OWIRAA {C}: Religious Experiences

OWIRAA {C}: Religious Experiences

Main article: On Why I Remain an Atheist

The Alloy of Conviction

“Religious experiences can be characterised generally as experiences that seem—to the person having them—to be of some objective reality, and to have some religious import. That reality can be an individual, a state of affairs, a fact, or even an absence, depending on the religious tradition the experience is a part of[1].”

For some theists—if not many, if not most—religious experiences are crucial elements in the alloy of their conviction. Ask believers to defend their belief and they may offer argument and appeal to holy books, history, and so forth. But press a theist on how they personally came to believe or why they remain believers, and there’s a sporting chance that religious experiences play a decisive role[2].

Are religious experiences, however, reliable gauges for measuring objective truths? I think not. In fact, I think it’s obviously not the case. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me begin with my story, and then I’ll explain why I reject, as evidence for God or the supernatural, my religious experiences of old.

Krazy Glue Experiences

I was born to Christian parents, raised with Christian values, and lived in an overwhelmingly Christian culture. Twice on a Sunday, I went to a Christian church, and during the week, I attended what was essentially a Christian school. Not a habitat where implicit atheism had a hope to survive, if you take my meaning.

I came to believe in the God of the Bible from a young age—unsurprisingly. Yet, despite the well-intended cultural pressures of my formative years, I made a poor Christian in high school. Church had largely lost its appeal to me, and I can’t recall making a single prayer in private. My adolescent mind rarely spared a thought for God, and of Jesus, I barely spoke.

But I was not just a poor ambassador for Christ; I was a deeply flawed boy. I lied with ease, for example, a skill mastered through daily practice, and I suffered from laziness, a manifestation of apathy and an annoying self-destructive nature. I was vain too, infused with anger and resentment. In the end, the quality of my discontent was expressed through two separate raids of vandalism—crimes for which I remain ashamed.

Given my delightful, relatively drama-free upbringing, my behaviour seems contradictory. I only ever held affection for my parents and siblings who are the best of people, and I was never in want of friends. I lacked for nothing. What, then, explains my poor adolescent character? A mixture of nature and nurture, no doubt, but it’s difficult to isolate the specifics. Over the years, however, I’ve thought of a few contributing factors.

To start, I was a teenager. They make bad choices, don’t you know? In fact, teenagers are physiologically at a disadvantage to predict consequences, which affects decision-making[3]. And then, like most people, I desired the security of acceptance and self-worth. The ore of my personal insecurity was mined from my family—through no fault of their own—and refined by my friends and community—who are no more to blame. You see, I was the youngest sibling of a much older brother and a sister, who cast—in my mind—a long shadow of achievements in academia and sport. I likewise revered and compared myself to my friends who were just that little bit smarter and more talented than I perceived myself to be. But these are all mundane and ordinary challenges of growing up. What made a difference in my life, I think, were the times that I grew up in, and my exposure to technology.

In the 90’s, the internet exploded into my world, and I was handed the rope with which to hang myself. My parents, bless, bought me, a fifteen year-old, an internet-connected computer that I was allowed to keep in my bedroom and use unrestricted. This is too much to give a young person without guidance and warning, but they could not have known—with the fast changing times, I will make similar mistakes with my children, no doubt. Anyway, I had ready access to hacking and phreaking literature, such as the Anarchist Cookbook, and pornography, all of which had a telling impact on an impressionable young brain. Together with games and other wonders, computers captured my full attention. I hardly saw the light of day…

My “nerd cred” became the foundation of my self-worth—here was something that I was good at!—but it was in conflict with my need for acceptance. I excelled at something out of the ordinary—this was the 90’s, remember—and because of the exclusivity, I felt judged, looked down upon, and singled out by teachers and classmates. The irony, I’ve since learned, is that I was actually well-liked in general, if not by educators, at least by students. At the time, however, I was thoroughly convinced otherwise.

And so, using my tactile anger and resentment of the situation, I created an “us vs. them” fantasy, and here, in this make-believe world, the flame of teenage rebellion was fanned to a blaze. “Going to war”, so to speak, was not a considered strategy; it was an emotional compulsion. And with obscuring ignorance, I believed that my impotent but harmful acts of vandalism were justified. I had redeeming qualities too, rest assured, not the least of which was a conscience, but when I look back at my younger self, I hang my head in shame.

The year after, at the age of nineteen, I had a religious experience. I didn’t hear or see God, but I was overwhelmed with emotion such that I cried and could not stop. The tears were an expression of relief and joy because, in that moment, I understood God’s forgiveness and goodness. He shattered the broken boy and remade him anew, and in the aftermath, I devoted myself to a holy life. God’s existence, and that he had a plan for my life, was heart knowledge, and indisputable.

In my seven years as a brother in Christ, I had several transcendent experiences. They occurred mostly in church, during worship, after the singing of praise songs. Euphoria, love, understanding, and awe are the words that I associate with those memories, along with the physical sensations of warmth, tingling, and goose bumps. These experiences were literally hair-raising, but in really good way. Occasionally, I felt the same during prayer, but here the words, comfort and peace, stand out over the rest. One time, after studying the Bible and having a long “conversation” with my maker, I asked to hear his voice. This was a strong desire, as I recall. In fact, I begged God to speak to me. And before I fell asleep, I heard my name, not audibly, but as a thought that jerked into my consciousness like a night start. I was suddenly wide awake and elated that my prayer had been answered.

