Friday, February 04, 2005

Religious Experiences

Most of you probably know that I'm an atheist. However, I've had a few quite intense dreams which I'm tempted to describe as 'religious experiences' (though of course without any presumption that they actually had a supernatural cause!). They involve a quality of consciousness quite different from anything else I've ever experienced. It's very difficult to describe, but I'll try anyway...

To begin with, the experience is one of 'raw consciousness' - as if all the analytic (or in any way 'reflective') elements of my mind were completely shut down - though I guess that much is pretty standard for dreams. What's different is the religious feel to it all. You just know, with utter certainty, that you are in God's presence. There's a sense of power which surrounds you (more than that, surrounds everything; a ubiquitous power), besides which one is helpless and insignificant. Insignificant, but in awe. And so very, very contrite.

To give a specific example: I was sleeping in one Sunday morning, and the bells from the local church started chiming - I must have been only half-dozing, because I could hear them in my slumber. (Presumably that's what triggered the experience.) Suddenly I knew, with absolute certainty, that the world was coming to an end, 'rapture' style. Jesus was coming down to Earth to 'beam up' the Christians and punish everyone else. I distinctly remember thinking "Oh shit! I made the wrong choice..." This was all accompanied by the qualities of experience described above - the power, the insignificance, the awe. And, of course, the panicked apologies. (Did God listen? I don't recall. I don't think so, though. Maybe I woke up too soon to tell.)

Then I wake, the fog of slumber lifts, and I shake my head in amused disbelief. What remarkable hallucinations the sleeping brain can induce! What emotion! What fun! (A scary kind of fun, to be sure. But at least in retrospect, I would definitely rate these experiences positively.)

This raises a few questions for me. Firstly, has anyone else had an experience which sounds even remotely like this? Or anything else they would describe as a 'religious experience'? If so, please feel free to share it in the comments section - I must say I'm very curious about it all. (I often feel a sense of awe at the beauty of the natural world, e.g. when watching grass ripple in the wind. But that doesn't count. I mean 'religion' in the standard, supernatural sense; not the woolly 'anything mysterious or awe-inspiring' sense.)

Then there's the more philosophical question:
Do such experiences in any way count as evidence towards God's existence? One might argue that just as positing a table is the best explanation for our conscious experience of tables, so positing a God is the best explanation for our religious experiences. But there are several crucial disanalogies.

For one thing, we usually only give credence to waking experiences. One might also dream of unicorns, that obviously doesn't make them real. But perhaps the unique conscious qualities make these dreams worth further consideration? The problem with that claim is that for a dream of mine to have unique conscious qualities is not a particularly unique event in itself. (I've had some other bizarre dreams, each with its own unique conscious qualities. Strange as it may sound, I'd even say there are some feelings/emotions that I've experienced only in dreams, and never in waking life.)

Moreover, I've heard that there is a particular part of our brains which can induce spiritual feelings when stimulated. (Interestingly, the form this experience takes apparently varies from culture to culture. A Christian will sense Jesus, a Buddhist Buddha, etc.) So, just as our visual centres give us visual hallucinations in our dreams, so might this religious centre give me a 'religious hallucination' (e.g. false sensations as if of God).

So a more interesting question would be whether waking religious experiences count as evidence favourable to theism. I'd really like to know more about this 'spiritual centre' in our brains. We know it can be artificially stimulated to give rise to religious 'hallucinations'. But what usually (I hesitate to say 'naturally') causes it to be stimulated? If we could identify a natural source, then religious sensations would be explained, so they would no longer motivate positing God's existence. We could instead conclude that all such experiences were just a sort of hallucination. Of course, it's always possible that God might supernaturally intervene with our neurochemistry to cause these effects, but that's clearly an inferior explanation to any science might provide.

As a further point of disanalogy between visual sensations and religious ones, note that the positing of tables (etc.) plays an indispensible role in our explanation of the world, whereas, I would argue, religious notions do not. There are two aspects to this claim. First is that discussed above, that we might soon have a plausible natural explanation of the religious sensations (especially if we can also explain the evolutionary origin of the brain's 'religion module' itself). Clearly there is no such alternative explanation for our everyday visual (and other) sensations.

