God (cont.)

[Single-page view]

Now, having said all that, it’s clear that most religious experiences don’t actually involve major brain disorders or mind-altering drugs or oxygen deprivation or anything like that. How, then, do we explain those experiences? What are we to make of the cases where otherwise clear-minded people honestly just feel like they’re communing with God? It’s an important question – maybe the most critical question when it comes to this subject – because for most believers, personal experiences are the absolute core of their faith. Certainly this was the case for me when I was a believer. When I worshiped and communed with God, I knew that I wasn’t just experiencing a false sensation caused by my own brain; I was genuinely feeling God’s presence. At least, that’s what I convinced myself of – and I used this certainty as my justification for rejecting all the other (more logic-based) arguments against my faith. The fact that so much science and history seemed to contradict my religion didn’t matter to me, because I’d experienced God’s existence directly; everything that contradicted that must have just somehow been wrong.

But in using my personal feelings as a basis for rejecting all the findings of science and history – entire fields of study involving millions of researchers – I was placing a staggering amount of confidence in the inerrancy of my own feelings. And looking back, I can see this for the hubris that it was. It might have been one thing if I’d actually seen the risen Jesus with my own eyes, and touched his wounds with my own hands, like Thomas did in the Bible. But all I’d ever had were internal feelings and experiences, which are much more subjective than external sensory ones, and are accordingly much more subject to misinterpretation.

It’s true that I had some extremely powerful experiences when I was a believer. The emotions I felt when I was worshiping God were undoubtedly genuine, and it would have been wrong to say that I was just “pretending” to feel the way I did. But it was also a mistake to say that because I was so certain that my feelings were real, that I could be equally certain that their source was divine. And that was my mistake for all those years: I conflated my subjective religious experiences with the actual presence of a real God, without ever allowing myself to realize that those could have been two separate things.

In retrospect, I can say now that I wasn’t really experiencing God’s presence like I thought I was. What I was actually doing was taking the powerful emotions that I was experiencing, and imbuing them with divine significance. As TheraminTrees puts it:

What I did was take experiences that I found rewarding or punishing, or seemed improbable or inexplicable, and attributed them with divine significance. [I was] defining a supernatural agent as the cause of these experiences, then taking those experiences as evidence of that supernatural agent. It’s a system perfectly designed to reinforce unjustified beliefs.

Evid3nc3 gives a similar explanation of his own experiences:

[Jean] Baudrillard defines the term “simulacrum” as something that is only an image of something either real or imagined, but that is interacted with as if it really is what it represents. This interaction can be referred to as a “simulation” of what a real interaction with the real thing would be like. So for example, if someone wears a pendant and believes it is lucky, the physical pendant has become a simulacrum of a magical pendant. To the wearer, it represents the idea of a magical pendant, and is treated directly as if it were magical. When a person believes that the pendant brings them luck, they’re simulating the experience that the pendant actually is magical. The physical pendant itself can be completely mundane, and have no magical properties whatsoever – but to the wearer, who is simulating a magical experience in their mind, otherwise mundane but fortunate events are perceived as expressions of the pendant’s power. One can think similarly about idols that are prayed to as if they are direct representations of gods – or pictures, possessions, or internal images of deceased loved ones that are spoken to as if they contain that person’s consciousness.

According to Baudrillard […] God himself, as experienced by the religious, was probably just another simulacrum – an image, representing the concept of a supreme supernatural being. Religious followers simulated an experience of this supreme being in their own mind by the way that they interpreted otherwise natural events, but this experience most likely involved no actual supreme being interacting with them at all. So when I experienced profound emotions due to what I perceived as the Holy Spirit, I was (according to Baudrillard) just simulating subconsciously in my own mind what I would feel like if the Holy Spirit actually existed and was reaching out to me. I experienced real emotions, but they were in response to a simulated experience. It felt real because my mind made it feel real. Our brains, apparently, are profoundly adept at creating simulations for our consciousness to experience.

