RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCES

Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 47, 1996 March)


Introduction

For some religious people the most important indicators of the truth of their belief come from their religious experiences, or those of the founder of their faith.

Such experiences can take many forms; there are those ecstatic mystical trances and contemplative suspensions of the sense of time and everyday reality, coupled with an overwhelming sense of a spiritual presence that may take the form of a vision of some kind. These events are not all that common, but many believers claim to have had a religious experience at least once in their lives.

In this article I shall attempt to determine whether these events are the result of natural or supernatural causes.
 

Religious Rituals

An examination of religious rituals may provide some clues as to the cause of religious experiences. Many religions have rituals that appear to change the participants' state of consciousness. For example, Yakuts, Buragats, Altai Turks, and Eskimos, all practice shamanic rituals. Shamans intercede with the spirits, travelling on a journey to their realm. The ritual begins with drumming and dancing as the shaman summons the spirits that will guide him on his journey.

The shaman carries his own drum, controlling his journey. However, in other religious ceremonies, the entranced person is moved by the beat of many different drummers. These rituals are often called "possession trances’, and they form the centrepiece of the Voudoun cult found in West Africa and the Caribbean.

Anthropologists have looked at these rituals the world over, and despite their apparent differences, they have found that fasting, water deprivation, exposure to high or low temperatures, long periods of physical exercise such as running or dancing, and rhythmic sound are common factors in their structure.

The changes in brain activity associated with trance-like rituals have been documented by Professor Julian Leff of London University, and analysis has shown that these experiences have their roots deep inside the brain, where fundamental changes in the electrical rhythms of thought can have powerful effects on experience and behaviour. Visions, tranquillity, and hallucinations are the result.

These electrical rhythms, often called alpha, beta; and theta waves are in fact patterns of firing neurons washing backwards and forwards through the brain. Different patterns of brainwave activity have long been associated with different mental states.

The altered rhythms induced by rituals appear to conform to the following pattern – fast electrical waves centred in the brain’s frontal lobes (the seat of memory, imagination, thought, and intelligence) give way to much slower alpha waves emanating from the hippocampal-septal region (this area affects mood in the motor activities of the body). In some cases, very rare theta wave patterns are seen which are linked to feelings of peace, happiness, and self-awareness.

When high voltage low frequency waves from the hippocampus begin to affect an area in the brain called the amygdala (concerned with mood, feeling, and instinct), the person, as well as seeing visions and hearing voices, twitches uncontrollably and may suffer seizures: behaviour which is shared by spiritualist mediums, fundamentalists speaking in tongues, and voodoo dancers.
 

Biochemical Mechanisms

The altered state of consciousness induced by rituals appears to result from the reduction in levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, one of the chemicals that carries messages in the brain. Meditation and sensory deprivation decrease the stimulation of serotonin producing cells, whereas long periods of vigorous and rhythmic exercise, such as dancing and drumming, first boost serotonin production, and then actually reduce it, as the body’ s inhibition mechanism cuts in to compensate.

Serotonin is responsible for controlling a group of cells in the hippocampus called CA-3 cells, which in turn are responsible for synchronising internal brain activity to external events and stimuli. Low levels of serotonin cause the CA-3 cells to become easily excitable, and lose the ability to achieve this synchronisation. When this occurs, brain activity becomes disassociated from reality producing feelings of oneness and tranquillity.

In addition there is a naturally occurring oscillation in the levels of serotonin in the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Altering the serotonin levels through the use of rituals can prevent this oscillation, allowing the right hemisphere of the brain, usually associated with intuitive or creative abilities, and unconscious process and emotions to dominate the left, more logical and regimented hemisphere.

So far I have dealt with rituals that produce religious experiences by altering brain activity. But how do we account for religious experiences that occur when no ritual is present, or when the ritual does not possess the required characteristics?

The unconscious, that part of our personality which is said to shape much of our behaviour may hold the answer, for according to the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, the major portion of conscious thought is guided by unconscious patterns.

Religious experiences are most likely to occur at a time of high expectation or arousal, a state in which left hemisphere activity is dampened down. Under these conditions the right hemisphere may externalise unconscious thoughts which are then experienced as if coming from outside the self. For example, a widow mourning her husband may hear his voice, or a worshipper may see God or feel its presence while deep in prayer, or while attending a religious gathering. These altered states of consciousness may be in part a response to anxiety, an attempt to transcend our woes, and enter another mental state in which our fear of extinction is countered by a sense of the numinous.

Another possibility is that these experiences result from a physiological predisposition. For example, at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, psychiatrist Vernon Neppe established a correlation between the temporal lobes (associated with our sense of self, along with our perceived relation to space and time, dreaming, the sensation of movement, and smell), and such phenomena as the sensation of unseen presences, out of the body experiences, and visions.

Using known symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy, Neppe compared a group of people reporting these experiences with a control group not reporting them. He found that the people who claimed to have had such experiences reported an average of six temporal lobe symptoms all told, which those in the control group reported none.
 

God

In the section of this article titled "Biochemical Mechanisms", I outlined the physiological psychological basis of religious experiences. However, these explanations aside, could these experiences be caused by the existence of God? I shall now attempt to answer this question.

What then is God? Those western philosophers who have entered most seriously and profoundly into the discussion of this question – philosophers such as St. Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, and Immanuel Kant – appear to have meant by the term "God" at least the following: A reality that transcends space-time, and is the ground of being and value. What does this mean?

Philosophers appear to be saying that God is not to be conceived simply as a natural object, as one of the many objects that we might encounter within the realm of nature; secondly God is a reality rather than a being because our notion of a "being" is to speak of a spatiotemporal something that exists in some places but not in others, at some times but not at others. God does not possess "being" or "existence" in any sense that we can comprehend.

When philosophers say that God is the ground of being and value, it appears that they mean God is the nonspatiotemporal cause of all that is; that all of existence is founded upon the reality of God.

This definition of God is all very well, but does such a thing actually exist?

There are at least three arguments that attempt to prove that it does:

  1. The Ontological argument, which attempts to show that the existence of God can be inferred from the idea of God;
  2. The Cosmological argument which claims that the existence of the world presupposes, implies, or points to the existence of God;
  3. The Teleological argument, which attempts to reason from the assertion that there is order in the world to the conclusion that God exists.

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