I reached for these Krazy Glue experiences when my faith fissured. Doubts, you see, were never far away—which is not unusual for believers, I suspect—and my memory of these experiences helped to keep the uncertainty at bay. However, in my case, spells of darkness counterpointed my godly highs, and over the course of seven years, I became increasingly weary and unhappy. I decided to take a break from church to recover, half-knowing that I’d go back. I remained a believer for years after my departure, but the time away eventually allowed me to face my doubts head-on.

I never did go back.

Four Reasons to Doubt

1. The Absent Soul

1.1 Soulgasm

Religious experiences are orgasms of the soul, and by that I mean that those who have them usually view it as something good that happens at the level of the soul. It’s a spiritual thing, in other words. Implying that there is such a thing as a spirit, or a soul, or a paranormal life force—something beyond the material that lives on after death in an afterlife. To undermine the soul, then, is to undercut the objective reality that religious experiences reveal.

“Soul” is a slippery word that means different things to different people, but I think the following definition captures the common understanding:

“From my Oxford dictionary the definition of soul involves the following: individual—a person’s moral or emotional nature or sense of identity—essence—emotional or intellectual energy or intensity—spiritual or immaterial part of a human being. In other words, the soul of an individual comprises the intellect, mind, and will, together with the senses which control emotions. The soul is the site of a person’s personality and self-awareness[4].”

It’s an intuitive notion—it undoubtedly feels like we’re controlling our bodies, as opposed to us simply being our bodies—but that does not make it true. So, let’s explore the merit of souls.

1.2 Soul of the Gaps

To start, most neuroscientists and experimental psychologists reject dualism[5]—that is, the view that the mind, or soul, is separate from the physical self—and that is telling. In modern science, the mind—defined as the set of cognitive faculties that enables consciousness, perception, thinking, judgement, and memory[6]—is a “mere” function of the brain[5].

Now, it’s true that scientists and philosophers do not know how the mind works exactly. There are gaps in our understanding; no consensus solutions exist, for example, for the mind-body problem and the hard problem of consciousness—if indeed they are problems at all[7][8]. And it’s possible that we may never solve the puzzle. The available evidence, however, suggests that the brain contains all the pieces of the picture.

To argue otherwise, that is to say, to promote a form of dualism is problematic because there is no evidence for soul-stuff. Of course, that does not prevent people to try. We have to contend with pseudosciences such as parapsychology and non-materialist neuroscience.

Parapsychology—the supposedly scientific study of paranormal phenomena involving the human mind—is untrustworthy and unscientific[9]. “The entire history of parapsychology has been scientifically unsuccessful. No experiment showing the existence of paranormal phenomena has been consistently replicated by scientists in other laboratories with the same results. According to the parapsychologist Gardner Murphy the failure of parapsychology is to produce any truly repeatable experiment[9].” It’s telling that for-money challenges to showcase the paranormal have failed; after nineteen years, the prize money for James Randi’s One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge still stands[10].

Non-materialist neuroscience—essentially a rallying call for dualism—is likewise simply bad science[11]. “Rather than a hypothesis that leads to predictions and experiments, it is simply a catalogue of things modern neuroscience supposedly cannot yet explain[11].” Proponents of this finger of “neuroscience” will point out ignorance and squeeze the soul into these gaps. In other words, it’s fallacious.

People experience, or claim to experience—liars flourish in this space, unfortunately[12][13][14]—things that hint at the soul all the time: near death experiences, ghosts, psychic predictions, healing miracles, things of this nature, but that doesn’t mean that these individuals’ claims or perceptions comport to reality.

When it boils down to it, the foundation for the soul is essentially made from arguments from ignorance—fallacies in informal logic—which is a bad start.

1.3 The Damage is Done

The soul makes even less sense when you consider the consequences of injury to the brain.

“Historically speaking, the relationship between religion and the sciences of the mind has been tense at least since the middle of the nineteenth century, when psychiatry first established itself on a professional basis. As doctors documented how injury or illness could rob a patient of his mental or moral faculties, they struggled to assure the clergy that (somehow) their discoveries did not contradict religious notions of the immortal soul[15].”

“There are many thousands of examples of how injury to the brain, whether surgical or accidental, alters a person permanently. The truly fascinating thing about these injuries is that the area that is injured directly predicts the deficits in function that the person experiences. This is, of course, exactly what we would expect to find if brain structure and function was the cause of thought and behaviour. The dualist believes that the ghost in the machine is controlling and motivating behaviour. Probably one of the single most devastating blows to this view point is injuries that cause the body to perform complex motivated behaviour against the will and completely independent of the person. In many cases it is almost as if there is a separate person that can be communicated with and can communicate back. The consciousness of the person remains intact but they have no control over this behaviour. The dualist will be hard pressed to fit such data into their worldview. Do these brain injuries somehow ‘split’ the ‘ghost’ into competing parts? It strains credulity to say the least[11].”

The following common-sense response, made in a debate, also left an impression on me:

“There’s a false assumption about science operating here. Science is not, in principal, committed to the idea that there’s no afterlife, or that the mind is identical to the brain, or that materialism is true. Science is completely open to whatever, in fact, is true. And if it’s true that consciousness is being run like software on the brain and can—by virtue of ectoplasm or something else we don’t understand—be dissociated from the brain at death, that would be part of our growing scientific understanding of the world, if we could discover it. And there are ways we could, in fact, discover that, if it were true. The problem is: there are very good reasons to think it’s not true. And we know this from now a hundred and fifty years of neurology, where you damage areas of the brain and faculties are lost. It’s not that everyone with brain damage has their soul perfectly intact, they just can’t get the words out. Everything about your mind can be damaged by damaging the brain. You can cease to recognise faces, you can cease to know the names of animals but you still know the names of tools. The way in which our mind is parcellated at the level of the brain is not at all intuitive and there’s a lot known about it, and what we’re being asked to consider is that you damage one part of the brain and something about the mind and subjectivity is lost, you damage another and yet more is lost, and yet, if you damage the whole thing at death, we can rise off the brain with all our faculties intact, recognising grandma and speaking English[16].”