Second, there simply is no making sense of the world without tables and chairs. They play a much broader role in providing us with a coherent understanding of the world, including the recombination of our various sensory modes. That is, our various different senses are mutually reinforcing - positing a table explains not only what I see, but also what I touch, and what I hear when I bang my fist against it, etc. Religious 'sensations', by contrast, don't seem to cohere as part of this broad framework. As isolated phenomena, we have much less reason to take them seriously.

So, although theists often cite 'personal experience' as evidence for their belief in God, I'm not actually convinced that such experiences (at least, of the sort discussed in this post) provide independent epistemic warrant at all. If theistic beliefs are presupposed then such experiences will no doubt reinforce them; much as a coincidental link between an event and a horoscope reading will reinforce the New-Ager's belief in astrology. But given the alternative explanations provided by science, it would be a mistake to take the apparent 'evidence' at face value.


  1. The last time I had one of those moments was when I *was* religious. Now I just have those dreams involving futile arguments with my religious family. Have you read Ramachandran Phantoms of the Brain (I think)? I've only read bits, but I know he discusses the God center. My first comment was "Wow, wouldn't that be a cool spot to shock in an atheist?" And I remember there was a site up on the web many ages back about Mystical Atheism where a guy posted his dialogue with God where God explained how he doesn't exist. I could never tell *how* serious/humorous that was meant to be.  

    Posted by mleiv

  2. I don't think that "experience" in general should be counted as evidence. When I experience a table I don't weigh any evidence or use reasoning to come to some conclusion that there is a table in front of me. Rather, when I see a table, for example, it leads directly to a belief that there is a table. My experience of a table is part and parcel of my belief that a table is there. Whatever it is that forms my beliefs, experience seems to be an integral part of it. So I don't really consider my experience of a table as being evidence for a table.

    When I experience a table, rarely (unless I'm in philosophy-mode) do I ask "What explanation best fits this experience?" and then answer "A table is the best explanation." Rather, it is more along the lines of "I experienced a table and it led directly to my belief that a table is there." A table isn't "the best explanation" for my experience. Rather, a table just kind of came along for the ride with my experience.

    With that in mind, I also think that you are dealing with a pretty narrow view of "religious experience" in this post. You seem to be only dealing with what I'll call "mystical" religious experiences. I think these are only a small subset of religious experiences. Most everyday, normal religious experiences are of the type that lead to beliefs like "God is doing this" or "God is good" or "God is working in my life" or perhaps just to a stronger belief in God. So what I generally mean by "religious experience" is any experience that leads directly to God-beliefs similar to the ones in the previous sentence.

    Just like our experience of tables isn't evidence for a table, I don't think that religious experience is evidence for God. If I repeat one of the previous paragraphs, replacing experiencing a table with having a religious experience, I think you'll see what I mean:

    "When I have a religious experience, rarely (unless I'm in philosophy-mode) do I ask "What explanation best fits this experience?" and then answer "God is the best explanation." Rather, it is more along the lines of "I had a religious experience and it led directly to my belief about God." God isn't "the best explanation" for my experience. Rather, God just kind of came along for the ride with my experience."

    My most significant religious experience - the one I'll never forget - was rather mundane. I was sitting in my car, in traffic, waiting for a stop light to turn green. I have no idea why but at that moment I was just thinking about how little doubt I had that God existed. There were no bright lights, no angels, no visions, no dreams ... nothing like that at all. Just the belief that God is very real.

    "But given the alternative explanations provided by science, it would be a mistake to take the apparent 'evidence' at face value."

    Science doesn't offer "alternate explanations." Atheism or metaphysical naturalism or some other way of viewing the world offers alternate explanations. If science tells us that there is a 'religion module,' then that isn't an alternate explanation. It is a scientific insight into some of the natural processes involved in religious experience. In order to be an alternate explanation, you need an alternate framework for interpretting the science.  

