Religious Experiences are not Hallucinations

Certain people frequently claim that religious experiences are the result of hallucinations, epileptic seizures, or other mental phenomenon, as opposed to being genuine experiences of rela phenomena. I don’t think this is true. To tackle the claim I’ll first look at one popular presentation of the claim, in Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion, in the section beginning on page 87.

To begin with, Dawkins titles the section “The Argument from Relgious ‘Experience’”, yet in the second paragraph he limits himself only to people seeing and hearing God (or some object of religious devotion). If we instead consult an expert, such as William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, we would learn that only a small percentage of religious experiences involve visions or locutions (hearing a spoken message). Hence Dawkins is already off on the wrong foot, since his discussion ignores the majority of religious experience.

Dawkins then goes on to say that personal experiences are not convincing to anyone who hasn’t had one or to “anyone knowledgable about psychology”. Such an unsupported declaration that every knowledgable person agrees with Dawkins is unconvincing to me because it’s not true.

Next come a couple of paragraphs declaring that people who have religious experiences are insane. Dawkins compares them to “individuals in asylums”, then offers a quote from Sam Harris saying that religious people should be called ‘psychotic’. (In typical fashion Harris then backtracks and says “religious people are not generally mad”.) Once again, let’s turn to an expert, in this case Abraham Maslow, one of the most influential psychologists of all times. In his book Religion, Values, and Peak Experiences, Maslow rejects the notion that religious experiences are a sign of mental illness, instead describing them as “perfectly natural” and “healthy”, and even states that those with “robust mental health” are the most likely to have religious experiences. Hence the truth about this issue is the precise opposite of what Dawkins and Harris want us to think that it is.

Next Dawkins says, “The human brain runs first-class simulation software.” Actually the human brain runs no software of any kind, because software only runs on computers.

After that comes three pages dedicated to showing that optical illusions exist. (Not a subject that was in question, as far as I know.) Missing is any positive evidence for the claim that religious experiences are actually “hallucination or vivid dreaming”. Now let’s look at the evidence.

Neuroscientist Mari Beauregard has done extensive study and research on the topic of religious experiences. In his book The Spiritual Brain He rejects the claim that religious experiences are hallucinations because religious experiences are not similar to hallucinations. Specifically: (1) The typical religious experiences lasts much longer than the typical hallucination. (2) Typically the subject has a much clearer and more detailed memory of a religious experience than of a hallucination. (3) Religious experiences don’t generally occur in the same circumstances that hallucinations occur in.

Beauregard and Vincent Paquette did a study on Carmelite nuns, taking MRI scans of them while they were experiencing union with god. They found that:

In his book Beauregard points out that this MRI result contrasts sharply with the MRI result for a person who is hallucination. During a hallucination, mental activation is much more limited, and most of the areas on the list above do not light up. Hence the religious experiences of the Carmelite nuns are not hallucinations.

This is in agreement with a great deal of research from other sources. For example, dozens of scientists and doctors have examined the six visionaries from the Bosnian town of Medjugorje, who have been having visions of the Virgin Mary since the early 80’s. They have performed a battery of every conceivable test on the visionaries, and all the tests have confirmed that the visions are genuine, not a fake or a hallucination. Summary here:

Perhaps most notable are the results from the electroencephalograph (EEG), which measure cycles of electric activity in the brain. A normal human brain has 10 alpha (receptive) cycles per 20 beta (reactive) cycles. During a daytime hallucination, alpha cycles would decrease and beta cycles would increase. For the Medjugorje visionaries, the opposite happens, proving that they are receiving visions from an outside source rather than from inside their own heads.

To conclude, religious visions and other experiences are not hallucinations.

Wait, what? How does that prove that they’re coming from an outside source?

You are seeing/hearing/whatever something that isn’t there; that’s a hallucination. It may or may not be different in some fashion from other hallucinations, but that makes it no less a hallucination.

And no, it cannot possibly be a real perception given how wildly religious claims contradict each other, how there’s no evidence that there’s anything to perceive, and nothing to do the perceiving with. They can’t all be true; and there’s no reason to think any are true.

And then there’s the problem that the testimony of believers isn’t reliable; they tend to be quite willing to lie to support their faith, and intimidate others into going along. So I have no reason to actually trust the claims you have linked to, or to consider something like 'Harris then backtracks and says "religious people are not generally mad” ’ as anything other than an example of intimidation at work.

Incorrect. He offers these as examples, not as the only options.

