All in the mind? revision summary All in the mind? revision summary Religious experience The claim that religious experience can tell us nothing about God because it is all in the mind strikes at the heart of the problem of religious experience: If youve had such an experience, you may find yourself firmly believing that it was real. But dont expect the rest of us to take your word for it, especially if we have the slightest familiarity with the brain and its powerful workings. (Richard Dawkins) The study of religious experience, which took off with William James definitive study
in 1902, has put the topic at the forefront of current theological debate, with the fields of neuro-theology and psychology making considerable contributions. All in the mind? revision summary Peter Donovan Awareness of God, oneness with God, the sense of his presenceis vital for religious belief. It has kept it alive in the past and makes it plausible for millions of people today What such experiences do is generate a sense of knowing God. All in the mind? revision summary
William James William James study identified four characteristics that he suggested were shared by all genuine religious experience: noetic (revealing new knowledge) ineffable (inexpressible) passive (not generated by the experient) transient (not long-lasting) All in the mind? revision summary Rudolph Otto
Rudolph Otto famously coined the term numinous to encapsulate the feelings of awe and wonder generated by religious experience. Above all, however, religious experience generates a sense of presence and closeness to God/the divine, a sense that is invariably so overwhelming to the experient that the cognitive fallout is irrelevant to them: alternative explanations will inevitably fail to count against their conviction that they have decisively experienced God. All in the mind? revision summary The weight of experience There can be no doubt that religious experience plays a significant role in religious
belief. As Peter Donovan observes, it is particularly attractive to Christians and consistent with the teaching of the Bible about how God is known. The sheer weight of testimony to religious experience means that it presents a real challenge to those who would reject the claims of the experient that it can, in any significant way, reveal God. All in the mind? revision summary William Alston and William Wainwright Alston and Wainwright both argue that genuine religious experience is
self-authenticating. The subjective nature of the experience presents no difficulties to the experient, who is under no more obligation to justify their conviction that their experience has given them an overwhelming sense of Gods reality than they are under to justify the subjective claim I am in pain. All in the mind? revision summary Richard Swinburne Richard Swinburne famously supports the cumulative argument for the existence of God by way of religious experience, suggesting that it tips the balance in favour of Gods existence.
He argues that religious experience is consistent with the nature of a loving God whom it is reasonable to expect would want to interact with his creation on at least some occasions. Perhaps more significantly still, he proposes the principles of testimony and credulity, which he considers, are principles of rationality. All in the mind? revision summary Patricia Churchland An equal number of scholars are more persuaded that religious experience is all in the mind. Patricia Churchland observes that the brain is capable of lots and lots of
hallucinatory activity. Its one of the things it does best, so we need to keep our wits about us and decide what is real and whats just imaginary. Churchland is right the human brain, a great evolutionary advantage, came at a price. Humans are the only animals that can anticipate their own death. To compensate for this fearful knowledge, the limbic system and temporal lobes also evolved to provide a capacity for imagination and creativity, developing a religious sense that enables humans to cope with the prospect of death and offers them hope for this life and the next. All in the mind? revision summary The God helmet (1)
Canadian neuroscientist Michael Persinger developed the famous God helmet, which tests the effect of electrical stimulation on the parts of the brain associated with a sense of God arising from religious experience. It targets the relatively mysterious part of the brain called the forty hertz component, which is responsible for giving humans their sense of self-identity. By suppressing this part of the brain, the sense of individuality is temporarily lost. The right and left temporal lobes feel separated from each other, with each part experiencing that there is something there but not knowing what it is. The brain, in a sense, is freed from the limitations of the self and experiences infinity, or God. All in the mind? revision summary
The God helmet (2) Persinger, however, is not persuaded that God is responsible for these feelings. In the laboratory he has created all the sensations associated with religious experience, but he concludes that such feelings are simply down to a few seconds of electrical activity in the normal human brain. Persingers experiment revealed that subjects with a high level of limbic activity sensations associated with a sense of hearing the individuals name called at night, and a non-empirical sense of calling or destiny are more likely to have an experience under the helmet. All in the mind? revision summary
Trusting intuition Despite A. J. Ayers acerbic observation that those philosophers who fill their books with assertions that they intuitively know this or that religious truth are merely providing material for the psychoanalyst, Alston argues that most mystics are intelligent, well-balanced people and that because some religious experiences can be explained neurologically or psychologically, it doesnt follow that all of them can be. All in the mind? revision summary
Fraser Watts Fraser Watts, reader in theology and science at the University of Cambridge, also challenges this nothing but approach to religious experience. While Francis Crick claimed that human beings are nothing but a bundle of neurons, Watts argues that this defies common sense and takes no account of the reality of our thoughts and feelings. Watts suggests that it should be no shock to the believer that the brain is involved in religious experience and this is consistent with the theology of the incarnation. As God involved himself directly with humanity in the person of Jesus, he makes himself known through the activity of the human brain. All in the mind? revision summary
Corporate experience Hare argues that in moral decision making we need to consider our own preferences and those of others. equal preferences count equally, whatever their content. People are happy when they get what they prefer but this may clash with the preferences of others. Hare says we need to stand in someone elses shoes and try to imagine what someone else might prefer. We should treat everyone, including ourselves, with impartiality he also argues for universalisability.
All in the mind? revision summary I-You Despite the obvious problems of intuition, Donovan allows that not all experience of God must be illusory, nor should we dismiss those who claim to have religious experience as talking simple minded nonsense. The possibility that people are made aware of Gods reality and activity remains probable as long as it remains a matter of probability whether Christian teachings are true or not. At the heart of such experience is the notion of I-You, as coined by Martin Buber. Theologians who argue that God can be known by personal encounter draw particularly on the special nature of person-to-person encounters. Since God is
personal, it is reasonable to believe that he would be made known through personal encounter I-You rather than I-It. All in the mind? revision summary Experience of vs knowledge about Donovan only reached this conclusion after carefully and objectively reviewing a range of evidence raised against knowing God by experience. He allows that it is a risky business to claim to know something without being able to offer reasons for that claim, and notes that irrational and misguided things are said and done on that basis.
All in the mind? revision summary A. J. Ayer A. J. Ayer certainly does not resist this conclusion. Having established, on the basis of Logical Positivism, that there are no transcendent truths of religion, he defends his claim that religious experiences are interesting only from the psychological point of view. He rejects mystical intuition as offering no knowledge at all, but rather being the fall-back position of the mystic who has no empirical evidence to offer in defence of his or her claim to have knowledge of God. For Ayer, religious experience offers no information about the external world, but instead gives indirect information about the condition of [the mystics]
mind. All in the mind? revision summary Conclusion Are we satisfied with the evolutionary explanation of the origin of the religious sense, or does it point to something beyond that: a personal, transcendent being who, out of love, seeks to make himself known to his creation? While that question remains unanswered and, perhaps, unanswerable, opinions such as those of Sam Harris will continue to be attractive to many thinkers and to the general non-religious population: We have names for people who have beliefs for which there is no rational
justification. When their beliefs are extremely common we call them religious, otherwise they are likely to be called mad, psychotic or delusional. Whilst religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are.
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