Can Religious Experience Be Reduced To Brain Activity?

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By Erik Manning| Here is my unpopular opinion: I actually like the argument from religious experience. As part of a cumulative case for God’s existence, I think it works. Spiritual experience is one of those things that should make people curious, at minimum. However, not everyone is a fan. This includes a lot of Christians, who find it too problematic. There are two common objections that critics raise against this argument that I want to dig into in this post.

To help me state these objections, I’m going to refer to a video made by prolific atheist YouTuber Drew McCoy, AKA Genetically Modified Skeptic. In less than 2 years, Drew’s channel has gained over 173K subscribers and over 13 million views.

Drew is an ex-Christian. He once believed he had several encounters with God, but later became skeptical of his experiences. Now Drew thinks that arguments from personal experience are about as persuasive as testimonies of healings from Essential Oils. Ouch. Is the argument from personal spiritual experiences really that flimsy?

I will highlight his main objections. Here’s one of the main reasons Drew began to doubt his own experiences:

“Psychologists have been studying religious experiences for over a century. They’ve found that experiences of the supernatural had certain triggers like music, large crowds, extended exercise, meditative states, sensory deprivation, drugs, sleep, food, and water deprivation and much much, more. Scientists have even tracked brain activity during supernatural experiences and have seen predictable patterns many of which can even be replicated with electrical and chemical stimulation.”

CAN ALL RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCES BE EXPLAINED NATURALISTICALLY?

Drew isn’t necessarily wrong here, but these facts shouldn’t have undermined his own experiences with God. Granted, some of those circumstances should cast doubt on some experiences. But the argument from religious experience doesn’t say that we should buy into all experiences wholesale.

According to Richard Swinburne, the Argument from Religious Experience says that we’re rational to accept our experiences unless we have a good reason to think we’re mistaken. In the case of sleep deprivation or taking hallucinogenics, we’d expect people to experience things that aren’t really there. But those aren’t the circumstances that most people report these things happening. Most people who have religious experiences are sober and in their right mind.

And regarding drug experiments that replicate religious experience, philosopher Kai-Man Kwan writes: “It has been argued that as long as the whole process is set up and upheld by God, such perception of God should be counted as veridical. In any case, even if drug-induced mystical experiences are unveridical, it does not follow that non-drug-induced mystical experiences are also unveridical. What is shown is that on the experiential level, mystical experience can be faked. This is neither surprising nor uniquely true of mystical experience. Sense experiences can also be faked.”

But the main problem with what Drew is saying here is that he’s committing the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. In not-so-fancy Latin, it means “after this, therefore because of this.” Since Drew and I are both are pretty anti-Essential Oils, I’ll use them as an example. Let’s say Basic Becky has a rash on her arm and so she applies Lavender oil to it. She wakes up the next morning and ‘voila!’ it’s all cleared up. Is Becky justified in thinking it was her overpriced oils?

Well no, she could have just had a temporary skin reaction to something and her body naturally healed on its own. We’d need more clinically-based studies to show that essential oils heal rashes. So to say if someone had a religious experience that was caused by prayer, meditation, or fasting, that doesn’t mean that these practices brought about the experience by themselves. We would need more evidence that these practices are the only cause.

Just because physical processes played a partially causal role, that still wouldn’t by itself invalidate the experience.

EXPERIENCING GOD IN THE LAB?

So what about scientists finding correlations of brain activity during certain religious practices, like meditation or speaking in tongues? This is a classic example of misunderstanding that correlation doesn’t mean causation. Unless you have evidence that this causal relation held, it is a mistake to suggest that this correlation is actually a causal relation. For hilarious examples that correlation doesn’t mean causation, here’s a good place to get lost in for the next 30 minutes. Enjoy a quick sampling:

Plus, wouldn’t God be powerful enough to effect changes in brain chemistry and in our experiences of him if he does exist? As Christian philosopher Doug Groothius notes, “it’s no threat to religious belief if certain brain states correlate with certain religious beliefs or experiences. We are material as well as spiritual beings. The mind interacts with the body, as Scripture teaches and our experience confirms. The threat to religious belief only appears when this correlation is understood as a reduction of the spiritual to the material.” In other words, you have to start with the assumption that materialism is true. But that’s not something we can take for granted, there are many arguments that we are more than just brains.

So with all this in mind, if you’re going to show that a spiritual experience didn’t have God as its source, you’re going to have to first show that God doesn’t exist. As philosopher William Wainwright writes: “Suppose we are presented with a causal account of religious experience which is believed by the scientific community to be fully adequate.

Are we entitled to infer that the experiences are not genuine perceptions of God, etc? We are entitled to draw this conclusion…only if we have good reason to believe that the causes which are specified in that account can, when taken alone, i.e. in the absence of (among other things) any divine activity, produce the experiences in question. Without a disproof of the existence of God and other supra-empirical agents, it is totally unclear how we could know that this was the case.”

Richard Dawkins wearing the “God helmet”. It was developed by neuroscientist Michael Persinger to simulate religious experience and the effects of subtle stimulation of the temporal lobes. Dawkins didn’t have much of an experience with it.

WHAT ABOUT RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCES IN NON-CHRISTIAN RELIGIONS?

GM Skeptic then shares what else caused his doubts regarding his own experience. This is the most common complaint I’ve run across, amongst Christians and skeptics alike. I’ll label it the “conflicting claims” objection. Here’s Drew again:

“After that, I learned about the religious experiences of those of other faiths. Apparently, people of basically every religion on the planet have reported experiences very similar to my own personally sensing and interacting specifically with one’s own deity is a universal experience regardless of a deity that one worships. People even have unique religion-specific experience in religions which actively contradict other faiths.