1.4 The Interesting Case of Dying

A recent study of near death experiences, led by Dr Sam Parnia, discovered that there is something to awareness during resuscitation[17], and concluded that “the recalled experience surrounding death merits a genuine investigation without prejudice[18].” I find it odd and telling that a scientist would confuse scepticism with prejudice. But anyway, the study enjoyed wide-spread media coverage with clickbait headlines. Dr Steven Novella’s critique, however, will temper any temptation to take seriously the media’s claims that science discovered the supernatural or that a patient really was aware of surroundings during resuscitation[19].

Near death experiences could, in fact, be a result of the brain’s attempt to kick-start a heart in demise. Researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School revealed a “storm of brain activity that erupts as the heart deteriorates[20].” This study “shows how the brain sends signals to the heart in the moments before death. It is this flurry of mental activity that is key to cardiac demise, the researchers say, and quite probably the foundation of near-death experiences as well[21].”

“This near-death flood of neurochemicals found in the study included dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine, which researchers call the ‘happiness hormone,’ contributes to the sensations of reward and motivation. Norepinephrine, in addition to increasing the heart rate, heightens attention and the fight-or-flight response. Put just these two together, and you get a highly alert, energetic, motivated, rewarded, and happy brain[22].”

The study found that “brain signalling at near-death may accelerate cardiac demise”, and “suggests that a pharmacological blockade of the brain’s electrical connections to the heart during cardiac arrest may improve the chances of survival in cardiac arrest patients[20].”

If true, it means that a vision of heaven reduces your chances of survival. Who knew heaven could be so dangerous?

There are two debates about the afterlife that I can recommend. The first is an Intelligence Squared debate on the subject, “Death is Not Final.” The team defending the negative position demonstrate conclusively, in my view—and most of the audience’s, in fact—that souls and the afterlife are not believable. The second is called, “Is There an Afterlife?” a discussion featuring Christopher Hitchens, Rabbi David Wolpe, Sam Harris, and Rabbi Bradley Artson Shavit.

1.5 The Hungry Brain

“Physiology also provides evidence against the existence of a mind outside the body: the brain is an expensive organ, requiring a lot of resources, such as oxygen, to function properly. If the seat of thought is not in the brain, but in an external mind in a separate plane, then there is no need for the human brain to be as large as it is. Natural selection should have favored those individuals with smaller brains as being better able to keep their brains functioning in times of scarcity[23].”

1.6 To Slice with Occam

The fact that our scientific knowledge is incomplete does not make the soul proposition more likely to be true. The soul has never been demonstrated in a reliable way—despite the obvious incentive to do so—and the evidence in support of the notion is purely anecdotal. That is sufficient to conclude that belief in the soul is unjustified. But we have further reason to reject it: the knowledge that we do have, which is based on evidence, outright contradicts the ghost in the machine.

Natural explanations of the mind rely on far fewer assumptions than supernatural soul-stuff, meaning that we should accept—by the mighty power of Occam’s razor—that our minds are soulless. We are our bodies. That is the reasonable and warranted belief.

Religious experiences, then, must be viewed as subjective interpretations that happen at the level of the brain. One may argue that there’s a difference between religious experiences and feelings, but this is ultimately to debate the quality of feeling. Convincing as they may be, there is reason to doubt the objective truths that religiously-tinted feelings reveal when they’re caused by the brain.

2. The Foolish Brain

The brain is the most sophisticated collection of atoms in the known universe; it’s an incredible—truly awesome—biological machine. But it’s not without fault. To trust our brains blindly is a mistake because our brains make mistakes all the time. The recognition of this fact is paramount; it’s these errors that critical thinking aims to identify and avoid as best as possible.

Let’s look at a few examples where our brains fail us and how that can affect our perception and decision-making.

Of all our sensory systems, vision is the most sophisticated. “In the brain itself, neurons devoted to visual processing number in the hundreds of millions and take up about 30 percent of the cortex, as compared with 8 percent for touch and just 3 percent for hearing[24].” Remarkably effective as our vision is, it’s not always reliable. For example, consider the dress that captured the internet’s affection. You know, the photo of a dress where some people see black and blue, and others, like myself, see gold and white. When we view the picture, our brains make an inference, based on the sparse data gathered by our visual senses, to construct an internal “virtual” model of reality, but given the ambiguity of the visual data—due to the poor lighting and colour tones—some people perceive it one way and other people in another way. I know the dress is black and blue—it’s been demonstrated to be true[25]—yet the knowledge makes no difference to my brain; I still see gold and white. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve wagered money on gold! And those who see black and blue are equally convinced of their perception; they just happen to be correct. This certainty of what we perceive, and our intuitive disbelief that others can see different, is probably why the dress became such a sensation.

The McGurk Effect is another great example with an even bigger wow-factor. It’s an extraordinary demonstration of how our visual perception manipulates what we hear. If you play the audio of someone saying, “far,” over a video of this person mouthing the word, “bar,” you hear bar instead of the actual spoken word. As soon as you look away, you hear the correct sound; you hear far. Describing it doesn’t do it justice. Watch the video to get the full effect; it’s quite incredible.

I came across another video recently that piqued my interest. It was a presentation, at Facebook’s F8 Summit 2015, titled, Why Virtual Reality Will Matter to You, by Michael Abrash, a computer programmer and technical writer. A reasonable take-away from this talk is that technology has the potential to make virtual reality virtually indistinguishable from reality partly because our brains make mistakes.

