How I explain my religious experiences (long Opening Post)

Some recent threads have seen me attempting to engage theists about why their experiences lead them to believe in God, since there appears to be a widespread assumption that if only atheists could share such experiences, they would be convinced as well. (One even goes as far as suggesting that if a team of scientists were to undergo the correct training in meditation and religious education, they would end up furnishing evidence of God which was as clear and unambiguous as the evidence they could furnish of a real, living human!)

I am a scientist (physics degree, acoustics doctorate), and as a teenager I used to be a committed Christian. During this time, I had many experiences which I describe as religious, from dramatic epiphanies during evangelical meetings to the subtle, everyday experiences which convinced me of God’s presence in my life.

Over a couple of years these convictions weakened until by university I had become an outright atheist, and would like to share how that conversion came about. Essentially, the more I learned about science, the less I attributed my experiences to an external divine source, which ultimately became unnecessary. (Not disproven, just not required in order to explain anything.)

[ul]First, how to explain the phenomena occurring during these evangelical meetings? Physicist John Wheeler said “In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it”. The thing I found most strange was the ability of some individuals to babble away in what seemed like a foreign language, despite being acquainted with them closely enough to know that they had never travelled or received any such training. Was this ability not a clear miracle happening before my very eyes?

I looked into it (not as easy in the early 90’s as today but libraries require, and provide, more depth in intellectual pursuits than the internet) and found the word I was looking for: Glossolalia. Studies have shown that speakers “in tongues” use precisely the same sounds as in their native language, just scrambled into a random order, like improvising a musical solo. It is also remarkably easy for many people to learn (some passing a baseline test after hearing just a one minute sample), such that it might be closely associated with the babbling we all produced as a toddler learning to speak. No external source for the ‘words’ need be posited.

[li]Finding out that glossolalia was a well studied (and arguably well explained) science was one of the first “Straight Dope” moments in my life (not that I’d heard of the SD back then), and I began to understand why some of the cleverer religious people I knew tended to downplay its miraculous nature. So, what was the next strangest thing, in Wheeler’s parlance?[/li]
That would be the ‘trances’ in which a euphoric feeling of loving calm envelopes one who is said to be “slain in the spirit”. My own experiences did not happen to involve a microphone-wielding demagogue grabbing me by the forehead and propelling me off on a kind of congregation-surf, but they were no less intense and epiphanic despite the absence of such theatrics. How could this possibly be explained without an external source of such blessings?

Outside the noise and hysteria of the meetings, I took the time to try and recreate my experiences in quiet solitude. I was unsuccessful at first, merely attaining a state of happy sleepiness. Might I require the collective effervescence of a crowd of synchronised worshippers to force my mind-state onto the bandwagon, perhaps? Fortunately, after learning more about various forms of meditation, I found that I could achieve a similar experience myself without any divine focus to my contemplations. I also experimented with various psychotropics and found that they too could induce remarkably deep and profound mind-states which could not easily be qualitatively distinguished from those achieved via religious or meditative means.

The science of meditation is now well established. One interesting study compares the brain scans of ‘skilled’ Buddhist practitioners with meditation ‘novices’, and finds significant higher frequency activity in lateral frontoparietal areas when the experts self-induce a state of “pure” or “nonreferential” compassion at will, which appears to closely resemble the ‘mystical’ varieties of religious experience documented by many Christian writers from William James onwards. More interesting still, any more activity in this region appears to correlate with pathological phenomena, as though some forms of epilepsy might arise from having “too much of a good thing”, neurologically speaking. (There are even suggestions that expert meditators can self-induce partial seizures.)

[li]So, no external entity appears to be necessary to explain the ‘dramatic’ phenomena I either witnessed or experienced first-hand in religious contexts. But many religious people haven’t experienced these things either. What they point to, and what I can personally attest to, is the simple, subtle evidence which accumulates every day in their relationship with God. Is there any alternative evidence for this?[/li]
In the course of my day as a Christian, I might attribute to an external divinity my general feeling of calmness and inner peace. Ah, but again, that is generally true of anyone who meditates regularly, as demonstrated by the ratio of high frequency to slow oscillatory activity even before the experts had started meditating in the study I cited. So what about the feeling I had of a comforting presence in my head, who I would talk to during something called “prayer”?

