "why did you have be so quiet as we passed the third floor"? Peter said: "Oh, that is where all the Baptists are and they think they are the only ones here."

  7. I've heard that story. When you told it, did your parishioners laugh? Were they capable of seeing themselves in it?

  8. I've heard that story before, Ken, only, in one version, the Mormons think they're the only ones there, and, in another version, the Church of Christ people think they're the only ones. :D

  9. Cipher,

    Yes they laughed but some of them really did think that only Baptists and even only certain Baptists were going to make it.


    Yes you are right and it illustrates the exclusive nature of most Christian groups

  10. Have you heard about the Michael Persinger experiments where he was able to reproduce the religous experience by subjecting certain parts of the brain to a magnetic field?

  11. I'm always rather outraged that evangelicals joke about the afterlife. As long as they're saved, that's all that matters. Horrendous selfishness and self-absorption.

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  13. I, too, was part of Christianity's theologically oriented wing. As such, I always felt a little ashamed of my low level of religious affections. I kept hearing about how praise singing was a such a wonderful experience, but I could never quite "get it."

    Hey, what about more concrete experiences, such as exorcisms or preachers knocking down crowds with the wave of a hand. Those seem to be in a different category than the purely mystical.

  14. Ken,

    I agree with much of your reasoning, but I find the argument that mystical states are caused by brain states and therefore they aren't "real" or veridical in some way, to not work.

    Imagine that a neurologist can poke my brain and make me laugh. Does this mean that Seinfeld is not actually funny when I'm watching it?

    I realize that you are probably taking on the idea that there is a part of us that is supernatural that apprehends God. That is certainly fair enough. I am not a fan of strong supernatural claims, but if there is a God (natural or supernatural), wouldn't we expect to have a natural mechanism in our brains to apprehend this God? After all, if I went to church and was induced into mystical experience, I still used my legs to get there, my eyes and ears to see and hear the sermon and music, etc. etc.

    thanks for all your thoughts!

  15. Also, I recommend reading an interview with Andrew Newberg - like perhaps Robert Wright's.

    He cautions against the idea that showing mystical experience is associated with brain states somehow debunks them. If anything, it shows us that they are real and that alternative states of consciousness are possible to achieve - states which may have something true to show us.

    nothing wrong with psilocybin of course.

  16. Steven,

    Yes you are right that science can never disprove God. It can only provide natural explanations for phenomena that formerly was thought to be purely supernatural. For example, take evolution. Theists can always say that it is God who is directing evolution from behind the veil. Similarly one could say that these neurophyisiological explanations of visions and other experiences are caused by God. I tend to think though that the fact that this phenomena is not unique to any religion but rather common to all and to even non-religious people points towards a purely naturalistic cause. But can I prove it? No. It can never be proven that the supernatural is not somehow involved.

  17. **I'm always rather outraged that evangelicals joke about the afterlife.**

    Sometimes I wonder if this is a coping mechanism for them. But most times, the jokes lead me to conclude that not even they believe hell is as bad as they say it is. Otherwise, there'd be no way they could joke about someone suffering eternally. If anything, they should look perpetually sickened over it. Because if hell is as bad as they say it is, then joking about it should be infinitely worse than joking about something like the Holocaust.

  18. Hi, OSS. Been a while.

    But most times, the jokes lead me to conclude that not even they believe hell is as bad as they say it is. Otherwise, there'd be no way they could joke about someone suffering eternally. If anything, they should look perpetually sickened over it.

    That's kind of my point, actually. I think many, perhaps most, do think it's as bad as they say it is. They eagerly anticipate our impending damnation; they salivate over it. They think they're gonna have front row seats.

    It's indicative of how utterly depraved they really are.

  19. Steven,

    The problem isn't the existence of physiological mechanism which may or may not act as an interface between the mind and a transcendent reality which may or may not exist. The problem is that Christians, with their polarized thought processes, infer from this that their entire belief system is true. "People have mystical experiences - therefore, Jesus."

  20. Ken and Cipher,

    I completely agree with you guys. I just think it is wise to be careful when arguing from the brain state argument. A secularist or religious liberal can easily find himself arguing against the idea that life is meaningful! That's a bad position to be in....


    Totally. Whether the supernatural exists or not is unknowable. However if something exists beyond our ability to understand or completely perceive, it doesn't necessarily follow that it is supernatural.


    I agree, the argument is not about the validity of the experience, it's about the interpretation. I can have a mystical experience and make many epistemically responsible claims based on it (life is meaningful, there is something beyond what I can fully grasp, etc.) , but specific historical and scientific claims (Jesus physically rose from the dead, etc.) are not among them!

  21. Ken,

    How do you explain your own conversion, which had an impact on you that lasted 20 some years? Do you think we can reproduce on a young 18 year old today, using only science?

  22. Makes sense that the less unique an experience is the less explanatory power there is for a single cause, especially if that is a supernatural one. So just like it seems the best defeater for Christian religious experience are other non-Christian religious experiences, adding on these reproducible chemical causes takes them out of the supernatural realm. Also agree with Ken that you can't ever prove the non-involvement of the supernatural, especially to a believer.

    Some info on The God Helmet (Persinger's work on induced religious state manipulation.

    This popular but wonderful TED talk of a neuroscientist having a stroke is relevant, especially to what happens when the parietal lobe is suppressed or stops working in this case: TED: Stroke of insight

    Dinesh D'souza frequently argues for the existance of god from NDEs and has a book on the topic. The book 90 minutes in Heaven is a semi-famous NDE story in the southern Baptist circles I ran in.

  23. John,

    thanks for the question. I didn't have a mystical experience. I didn't feel like I had left my body or was experiencing being merged into some transcendent reality or anything unusual at all. I did feel an emotional release, like a burden had been lifted and that my life was now taking on a meaningful purpose. So, no I don't think anything like that could be reproduced by electrodes or drugs. However, I do believe people have undergone life changing conversions to other religions besides evangelicalism. For example, Glen Beck used to be an alcoholic and his conversion to Mormonism changed his life dramatically. Some young hoodlums go to prison and get converted to the Black Muslim movement and their lives change drastically. So conversion and life change is not a proof for Christianity.

  24. For example, Glen Beck used to be an alcoholic and his conversion to Mormonism changed his life dramatically.

    That explains a great deal.

  25. I don't buy it. You're delusional. The same theory can be said of your belief--yes, your own faith (the religion of self promotion). You have rationalized yourself into what you believe without actually knowing--You have faith in you. But where does this lead? The preservation of life leads all sane persons think about the afterlife. What if you're wrong.

    1. Hey Cap! You don't have to buy it! After all, it was their experience. You cannot tell them what they saw or did not experience. Co Conversely, You are also entitled to your opinion and, what if your agnostic/atheistic position is wrong? James