While errors in perception is a good demonstration of why we can’t accept things at face value, it is cognitive biases that really drives the point home.

“A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion[26].” Another definition is: “By cognitive bias, we mean cases in which human cognition reliably produces representations that are systematically distorted compared to some aspect of objective reality[27].”

Our thinking is demonstrably biased, and yet, we are rarely aware of our mistakes. It’s a sobering thought to know that we fall prey to errors in thinking as a matter of course. It’s the norm, rather than the exception.

Here are twelve biases that pertain particularly to our thinking about religious experiences.

Confirmation bias: The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions[28]. For example: a reporter who is writing an article on an important issue may only interview experts that support her or his views on the issue[29].

Selective perception: The tendency to not notice and more quickly forget stimuli that causes emotional discomfort and contradicts our prior beliefs[30]. For example, a teacher may have a favorite student because they are biased by in-group favoritism. The teacher ignores the student’s poor attainment. Conversely, they might not notice the progress of their least favourite student[30].

Emotional bias: To believe something that has a positive emotional effect, that gives a pleasant feeling, even if there is evidence to the contrary. Or to be reluctant to accept hard facts that are unpleasant and gives mental suffering[31]. For example: Paul, a business strategic planner, enjoys feeling like a radical change agent, and he’s too young to have experienced the negative emotion that accompanies a substantial failure. Time after time he comes up with an outrageous idea, such as totally revamping the way his industry prices services. He then uses data analytics to prove it was a good idea, but he only pursues the analysis that shows he’s right, ignoring the paths that could show he is wrong[32].

Availability cascade: A self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse (or “repeat something long enough and it will become true”)[28]. For example: the antivaccine movement. Fear of vaccines was stoked by a fraudulent paper published and then retracted from The Lancet. Soon, prominent media figures were talking about the dangers of vaccines. Groups were organized to spread the word which then received further media attention. Even though study after study refuted the notion of vaccine danger, antivaccine hysteria grew and was very available to new parents, causing many to refuse vaccines[33].

Bandwagon effect: The tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same[28]. For example: once a product becomes popular, more people tend to “get on the bandwagon” and buy it, too. The bandwagon effect explains why there are fashion trends[34].

Empathy gap: The tendency to underestimate the influence or strength of feelings, in either oneself or others[28]. For example: when one is angry, it is difficult to understand what it is like for one to be happy, and vice versa; when one is blindly in love with someone, it is difficult to understand what it is like for one not to be, (or to imagine the possibility of not being blindly in love in the future)[35].

Mere exposure effect: The tendency to express undue liking for things merely because of familiarity with them[28]. For example: In an experiment, subjects were shown nonsense symbols that resembled Chinese characters. Each character was shown from 0–25 times. The subjects were then asked to rate how they felt about each character. Eleven out of twelve times, the character was liked better when it was in the high frequency category[36].

Pareidolia: When a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) is perceived as significant[28]. For example: seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon, and hearing non-existent hidden messages on records played in reverse. In the Muslim community, a frequently-reported religious perception is the image of the word “Allah” in Arabic on natural objects. Again, the discovery of such an object may attract considerable interest among believers who visit the object for the purpose of prayer or veneration. Examples of this phenomenon have been reported on fish, fruit and vegetables, plants and clouds, eggs, honeycombs, and on the markings on animals’ coats[37].

Semmelweis reflex: The tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts a paradigm[28]. For example: it has been shown in recent randomized controlled trials, that arthroscopic surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee is no more effective than good attentive care. Yet the practice continues. The established paradigm of arthroscopic surgery holds that it works[33].

Subjective validation: The perception that something is true if a subject’s belief demands it to be true. Also assigns perceived connections between coincidences. Subjective validation is generally at the heart of people’s reports of the experience of paranormal phenomena[28]. For example, when it comes to readings by astrologers or psychics, a person will quickly focus on and remember the “hits” or accurate statements, but forget and ignore the “misses,” or inaccurate statements. In this manner, the person has subjectively validated their preconception that there exists some sort of astrological or psychic connection between things in the universe[38].

Illusion of external agency: When people view self-generated preferences as instead being caused by insightful, effective and benevolent agents[28]. For example: in a series of experiments, experimenters induced participants to rationalize a choice or experience (called the “optimizing” condition) after which they were more likely to make certain attributions of an external agent, as follows:[39]

Illusion of influence—subjects who had been induced to rationalize liking for a teammate were more likely to attribute this liking to the influence of “subliminal messages” which experimenters claimed to have attempted to influence them to the best outcome. In this experiment the experimenters were presumed to have “insight” into the problem and “benevolence” towards participants[39].

Illusion of insight—subjects listened to two songs, but before playing short previews, some subjects were informed that one song had been chosen for them by a “SmartRadio” that was benevolent and effective. The subjects were asked to rate the previews and after listening to the song in full multiple times, they were asked to rate it again. These subjects rated the song more highly and were more likely to continue using it, attributing their liking to the device’s “insight”[39].

Illusion of benevolence—subjects were given a gift; some rated it before receiving it and some rated it afterwards. Those in the afterwards condition rated it more highly (endowment effect). All participants were told that they were given the gift by another (unseen) participant as the best gift for them based on a questionnaire; those in the afterwards condition were more likely to believe that their liking was due to the benevolence of the gift-giver.[39]

Frequency illusion: The illusion in which a word, a name or other thing that has recently come to one’s attention suddenly seems to appear with improbable frequency shortly afterwards. Also knowns as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon[28]. For example: when you buy a new car, and suddenly you see the same car everywhere. Or when a pregnant woman suddenly notices other pregnant women all over the place. It’s a passive experience, where our brains seek out information that’s related to us, but we believe there’s been an actual increase in the frequency of those occurrences[40].