    Posted by Macht

  3. An interesting post Richard, and an interesting comment by Macht.

    I have had several kinds of waking mystical experience. They are not like what you describe, except for the sense of absolute certainty. The certainty is not a conceptual certainty, but a certainty like your certainty that you exist. One kind of experience does seem to conform to what others have described as "experiencing God". But the key thing about this is that it is not in any way visual or conceptual. Another way of putting it is that God does not conform to anyone's ideas about "him", so the label "God" is misleading.

    There is a vast literature on the subject of mysticism. In surveys of the subject you will find there are a variety of phenomena that go under the label "mysticism". One kind of mysticism has to do with visions, telepathy, supernatural phenomena, etc. I am convinced these phenomena are real, not just hallucinations or stimulations of a spiritual center in the brain. However, all genuine spiritual teachers recommend avoiding this kind of mysticism. There is another kind of mysticism that has to do with pure knowledge, and involves no visions whatsoever.

    My spiritual teachers also tell me that it is essential to get over this notion of having mystical experiences. They say that true mysticism does not involve experiences or special moments in time, because we are already in eternity, we just don't see it because of certain defects in our conceptual apparatus. 

    Posted by V.E.R.

  4. Sorry for getting a little off the main point here, but have you seen the movie "Waking Life", being a philosopher, I would be a little surprised if you have not. I just kept thinking about that movie while reading your post and the comments talking about dreaming and waking mystical experiences. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. 

    Posted by Henry

  5. Hi - I was just researching religious experiences for my A Level course.
    I'm a Christian who would claim to have had religious experiences, but I would just like to say how much I appreciated your mature, sensible and fair approach to this post.

  6. why hello there. i would just like to say, thank you very much. im doing gcse RI and i have been looking for about an hour on the net to find a religious experience and couldnt find a decent one but the i found this. im a strong believe agaisnt God but i respect your views...sort of.

  7. Let me start by saying I am not a religious nut and I do not go to church, as I feel as it is a big business...although there is good in it.

    In May of 1992, I was in Mexico City with my boss in the CAmino Real hotel. At 3:11 AM, as I believe I had arrived back from what I can only term as a place which was pure "love" I was in a black, dark place, but was not scared, I saw a light at a distance which slowly enveloped me. I got closer and closer with the feelings I can only describe as taking 1000 hits of Extacy at once. Intense Love. I finally arrived in front of a figure which I thought to be Jesus. I could not remember a face or feet...but white robes. The feelings are what I remember most...I remember thinking....this is how love should feel all the time...I also know that I was floating above my bed, phsycially...I was out of my body. I dont know what was said, if anything, but I know that event in my life changed it forevermore...I am now a very very positive person. I know what exists accross the great beyond. It did happen again to me....but like anything else...the first time was best! That same day, I went to the Cathedral in Mexico City...quite the site...choir in the background...those same feelings enveloped my like a hug from God himself...

    When I came 3:11 AM I was in sweats, breathing heavy, my boss awoke and asked "what happened" I looked at him puzzled....and said"I think I just met God" and as he was religious, he was very, very happy about my experience.

    I tell very few people this story, as they would think I am a whack job....but I do tell people who know is my testimony...I know God communicates to whatever form it is...and I sometimes feel him come through as clear as day.

    Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed my truth and if anyone has had a similar expeirence...I would love to chat!
    AIM: jagman1999

  8. If Christians dream of Jesus and Buddhists dream of Buddha, why do you think you, as an Atheist, dreamt of Jesus AND God?

  9. Because I was raised in a culture where Christianity is the dominant religion, of course.

  10. I have had a variety of mystical experiences. Once, back when I was Christian and was praying I had an overwhelming sense of something loving me. I've also had a variety mystical experiences mostly in connection with literature, but also once at a dance. A sense of living and dying and breathing and being born and being it all, all at once and wondering if it was worth it and finally deciding yes it is. All very Nietzschean. Often when I watch the sea from cliffs or the waves break on the rocks I have experiences of the sublime so intense that they border on the mystical.


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