This kind of thing can be found in a wide variety of areas, not just in religion. There are some practitioners of martial arts, for instance, who’ve convinced themselves that they can use invisible forces to control their opponents without touching them. These techniques are completely bogus, of course, and they fail spectacularly as soon as they come into contact with reality – but as long as the true believers can insulate themselves from outside skepticism by training privately in their own dojos, they can delude themselves into thinking that their “powers” are real:

There’s actually a whole genre of YouTube clips of this phenomenon:

And the key thing to notice here is that practitioners of these techniques truly seem to believe that what they’re doing is real. They’ve genuinely convinced themselves that they’re capable of creating invisible force fields and controlling their opponents with their minds. It’s only when some outside skeptic forces them to put their belief to the test that its failure becomes painfully obvious:

How can people delude themselves into believing such nonsense? Commenter CapableLover offers one possible explanation (slightly edited for clarity):

I imagine it works a lot like this:

The sensei convinces one guy he can do what he claims. Now that one guy really believes the sensei; maybe they’re friends or something, and that one guy has no reason to think the sensei would lie to him. He wants to be able to do the same thing the sensei claims – he wants the “power” – so he listens to the sensei. He does the meditations, the exercises, buys the books, probably invests a lot of time and money in preparatory things the sensei says he needs. Could be that he needs crystals and CDs and DVDs, books, outfit, maybe a special diet. It could just be he’s paying the sensei’s rent in exchange for the sensei to continue “training” with him.

So this goes on for months, more and more time, and money pissed away; the sensei probably has little bullshit examples he can give the guy through the power of suggestion that he believes show some sort of progress. After a particularly long deep breathing exercise, the sensei might say something like, “Do you feel calm?” The guy will respond, “You know I do,” and the sensei tells him something like, “That’s the power. I can feel you becoming more powerful every day. I noticed early on you have incredible potential. One day you’ll be more powerful than me, because your vibrations/chi/magic/frequency is amazing!” At that point the guy’s like, “Wow, the sensei thinks I have potential.”

Now the guy’s thinking, “I’m really making progress.” And continues paying the sensei’s rent and “training” for a couple more months.

So that goes on, and the sensei keeps telling or convincing the guy he’s making incremental progress; the guy’s probably getting a little frustrated but now he’s in too deep. If he were to admit to himself now that this is all bullshit, he’d have to admit that he’s an idiot, that he’s wasted too much time and money and maybe has been duped. The sensei probably picks up on this vibe or maybe the guy comes right out and says it one day.

That’s when the sensei tells the guy, “You’re ready.”

They prepare for a demonstration. They meditate for a few hours, rub crystals, listen to whale songs, bang gongs, and play with singing bowls. Then the sensei tells the guy, “Okay, focus your energy and open your heart, calm your mind, blah, blah, blah… I’m going to attack you with all my might!”

Now the guy’s like, “Holy shit this is it! I hope I’m ready – otherwise I’m gonna get the shit kicked out of me.” The two square off.

The sensei charges at the guy full tilt – “YAAAAAAAAAAAARG!” The guy raises his hand and swats the air like he’s waving away smoke, and the sensei flies ass over teakettle in the most dramatic fashion you can imagine.

“I did it! Oh my god I did!” the guy thinks. “Oh my god… Sensei! Are you hurt?”

The sensei gets to his feet and tells him, “Yes I’m hurt. You’re very powerful; these are very powerful forces. I told you once you may be more powerful than even me. I know that that’s true now, but your power is too wild; you need to harness it. I can show you how; we’ll resume your training tomorrow.”

And now the guy’s on the hook for another couple of months and probably starts evangelizing the sensei at this point, telling his friends and coworkers what happened, showing them stupid little demonstrations the sensei showed him. “You feel that warmth when I almost touch your hand? That’s the power!”

So some more time passes, until one day it’s time for the sensei to show the guy what “the master” is capable of.

They prepare and square off. The sensei tells the guy to attack him.

The guy charges, and a few things could possibly happen. At this point he’s already a believer; he’s built up what the sensei is capable of in his mind and is hoping the sensei doesn’t just vaporize him on the spot. So he charges the sensei, and it seems like he’s about to plow this mother fucker right in the face. His brain starts doing some figuring on a subconscious level:

“You’re either about to knock out some asshole who’s completely scammed you, stolen your time and money or made you look like an idiot, which doesn’t make any sense because you have the power… right? Right. You did what the sensei’s about to do to. You remember the demonstration? Or you’re about to hit a powerful wizard in the face, which isn’t a very good idea.”