These biases are just the tip of the iceberg, and we’re still discovering more of them. “A continually evolving list of cognitive biases has been identified over the last six decades of research on human judgement and decision-making in cognitive science, social psychology, and behavioural economics[26].” Given this knowledge of how badly flawed our thinking really is, it’s clear that we are over-confident in our opinions as a rule. It’s a mistake, then, to start with such confidence when we think about the significance of our experiences. Doubt, scepticism, tentative conclusions, reserved judgement, and the willingness to change one’s mind with new information: here we must begin.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to completely avoid errors in thinking; the best we can do is to try to mitigate our mistakes, especially when important judgements are pending. To make rational decisions, however, requires research, contemplation, and time, which we do not always have—our savannah-dwelling ancestors almost certainly did not have the luxury to consider and investigate the rustle in the grass, and that goes a long way to explain our biases from an evolutionary stand-point—but we must endeavour, it seems obvious to me, to invest in the effort to think critically; that is, if we care about sound decision-making, which we must, of course. Who sets out to make bad decisions?

I try my best to think rationally and to make good decisions, and I’d like to believe I’m doing a fair job. But I’m mindful of bias blind spot, which is the tendency to see oneself as less biased than other people, or to be able to identify more cognitive biases in others than in oneself[28], and naïve realism, which is the belief that we see reality as it really is—objectively and without bias; that the facts are plain for all to see; that rational people will agree with us; and that those who don’t are either uninformed, lazy, irrational, or biased[28].

And that brings to mind the provocative quote by Bertrand Russell, that reads, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt[41].”

3. Brain Conditions and Natural Predisposition

The state of the brain, as a function of physiology, plays a decisive role in religious experiences and the belief in agency[42]. Some people, in other words, are more likely to experience God or the transcendent than others. They are simply born with this natural ability. Other people are less likely to have religious experiences. That’s a peculiar design feature, isn’t it?

We’ve learned a lot about religious experiences by looking at extreme cases. “Several neurological and psychiatric diseases are associated with hyper-religiosity as well as unusual religious activity. Temporal lobe epilepsy is associated with increased religious experiences in the ictal, postictal and interictal periods, as well as religious auras in the preictal period[43]. They can have deeply immersive experiences where they perceive as real—literally see, hear, feel, etc—things that are not evidently real. We know from scientific study that such religious experiences are caused by focal seizures in the temporal lobe[44]. Schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorders are also associated with religious experiences and increased religious practices[43].”

“Structural as well as biochemical evidence from these patients suggest that the network controlling religious activity in the brain is extremely extensive. Many different anatomical locations are implicated, including the prefrontal, temporal and parietal cortices, as well as the hippocampus, thalamus and brainstem. Furthermore, all neurotransmitter systems except the noradrenergic system have been implicated. This includes the dopaminergic, serotonergic, glutaminergic as well as cholinergic systems[43].”

“Psychotropic drugs such as phencyclidine, ketamine and amphetamines, which interfere with neurotransmitter systems implicated in these disorders, can also trigger religious experiences in healthy individuals, suggesting underlying qualitative similarities between religion in between healthy and so-called mentally ill individuals[43].”

In fact, there are many things that can stimulate the temporal lobe to produce religious experiences. “Fasting, illness, meditation, stress, sleeplessness, drugs—even expectation and the right circumstances (e.g., going to church camp) will alter one’s temporal lobe and produce a religious experience. Michael Persinger has even invented a transcranial magnetic stimulator that, when applied to one’s temporal lobe, reportedly produced religious experiences in his test subjects. His device has come to be known as ‘The God Helmet.[44]‘”

“To understand the argument as to why potential natural explanations for religious experience deflate their justificatory power, let us consider the case of someone who had a religious experience while wearing the God helmet and subsequently came to believe in the existence of “The Real” based on that experience. Would we say that belief was justified? Of course not. Why? Because in order for it to reliably convey knowledge about The Real, and be genuine, the religious experience must ultimately be caused by The Real. Yet we know it was caused by Persinger’s God Helmet. Thus it is not genuine and cannot convey justification[44].”

“Something similar can be said about the experiences of God by someone with temporal lobe epilepsy since it is known that they are caused by seizures in his temporal lobe and invoking God as an explanation of the seizures would, for the same reasons as above, be less parsimonious, have less scope and be less conservative. But what about religious experiences in other circumstances, when we don’t have direct awareness of what is going on inside the experiencer’s brain? Should we still favor the natural explanation[44]?”

“Of course! Consider someone who has a religious experience of The Real while fasting, meditating, highly stressed, ill, on drugs, or depriving themselves of sleep. Sure, we can’t directly observe their brain, but we can still ask, ‘What is the best explanation for the cause of their experience?’ Has their physical condition altered their brain and produced the experience, or has The Real reached down from the great beyond to teach them a lesson? The latter multiplies entities beyond necessary, raises more questions than it answers, and is not conservative. The natural explanation, on the other hand, is quite simple, coheres with what we know about how the brain works (and malfunctions), and offers a robust explanation. And once again, it will not do to suggest that God somehow ‘used’ the altered physical state to produce the experience, for the same reason it will not do to suggest that God used seizures in a sufferer of epilepsy, or The Real used the God Helmet. Clearly the natural explanation should be preferred[44].”

