Quasi-Transhumanist Charismatic Christians

Quasi-Transhumanist Charismatic Christians April 18, 2012

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.

This was a fascinating book to read right on the heels of Thinking Fast and Slow, because both books seemed to be mostly about changing our intuitions and heuristics. Luhrmann is embedded in a charismatic sect of Christianity.  No snake-handling, but plenty of two-way dialogue with Jesus and what Luhrmann calls ‘sensory overrides’ that might more commonly be called hallucinations.

The visions and auditory overrides don’t come unprompted.  Luhrmann describes a variety of techniques that parishoners use to be more open to hearing God.  Believers are encourage to keep a prayer journal and organizing it into their own pleas and God’s replies.  One of the four keys in a prayer guide Luhrmann reads recommends “writing down the dialogue so it appears real to you.”

Members of this church also practice focused visualization exercises, imagining themselves as witness to the Gospels or at dinner with Christ and trying to feel what they would have felt.  The deliberate cultivation of brushes with the divine reminds Luhrmann of psychotherapy — the goal is to remap your emotional responses.  And it tends to work.

After living with these charismatic Christians, Luhrmann did an empirical study where she assigned Christian to one of three prayer practices: kataphatic (intense, focused visualization of the Gospels), listening to academic discussion of the New Testament, and centering prayer (listening to pink noise while focusing on a particular world or phrase).  The people in the kataphatic group did report that their mental imagery (in prayer and elsewhere) had gotten sharper and they were most likely to be excited about their practice and to report sensory overrides that seemed to come from God.  (And one person in the kataphatic group said the prayer tapes cured her acne.)

These results couldn’t be a surprise to Luhrmann.  After all, in a previous research project, she had been following Wiccan visualization exercises and had a visual sensory override where she ‘saw’ a group of Druids in her house.  This vision felt indistinguishable from normal sensory perception.  After reading the book, I’m pretty confident that Luhrmann’s found and formalized a sensory feedback loop that has the power to change our perceptions.

Now, as a transhumanist, I’m really interested in how people decide when it’s appropriate to use a feedback loop to hack their brain in the first place.  The parishioners Luhrmann interviews seem to have made a deliberate choice to alter themselves and their minds, in conformance with what God wants for them.  These prayer practices let them short-circuit their thought process — it’s the same kind of tactics I might use to subvert an inaccurate intuition or a cognitive behavioral therapist might use with a patient to alter a habit.

The trouble with these feedback loops is that we’d don’t know for sure whether they’re right, we just know that they work.  And signing on to change your mind this way will make it harder to change it back or recognize that you’re wrong.  How confident should you be before you start trying to hack your intuitions?

Some intuition subversions are easy to justify, you can just do the math out on the Monty Hall problem and realize you’ve been thinking about it wrong.  In other cases, aggregated data might teach you that most people who think they’re an exception to a moral rule are wrong and you should be really suspicious of those thoughts.  These seem like sufficient reasons to kill (or maim) your ordinary ways of thinking, but I don’t think the charismatic prayer clears those hurdles.


What criteria/data make it less dangerous to change your thinking than to remain as you are?

Is kataphatic prayer or meditation only an unreasonable gamble for skeptics?  If you believe in God is the marginal harm a lot lower?

What other kinds of feedback loops work even if you know you’re trying to hack yourself?


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  • Joe

    Kataphatic prayer sounds a lot like St. Ignatius’s Spiritual exercises. I wouldn’t want to get too wrapped up in this kind of intense prayer with out a spiritual director/confessor.

    • leahlibresco

      It is modelled on the Ignatian exercises. Much to the horror of the Church I’m sure, so were the Wiccan visualizations she did.

  • I’m not so sure hacking your intuitions is ever the right way to go (I’m not acually sure if you’re advocating for that in some cases or not). In the cases where you recognize your intuitions are incorrect (or at least suspect), it seems like the right thing to do is to decrease your relative certainty in the accuracy of those intuitions, not to try to convert them into the correct ones. The problem with tricking your brain into doing/seeing/thinking things is that you’ve lost the connection between your belief and reality. Your belief is now manufactured out of sheer will, instead of reason (even if the director of this will was past-you’s reason).

    I think it makes a lot of sense to constrain future-me’s actions (I have an addictive peronality; I won’t drink or smoke because future-me doesn’t know when to quit), but I think constraining future-me’s thoughts is a slippery slope. It seems like brainwashing is brainwashing, even if you do it to yourself. A better method would be to train yourself (uh-oh… unless we consider training a type of brainwashing?) to recognize your intuitive shortcomings (or the situations where they tend to arise) and respond by decreasing your dependence on these intuitions. There may be cases where we need to admit that our p(b|a) is really, really, really unreliable.

    The only case I can think of where this wouldn’t work is if you’re incapable of recognizing that you’re actually in a particular situation where your intuitions are likely to be wrong. But it seems like if you can determine that case beforehand with enough certainty to be prepared to hack your own intuitions, then the problem is probably not that you don’t recognize the situation, it’s probably that you’re not admitting the situation, which seems like a different problem.

  • Ack, I heard about this book and I want to read it! 😛

    • leahlibresco

      Maybe there’s still time to join in for the book club? It runs til next week.

  • ” If you believe in God is the marginal harm a lot lower?”
    This makes me laugh. Absolutely not.
    Here’s the issue: it still isn’t clear that what who you’re hearing is God. It could well be that you’re hearing some psychic effect (ie. part of yourself that is out of your consciousness) that you have identified erroneously as God.
    So let’s say that this non-God you’re talking to tells you to be firm and speak the truth in your local community. Let’s say that the “truth” you are speaking is that homosexual people are destroying America. And let’s say that real-God actually thinks that welcoming homosexual people is a good thing and that they aren’t destroying America and that He died so that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen any more. I would not say that this represents lower marginal harm. Would you? Because on top of doing a thing that’s bad, you’ve now got yourself doing something that is bad in its own right and is also specifically against God’s will. Moreover, you’ve got yourself into a position in which it would be even harder for you to realize that. (That is to say, it has pretty much the same problems as you’ve discussed.)

    • Out of curiosity, if your major objection is that you might be wrong in your idea of God, do you think there is some critical level of belief where this is appropriate? Obviously you don’t think religion satisfies this level, but if you were 99.99% sure of something, would this kind of action be appropriate? Or is it always inappropriate because there’s actually no such thing as 100% sure of anything?

      • Ray

        “What criteria/data make it less dangerous to change your thinking than to remain as you are?”

        Well, if you’re a schizophrenic, you should probably take your meds. So, that’s one example.

      • I’m very hesitant to talk about probability. First, I’m bad at it. Second, I think everyone’s bad at it. Moreover, I have little faith in human certainty; I don’t think there’s ever a good reason to tamper with your ability to reconsider something. Certainty is not good enough, because it’s a feeling, not a fact. Probability isn’t good enough because, again, it’s usually a feeling, not a fact. (There are obvious counterexamples with flipped coins and rolled dice. I mean metaphysical phenomena.)

        Practically, yes, I act on my feeling of certainty all the time. But I’m still not going to fiddle with it.
        And this isn’t a no to transhumanism broadly; it’s a no to hacking that will limit my ability to make future assessments of states of affairs.

  • deiseach

    This is where I have a kind of a problem; I’ve read (and interacted online with) a lot of perfectly orthodox, non-charismatic/Pentecostal evangelical/non-denominational Protestant Americans, and they routinely use phrases like “I felt a leading from God” or “Jesus laid it on my heart” or other indicators that they seemingly have direct experience of what, in Catholic terms, would be called locutions (and also have, it would seem, strong directing about what they should do in regard to situations in their lives, as in “God was calling me to this work/to undertake this task/leave my comfortable job and move five hundred miles away”).

    My problem (although “problem” is too strong a phrase for how I feel) – okay, my mild discomfort with this is that, being a Catholic and all my religious experience being based in that tradition, direct speech from God of this kind is generally associated with mystics and saints and a class of experiences technically called “consolations”; in other words, the ordinary lay Catholic generally does not experience response to prayer in this manner. Myself, I am inclined to think that maybe they are conflating what we would call “the voice of conscience” with a direct locution from God, but then again, from what I can make out, committed Protestants in the American traditions of evangelicalism do practice prayer in a different way and are more soaked in the Scriptures in their spiritual life (and please note, I’m not talking about extremes of fundamentalism or any cariacatures of televangelists you might be imaging; these people are all across a swathe from the “mainline”denominations to the Reformed tradition to non-denominational and house churches to megachurches to the Emergent movement to all sorts of things).

    I can’t say that they’re imagining things because I don’t have the same practice to compare, so how do I know what they are actually experiencing? Books like this one, though, do make me uneasy, because it is so easy to conflate the experience of guidance (which is a routine and expected, normal part of that religious practice) with the evocations of one’s own imagination. There are warnings in those traditions about such a confusion and to be careful that you’re not reading your own desires as a direction from God, but there are enough stories I’ve read on blogs from those who got burned from people in their churches insisting that “God wants me to do this” when everyone else could see that it was that person’s own will making the demands, and that within Pentecostalism (with the emphasis on experience of the Holy Spirit as normative) it is much too common and much too easy for people to set themselves up as prophets and inspired and leaders, for me to accept such uncritical mass-market attempts as this book.

  • deiseach

    As an aside, Luhrman’s “kataphatic” prayer sounds an awful lot like what we stodgy Catholic types would call “lectio divina”; re-inventing the wheel?


  • deiseach

    And now to attempt to answer one of the questions you asked:

    “Is kataphatic prayer or meditation only an unreasonable gamble for skeptics? If you believe in God is the marginal harm a lot lower?”

    As I said, it does sound reminiscent of lectio divina or other spiritual exercises, such as the Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic or the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. However, these kinds of exercises are recommended to be undertaken under the guidance of a retreat master or a spiritual director, and not plunged into immediately and unguided by a novice. As the classic of the genre, “The Imitation of Christ”, warns: “They who are still new and inexperienced in the way of the Lord may easily be deceived and overthrown unless they guide themselves by the advice of discreet persons. But if they wish to follow their own notions rather than to trust in others who are more experienced, they will be in danger of a sorry end, at least if they are unwilling to be drawn from their vanity” and St. Francis de Sales in his “Introduction to the Devout Life” re-iterates the necessity of having a spiritual director and the difficulty in finding a good one: “In a word, such a friendship should be strong and sweet; altogether holy, sacred, divine and spiritual. And with such an aim, choose one among a thousand, Avila says;–and I say among ten thousand, for there are fewer than one would think capable of this office. He must needs be full of love, of wisdom and of discretion; for if either of these three be wanting there is danger. ”

    As you point out, there is always the possibility of harm when hacking your own brain – to quote “Ghostbusters”:
    Dr. Peter Venkman: Egon, this reminds me of the time you tried to drill a hole through your head. Remember that?
    Dr. Egon Spengler: That would have worked if you hadn’t stopped me.


  • I suffered from depression after I had my second kid. I was raised in a conservative evangelical church that did not teach in modern day miracles and holy spirit stuff. When I got depressed I started attending this prayer meeting that was exactly what you’re talking about. (I kept this VERY secret from my church going friends!) We were supposed to sit in the living room listening to music and try to feel the holy spirit, see visions, heal people, etc. I had some experiences there that I don’t know how to explain. It was fun, too. At one point someone prayed for me and had a vision. They said, ” I see you in a pool and you are drowning. You are frantic and flailing around. But the thing is the water is shallow. All you have to do is put your feet down.” I was so offended at the time. But the thing is that the vision turned out to be right. I was waiting around for my husband and/or God to save me. I believed at the time that they were in charge of me. But eventually I started taking care of my own needs and I saved myself from my depression. This experience made me question everything I ever believed about Christianity. I don’t consider myself a Christian anymore. But i do still believe in the things I experienced at this prayer meeting and I do not know what that makes me.