Well, you’ve managed to turn “knowledgeable about psychology” into “knowledgeable” while having the quote right there, which is incredibly impressive. But i’ll agree with you on this point, having had some of my psychology professors at university religious people (and I hope they were knowledgeable about the subject!). Too, it’s fair to note that Dawkins actually calls this the “least” convincing argument to “anyone else”, which seems far too much like mind-reading to me.

This may well be because you are incorrect, or at least your words are chosen carefully. Harris does indeed suggest that people with non-religious experiences of the same kind should be called “psychotic” - but it is the second of three words which also include “mad” and “delusional”, so it is not fair to claim that Harris considers all religious people to be psychotic - just some. To which I think you would agree. If this is typical fashion, I can only hope the other times you think he’s done this aren’t based on such poor reading.

And this would be called an analogy. Seriously, ITR, this is not an impressive point to make for you. It just seems petty. I could say your post is wrong, because Dawkins is talking about religious experiences and your OP talks about “relgious” experiences, but that’s a stupid point and would make me look like i’m scraping around for any kind of accusation I can make.

In general, the odd thing is I sometimes agree with your conclusions - it’s your arguments that need a lot more work. I don’t think that all religious visions or other experiences are hallucinations, though some likely are (after all, to have zero religious experiences be hallucinations would be pretty strange). However, this may be a question of definitions, and i’d ask you (if you have them to hand) if you could look up the particular definition of “hallucinations” used by your various sources. In my case, since I don’t believe in any god, I certainly would consider any religious experience to be not true in nature, and the result of the perception of reality rather than reality. But i’m afraid your arguments are still kinda bad.

It has been proven that certain drugs, as well as direct stimulation of the brain, can induce so-called “religious experiences.” NDE’s, visionary experiences, “one with the universe,” – all just brain chemistry.

All hallucinations are psychotic experiences, by definition, and any time you see something that isn’t there. you’re hallucinating.

That does not mean that halucinating or having a psychotic experience in itself makes you mentally ill. Harris is right about that. Psychotoc doesn’t necessarily equal “mad,” but the experience is absolutely self-generated.

This is obvious horseshit. You’re trying to make a preemptive, self-serving definition of what kind of brain activity should denote a “hallucination,” and then trying to say that other kinds of psychotic activity can’t really be psychotic because you’ve tried to draw a bogus circle around what kind of brain activity should count. Obviously, hllucinations are NOT limited to only one kind of brain activity which is proven ipso fact by the fact that your fucking nuns were HALLUCINATING.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

Mario Beauregard only co-authored the book with Denyse O’Leary, a journalist and producer of creationist pseudoscience. You’re only looking at one part of the book, the rest is filled with anti-materialist and creationist drivel.

And how did they know the nuns were in union with god? Why, they took their word for it! Perfectly trustworthy, nuns. How did the nuns know they were in union with god? Well, they felt his presence of course. Nuns know these things, what with all the training they’ve had. Clearly scientific and not skewed at all.

Well, we’ve established that the specific thing those nuns claim as union with god is not a hallucination. Now if only it could be shown that all other religious experiences are exactly the same.

Did you even bother reading the stuff on that site? While presented as ‘science’, the actual scientific content is sketchy at best. The first study (1985) of these visionaries was published in the illustrious and world renown journal The Catholic Transcript. It doesn’t seem to appear anywhere but there. In fact, it was hard to find information about these studies outside of the Medjugorje page. This study appeared to be impressed by the fact that the visionaries all managed to stare at the same spot. The second study (1998) was conducted by the clearly neutral and not biased at all ‘French-Italian scientific theological commission’, headed by Mr. Henri Joyeux. This group determined that the visionaries are in fact seeing The Virgin Mary through personal testimony.

Without publication & peer review, I’m just not seeing the science.

Um, where has it been established that this state can only be caused by an outside source?

I hope you weren’t relying on your ‘scientific’ sources to establish this conclusion. Because they don’t.

I think one of the best evidences of “religious experiences” and hallucinations being the same thing is how many religions use hallucinogenic drugs as part of their religious rituals! Think about all the religious groups that have shamans and holy men who use peyote and other plants to have religious experiences!

This is a point I should have realized myself. Obviously the possibility that nuns were faking it never crossed these “researchers’” minds.

It’s worked for me. So has meditation.

I don’t think that all hallucinations are psychotic. Consider hypnagogic hallucinations that occur while you are drifting off to sleep; that’s due to an altered state of mind, but not a psychotic one.