“And this is true even for the spontaneous religious experience that one has merely in a conducive environment, such as church camp. Although it is possible that The Real reached down from outside the physical realm to bestow upon you knowledge of its existence, it’s still more likely that your own expectations and environment overstimulated your temporal lobe. The latter explanation should be preferred, and as such the religious experience in question cannot justify the beliefs it produces[44].”

“Of course, I cannot prove that the religious explanation is false, but that something can’t be proven false is not reason to think it is true. That is an appeal to ignorance. In the absence of proof, the best explanation should be preferred, and clearly the natural explanation will always be the best since it will always be simpler, have wider scope, and be more conservative. And if a religious experience is produced by purely natural means, it is not a genuine religious experience and cannot justify religious belief. So, in short, since the academic theist cannot ever be justified in believing that a religious experience is genuine, religious experience can never justify their religious belief[44].”

“While, again, it is true that neurological explanations for religious experience do not disprove God’s existence, it is clearly false that they have no bearing on it since natural explanations for religious experiences negate their ability to provide evidence for God’s existence. If one relies on religious experience to provide justification for one’s belief in God, as many theists do, clearly discovering natural explanations for religious experiences has great bearing on one’s justification for belief in God. In addition, if it can be effectively argued that belief in God (or religious belief in general) originally arose because of religious experience, but religious experience has a purely naturalistic cause, then significant doubt arises about God’s existence[44].”

4. Diversity of Religious Experiences

Many people have religious experiences, and these experiences bolster religious belief; for some, it is the very reason that they believe. But, this applies to people of different, mutually exclusive religions, and that is perhaps the most obvious evidence that compels us to doubt.

“Suppose there are only two religions in the world, with half the world’s population belonging to each, and that the religions are mutually exclusive (only one can be true). Yet religious experiences, that tell the experiencer that their religion is true, are had by adherents of both. Since both religions can’t be true, the religious experiences of at least half the world’s population are leading them astray—producing false belief. Consequently, one must conclude that religious experience is not reliable; half of the time, it lies. In such a situation, one could not be justified by a religious experience to believe what it suggests is true; it is just as likely, as not, that it is leading the experiencer astray[44].”

“Of course, conditions in the real world are less favourable. There are five major world religions, only one of which can be true, and there is at least one major split in each. Without adjusting for the popularity of certain religions, religious experience lies 90% of the time. Even taking popularity into account, and assuming the best case scenario in which the most adhered to religion is true (Christianity at 33%), and the generous assumption that religious experiences within that religion are uniform, religious experience still lies 2/3rds of the time—hardly a reliable truth preserving process. So, since the diversity of religious experience entails that religious experience is not a reliable truth preserving process, and if religious experience is not a reliable process, it cannot justify religious belief, the diversity of religious experience entails that religious experience cannot justify religious belief[44].”

“To respond, you can’t merely claim that your religious experience is ‘stronger than theirs’—you do not have access to how strong their experience is, and they will in turn claim that theirs is stronger than yours. One can’t be justified in believing one’s experience is the strongest if everyone has that impression, but not everyone’s can be the strongest. One might try to divide religious experience into different kinds, and claim that one kind—your kind—is reliable. Unfortunately, attempts to justifiably do so will either beg the question (one cannot claim to know so via one’s religious experience) or undermine the epistemic authority of the religious experience being argued for. For example, if one provides additional evidence for the beliefs produced by religious experiences to show the religious experiences leads to true beliefs, then it’s that evidence—not the religious experiences—that is doing the justificatory work for the beliefs in question[44].”

It’s interesting—but no longer a mystery—why religious experiences are so wide-spread. One may be tempted to argue that there’s perhaps a common core to these events that justify belief in some form of higher power. But that is weak and vague. What is this higher power? Can it be described in a meaningful way? I think not. And if one can’t even articulate a notion, it is literally meaningless.


Through sciences like biology, sociology, and psychology we have discovered natural causes that explain our propensity to see agency and experience “the divine”. On the one hand, we have objective evidence-based explanations that—despite being incomplete—robustly account for our observations of religious experiences, and on the other hand, we have subjective anecdote-based speculations that lead to contradictory conclusions. It’s obvious to me that religious experiences alone, compelling and real as they may feel, can’t inform us about objective truths. They are unreliable and must be viewed with extreme scepticism. And that’s exactly how I now view the experiences that once persuaded me that the Christian God existed.

My most profound religious experience happened the night when I became a serious Christian. There were many factors at play. To start, my conversion was emotionally charged by the events of the day. I had been hurt, not in a physical way, but I was disappointed, sad, and angry. On top of my hurt, I still felt guilty and ashamed of my vandalism days, which remained fresh in my mind. Naturally, I felt like a wretched human being, and the fear of hell had broken the surface many times. That year was also my first at university, away from home and family, and I was profoundly unhappy there for various reasons. I was stressed and uncertain about my future. It was in this colourful context that my relationship with God was challenged with the words, “When last did you read your bible?” It’s unsurprising that I seized the opportunity to calm my fear, ease my pain, and relieve my worry. My pre-existing belief in the Christian God and biblical doctrine, and my heightened emotional state and bias, affected the state of my brain in such a way that I had a religious experience.

My subsequent religious experiences during church worship was, among other things, due to cognitive biases, such as: emotional bias, availability cascade, bandwagon effect, mere exposure effect, subjective validation, and more, no doubt. My brain state was primed by expectation and a conducive environment. In church, the band played a key part. They were a group of spectacular musicians that led the congregation with high-energy music. Drums, bass, guitars, piano, percussion, choir, they had it all. The music got me fired-up, expectant, and joyful much like singing at a sporting event, or a rock concert. This would go on for twenty minutes or so, and then the band would play one or two songs to transition to slow-and-serious, tug-at-the-heart worship songs. In other words, I was seduced and manipulated by music, charismatic worship leaders, and the hundreds of people around me who shared my purpose to glorify God. Religious experiences were inevitable to happen.

As for my hearing—but not quite hearing—of God’s voice… Well, that’s explained by meditation and a tired, sleepy mind. The event happened late at night after I had spent an hour in prayer and bible study, and after I’ve turned off the lights to go to sleep. God “spoke” to me in that dreamy moment where you’re neither asleep nor awake. Not very impressive, is it?

And that’s my overall opinion of religious experiences. They’re not very impressive. What is impressive is how our biases—confirmation bias, selective perception, and subjective validation, in particular—stifles critical thought.

I can’t speak for anyone’s subjective perceptions, but of my own religious experiences I can say this: they were the cornerstone of my faith. While I was having them, I was absolutely certain that they were proof that God was real, and for years after I stopped having them, they continued to carry a lot of weight. I know better now, as I’ve demonstrated, but I don’t have the same graphene-conviction as my former religious self. Instead, I have maximum certainty, which I temper with the knowledge that I should adjust my opinion with new information.

For now, I explicitly reject religious experiences as evidence for God or the supernatural.

References and Notes

  1. ^ “Religious Experience” essay by Mark Webb (Nov 2011), from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved May 2015.
  2. ^ “The Strange Case of Francis Collins” blog post by Sam Harris (Aug 2009).
  3. ^ “A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk-Taking” scientific study by Laurence Steinberg (May 2008).
  4. ^ “A Scientific Search for Religious Truth” book by Phil Mundt (Dec 2006).
  5. ^ ab “Social Neuroscience and the Soul’s Last Stand” essay by Joshua D. Greene (June 2011).
  6. ^ “Mind” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved May 2015
  7. ^ “John Searle (Continuum Contemporary American Thinkers)” book by Joshua Rust (Nov 2009).
  8. ^ “Facing Backwards on the Problem of Consciousness” essay by Daniel Dennett (Nov 1995).
  9. ^ ab “Parapsychology” article from RationalWiki. Retrieved May 2015.
  10. ^ “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved May 2015.
  11. ^ abc “Non-materialist neuroscience” article from RationalWiki. Retrieved May 2015.
  12. ^ “The ‘Boy Who Came Back from Heaven’ Retracts Story” news article by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra (Jan 2015).
  13. ^ “I Was One of America’s Top Psychics—And Like All of Them, a Complete Fraud” article by Mark Edward (Aug 2012).
  14. ^ “James Randi exposes Uri Geller and Peter Popoff” video by Rational Response Squad.
  15. ^ “Science and Religion” essay by William Sims Bainbridge, taken from The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion by Peter Clarke (2009).
  16. ^ “Is There an Afterlife?” video of a discussion featuring Christopher Hitchens, Rabbi David Wolpe, Sam Harris, and Rabbi Bradley Artson Shavit (Feb 2011), starting at 1h10m30s.
  17. ^ “AWARE—AWAreness during REsuscitation—A prospective study” scientific study by Sam Parnia (Sep 2014).
  18. ^ “Death and consciousness–an overview of the mental and cognitive experience of death” scientific study by Sam Parnia (Nov 2014).
  19. ^ “AWARE Results Finally Published – No Evidence of NDE” blog post by Steven Novella (Oct 2014).
  20. ^ ab “Near-death brain signaling accelerates demise of the heart” science news article (Apr 2015).
  21. ^ “Near-Death Experiences May Be Explained By Heart-Brain Connection” blog post by Susan Scutti (Apr 2015).
  22. ^ “New Study Suggests Link Between Cardiac Arrest and Near-Death Experiences” blog post by Bo Gardiner (Apr 2015).
  23. ^ “Dualism” article from Iron Chariots wiki. Retrieved May 2015.
  24. ^ “The Vision Thing: Mainly in the Brain” article from Discovery Magazine (Jun 1993).
  25. ^ “The Color Of The Dress According To Science” video by BuzzFeedBlue (Feb 2015).
  26. ^ ab “Cognitive bias” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved May 2015.
  27. ^ “The Evolution of Cognitive Bias” draft essay by Martie G. Haselton, Daniel Nettle, and Damian R. Murray (Dec 2014) for D. M. Buss’s The Evolutionary Psychology Handbook, 2nd Edition.
  28. ^ abcdefghijkl “List of cognitive biases” article for Wikipedia. Retrieved May 2015.
  29. ^ “Confirmation Bias” article from Psychology and Society. Retrieved May 2015.
  30. ^ ab “Selective perception” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved May 2015.
  31. ^ “Emotional bias” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved May 2015.
  32. ^ “Our Brains are Wired for Emotional Bias in Decision Making” article by Jackie Barretta (May 2013) for Nura Group.
  33. ^ ab “Cognitive Biases” article from Skeptical Medicine. Retrieved May 2015.
  34. ^ “Bandwagon effect” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved May 2015.
  35. ^ “Empathy gap” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved May 2015.
  36. ^ “Mere Exposure Effect” article from Socially Psyched. Retrieved May 2015.
  37. ^ “Perceptions of religious imagery in natural phenomena” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved May 2015.
  38. ^ “Flaws in Reasoning and Arguments: Subjective Validation” article from About. Retrieved May 2015.
  39. ^ abcd “Illusion of external agency” article for Wikipedia. Retrieved May 2015. I rewrote the paragraph on illusion on insight to be more clear.
  40. ^ “8 Common Thinking Mistakes Our Brains Make Every Day and How to Prevent Them” blog post by Belle Beth Cooper (Sep 2013).
  41. ^ “The Triumph of Stupidity” essay by Bertrand Russell (May 1933), taken from Mortals and Others Volume II: American Essays, 1931-1935 (Feb 1998).
  42. ^ “Oliver Sacks on Humans and Myth-making” video interview of Oliver Sacks by BigThink (date unknown, pre 2010), starting at 4m14s.
  43. ^ abcd “The Neurological Basis For Belief” essay by Esther Ng (Aug 2011).
  44. ^ abcdefghijk “Why Religious Experience Can’t Justify Religious Belief” essay by David Kyle Johnson (date unknown, probably pre 2010).

