An Atheist Goes to Church and Kinda-Sorta Encounters the Religious Experience

An Atheist Goes to Church and Kinda-Sorta Encounters the Religious Experience January 20, 2016

This past weekend, I attended my grandfather’s funeral. Contrary to what’s generally seen as a somber occasion, in the Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition of the Black Church, a “Homegoing Service” is essentially just another opportunity to have church. And with this taking place in a southern Evangelical setting, those familiar with this environment can imagine how lively this “celebration of life” was.

Growing up Pentecostal, this unique style of funeral is all I’ve ever known. In fact, at least in my family, it’s a two-day church event if you count the wake ceremony that occurs the day prior.

I didn’t attend my grandfather’s wake, as I didn’t want to endure a nearly 3-hour social gathering with the same religious elements that would be present at the funeral. Also, I have a big family—my grandparents are survived by 12 children, 19 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren, and that’s not counting the host of other relatives—and I just wasn’t up to doing the family reunion twice. I know, I’m a wet blanket.

Perhaps the only thing I look forward to, both consciously and unconsciously regarding this custom, is the music. That humans profoundly appreciate and are moved by music is undeniable. Love for song, melody and musical instruments is a tie that binds our entire species and occurs cross-culturally regardless of background.

I recall listening to gospel music for a short time even after my deconversion. When I say “gospel music,” I’m referring to the southern Evangelical niche represented by the likes of The Canton Spirituals, Slim and the Supreme Angels, and Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC’s—groups faithful to that intense, soulful tradition I grew up experiencing.

Here’s a sample of what a Homegoing Service is like for those interested. However, my grandfather’s service was far more packed and energetic.

It doesn’t matter that I find the messages promoted untenable in nature. It doesn’t matter that I dislike the pageantry associated with these beliefs. When that music starts to blare and the choir begins to hit those notes, my foot begins to tap and my head starts to bob.  Also, a couple times, I felt a brief, euphoric sensation wash over me. Some would say that, to a certain extent, logic (what I know) was overpowered by emotion (what I feel) thanks to nostalgia and the power of music.

But what is this power? And was my emotional response proof that “God’s not dead?” I’ll give a two-part response.

Philosophy, Humanness, and the Religious Experience

First, let it not be said that I have lingering belief in this brand of religiosity peddled and readily consumed by those who fail to properly investigate what they have long taken for granted. That isn’t the case. Me “feeling the music” only highlights the universal human capacity to experience emotion, which is a complex state that involves physiological and intuitive responses to thoughts, mood, circumstances, or environment.

In the Nicomachean Ethics (and also De Anima), Aristotle teases out the fact that humans have the capacity for reason. This refers to the cognitive wherewithal to employ rationality. Many unfamiliar with his work will glimpse Aristotelian quote-mined snippets declaring people are “rational animals” without the context of Aristotle explaining reason is one of many other elements that make up humans. He also spoke of the “irrational element” and how it works in conjunction with the rational element.

Our brains are wired in such a way that both logic (disciplined rationale seeking sound conclusions) and passion (primitive, instinctive, emotional human drives) play a part in the web of beliefs that make up the way we think, react, and view the world. The “religious experience” is something that defies our rational mind and arouses the passions in sublime ways.

Though the concept is vague—primarily due to the varied and convoluted ideas we try to stuff under the umbrella term “religion”—the phrase religious experience generally refers to a subjective apprehension or stimulation perceived to be relating to numinous content. We’re used to seeing this concept used in regards to experiences interpreted as having explicit religious significance or divine implications. However, we can also distinguish encounters believed to involve the supernatural from comprehending the numinous as it relates to experiencing a sense of awe.

Christopher Hitchens, the late problematic antitheist maestro, often discussed the transcendent and the numinous. In an interview with Laura Sheahen of The Society of Mutual Autopsy, Hitchens said:

“It’s innate in us to be overawed by certain moments, say, at evening on a mountaintop or sunset on the boundaries of the ocean. Or, in my case, looking through the Hubble telescope at those extraordinary pictures. We have a sense of awe and wonder at something beyond ourselves, and so we should, because our own lives are very transient and insignificant. That’s the numinous, and there’s enough wonder in the natural world without any resort to the supernatural being required.”

Notice some of the key words used here: “innate,” “overawed,” “numinous.” Elsewhere, Hitchens spoke to how these things (the numinous and the transcendent) could be divorced from the superstitious and experienced through things like love, landscape—and music. Each of these things, analogous to what’s discerned within religious circles as “the sacred,” have the capacity to possess or convey “intangible qualities” that can impress upon us a hard-to-describe or indescribable sense of marvel. However, it’s more than a just a feeling—it’s something we undergo.