Before the guy lands the blow, he flies ass over teakettle like the sensei did during the first demonstration, and it’s time to go find a third asshole and start the whole process over again.

Or he hits the sensei right in his stupid face and breaks his nose, at which point the sensei comes at him a different way:

“You’re too powerful; you broke right through my force field and now my nose is bleeding all over the place! You see this blood! This shit’s real, and you’re not taking your training seriously enough! You’re going to kill someone! Shame on you! I don’t know if I can be your sensei anymore. No, you have to control your power, we need to train more.”

So then the guy’s on the hook for another couple of months. And now the training consists of the sensei trying to convince the guy to convince himself to take a dive before he hits the sensei. And the guy will keep training and seeking the sensei’s approval until he consciously or subconsciously starts flying ass over teakettle every time the sensei farts in his direction.

Then they go find a third asshole and start the process over again, and it gets easier with each new person.

Now, obviously this isn’t how things go in all of these types of situations. But it certainly happens often enough. And the same kind of thing can happen in other contexts, too – including religion. AronRa speaks from his own personal experience as a former member of a kind of neo-pagan religious sect:

With neo-pagan… not necessarily witchcraft, but meditation and astral projection and things like that – the way that all that works is you have to enhance your psychic acumen, and integrate that with your physical senses, to stretch the boundaries of normal perception so that you can see auras, and you can see spiritual beings, and you’re able to perceive or sense wards, and other sorts of things like this. That’s the way you describe it. But enhancing and integrating your psychic acumen – there’s another way of paraphrasing that: You imagine shit that isn’t really there.

I found it remarkably easy to do. Drums have a certain amount of ambience that puts you in the mood. Firelight does the same thing. Candles burning, music playing, certainly drugs have their effect, as do groups of people holding hands, chanting, and all of this sort of thing. As long as you’re psyched up enough, and you already have some predisposed acceptance of whatever it is that you expect to experience, you can – and very likely will – experience that.

And it’s the same in more mainstream religions as well. When it comes to Christianity in particular, you might notice some obvious parallels between “no touch” martial artists supposedly overwhelming their opponents with invisible forces, and self-proclaimed faith healers supposedly overwhelming their congregants with the power of the Holy Spirit (as Super Eyepatch Wolf illustrates):

But this kind of phenomenon is perhaps even more clearly exemplified by the widespread practice of “speaking in tongues,” in which believers claim to be so overcome by the Holy Spirit that they’re compelled to spontaneously start praising God in other languages:

Again, there’s no doubt that these worshipers genuinely believe that they’re channeling the Holy Spirit. There’s no doubt that the strong emotions they’re feeling are real. But linguistic analysis has shown that the “tongues” these people are speaking in aren’t real languages (aside from that one guy throwing in a bit of Spanish); the worshipers are just making up gibberish off the top of their heads. Commenter QTCicero explains:

I’m a graduate linguistics student and I can assure you that a huge amount of research has been done into this phenomenon over the past century, mainly by the Canadian linguist William Samarin.

Not only is no meaningful information communicated by these utterances, even the very phonetic structure of the utterances proves that they are created on the spot by the human mind. [Commenter] Procrastinationist makes the salient point that only native phonemes are used in glossolalic utterances, but it gets even better than that: not only do speakers use only native phonemes, they use these phonemes in a way which maximises articulatory ease. That is to say, they always use the most “easiest” combinations of vowels and consonants for the human speech organs to produce (e.g. there is a strong preponderance of the vowel A and for the syllable structure consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel, etc.).

So either it’s just a massive, global coincidence that the language of the Spirit is limited to easier-to-pronounce recombinations of native sounds, or they’re making it up.

From a dispassionate outside perspective, the whole practice might look pretty absurd – like a bunch of children playing make-believe at best, or like a bunch of people who’ve completely lost their marbles at worst. For someone who’s never believed, it might be hard to imagine how these people could really believe in this stuff. But AronRa’s point from a moment ago is key to understanding this phenomenon; the reason Christians can get so “swept up in the Holy Spirit” that they start spouting gibberish is because in those moments, they aren’t in a dispassionate, neutral state of mind. Religious services are designed to put congregants into a much more worshipful mindset than usual, and this can prime them to feel things that they wouldn’t normally feel, and act in ways that they wouldn’t normally act. A particularly moving or inspirational sermon, for instance, can be a potent way of stirring up emotions; and powerful musical performances can be more effective still. Having formerly performed in a worship band myself, I can attest to just how deliberately the worship music played in modern churches is designed to evoke the maximum possible emotional response; the songs feature soaring vocals and instrumentals that swell to triumphant crescendos, which are performed loudly enough to resonate in your bones – and those songs are interspersed with softer, gentler ones designed to break down your emotional walls and move you to tears. The result is often a genuinely stirring – and even life-changing – flood of emotions. And given that all this happens in the highly religious context of a church worship session, is it any surprise that believers are so willing to attribute the power of these experiences to the Holy Spirit itself?