Of course religious experiences are different from (ordinary) hallucinations – else, we wouldn’t have a separate concept for them. That doesn’t imply that they’re not instances of the same kind of fundamental phenomenon, call it perhaps a sort of false experience. Imagine that there’s only two kinds of false experiences, one is seeing a red circle, the other is seeing a green square. Brain activity may be similar during both, or totally different. So, obviously red circle seeing is totally different from green square seeing! Now, green square seeing occurs somewhat regularly, often in conjunction with clearly altered or even pathological mental states, thus everybody agrees that there aren’t any actual green squares – they’re just made up by the brain, because something somewhere goes haywire; the same isn’t the case for red circle seeing, which happens only rarely and to people otherwise in apparently normal mental condition. This doesn’t imply that there are actually red circles that can sometimes be perceived by a certain percentage of the population; it just means that there are different ways for the brain to create false experiences.

I’d also like to point to the research of Dr Michael Persinger, which has shown that religious experiences can be artificially induced by manipulating the temporal lobe with weak magnetic fields; here’s a Wired article on the subject; there’s even a site offering a ‘God Helmet’ based on his research which I’m not sure I’m allowed to link here, but some googling ought to get you there just as well. Your own private portal to religious revelation for just $649.00 (plus shipping)!

Do you really think Dawkins was trying to say that human brains are computers? Or that he doesn’t understand the term “software” as applied to computers?

Or could he just possibly have been making a comparison to illustrate a point?

I rarely get into these types of arguments but I will also submit that merely meditating can cause a “religious experience”, if guided correctly. I know. I’ve been there.

It’s just hallucinations - induced, dreamed, or meditated.

You seem to be stating the case that because some type of “experience” differs from a set idea of a “hallucination” that it somehow validates this different experience as a “religious” experience. This irrational jump is just nonsense.
You could present your entire OP substituing “extra-terrestrial” for “religious” and you have made the exact same argument.
How do you know the nuns weren’t communicating with aliens?

“Experiencing union with god” is a very different thing from having visions and hearing voices. These guys were comparing brain activity in a meditative state to brain activity of people imagining sights and sounds. It’s not surprising they found a difference!

Holy crap, do you accept everything you read that agrees with your preconceptions? Have a little perspective, dude. This is crap.

What is psychosis? There’s a definition online that sums it up as: “a thought disorder in which reality testing is grossly impaired.” In other words, the psycho has trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy. Great, so what’s reality? A fairly common definition reads: “that which exists objectively and in fact.” And how do we determine whether something exists objectively and in fact? One way is to use our senses, but this system doesn’t work because there are real things that cannot be detected by our physical senses alone. Stuff like dog whistles, ultraviolet light, the earth’s core, etc. Machines can detect these things, but machines also can be made to render accidentally or intentionally false readings. So they’re no good for giving us a foolproof method of determining what’s real. Alternatively, we can ask someone else, “Hey, Bill, did you see that?” If Bill saw it too, then it’s probably real. As long as BILL is real.
Psychosis is an extraordinarily arrogant term because it assumes that the person sticking that label onto someone else isn’t the afflicted one. Consider that memory is terribly fallible. Consider now that everything you know, even a second ago, is a memory. If NOW is simply an imperfect memory held up to older, even less perfect memories to give it context, then what IS and what it MEANS can be expected to vary wildly from individual to individual. MEANING of a reality is extremely important. The ability to understand why something is relevant is what separates Sherlock Holmes from Gilligan. It’s what makes one person decide a coincidence of stimuli is special (religious experience) and another decide that they think they’ll have the double grande mocha and make it snappy they’re running a little behind and was the wife acting a little odd this morning I wonder what’s up with that and did I remember to put the trash out and wow, what a pretty sunrise oh good the coffee’s done where’s my wallet….
Different stuff has different meanings to different people. It’s summed up perfectly in Shaw’s St. Joan. The only thing that determines whether or not an event is miraculous is whether people perceive it as miraculous. The physical world happens outside the world of our individual perception, and since the world of our individual perception is the one we really live in, who gets to say what’s real and what’s psychotic?

Me. I’ll say it. If everybody else can’t see it, you’re hallucinating.

Well if you’re talking visual then I’d say you’re usually right. But visual puzzles and Vegas magic shows are fun because not everyone can see what is right in front of them, while some can. It’s more accurate to say, “If everyone else can’t see it, only you can.”

A religious experience is an interpretation of sensory input (a reality). Interpretation is highly personal, reality is determined largely by luck: what events or things did your mind choose to notice cumulatively over the last few moments, days, years, etc.?

It’s not that easy, it’s a good OP.

The OP is not trying to assert that it’s a question of inrepretation, but that it derives from genuine, supernatural, external stimuli. His cites are a joke as well.

Right. Back to MPSIMS for me then. :slight_smile: