Friday, December 14, 2012

Scientific Exploration of Religious Belief

In the current online New York Times (Dec. 13, 2012) I read an op-ed by T.M.Luhrmann about evangelical Christians, including Catholics, and their sensory imagining of Biblical events. It starts with citation of the Pope’s recent book, where he talks about the importance of understanding exactly what the Biblical text says and does not say; for example, the account of Jesus in the manger doesn’t mention singing angels or lowing animals. The pope finds nothing wrong with imagining their presence, but warns about keeping perspective on reality.

Luhrmann describes how important these imagined extensions are, especially where evangelicals imagine a personal relationship with God: “…evangelicals talk about the Bible as if it is literally true, but they also use their imagination to experience the Bible as personally as possible.”

In a fascinating article about out-of-body and near-death experiences and their neurology, published in the Atlantic this week, Oliver Sacks commented about Luhrmann’s book on the same subject as her article. Sacks, who has been writing about his experiences treating people with odd brain problems for many years, explores the whole topic of such religious revelations in the context of exactly what’s going on in the brain.

As a determined secularist, believing only in the material world, I find the examination of religious beliefs and their origins very interesting. I am really interested in learning about the origin of sprituality, and both articles addressed exactly the kind of understanding I would like to have.

Here’s a longer passage from Luhrmann’s article that explores the topic:
I am no theologian and I do not think that social science can weigh in on the question of who God is or whether God is real. But I think that anthropology offers some insight into why imaginatively enriching a text taken as literally true helps some Christians to hang on to God when they are surrounded by a secular world.

First, this way of knowing God involves what social scientists would call “active learning.” These evangelical churches invite worshipers to enter Scripture with all their senses. …  To Christian critics of these practices, they are a distortion of the Scripture, because they add to the text more than is actually there — your own memories of a summer by the seaside, the feel of heavy robes. To a social scientist, these practices ask that the learner engage in the most effective kind of learning: hands on and engaged.

Second, these practices make the experience of God personally specific. Vivid, concrete details help people to get caught up in a world that is not the one they see before them — and the more particular the details, the more powerful the involvement. Richly described settings — Narnia, Middle-earth, Hogwarts — become places that people can imagine on their own. Of course someone like J. K. Rowling might be horrified that readers have written tens of thousands of stories that carry on the lives of her characters, just as some evangelicals are horrified by other evangelicals who cozy up to God over a beer and chat with him in their minds. But social science suggests that details like these do make what must be imagined feel more real. -- “Hark! The Herald Angels Didn’t Sing” by T.M.Luhrmann, in the New York Times.

As a longtime fan of Sacks, I was especially happy to learn his explanation of the biological basis for religious experiences. He explains that religious people of the sort Luhrmann described are sometimes able to reproduce the pathological experiences of brain crises by vividly imagining religious experiences. Here is a passage from his article:

Some religious people come to experience their proof of heaven by another route -- the route of prayer, as the anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann has explored in her book When God Talks Back. The very essence of divinity, of God, is immaterial. God cannot be seen, felt, or heard in the ordinary way. Luhrmann wondered how, in the face of this lack of evidence, God becomes a real, intimate presence in the lives of so many evangelicals and other people of faith.

She joined an evangelical community as a participant-observer, immersing herself in particular in their disciplines of prayer and visualization -- imagining in ever-richer, more concrete detail the figures and events depicted in the Bible. Congregants, she writes:

Practice seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching in the mind's eye. They give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events. What they are able to imagine becomes more real to them.

Sooner or later, with this intensive practice, for some of the congregants, the mind may leap from imagination to hallucination, and the congregant hears God, sees God, feels God walking beside them. These yearned-for voices and visions have the reality of perception, and this is because they activate the perceptual systems of the brain, as all hallucinations do. These visions, voices, and feelings of "presence" are accompanied by intense emotion -- emotions of joy, peace, awe, revelation. Some evangelicals may have many such experiences; others only a single one -- but even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith. (For those who are not religiously inclined, such experiences may occur with meditation or intense concentration on an artistic or intellectual or emotional plane, whether this is falling in love or listening to Bach, observing the intricacies of a fern, or cracking a scientific problem.) -- “Seeing God in the Third Millennium” by Oliver Sacks, in the Atlantic.

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