For instance, Pentecostals experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit or speaking in tongues. Meanwhile, Pentecostalism claims to be the only true religion which allows for an actual connection to God. Many Muslims, however, experience a connection to Allah during prayer in which they’re bathed in a green light – green being a sacred color in Islam. Meanwhile, Islam claims to be the only true religion which allows for an actual connection to God. Because of the exclusive nature of these religions, they can’t both be right. One or both of them must be mistaken about the origins of their own divine experiences.”

What’s implied here is that if someone has an experience that contradicts Christianity, that undercuts the rationality of the believer’s claim to their experience. And that seems crazy.  We don’t do this in a courtroom when two or more testimonies seem to be in conflict. Instead, we try and reconcile their reports as much as possible and identify a common core.

To give an example: Three people briefly see a flying object in the sky. One says they saw a plane, the other says they saw a helicopter, and the other thinks they saw a spaceship. It would be strange to conclude that there was no flying object. We’d find the common core: there was some sort of UFO.

Or we could be more skeptically inclined in the way we look at experiences in other religions. Here’s another illustration, this time from William Lane Craig

“…Imagine… several bottles containing a clear liquid, and they all have a label on them that says H2O. So they have this clear liquid, they are all labeled water, but in fact, only one of them has water in it. The rest have poison. Now, is the accuracy and truth of the correctly labeled bottle in any way undermined by the fact that the other bottles have false labels on them? It seems to me obviously not. Despite the existence of falsely labeled bottles, the one that is correctly labeled H2O remains accurate and true. Similarly, the person who does have an objective witness of the Holy Spirit is not undermined or in any way rendered irrational because somebody else falsely claims to have a witness of the Holy Spirit (or experience.)”

RESOLVING THE RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE STAND-OFF

To resolve this apparent stand-off, we can accept their initial claim as evidence and then look for further verification. So if a Muslim says they were bathed in a green light, we can look at Islam’s truth claims and see what other evidence their religion offers.

If Islam is wrong about some basic historical facts – like the crucifixion of Jesus, for example – then this should cast doubt on this being a genuine experience from an all-truthful God. We’d now have an overriding reason to think that the experience was spurious. Doug Groothius here again is apt:

“We should remember that religious experiences are only one avenue of evidence for a religious worldview…Worldviews must be evaluated and calibrated in relation to other lines of evidence supporting or questioning the seeming significance of the experience.

For example, many Mormons claim that the Book of Mormon is divinely inspired, based on their experience of “the burning bosom” while reading it. But this experience, which is neither numinous nor transformational in and of itself, is hardly the kind of evidence that can support polytheism and the Mormon revision of key Christian doctrines regarding Christology and salvation.

If, for example, one raises a question about the utter lack of historical or archaeological support for the Book of Mormon’s many revisionist claims about American history and so forth, an appeal to the “burning bosom” is totally inadequate intellectually. Religious-experience claims need to be weighed against other germane sources of evidence for or against a worldview. This underscores the fact that religious experience forms only part of a cumulative case for Christian theism.”

On the flip side, if a strong historical case for the miracle claims of Christianity can be marshaled, then that lends support to the Christian’s experience. It could also cast some doubt on the faith if people in the Bible experienced the Holy Spirit in profound ways, but then He never interacts with people today.

RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE AND THE TWO-STEP APPROACH

Christianity invites investigation. Paul says if Christ isn’t raised, then the faith is folly. (1 Corinthians 15:14) Paul also wrote that we’re to test private revelation in light of the public revelation that we have. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-191 Corinthians 14:29) So we don’t need to be afraid of falling into mysticism and fanaticism here.

This two-step approach isn’t exclusive with the argument from religious experience. No cumulative case from natural theology is complete without moving to the evidence for specific revelation. Unless we’re trying to make generic theists, cosmological, design, ontological, and moral arguments all need to be supplemented with arguments for the resurrection of Jesus, and reliability of the Bible. This should come as no surprise. And these external arguments and pieces of evidence show us that there is a God that exists outside of our own minds.

Here’s the main advantage I see with the argument from spiritual testimony: It shows that God isn’t just some cold, abstract conclusion to a syllogism. Rather it demonstrates that God is a personal, living reality that has been experienced. And that hits (at least some) people on a more intimate level.

AN EXAMPLE FROM MY OWN LIFE

Allow me to relate one spiritual experience that I had. While I certainly do not have these sorts of experiences daily, I have experienced God on a powerfully emotional level. However, this experience isn’t like that.

Years ago, when I was dating my girlfriend-now-wife, I had just got off work, and I was going to stop by and say hi while she was working. I was praying while I was in the car, and suddenly I had a voice within me say “get in the other lane”!

There was a slight hill on the highway I was driving on, and the sun was going down. I couldn’t see that there was a car, stalled out in the middle of the road, right in the lane I was driving in. Not aware of this, I figured I might as well obey the voice within me, so I changed lanes. There was a car behind me, and they remained in that lane.

They rear-ended the car at full-speed. I could hear glass shatter, and parts of the cars fly across the ground. In a panic, I called 911 and got them help. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t believe what just happened.

I’m not saying that I’m someone special by relaying this story. All I did was listen to the voice and change lanes. I know others who have had similar experiences of the subtle direction of the Holy Spirit that spared their lives. My point is that you see that there is more to spiritual experiences than just feelings and that things like this should get our attention. There could be more to spiritual experience than just brain activity.

This article was originally featured on Is Jesus Alive and was republished with permission from the author.

 

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