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Some people have deep spiritual, or mystical, experiences. Many of them believe they have experienced God. Psychologists have examined these experiences, which are very real, and can describe some of their common characteristics.
Could this really be God communicating with people? Let’s look at the evidence that psychologists have uncovered.
Many people, many experiences
Researchers have documented thousands of these experiences, and psychologists at several universities and research bodies have examined them. They estimate that maybe one person in twenty in western countries have had one of these deep, transcendent experiences, and more than half of us have had some sort of spiritual experience on a less intense level. In this post, I am generally looking at the more intense experiences.
Let’s start by allowing one person, a rationalist, to describe what they experienced.
“I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life. There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of. It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.”
Barbara Ehrenreich in the New York Times
Four interesting conclusions
Psychologists have come to four interesting conclusions about these “deep” spiritual experiences.
1. They share many features in common
Most of these deeply spiritual experiences have several of the following characteristics:
- The sense of a presence, something holy or numinous (this is reported by both religious believers and non-believers).
- Heightened perceptions.
- A feeling of the unity of all creation, and their oneness with the creation.
- A sense of new understanding, knowledge and insight into truth and the universe.
- The experience is difficult to explain in words.
- They almost always leave the person peaceful, joyful and even ecstatic.
Most of these can be seen in the account from Barbara Ehrenreich.
2. They don’t result from abnormal psychology or neurology
When we read of “heightened perceptions” and a sense of oneness with the universe, it is easy to think that drugs or a mental condition are involved, but psychologists have found this isn’t normally the case.
Possible causes such as drugs, epilepsy, mental illness, emotional distress, fatigue, sensory deprivation and wishful thinking have all been dismissed as possible causes in most cases because:
- Many more people have these deep spiritual experiences than suffer any of the above conditions, and they generally achieve more in life and have greater wellbeing.
- Mystical experiences have many features that are not found in abnormal conditions, they occur more rarely in any individual and are much more real and complex than the experiences of epileptics and psychotics.
- Neuro-imaging studies show that, neurologically, mystical experiences are not the same as these other “abnormal” experiences.
So most people who have these experiences are quite normal, and are, in fact more likely to be:
- better educated,
- more successful economically,
- less racist,
- substantially happier on measures of psychological well-being, and
- satisfied with their lives and achieving their potential.
3. They generally result in life-transforming improvements
It turns out that these experiences also generally lead to significant benefits in the people’s lives:
- improved mental health,
- greater ability to cope with life’s difficulties,
- more positive life outcomes, including being self-aware, self confident, imaginative, self sufficient, intelligent, relaxed, less materialistic, more loving and compassionate and less dogmatic,
- some evidence of physical benefits, including recovery from cancer and alcoholism.
4. Our brains are wired for this
Our brains, like the rest of us, developed via natural selection. So why do these experiences occur?
On the psychological and neurological levels, there must have been some reason why having these experience was beneficial. And studies show this is true.
Religious belief generally has been shown to generally have health and wellbeing benefits, and these deep spiritual experiences seem to be especially beneficial.
Psychologist Andrew Newberg says that our brains perform two primary functions – self-maintenance and self-transcendence – and have to keep these in balance. Self-maintenance is necessary for survival, but it is very limiting, and self-transcendence helps us keep a larger perspective. So, Newberg says, belief in God seems to be “built-in” to our brains’ functioning.
So it seems that these experiences are part of what it means to be human, though not everyone experiences them, certainly not in a deep way.
But does neuroscience provide the full explanation? Or are people really experiencing contact with a “numinous presence”?
In contact with the divine?
How can we know if anything we experience is real?
We rely on sense experience all the time to know about the external world and other people, and it seems we are justified in this if it does appear that things are that way, and there is no reason to think that something has gone wrong. We can thus set out five criteria for accepting our sense experiences of the external world:
- our senses perceive things that way;
- there is no alternative causality that suggests our senses have perceived wrongly;
- there is no good reason to think our senses have perceived wrongly;
- our perceptions are regular and consistent; and
- we have confirmation of our perceptions from others.
It seems that these deep spiritual experiences generally meet all these criteria.
An argument for God?
On this basis, it can be argued that deep spiritual experiences provide a good reason to believe that God exists:
- Deep spiritual experiences occur, have been documented, and often appear to reveal God.
- They generally occur because of normal, not abnormal, psychology and neurology.
- They have documented life-transforming effects in people’s lives, and assist people in making sense of the world, which is what you’d expect from the divine, and is what religion is supposed to do.
- They meet criteria we normally use to test the reality of our experience of the world:
- they are regular (they happened in the past and continue to happen to many people),
- consistent (they share common characteristics, and so their content is predictable to a degree), and
- shared (different people have similar experiences).
- Therefore we can say that deep spiritual experiences ‘work’ in the way you’d expect if they are divine in origin, and when something works as we expect, it is reasonable to think that our understanding of it is correct – that is how science works.
- Postulated physical causes have either been found to be unable to explain the experiences (pathological causes) or are consistent with a divine source (healthy neurology).
- Therefore it is reasonable to infer from the real effect to a real cause = God.
Thus deep spiritual experiences appear to provide prima facie justification to infer that they genuinely can put people in contact with the divine.
These experiences can be, understandably, very powerful and formative for those who experience them. However, for the rest of us, they won’t be proof of God’s existence.
But they do add another argument to the array of arguments we have considered already. They do add weight to the idea that a creator God ensured that the universe would produce conscious beings with brains capable of experiencing him in this way, as one more way of us knowing him and reaching out to him.
Some of us decide what we believe based on what we have been told be people we believe. Some search for evidence. Some trust their feelings and intuitions. This is true of both believers and unbelievers.
And so some believe their apparent experience of God is real, and the rest of us can accept this as an indication, though not a proof, of God.
I have outlined the evidence in more detail, together with dozens of references, in Mystical experiences.
Check out the first post in this 12 reasons series.