On Religious Experience

“Seeing is believing.” How cliché. This saying is so common yet entirely without merit. When it comes to scientific analysis, seeing alone is most certainly not believing. One first needs to demonstrate that what one is observing is actually what is happening. (Is that really a lake, or is it a mirage?) Then one needs to repeatedly verify one’s observation in further testing. (It sure looks like a lake, but I’d like to make sure before I walk over there. How can I find out? Aha, I’ll climb this tree to see if it gives me a better view!) Of course, other people must also verify our findings. (Hey, Fred. What’s that thing over there? A lake, you say? Great! Let’s go check it out.)

This is perhaps the biggest difference between the scientifically oriented and, well, everyone else. Perhaps the most relevant personal example I of this I can think of took place a few years ago, just as I was discovering my atheism. I had been involved in a lengthy conversation with a friend, and it eventually turned to religion. I knew very little about the scientific method, and I knew far less about cognitive psychology, so I was not prepared for the revelation that followed.

I was an atheist, I said, because I saw no reason to believe; I saw (and indeed, still see) only reasons not to. I had never had a personal religious experience that could not be explained through entirely naturalistic mechanisms. I cited the wide variety of religious traditions as evidence against the accuracy of all religions, for surely if one of them were really true, it would be demonstrably different from the rest (and presumably followed by the majority of humanity). I mentioned the inconsistencies between denominations and even within shared holy texts. I mentioned the incomprehensibility of a deity who wanted to make its presence known, but not badly enough to actually do so in person.

These reasons were entirely unconvincing to her. She told me about a time that she had been filled with doubts, so she had started reading various books on religion. The one that most swayed her was one by a man who claimed that he had previously been an atheist. She said he started writing his book as a way to disprove religion (which speaks volumes to his reasoning capabilities—religions are specifically designed to be unfalsifiable), but the things he found while doing his research caused him to embrace Christianity as the One True Religion™. What she found most convincing of all was the argument for personal experience—seeing feeling is believing.

The reason she believed in God, she said, was that she had felt an undeniable wave of emotion during a religious gathering. She had raised her hands into the air alongside everyone else, and she had felt elation. Thus, God.

I didn’t really know what to say. This is why I regret not having studied cognitive psychology.

Of course it should come as no surprise that emotionally charged social situations can trigger emotional reactions (even especially profound ones). It’s even less surprising when you take into consideration the fact that she was in a crowd of people swaying to rhythmic music. Peer pressure, a sustained beat, and preexisting religious expectations? If this doesn’t sound like fertile soil for a hypnotic experience, I don’t know what does. This does not add any evidence to the theistic argument, however, because the very same kind of experience found in Christian worship can be achieved through Buddhist meditation. If this experience indicates any connection with a divine power, that power does not seem to particularly care about an individual’s religious beliefs. This also supports the naturalistic position, as these experiences are entirely observable in the physical state of the brain, and they can be activated through external stimulation.

Does that mean that my friend did not feel the emotions she described? Absolutely not. This is crucial—I do not deny the realness of religious experience. It’s just that people are wrong to attribute those experiences to supernatural causes.

This is where the science-minded and the religion-minded butt heads. To the “spiritual” believer, personal experience is the single most important thing.

To the scientist, it’s just the opposite.

Richard Feynman sums it up perfectly: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” Perhaps no lie is so dangerous as the one you tell yourself.

There can be no denying religious experience, but we can certainly disagree about attribution. Dan Barker, a former evangelical Christian turned atheist, often talks about speaking in tongues. He remarks upon the tingly feelings he used to get while speaking in tongues as a believer. Since becoming an atheist, he has lost precisely none of his ability to do this, and it still brings him the same feelings. My own personal experience parallels this—I can still summon forth, at will, that sensation I used to get during “spiritual” activities.

Reason teaches us to rely on valid and reliable demonstrations of evidence before establishing firm convictions about anything, and this applies equally to issues of religion. If a phenomenon isn’t repeatable, it probably isn’t worth discussing. To the believer, a satisfying feeling may suffice to substantiate religious claims, but a scientist knows that the easiest person to fool is yourself. The cognitive sciences show us that we are pretty terrible judges of our own minds, particularly because we are incapable of perceiving the processes that occur inside our own brains, below the level of consciousness.

If belief in the supernatural is a prerequisite to experiencing “transcendence,” there is no explanation for the otherwise seemingly religious experiences felt by former believers. But belief is clearly not necessary, and the obvious explanation is that these feelings are in no way supernatural; they are simply brain states. Like every other brain state, they are largely similar between individuals and have a wide range of possible triggers. The experiences, then, are entirely real, even if they are nothing more than convincing hallucinations.


5 responses to “On Religious Experience

  1. “The reason she believed in God, she said, was that she had felt an undeniable wave of emotion during a religious gathering. She had raised her hands into the air alongside everyone else, and she had felt elation. Thus, God.”

    *roar of laughter*

    Of course she felt a wave of emotion during a religious gathering. What else was she expecting to feel? Hunger?

  2. To be fair, I did not experience it with her. I have an idea of the general type of feelings that accompany these things, though. I find it conceivable that certain emotion can only be produced by a supernatural being. Her case does seem to be an instance of stupidity, however.

    You do realize that these are not the sort of examples Craig Keener cites in his book, right?

  3. Religious experiences(RE) are subjective, as dreams, thus impossible to objectively say they are correct or not. If x say she dreamt she could sing like MJ, it is impossible for me to objectively verify.

    It is for this reason I find RE can be subjectively be good reason for the one experiencing them but useless to offer as reason for others to objective share the same conviction.

    What do you think Collin and Tracy.


  4. I agree that visions, dreams, feelings, etc. cannot be verified externally and so probably wouldn’t be good evidence for anyone skeptical enough. However, I do make exceptions for cases where they could count as some sort of evidence (although, not proof).

    1. Where one person experience the same thing and a common cause cannot be identified.
    2. Where the experience has significant predictive power.

    The reason is that in those circumstances, the rival hypothesis – coincidence – seems very weak.

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