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.