This effect is only amplified by the fact that these worship sessions typically occur in large group settings. As any concertgoer or football fan can attest, certain experiences can be far more powerful when you partake in them with a huge crowd of people than when you just watch them in your room by yourself. And religious experiences are no different; if everyone around you is overflowing with religious ecstasy, throwing their hands up in the air, and speaking in tongues, you’ll probably be a lot less self-conscious about engaging in these behaviors yourself than if you were the only one doing them.

That isn’t to say, of course, that the opposite can’t also be true sometimes; given the right conditions, moments of quiet solitude can be just as emotionally stirring as group worship sessions. If you’re up late one night listening to really emotional music, for example, that can put you in a frame of mind that’s more receptive to religious feelings. Or if you’re out in nature and you see a beautiful waterfall or a breathtaking sunset, you might feel so moved by the beauty you’re seeing that you can’t help but to imbue it with divine significance. This was certainly a common occurrence for me back when I was a believer. But looking back, I can now understand that just because something is beautiful doesn’t automatically mean it’s divine. All I was doing in these instances was taking my subjective feelings of awe and wonder and attributing them to God, when in fact those feelings were coming solely from within my own mind.

Again, the point here is just to underscore how incredibly good the human brain is at taking meaningful – but purely natural – experiences and endowing them with supernatural significance. Whether it’s a beautiful natural landscape, a poignant worship session, or even some completely random life event, it’s almost always possible to come up with a divine explanation. And in fact, there have even been cases where we’ve been able to see this happen on a civilizational scale in real time. Dawkins describes one such example, in which people’s eagerness to attribute divine significance to purely material interactions gave birth to a whole new religion:

In The Life of Brian, one of the many things the Monty Python team got right was the extreme rapidity with which a new religious cult can get started. It can spring up almost overnight and then become incorporated into a culture, where it plays a disquietingly dominant role. The ‘cargo cults’ of Pacific Melanesia and New Guinea provide the most famous real life example. The entire history of some of these cults, from initiation to expiry, is wrapped up within living memory. Unlike the cult of Jesus, the origins of which are not reliably attested, we can see the whole course of events laid out before our eyes (and even here, as we shall see, some details are now lost). It is fascinating to guess that the cult of Christianity almost certainly began in very much the same way, and spread initially at the same high speed.

My main authority for the cargo cults is David Attenborough’s Quest in Paradise, which he very kindly presented to me. The pattern is the same for all of them, from the earliest cults in the nineteenth century to the more famous ones that grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War. It seems that in every case the islanders were bowled over by the wondrous possessions of the white immigrants to their islands, including administrators, soldiers and missionaries. They were perhaps the victims of (Arthur C.) Clarke’s Third Law: […] ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

The islanders noticed that the white people who enjoyed these wonders never made them themselves. When articles needed repairing they were sent away, and new ones kept arriving as ‘cargo’ in ships or, later, planes. No white man was ever seen to make or repair anything, nor indeed did they do anything that could be recognized as useful work of any kind (sitting behind a desk shuffling papers was obviously some kind of religious devotion). Evidently, then, the ‘cargo’ must be of supernatural origin. As if in corroboration of this, the white men did do certain things that could only have been ritual ceremonies:

They build tall masts with wires attached to them; they sit listening to small boxes that glow with light and emit curious noises and strangled voices; they persuade the local people to dress up in identical clothes, and march them up and down – and it would hardly be possible to devise a more useless occupation than that. And then the native realizes that he has stumbled on the answer to the mystery. It is these incomprehensible actions that are the rituals employed by the white man to persuade the gods to send the cargo. If the native wants the cargo, then he too must do these things.