The inner dialogue (sorry, the papers I really want to cite are subscription only – this rather dry book excerpt merely references them) is fundamental to how we think. We all talk to ourselves in our head – that’s mentally healthy. Personally I even find it useful, nay comforting, to give the ‘responder’ a character different to mine. This isn’t a full-blown hallucination, nor even an imaginary friend as such. Just a comforting presence to talk to, in my head, to vocalise my thoughts as though to another person – a self-generated shrink, if you like. And, as a teenager, can you guess what I found extra-helpful in this regard? That’s right: if I believed that this presence really did externally exist. As I matured, I came to question whether this presence really needed to be external, or whether I could be just as mentally healthy if I thought that “prayer” was ultimately me talking to myself. And, once more, when I looked into it, I found that ascribing portions of your inner dialogue to a real, external source can “go too far” and produce outright pathological phenomena. Again, it is as though mental healthy individuals operate in the ‘optimum zone’ of a continuum, and that introducing real external entities anywhere on this spectrum is an unnecessary complication.

[li]So, what else did I ascribe to God that I now explain scientifically? Not just the feeling of God’s presence in my life as above, but instances of answered prayers. I asked God for something, lo and behold, He provided – how could I be so blind and ungrateful not to see the source of such blessings? Of course, of all the gaps I used to place God in, this was amongst the first to shrink to nothing. Humans are extremely adept at confirming to themselves what they already believe, and it soon became clear that I was not controlling my ‘experimental observations’ with the necessary rigour. [/li][li]More generally, I might ascribe other people’s goodness to a benign divinity, since cooperation seemed so fragile in a selfish world that, surely, it needed supernatural help to endure? On the contrary – I subsequently learned that cooperation is a stable strategy (indeed arguably the most stable of all), such that its preponderance among our species is unsurprising. [/li][li]Finally, the very obstinacy of intellectuals and scientists not to accept the undeniable goodness of Jesus’ commandment to love each other – was this not evidence of a conspiracy against my beliefs which could only have emerged if God and Satan actually existed? Sadly, such coalitional psychology is also universal to human societies of any religion or none. We cannot help dividing ourselves into “them and us” and subsequently demonising “them”, even in simple psychological experiments based on nothing more than the flip of a coin.[/ul][/li]
So, to summarise, I explain my experiences of:
[ul]Glossolalia by reference to linguistic ‘improvisation’.
[li] Religious epiphany by reference to collective effervescence and meditation (which may or may not be augmented by pathologies such as epilepsy or small, localised strokes). [/li][li] The ‘presence of God’ by reference to the inner dialogue.[/li][li] ‘Answered prayers’ by reference to confirmation bias.[/li][li] Other people’s ‘goodness’ by reference to the stability of cooperation as a strategy.[/li][li] My beliefs being ‘under threat’ by reference to coalitional in-group/out-group psychology.[/ul][/li](Incidentally, I propose scientific explanations for the universe, life and other traditional ‘gaps’ for God in this thread. I would prefer to stick to explanations for “personal experiences” here.)

Note that this scientific evidence categorically does not show that my experiences couldn’t come from an external source. For all I know, God could be going around causing tiny stokes and epileptic fits, speaking to both healthy people and schizophrenics in their heads and answering prayers left, right and centre. I suggest only that natural, neurophysical explanations are more parsimonious in not requiring extra external divine entities.

So, I invite theists to contribute suggestions of personal experiences which they attribute to an external divine entity which I might have missed or not addressed properly. Understand, I do not seek to convert you into following an atheistic path like mine. I seek only to avoid future accusations that atheists cannot truly understand how convincing religious experiences are because they’ve never had any.

