My sister asked what I thought about one of her friend’s personal religious experiences. The same question could be asked what I think about anybody’s religious experiences, including my own. Didn’t I have powerful religious experiences? Yes, I had religious experiences just like you and millions of others. Like you, my experiences were meaningful, they seemed to confirm my religious beliefs, and I didn’t make them up. In retrospect, however, I view these experiences differently than I did before.
Personal experiences are one of the most common reasons people believe in God. It’s hard to question the seemingly obvious meaning of these personal and powerful experiences. However, there are valid reasons to doubt that these experiences are what they seem.
The first problem I see with religious experiences is that other religious people have contradictory experiences. I remember talking to sincere people on my mission who would describe their own religious experiences that contradicted my own (ie. an answer to their prayer that denied the Book of Mormon, or confirmed their belief in the authority of the Catholic church). I have talked to many people since then, and it has always been difficult to make sense of these contradictory experiences. My only explanation was that they had to be deceived, since they couldn’t have veridical religious experiences that contradicted my own.
Today’s Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians all have powerful religious experiences that happen to confirm their own particular religious faiths. However, their religious beliefs, supported by their religious experiences, fundamentally contradict each other. When you include the religious claims of aboriginal cultures in Australia, central Africa, and Native Americans, the disparity of religious claims grows even greater. Then you need to include religious experiences of people who worshiped long ago in ancient Egypt, Greece, the Middle East, and Rome. The religious experiences and beliefs of people in different religious traditions stand on identical footing - a justification based on a powerful subjective experience. However, not all these beliefs can be valid since they are mutually inconsistent. The problem with supernatural beliefs is that they come in so many incompatible forms, all of which are grounded in just the same way.
Another problem with personal religious experiences, is that they are, by definition - personal. They can’t be shared with anybody else. I think we’ve all sat through one of those testimony meetings (the ones you were glad you didn’t bring an investigator to) where some colorful religious experiences are shared and we have a hard time believing in the truth of their experience. Since our subjective religious experiences cannot be shared with anybody else, they are not evidence to anyone else. There are very strong skeptical philosophical arguments against believing with certainty in the reality of any of our perceptive experiences (ie. what we can see, hear, and even touch). It is even more difficult therefore to be certain of our religious experiences since they seem to occur only in our imagination or inner feelings. Religious experiences, therefore, only count as evidence to the person who is having it.
Also, our senses can frequently mislead us in our perceptions of reality. For example, we have all been fooled by optical illusions. And our hearing can be just as easily fooled since we hear what we expect to hear many times. Visual or auditory hallucinations are extremely common phenomena that can be explained by purely natural means. Also, religious experiences are more commonly described by troubled individuals whose emotional lives are disturbed, and whose sense of reality is altered - such as individuals suffering from severe depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. I’m not saying that you are mental if you have religious experiences (I had them too, remember). I’m just saying that since we’ve all been fooled by our perceptions of reality, we ought to be careful about the conclusions we draw from them because they can be unreliable at times.
A final problem with religious experiences that ought to make us treat them with caution is that they can be manufactured chemically. For example, certain drugs such as peyote or psilocybe mushrooms, have been used for centuries by shamans during religious ceremonies to induce profound religious experiences that last as long as the drug is active in the brain. These hallucinogenic plants, called entheogens, have been used by ancient Egyptian, Greek, Inca, Maya, and Aztec societies, and are still used today by native Amazon cultures.
Religious experiences can even be reproduced artificially in the laboratory. For example, when neuropsychologist Michael Persinger stimulates the temporal lobe of the brain in volunteers with a powerful electromagnetic stimulator, it will induce a religious experience in about 80% of people (the experiment has been repeated in hundreds of subjects). People who are more religious, are more likely to have a religious experience than people who are not. Also, people usually describe their experience in the religious context they grew up in: Christians usually experience Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or God, while Muslims experience Allah or Mohammed, and Jews might experience Elijah or Yahweh. Some people even experience darkness or Satan. Believers of UFO’s may have experiences similar to accounts of alien abduction. But all these experiences were singularly caused by a modified snowmobile helmet, or what has been dubbed “the God helmet.”
This suggests that the temporal lobes of the cerebral cortex may play a role in religious experiences. Consistent with this idea is the fact that patients who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, a disorder caused by intense electrical activity in the temporal lobe, will often describe profound religious experiences during their seizures. Epileptics describe being in God’s presence, being given a mission by God, being in heaven, seeing a bright light, experiencing cosmic oneness or utter peace and happiness; all the stuff of powerful religious experiences.
This idea, that our religious experiences are caused by our brain, is also supported by research from Andrew Newburg. He had Franciscan nuns, Buddhists monks, and even an atheist (who was expert in meditation) pray or meditate while their brains were being imaged in a CT scanner that measured blood flow with a radiologic tracer. What he found was that although each participant described their experiences very differently (Nuns describe being in the presence of God, Buddhists, who do not have a concept of God, described transcendence, while the atheist described peace and connectedness to the universe), they each had similar changes in specific areas of brain activity during their experiences. This suggests that religious experiences occur as a result of similar activity in our brain, but that the experience, depending on the context of the individual, is interpreted differently.
Does this mean that religious experiences are not valid? No, it doesn’t. There is definitely still room for faith in religious experiences. For example, a religious person could say that this is how God works - by natural means in our brain. This may very well be true. But the previous examples suggest that that assumption may not be necessary, and that these religious experiences - although meaningful, important, and life-altering to those experiencing them - do not have to originate from a supernatural presence outside ourself, or a nonphysical spirit within us. I think it’s more sustainable to view religious experiences as personal experiences that we generate in our brain. The fact that my brain causes me to feel love, and the fact that this experience is explainable by natural means, does not cheapen the experience for me. However, if we remain convinced of the literalness of religious experience, then how do we account for the variety of contradictory religious experience? How do we account for the fact that religious experiences can be reproduced artificially, or as a result of pathology in the brain? It seems more parsimonious to explain religious experiences as perceptual experiences generated in our own incredibly complex brains.