It is striking that similar cargo cults sprang up independently on islands that were widely separated both geographically and culturally. David Attenborough tells us that

Anthropologists have noted two separate outbreaks in New Caledonia, four in the Solomons, four in Fiji, seven in the New Hebrides, and over fifty in New Guinea, most of them being quite independent and unconnected with one another. The majority of these religions claim that one particular messiah will bring the cargo when the day of the apocalypse arrives.

The independent flowering of so many independent but similar cults suggests some unifying features of human psychology in general.

One famous cult on the island of Tanna in the New Hebrides (known as Vanuatu since 1980) is still extant. It is centred on a messianic figure called John Frum. References to John Frum in official government records go back only as far as 1940 but, even for so recent a myth, it is not known for certain whether he ever existed as a real man. One legend described him as a little man with a high-pitched voice and bleached hair, wearing a coat with shining buttons. He made strange prophecies, and he went out of his way to turn the people against the missionaries. Eventually he returned to the ancestors, after promising a triumphal second coming, bearing bountiful cargo. His apocalyptic vision included a ‘great cataclysm; the mountains would fall flat and the valleys would be filled; old people would regain their youth and sickness would vanish; the white people would be expelled from the island never to return; and cargo would arrive in great quantity so that everybody would have as much as he wanted’.

Most worryingly for the government, John Frum also prophesied that, on his second coming, he would bring a new coinage, stamped with the image of a coconut. The people must therefore get rid of all their money of the white man’s currency. In 1941 this led to a wild spending spree; the people stopped working and the island’s economy was seriously damaged. The colonial administrators arrested the ringleaders but nothing that they could do would kill the cult, and the mission churches and schools became deserted.

A little later, a new doctrine grew up that John Frum was King of America. Providentially, American troops arrived in the New Hebrides around this time and, wonder of wonders, they included black men who were not poor like the islanders but

as richly endowed with cargo as the white soldiers. Wild excitement overwhelmed Tanna. The day of the apocalypse was imminent. It seemed that everyone was preparing for the arrival of John Frum. One of the leaders said that John Frum would be coming from America by aeroplane and hundreds of men began to clear the bush in the centre of the island so that the plane might have an airstrip on which to land.

The airstrip had a bamboo control tower with ‘air traffic controllers’ wearing dummy headphones made of wood. There were dummy planes on the ‘runway’ to act as decoys, designed to lure down John Frum’s plane.

In the 1950s, the young David Attenborough sailed to Tanna with a cameraman, Geoffrey Mulligan, to investigate the cult of John Frum. They found plenty of evidence of the religion and were eventually introduced to its high priest, a man called Nambas. Nambas referred to his messiah familiarly as John, and claimed to speak regularly to him, by ‘radio’. This (‘radio belong John’) consisted of an old woman with an electric wire around her waist who would fall into a trance and talk gibberish, which Nambas interpreted as the words of John Frum. Nambas claimed to have known in advance that Attenborough was coming to see him, because John Frum had told him on the ‘radio’. Attenborough asked to see the ‘radio’ but was (understandably) refused. He changed the subject and asked whether Nambas had seen John Frum:

Nambas nodded vigorously. ‘Me see him plenty time.’

‘What does he look like?’

Nambas jabbed his finger at me. “E look like you. ‘E got white face. ‘E tall man. ‘E live ‘long South America.’

This detail contradicts the legend referred to above that John Frum was a short man. Such is the way with evolving legends.

It is believed that the day of John Frum’s return will be 15 February, but the year is unknown. Every year on 15 February his followers assemble for a religious ceremony to welcome him. So far he has not returned, but they are not downhearted. David Attenborough said to one cult devotee, called Sam:

‘But, Sam, it is nineteen years since John say that the cargo will come. He promise and he promise, but still the cargo does not come. Isn’t nineteen years a long time to wait?’

Sam lifted his eyes from the ground and looked at me. ‘If you can wait two thousand years for Jesus Christ to come an’ ‘e no come, then I can wait more than nineteen years for John.’

Robert Buckman’s book Can We Be Good without God? quotes the same admirable retort by a John Frum disciple, this time to a Canadian journalist some forty years after David Attenborough’s encounter.