I also invite theists to explicitly state whether I might be right (repeat, might be, not am right, since you wouldn’t be a theist in that case!). Can you bring yourself, when you next pray, to seriously question whether you are actually talking to yourself? When you next sit in church, can you genuinely entertain the notion that there actually are no gods and you are engaging in a ritual for its own sake? Could you, even more bravely, rationally examine the possibility that there is no heaven at the funeral of a loved one? I have explicitly stated that God might be responsible for my experiences, and that your worldview may be right while mine is wrong. Do you return that courtesy?

For what it’s worth, I still consider many of the parables of Jesus to contain sound moral principles by which I try to live my life. Indeed, I would find them more compelling if it turned out that he was a man who effectively committed suicide by deliberately making quasi-revolutionary statements under a brutal Roman occupation in order to appear to fulfil Old Testament prophecies and thereby ensure his legacy after successfully bringing about his own execution. I would not object to being called a “Christian Atheist”, and would enjoin other atheists to identify the precise aspects of the theistic worldview that they reject instead of issuing a blanket “all of it”.

Thanks for your time.

Thanks for the write-up. The “trances” you speak of sound like the classic mystical experience. You might find this to be relevant:

Dancing With The Gods

in which the author explains his history of mystical experiences.

I enjoyed your post, and say I agree with large portions of it. You remind me of my Human Nature Biology Professor- as these were exactly the sorts of things we covered in that class, and I found myself fully agreeing with him and you on those things.

-When I pray, I certainly do realize that it’s for my own psychological benefit, and that it’s basically a meditation/calming technique for myself.
-I completely entertain the notions that there are no Gods and that I’m being quite ritualistic. I have a ton of behaviors and such that are ritualistic and ingrained in more of my culture than my own beliefs but I practice them still to further the harmony in my life. But it has given me a distaste for organized religion and I do view it with a leery eye, but I know that just because it’s not right for me, doesn’t really give me the right to force that onto others.
-I don’t believe in heaven. Or if there is an afterlife. It’s currently unknowable to my current abilities, and would be silly to try to deal with or fantasize about.
-I completely return the courtesy to yourself- I like your description of a Christian Atheist, and accept it as a valid belief system. Of course my belief systems tend to be my own- so great an acceptance of one isn’t really a big deal.

But yeah, I think you’ve rationally thought things out, and you’ve come to your conclusions and that they’re perfectly valid options for you to consider. Nothing wrong with that, nor will you hear any complaints from me on these things.

Best of wishes to you as you travel on down the road, and I hope that you’re happy. Your views do not threaten mine in the slightest, and for the most part run pretty much parallel with my own. Nothing you’ve said has been so drastic that my core was shaken or such (though back when I was in college and in that class, it certainly was. I can completely relate to your loss of faith, and turning towards science). It’s what I did. I still probably lack the faith I had before then, but I accepted it, and moved on.

How do you then as a Christian Atheist feel about other religions and have you considered exploring them from an atheistic standpoint? That was pretty much my next move, though less atheistic, more agnostic/theist, but I found that the atheism came more easily than the theism, and only in recent years has the theism slowly come creeping back in like a welcome old friend.


I enjoyed reading this. Thanks.

It summarizes some of the reasons we as humans are wired genetically to believe in Something. We are simulatneously wired for selfishness to preserve our personal survival, and for belief in a Great Cause to preserve the Tribe. One can step back from all current religions and make a simple observation: if one of them is wrong they are all likely to be wrong because any one of them championed as “right” has many of the core co-operative principles that the rest do.

What is interesting to me is how this need for Great Causes is so fundamental that when supernaturally- or fantasy- based religions are discarded by a person in the name of science, other Great Causes are simply substituted and all of the consequential behaviours which cause us to believe in fundamentally unsupported conclusions are still exhibited.

I could take Running Out of Oil (70’s), Y2K (90’s) or AGW (current) and use them as proof cases for how the polloi Believe in the Great Cause for reasons well beyond the core specific truths, and how those Great Causes are extended into passions which drive behaviours and conclusions and missionary zeals far disproportionate to the germ of Science underlying them.