Science, Music, and the Transcendent

Behavioral and brain sciences have much to say about the ways music impacts our emotions. No other art form can compare to how quickly and continually music creates emotional responses.

Cognitive scientist Stefan Koelsch, who specializes in biological psychology and the neurocognition of music and emotion, has found music possesses great power to evoke strong emotions and influence moods. Koelsch’s functional neuroimaging studies on music and emotion show that music can moderate activity in brain structures crucially involved in emotion, such as the amygdala, nucleus accumbens, hypothalamus, hippocampus, insula, cingulate cortex and orbitfrontal cortex.

Neuropsychology researcher Malini Mohana writes that music is a type of perceptual illusion and recruits parts of the brain involved in motivation, reward, and emotion. The response to “groove” in coordination with music is mainly unconscious thanks to the way our brains synchronizes neural oscillators with the pulse of the music through cerebellum activation. Ultimately, music involves non-threatening, subtle violations of timing our frontal lobes identify as a source of pleasure.

Now that we know these things, it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a strong connection between music and religious experiences. There’s an awesome study I was able to parse and dissect that was given to me by an acquaintance within the cognitive science of religion field. Unfortunately, the article has restricted access online and you can only view the overview. The study’s called The Emotional Effects of Music on Religious Experience: A Study of the Pentecostal-Charismatic Style of Music and Worship.

The study reveals the following:

• The music performed in a Pentecostal-Charismatic (P—C) church is designed to charge emotionally and elicit particular feelings as emotionalism is foundational for the Pentecostals.
• Once physiological arousal has been induced in a church setting, congregation members’ appraisal of the emotional response leads to subjective experiences of a specific emotion (e.g. awe) or event (e.g. religious experience).
• Group social interaction joined with P—C music and worship participation greatly impacts emotional response. Participation in this subculture’s ritualistic worship produces happiness and emotional well-being, reinforces social bonding, and instills devotion. Participants believe their emotional reactions symbolize God’s presence in their ritualistic behavior.
• Numerous cross-cultural studies reveal the use of music in religious practices facilitate the induction of altered states of consciousness, dissociative states, and trance states. “Hyperarousal” is generated by musical manipulation from acoustic driving and monotony, systematic and repetitive use of accelerando and crescendo, and the use of repetitive lyrics.

• In conjunction with music, sensory overstimulation is produced through hand-clapping, arm-raising, swaying, singing, the glossolalia technique (“speaking in tongues”), “free praise,” jumping, etc. Such physical movement during worship generates high enthusiasm and increases the likelihood of dissociation during worship and song.
• The social context in which the Pentecostal religious ritual takes place has a significant effect on religious experience. Music contributes structure and shapes collective crowd emotion. Emotional contagion within the congregation is spread through the emotional feel of the music.
• Music used in the context of a P—C worship service elicits strong experiences of positive emotion as well as acting as a major facilitator of religious experience.
• Familiarity with the music increases the level of enjoyment of the music. There’s considerable evidence that the associations congregants have with the music are powerful enough to elicit strong, positive experiences of emotions outside of the church service as well.

Music-evoked emotions can produce autonomic and endocrine responses, motoric (facial) expressions, action tendencies (moving to the music), and subjective feelings. Music is an emotional intensifier that can lead us to experience feelings like rapture, catharsis, and tranquility. However, this isn’t proof of the divine. This is science and biological reactions to a powerful, human-generated stimulus.

To answer the question posed earlier, my experience doesn’t validate any set of god beliefs whatsoever.

Research on music and the way it greatly affects our emotions ought to spark curiosity. To what extent are our neurological responses to music responsible for emotions some wish to associate with their particular brand of religious belief?

I know countless people who have obviously never seen, heard, or touched what they believe to be the divine, and yet, they speak of “knowing” their God is real. But this emotional investment is based on feelings. People agree with certain religious ideas because of human emotions and the many ways these feelings can be stoked and directed, as with music. I find this to be fascinating, but not as evidence of the divine.

Further Reading

Valerie Salimpoor: The Brain and New Music
^highly recommended – 1-min. explanation of music and neurology
Michael Graziano: Why is Music a Religious Experience?
Sievers, Polansky, Casey, Wheatley: Music and movement share a dynamic structure that supports universal expressions of emotion

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