Back in March, I commented on a Beliefnet debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan. In part 4 of that debate, Andrew Sullivan made what I thought was an astonishing concession:
But I can say that [this experience] represented for me a revelation of God’s love and forgiveness, the improbable notion that the force behind all of this actually loved us, and even loved me. The calm I felt then; and the voice with no words I heard: this was truer than any proof I have ever conceded, any substance I have ever felt with my hands, any object I have seen with my eyes.
You will ask: how do I know this was Jesus? Could it not be that it was a force beyond one, specific Jewish rabbi who lived two millennia ago and was executed by the Roman authorities? Yes, and no. I have lived with the voice of Jesus read to me, read by me, and spoken all around me my entire life – and I heard it that day. If I had been born before Jesus’ birth, would I have realized this? Of course not. If I had been born in Thailand and raised a Buddhist, would I have interpreted this experience as a function of my Buddhist faith rather than Jesus? If I were a pilgrim right now in Iraq, would I attribute this epiphany to Allah? An honest answer has to be: almost certainly.
I couldn’t agree more, and we should remember this lesson when faced with stories of religious experiences told by other believers. Take this post, which I found through a comment in the thread “Instruction Manual or Chronicle?”
What happened instead was that I slowly became aware that someone else was in my room. I couldn’t see anyone, but I could sense a presence. The intensity of the presence began to grow, until it was so overwhelming that I was aware of nothing else, not even myself. I knew I was in the presence of God.
…Tonight is the 20th anniversary of that experience, and the memory is still as fresh in my mind as if it happened yesterday.
There’s no doubt that experiences like this are real, and that they often have a profound and lasting effect on the lives of people who have them. But at the same time, there are some important features of religious experience which the passage above exemplifies, and to which I’d like to call attention.
First: These experiences, while rich in emotional color and texture, are typically light on actual content. (Sullivan revealingly refers to “the voice with no words”). In the many accounts like this that I’ve read, there’s hardly ever an audible voice or a clear message. Instead, the believer experiences a variety of sensations: an oceanic feeling of transcendent bliss, a vivid sense of heightened significance and interconnection, a perception of being swept away from oneself or unified with the infinite.
Second: These experiences virtually never cause a person to convert to a completely different religion, one which they were unfamiliar with prior to the experience. Instead, the religious experience is almost always interpreted as confirmation of a belief set which the person either already belonged to or was seriously considering converting to. Look for a lifelong Christian who had such an experience and felt it as the presence of Vishnu (or a lifelong Hindu who felt the presence of Jesus) – I can all but guarantee your search will be in vain. As Sullivan says, these experiences are shaped and interpreted in light of the believer’s upbringing and culture. Whenever and wherever they occur, they are almost invariably believed to be manifestations of the local god, whichever one that is.
These facts add up to an important conclusion for atheists. In many cases I’ve encountered, the life-altering power of religious experience is put forth as the first reason for belief in God. The people who have these experiences rationalize that no other power could have moved them so deeply. Yet this is an argument that assumes its own conclusion: people consider it as proof of their particular god because that is the only thing they have been taught to interpret it as. That is the conventional wisdom, the default interpretation, in our society. And since it’s widely claimed that these epiphanies are experiences of God, people who have them naturally fall into believing and proclaiming that this is what they were, thus setting up the next generation of self-supporting circular interpretation.
In reality, the sense of rapture is like many other things: not a religious phenomenon, but simply a human phenomenon common to all people. If it were more widely known that believers of all sects have equally persuasive experiences of this kind – and if it were more widely known that atheists have them as well (yes, atheists also have moments of transcendent joy) – then we might develop a more realistic view of their cause.
Rather than leaping to interpret them as divine visitations, we should recognize them for what they are: natural products of human neural wiring. They emerge from the structure of the brain; they are precipitated by the right kinds of events, either internal or external; and when they occur simultaneously with the making of a decision that had been coalescing in the believer’s mind, they’re viewed as powerful confirmation of that decision and can inspire people to restructure their life around it. These experiences are real, yes, and they can certainly be meaningful, but they do not point to anything outside the self.