I am unable to distinguish the behaviour of humans responding to Religion or Science or any other trigger when they respond to a Great Cause, and it is for this reason that even Science has so often been led down the wrong path. It is not as if scientists were somehow immune to this atavistic need we have for a Great Cause.

Nice post.

Absolutely. My meditative pursuits could easily place me in the set of “Buddhist atheists”, and ‘surrendering’ oneself to a sense of inner peace might even label me an “Islamic atheist”.

However, having perused all manner of religious teachings, some of those specific parables and teachings which somehow emerged in 1st Century Judea are perhaps my favourite, as a pure personal preference. (I mean those attributed to Jeshua brother of James, not Paul of Tarsus whom I rate very poorly.) The Good Samaritan, the Rich Fool, the Unforgiving Servant, the Two Sons, the camel and the (literal) eye of a needle, the stoning of the adulteress, the tantrum with the Temple money-changers which got him arrested prior to execution – all of these tales contain radical, revolutionary principles even if they are fictional. The principles are: [ul]Help even your worst enemy [li]Dying rich is stupid []Forgive and forgive and forgive for ever []Tax collectors and prostitutes are more righteous than the pious []Rich men don’t go to heaven []Judgementalism is utterly abhorrent, and Religious offices which pursue profit should literally be smashed up. [/ul]Of course, there’s also plenty of parables I dislike intensely, but the seven above are astonishing in their advocacy of social justice, tolerance and even civil disobedience. In particular, if tit for tat is the strategy which characterises most of humanity, the Unforgiving Servant effectively advocates “tit only for numerous tats” (Luke 17 suggests a 1:7 ratio per day, while other passages hint at “never tit back”). This nonviolent rejection of the “eye for an eye” of the Tanakh appeals to me, an atheist, to a seemingly much greater extent than the ultra-judgemental buffoons who dare to call themselves Christians on the God Channel. Jesus would, indeed, weep at the irony. [/li]

I disagree on both counts, actually. We are ‘wired’ for cooperation as a default, and selfishly ‘defect’ only when we think we can get away with it – if defection was the default, people would never cooperate to begin with. And beliefs which “preserve the Tribe” are an example of the hypothesis of group selection which is widely considered to be a failed hypothesis, scientifically speaking.

To which I would respond, “careful with your pet hypothesis”.

Michael Crichton agreed with you.

[sub]I’m a bit embarrassed to be providing nothing more than links in what is supposed to be a Great Debate, but these folks have expressed the relevant concepts much more clearly than I could have.[/sub]

It’s pretty easy for me, at least, to look at humans and human evolution and see a tendency toward self-preservation followed by preservation of family, then tribe, then population then the world. And as we have grown in sophistication, the definition of the “tribe” has expanded. Cooperation among sentient, thinking beings is effected most powerfully when a Reason is layered upon the atavistic altruistic drive. Ants may cooperate simply because they are wired that way. Humans cooperate because their Nature drives altruism, but they latch upon Great Causes such as religion because it seems to provide a reason for cooperation. It is very very difficult to dissuade folks of their core Beliefs even when those beliefs stand in obvious contradiction to facts or have never been tested against facts. The driver is the need to believe, not the underlying fact. Once a paradigm is established, all facts seem to fit nicely, and all non-fitting facts become anomalies or mysteries or whatever the language of that particular paradigm uses to describe the outliers.

As your cite mentions, we approach agreeable propositions with confirmation and disagreeable ones with disbelief. It’s the Great Cause we are drawn to that creates the bias in the first place. For many, that’s (traditional) religion. For others–particularly those for whom Religion has lost its panache–it’s a different Great Cause that creates those confirmation biases and mass behaviour.

I studied physics for 15 years in my adult youth. Until that time, I would not consider God. However, I found myself to be in a place where mathematics would break down. I could go no further math-wise and I was intellectually incapable of getting out of where I had been taken in those years of study.