The Queen and Prince Philip visited the area in 1974, and the Prince subsequently became deified in a rerun of a John-Frum-type cult (once again, note how rapidly the details in religious evolution can change). The Prince is a handsome man who would have cut an imposing figure in his white naval uniform and plumed helmet, and it is perhaps not surprising that he, rather than the Queen, was elevated in this way, quite apart from the fact that the culture of the islanders made it difficult for them to accept a female deity.

I don’t want to make too much of the cargo cults of the South Pacific. But they do provide a fascinating contemporary model for the way religions spring up from almost nothing. In particular, they suggest four lessons about the origin of religions generally, and I’ll set them out briefly here. First is the amazing speed with which a cult can spring up. Second is the speed with which the origination process covers its tracks. John Frum, if he existed at all, did so within living memory. Yet, even for so recent a possibility, it is not certain whether he lived at all. The third lesson springs from the independent emergence of similar cults on different islands. The systematic study of these similarities can tell us something about human psychology and its susceptibility to religion. Fourth, the cargo cults are similar, not just to each other but to older religions. Christianity and other ancient religions that have spread worldwide presumably began as local cults like that of John Frum. Indeed, scholars such as Geza Vermes, Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University, have suggested that Jesus was one of many such charismatic figures who emerged in Palestine around his time, surrounded by similar legends. Most of those cults died away. The one that survived, on this view, is the one that we encounter today. And, as the centuries go by, it has been honed by further evolution (memetic selection, if you like that way of putting it; not if you don’t) into the sophisticated system – or rather diverging sets of descendant systems – that dominate large parts of the world today.

Of course, these cargo cults aren’t exactly like Christianity. The islanders listening for the voice of John Frum through their “radios” aren’t quite the same as Christians listening for the voice of Jesus through their prayers. But in a lot of ways, they’re very similar. Both groups want to believe that they’re communicating with a higher power. In many cases, they want to believe it so badly that they successfully convince themselves that they really are communicating with that higher power. They feel it so deeply in their hearts that they even go so far as to organize their entire lives around that belief. And yet, when someone asks them to demonstrate that they are in fact communicating with a higher power (as when Attenborough asked to see the “radio”), they have a hard time backing up their beliefs with any kind of concrete substantiation; all they have is their conviction that they’re right.

If you were a believer who wanted to know if it was truly possible to communicate with God, there’d be a pretty straightforward way of finding out; you could simply ask him something empirically verifiable that you’d have no way of knowing or intuiting yourself (and would be unlikely to guess by chance). For instance, you could ask him which day of the upcoming year would get the most rainfall, or what the twenty-seventh word in the Book of Job was (or some other more relevant example) – and then pray for an answer in the same way that you pray for answers to other problems in your life. After all, people talk all the time about how God provides them with answers to those other questions – the ones involving career decisions, relationship issues, and so on. But what those types of questions have in common is that it’s perfectly possible for people to come up with their own answers to them using their own knowledge and intuition. So once you take those factors out of the equation, and start asking the kind of questions that you wouldn’t have any basis for being able to figure out on your own, does it still feel like God would be able to provide you with the answers? Or does it feel more like if you asked him which day of the year would get the most rainfall, you’d be able to pray all you wanted and would still have absolutely no idea what the answer was?

I know a lot of believers will object to this point. Asking God about something as prosaic as rainfall figures might not seem like a sincere prayer request, because such a thing wouldn’t have any actual relevance to your life; it’d just feel like you were presumptuously testing God, and why would he respond to something like that? But aside from all the aforementioned biblical examples of God gladly providing proof of his existence on demand to anyone who asked, getting a clear and unambiguous answer to such a question could in fact have plenty of relevance to your life (and not just if you were a farmer, or lived in an area with lots of floods or hurricanes). Even if all you were seeking was the reassurance that God was listening to you and looking out for you – the one thing that believers pray for more than anything else – what could be more reassuring than getting a precise answer that turned out to be exactly right? It’d certainly be more reassuring than just getting some vague internal feeling that he might be listening to your other prayers; you’d know he was listening. So if praying something as commonly prayed for as “please reveal your presence to me” wouldn’t count as “testing God,” then neither would this; the only difference is that the wording here would be more specific.

