This post is part of Patheos’s book club for T.M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. I recieved a review copy free of charge.
In T.M. Luhrmann’s ethnographic study of charismatic evangelical Christians, When God Talks Back, communing with God is a strenuous practice. Cultivating a personal, two-way relationship is a choice for these Christians, and the sheer level of effort they put into changing their minds trips a lot of my epistemological red flags. The people Luhrmann profiles sound like they’re brainwashing themselves and making it hard to ever recognize their error in the future.
A few days after finishing the book, though, I noticed a weird discrepancy in the way I think about religion. Whether or not I believe in God, I don’t find anything weird about the idea that hewing to religious morality is hard and requires continual discipline and mortification of the self. Heck, I think that’s true of most atheistic moral philosophies as well. The difficulty isn’t necessarily a cue that moral obligations are foreign to us or unnatural, just that we’ve strayed away from our telos, and it takes a wrenching effort to get back on track.
Back when I saw Freud’s Last Session (a two-person play that imagines a debate/conversation between CS Lewis and Sigmund Freud), I thought Freud-in-the-play lost the argument when he complained that Christian morals were unlivable and therefore unreasonable, not that they were false. I think I’m significantly out of sync with the person I ought to be that it’s not surprising that fixing myself might require a fairly radical and difficult overhaul of my habits of thought. So why do I still feel very different from the people Luhrmann interviewed?
The brainhacking I do, from foreswearing free food to trying to accept gifts are an attempt to entrench a moral virtue as habit. I’ve already been convinced I need to change my behavior, and now I’m trying to make the new practice sticky. I’m suspicious of the people in Luhrmann’s book because they seem to be overhauling their minds as part of the evidence-gathering stage, not the post-decision implementation stage.
There are some disciplines that require a big shift in thinking before you can even understand what you’re studying (my go-to example is topology, but quantum mechanics is in this category as well). But these changes seem safer since they’re a few degrees away from moral philosophy. Having a bad idea of four-dimension geometry isn’t likely to lead you into the kind of error where you hurt other people or yourself (though I realize some of the commenters who see my neo-Platonism as pernicious may disagree about this last point).
Historically, most people who ask you to override your senses are tricking you and/or harming you (though some may be doing it unintentionally). Most “visionaries” are wrong and therefore have reason to fear truth. It’s prudent to be chary of this kind of epistemological change unless you’ve got some robust error-correction measures in place.
In math and quantum mechanics, there’s not a terribly long lag between learning a new mode of abstract thought and seeing positive consequences. And the benefits you accrue in these disciplines (being able to write proofs, read papers, and imagine tesseracts) are a lot less ambiguous than possibly being in contact with God. Ultimately, I see brain-hacking as pretty similar to making any other kind of radical personal change: it’s better to do it as the result of a considered decision, not as a way of exploring a possible choice.
The title of this post comes from the song “Anyone Can Whistle” from the Sondheim musical of the same title. A recording from the original production is available below:
Patheos will be hosting a live chat with the author of When God Talks Back on Friday, April 27th at 2pm EST.