My personal life required that I read the Bible to disprove God. I read the Bible from beginning to end and found another way for mankind — out of the darkness of the Big Bang and into the Light and the Glory of the Heavenly Father.

As was given to the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus, I was given to see the Light which is above and brighter than the noonday sun — literally.

Though I believe in mathematics, I do not agree in the historical path the community has taken. Why did we look back to see from where we came, instead of looking to where we are going — the great aha is really not the “theory” of the beginning but the big bang of the bomb that we think will continue to control and suppress our neighbors.

The Bible has the true pathway for man to reside. I believe the scientific community cam be a big part in where we are going if it would take its paradigmatic mindset from the darkness of nothing and turn to the Light of eternity — God is Light.

Where we have been is of little (or no) avail — I ask, and I learned the question from God, where are we going?

I am 70 years old — I have been preaching the Gospel for more than 30 years. I can still see the Light.


I agree that there is, and was, no such thing as ‘nothing’. The ‘light’ of the Big Bang has never not existed. Calling it ‘God’ is, IMO, unnecessarily confusing.

Incidentally, lightwait, do you “return the courtesy” I mentioned in the OP? I would gently push you for an explicit yes or no in that regard.

I saw the light of which you speak while tripping on LSD and ideed, if that wasn’t God, then there is no God.

The “darkness of nothing”? Science explains the Universe around us to the extent that there evidence that can be studied and shared, and it turns out that there is quite a bit.

No doubt there is a great deal that science cannot percieve, such as what happened before the Big Bang or what’s going on in higher dimensions, or whether there’s intelligent life on other planets. But religion is often dishonest, and the Bible should be considered propaganda rather than truth.

“I believe the scientific community cam be a big part in where we are going if it would take its paradigmatic mindset from the darkness of nothing and turn to the Light of eternity — God is Light.”

Please read my quote you posted and you will find your statement incorrect. I am not here to call names. I simply stated the change in my direction from an historical context to an eternal place for all of man. All we have to do is change our way of looking — we cannot prove the Big Bang, so, why not look the other way?

I see life and light and truth and love and freedom for the oppressed…

What does the scientific community ultimately see? — the darkness of impasse?


Did mathematics break down or your ability to do the math break down?

I did the same thing, and analyzed the Bible logically, and became far more atheistic. Did you try to confirm what the Bible said independently? Did you try to research who wrote it and when?


Though I believe in mathematics, I do not agree in the historical path the community has taken. Why did we look back to see from where we came, instead of looking to where we are going — the great aha is really not the “theory” of the beginning but the big bang of the bomb that we think will continue to control and suppress our neighbors.


Neither mathematics nor physics make moral judgments. Fission is what it is. And putting “theory” in scare quotes makes me think you didn’t get this science stuff all too well. 15 years? How exactly did you go about studying physics?

Christianity had about 1,000 years to lead civilization to a good place - and the results were not so hot. When science arose, we stopped disease, grew more food, let people live longer - as well as literally gave man light. It appears that god is not a necessary or even useful part of any of these theories.

And what does this have to do with the rather excellent OP? As to that, I don’t appear to be wired for religious experience (or alien abductions for that matter) but isn’t it odd that those who are see the god they grew up with, usually?

Sigh. What does scientific proof mean to you, and do the names Penzias and Wilson ring a bell?

I don’t have any experiences which I attribute to an external divine entity which you may have missed (other than the purely personal). You’ve covered some that I’ve never had, in fact.

I am a theist. I am a believing, observant Roman Catholic. I am quite well educated. I concede, absolutely, that you might be right.

The explanations you present for the phenomena you examine are good ones. Some of those phenomena (glossolalia and being “slain in the spirit”) are completely alien to my religious experience (and probably to that of most Catholics), and certainly in the case of glossolalia (as described by you, not the “speaking in tongues” understood by all described in the New Testament), I really don’t think much explanation is necessary, and I don’t consider it to be either a true religious experience or a sign of the existence of a deity. I’m also not entirely convinced that evolutionary psychology is a fully-developed branch of science (yet, anyway).