Still, I expect that believers might object to this point too – not the request itself, but the specificity of it. You can’t just presume that God will communicate with you in anything as clear as an audible voice telling you an exact date; that’s not how he works. The way God operates is through more subtle means, like unspoken feelings and impressions and urges. But that’s the whole point I’m trying to make here: If God never gives us anything concrete, that’s all the more reason to think that what we’re experiencing isn’t actually God. From an inside point of view, there’s no discernable difference between “feeling the Holy Spirit guiding you,” and feeling your own conscience guiding you (via hunches, emotional realizations, etc.) and simply thinking it’s the Holy Spirit. The whole point of subjective feelings is that they’re subjective. They’re open to interpretation. And that means they’re open to misinterpretation too.

Of course, a lot of believers like to talk as if they really are hearing an audible voice and seeing God in a literal sense – and they’ll be especially adamant about this if they feel like someone is challenging the truth of their faith and they have to defend it. But if you’re a fellow believer whom they trust, and you can catch them in a moment of honesty and vulnerability, you might be surprised by how often they’ll admit that, well OK, they’re actually just speaking figuratively too. Certainly I was surprised myself when I heard this from my fellow believers; I’d always assumed that even if I personally struggled to hear God’s voice myself, at least some of my fellow believers were having no trouble hearing it in an unmistakable way. In fact, although I didn’t consciously realize it at the time, this belief in the legitimacy of other people’s religious experiences was one of the biggest reasons why I felt like I could be confident in my own faith. I might not have personally felt God’s presence as unambiguously as I wanted to, but at least I could be confident that other people did. Surely everybody wasn’t having to work as hard as I was to convince themselves that what they were feeling really was God’s presence – right? Surely everybody didn’t have to fight that nagging feeling whenever they prayed that they were just sending words up into an empty sky – right? Well, as it turned out, my experience of interacting with God wasn’t quite as unusual as I thought it was. Nobody (aside from those suffering from neurological conditions like schizophrenia) was actually hearing literal voices in their heads; they were all just telling themselves that they were.

TheraminTrees describes his own experience coming to grips with the same realization:

In [one] Christian Union meeting, I put the question to the group. I was sure I’d get some good answers, because some members had claimed in very strong terms that Yahweh had actually told them to do things. But when pressed, they now said they just meant that they’d interpreted certain life experiences as messages from Yahweh. I was bewildered. You’d never claim humans “told” you to do things when all you meant was that you thought they might want you to do things. There I’d been, hoping Yahweh would one day speak to me like he had to them, when all the time they’d had no more experience of him than me.

In retrospect, I suppose I should have caught on to this earlier; there were some red flags that might have tipped me off. Shouldn’t it have struck me as odd, for instance, that so many of the people claiming to have directly spoken with God differed so wildly in their opinions of what he was like and what he wanted? NonStampCollector illustrates this point:

What’s more, this wasn’t just an issue of different denominations within Christianity disagreeing with each other; there was also the even larger-scale question of other religions besides Christianity, and their own personal experiences with their gods. Didn’t it seem strangely convenient that whenever anyone had a deeply moving religious experience, they’d always claim that the god they had come face-to-face with was whichever god they were expecting to come face-to-face with? Why did Muslims and Hindus always claim that they could feel the presence of their own gods, but were never surprised to feel the presence of each other’s gods? Why did so many Christians claim that Jesus had appeared to them, but not a single Native American before 1492 ever did? And more to the point, why was it that when all these believers did claim that they had personally spoken with a deity, they would so often say that the deity had told them to do or believe something that was directly at odds with what other religions were saying?

This was the key question: How could each of these different cultures have become so utterly convinced that they were communicating with so many completely different deities who were telling them such completely different things? The only answer that made any sense was that some of them – the vast majority of them, in fact – must have simply been misinterpreting what they were experiencing. They might have thought they were hearing the voice of a deity telling them to do or believe something, but in fact all they were hearing was their own subconscious minds.

Again, all of this comes back to the innate tendency of the human brain to want to attribute divine significance to non-divine events and experiences. It’s this tendency towards over-interpretation that explains not only how each of the individual world religions developed, but how religiosity itself evolved. And so once we understand it, we can understand not only where individual religious experiences come from, but even where belief in God itself originally came from. That’s the bedrock of this whole issue; and now we’ve finally drilled down deep enough that we can turn our attention to it.

Continued on next page →