16 responses »

  1. Pingback: On Why I Remain an Atheist: Revisted | Amber Restorative's

    • Thanks John! I appreciate that. I’m relieved that someone is actually willing to read a 7.5k word essay, let alone reading it multiple times 🙂

      Took about a month to complete. Large portions are direct quotes, however. Especially towards the end! Worked out quite well, I thought tho.

      • It did, and as far as general conversion stories go (with the meat attached) its one of the best and most comprehensives i’ve seen. You should look to getting this published on some Humanist sites. This is the kind of thing that should be available as a sort of “go to” info piece.

  2. Pingback: OWIRAA {C}: Religious Experiences | Christians Anonymous

  3. It is interesting that religious experiences are interpreted only in terms of what people know. How many of them result in conversions to religions unknown to the person having the experience? Any? Consequently, the experience is the experience; the interpretation, though, is preprogrammed.

    I second John’s kudos on a post well researched!

    • Thanks you, Steve. Yes, the diversity of religious experiences and the fact that the experience generally validates (for the experiencer) the faith that they were raised with makes it suspect from the get-go.

  4. I’m sure I sound like an echo after John Zande, but it was awesome and well thought out. I’ve spent the last few nights rereading you’re earlier post leading up to this, and this one certainly qualifies as a capping magnum opus.

  5. A “religious experience” defined in this way, reminds me a lot of the experience of falling in love.
    A chemical reaction spurring a relationship that can only be sustained lastingly within facts and reality.

    You meet someone and based on your experience in that moment (or a few moments together), you fall in love and your initial experience can be completely explained by brain chemistry.
    The lasting relationship is not really based on those initial or sporadic “experiences” (chemical imbalances) but based on the facts of mutual respect, shared values and experiences, hard work and commitment and a whole lot of other real rational facts.

    So I have a “religious experience” and meet Christ, but the relationship needs to be backed up by those very real historical documents and facts you’ve mentioned … and of course, like in the case of a relationship with a human being, those sporadic chemical imbalances are needed to keep the passion of the relationship going.

    Being able to explain the experience of falling in love does not alter the reality of the experience.

    This is in not a rebuttal, it is the train of thought you’ve activated (conversation). It says something complementary when a writer can make his audience think 😉

    I have to say, fascinating research! Your quest for knowledge takes some very intriguing turns, thanks for sharing some of that.

    • Hi Vicky,

      I’m pleased that my writing has made you think; that is indeed the highest praise for an author. Thank you for saying so, and thank you for sharing your thoughts. I value them very much.

      I think the analogy of feeling in love is actually a pretty decent one, and I agree, roughly, with your sentiment that being able to explain an experience does not change the reality of the experience itself. I certainly made no such claim in this essay. In fact, I write about my past religious experiences, in part, because I wanted to communicate how compelling and convincing they were to me. And my moments of feeling In Love with my wife are no less special with the knowledge that it’s a “heightened” state of the brain. I am neither immune to the emotions of awe and wonder and melancholy and despair despite my understanding that they’re “merely” interpretations by my brain.

      It seems that you accept that religious experiences by themselves are not evidence for God—i.e. it’s a bad reason to believe. Instead, to you, religious experiences are something that periodically invigorates your religious conviction, which you hold not because of the religious experiences, but rather because of other things such as—as you say—historical documents and other rational facts.

      I don’t share your confidence (obviously) that there are, in fact, historical documents and other rational facts available to us that count as good evidence for the Christian God, but future articles should address that. This essay only addresses the question, “Are religious experiences evidence for God,” because, like I testified in the essay, they were *for me* very much a reason to believe.

      I accept your dismissal of religious experiences as a reason to believe in God—if that is indeed your position—but it’s my experience that there are many believers that downplay the importance and impact of these invigorating feelings, which is why I wrote the second paragraph of my essay: “For some theists—if not many, if not most—religious experiences are crucial elements in the alloy of their conviction. Ask believers to defend their belief and they may offer argument and appeal to holy books, history, and so forth. But press a theist on how they personally came to believe or why they remain believers, and there’s a sporting chance that religious experiences play a decisive role.”

      I hope your train of thoughts takes you on a long and pleasant journey. Please alight here again if you want to further the conversation.

      Cheers, Jaco

  6. This was a very interesting post. I’ve had several “divine experiences” in my life which confirmed my devout catholic faith. Recently though, I’ve fallen into atheism. I’ve since been struggling hard to understand how I could have been so fooled by these experiences, which were so damn REAL to me. This post answers many of those questions. Thanks for writing.

    • You’re welcome. I’m glad that you got something useful out of it. That makes for one happy writer 🙂

      My very first post was written because I wanted to understand how I could have been fooled into religion, which is so clearly based on falsehoods. The answer is, of course, a combination of being raised in the faith and personal experiences. What we are taught as children is hard to shake, even if we know it’s wrong.

      PS, I think you’ll find that you’ve risen to atheism; it’s religion that’s fallen away 😉

      Thanks for reading.

  7. Pingback: OWIRAA {D}: Faith | Amber Restorative's

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