That said (and as you say), because all of those phenomena can be explained without reference to an external deity doesn’t go very far towards proving that there isn’t an external deity.

Meeting the Lord Jesus in a face to face encounter and spiritually, and for that matter meeting Satan in the same ways (that was not fun) . Revelation of outer darkness (again not fun), visions of angels, people who walk in the snow leaving no foot prints, immediate healing at the touch, words (in English) that came to me that were exactly the right words to say that I wasn’t even thinking of, glowing light around me in the middle of the woods at night with no light physical source, rapture in the spirit, Bible given to me with many verses highlighted - all relevant to my immediate situation, people dramatically changing with the spoken name of Jesus, even seeing darkness leave their eyes, people reporting lead to pray for me at the exact time I was in extreme distress and asked Jesus to pray for me, biblical explanations of how things work much better and more complete then anything science can come up with, birds ‘dancing’ to music (2 songs back to back) perfectly in time to the music, though perhaps 50-100 ft overhead, then after the 2nd song ended they were gone, Spiritual events happening where only believers remember (non-believers don’t recall, and sometimes have a memory block, one actually sought out medical help for the forgotten time), Subjective reality proven true to my by God (different people are in different realities, though they mesh together).

That the universe used to be compressed into a tiny volume is a fact as true as the roundness of the world, as proven beyond reasonable doubt by the galactic redshift and Cosmic Microwave Background. That you think we cannot prove the Big Bang suggests that you have ignored physics for the last 50 years, (and possibly ignored Hubble’s discoveries even while you were studying it). So why not look that way?

Me too. And I’m an atheist.

Funny, I hoped my OP would be seen by theists as a bridge over the impasse, built by an atheist who had had similar experiences to themselves. I must ask you again, lightwait, do you return the courtesy I mention there? An explicit yes or no would be very helpful.

kanicbird, am I to take it that that is a list of experiences of yours which you don’t think I address properly? If you read my OP again, you’ll see that many of the psychological explanations pertain directly to many of the experiences in your list. I’m not sure I have time for all of them, but if you select 3 or 4 I’d be happy to discuss them.

Apart from the proven by God bit, explain this. Are you saying reality is subjective? Because that contradicts both the objective morality of Christianity and the fact that existence precedes consciousness. Maybe I misread?

Correct, I can see shoehorning some of them, but basically those are ones that came to mind that I don’t feel you adequately explained. Plus the shear volume of these events puts them IMHO beyond coincidence.

One that I would like you to address is the ability to connect with others in the body of Christ remotely, for instance, I can (and have) asked Jesus to pray for me, at that moment, I found out later, I came to mind to another believer and they felt that they should pray for me and did, he was about 100 miles away. Also I have ‘felt’ the effect of people praying for me and confirmed it, though we were not near each other, or using physical means to communicate.

Yes, aside from things hidden from non-believers (which I made a comment about above), there are (as I believe has been revealed to me) differences as to what realities people exist in. Ask people what happened individually and you will get differing accounts, get them together and ‘group think’ sets in (and no one likes to be a outsider, so there is strong motivation to conform).

There was a thread a while back about flaws in the matrix or something to that effect, yes these differences are observable if you know what to look for.

There is only one way, only God is Good, and God is above our subjective reality, God’s Word and promise are eternal, so yes you can have one ‘objective’ morality in multiple subjective realities. Though the whole point is to get rid of what we think of as a code (which is what I think of when I hear objective morality) as we learn about the ‘Christ consciousnesses’.

As for existence precedes consciousness, I disagree, though they may be created at the same time. We are formed mainly in spirit/soul, but IMHO fully conscious and knowing God. I have had revelations of time in the womb, and there is full consciousness though the world you are in is spiritual with just a occasional glimpse of our world (sound, touch).

Deluded perceptions of reality do not alter reality. Subjectivity exists, but it has nothing to do with reality itself. Seeing pink elephants when drunk is not a reality, because they’re not really there. Hopefully.