Why God Won’t Go Away

Still taking a break from Douglas Campbell, I’ve just finished “Why God Won’t Go Away” (Brain Science and the Biology of Belief) by Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili and Vince Rause.

I was expecting to find a fair bit in this, both from the title and the Amazon blurb, and from a mention by another blog (I can’t remember which, but wish I could). I didn’t expect to have a (to me) complete and satisfactory explanation in terms of supported scientific opinion of how mystical experience actually works, and I was enthralled. OK, I may be a very sad person, where a book on Neurotheology is the best page-turner I’ve read this year, but there you are!

However, “Why God…” doesn’t just deal with mystical, peak spiritual experiences of the kind which relatively few people seem to experience; the book is not important only to mystics and would-be mystics, it also speaks about the general religious experience of mankind, as less extreme manifestations of the same general neurological and psychological principles. It places religious experiences, experiences of the divine presence, experiences of spiritual uplift as entirely normal and natural mechanisms in terms of brain structure and cognitive psychology. Anyone who has ever wondered exactly what is going on when they feel (for example) a sense of presence on entering a church can find in these pages what is going on in their minds, and know that it is entirely normal.

That, of course, is why God won’t go away, despite the wishes of prominent public atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. The ability to be conscious of God is hard wired into our neurology, and Paul was at least to some extent right in saying “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). Clearly this is correct taking people en masse. However I’m less satisfied that Paul was justified in going on to say that everyone was without excuse (if this is taken individually), as the authors quote reputable research indicating that less than 50% of people actually testify to this kind of experience (actually, around 35%). Allowing for a considerable proportion who have the experience but at so low a level as to be imperceptible, there are still going to be plenty of people for whom the perception of God just doesn’t happen. It didn’t happen to me until my mid teens. How is it reasonable to say that when no experience confirms the existence of God, then you are still without excuse for not accepting his existence? I don’t, therefore, blame Hitchens and Dawkins for their lack of belief, just for their assumption that everyone else is exactly like them – and that is an assumption I made myself at around the age of 9 and persisted with until I was 15, though I plead youth and ignorance…

Of course, as the authors admit, all their research does is show how religious experience is processed in neurological and psychological terms. It doesn’t demonstrate that there is anything more than signals in the nervous system to give rise to this experience. On the other hand, as they point out, the same can be said for any experience we have – it’s all reducible to signals in our nervous systems; in addition, it is somewhat challenging to think that evolution has, in this case, pre-wired us to be delusional (rather than perceive something useful, such as ultimate reality).

For those of us who have had more powerful experiences, however, this book opens up a much needed set of understandings. I am one of these – I’ve touched on my initial “zap” experience a few times, a peak spiritual experience which came “out of the blue” when I was in my mid teens.

Some reading this will have seen exchanges between myself and the recently deceased and much missed George Ashley on The Religion Forum in the late 90s regarding the mystical experience. George was an experimental psychologist and an atheist, and the to-and-fro with him helped me immeasurably in arriving at much the same kind of conclusions as the writers of this book reach, though entirely without the backing of large amounts of published research in psychology and neurology which they bring to bear here (and despite that, it’s an immensely readable and approachable book). I’ve been trying to get to grips with this since the very early days after my original “zap”, which turned me in the space of an afternoon from an evangelical atheist to a believer of sorts. This book would have been very helpful at that time – but as it wasn’t published until 12 years ago, it wasn’t available!

In a slightly different world, I might have diverted into the biological sciences and been doing this kind of research myself, but at 15, I’d already given up biology and was clearly better suited to physics. Nonetheless, I did view myself (with one part of my thinking) as an experimental subject, and as the experimental subject was myself, was able to pursue some experiments which I’d probably have been arrested for trying on anyone else! A sample size of 1 is not going to convince anyone, however, and in any event I never really “wrote things up” in those days. It was purely for my own information – and initially, some reassurance that, as Newburg et al determine, having a major mystical experience with no identifiable cause is not actually proof positive of mental disorder*. Indeed, it is far from that. Even if a minority perception, it is still massively widespread (something which was news to me, as I’ve had little success in finding others who will attest to this kind of peak experience outside the ranks of the serious religious, mostly of the monastic variety).

The writers usefully mention most if not all of the conclusions which I’d come to about methods of provoking and accentuating such experience as well, such as fasting, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, chants and ritual. They even incline towards thinking that drugs don’t produce the same experience (though there may be similarities), which was a conclusion I arrived at as well (many years ago, it must be said!) and that it was distinguishable from schizophrenic symptoms, which I also strongly suspected having compared notes with a couple of schizophrenics. I could, however, criticise their acceptance of Michael Persinger’s results with Extremely Low Frequency electromagnetic radiation, as subsequent research has failed to substantiate that, which is a pity, as it is the only “quick fix” route I’m aware of to something at least somewhat like my own peak experience. Indeed, the chief technique I can suggest as being likely to work is a very large amount of practice, and I’m not sure even that will work in the case of someone who hasn’t had some low-level experience of the same kind. I’d have liked to see some experimental data along those lines referred to, rather than just using very practiced meditators.

All in all, a book I would strongly recommend.


* If you’ve read through my blog, you’ll know that I have since suffered from a degree of mental disorder, particularly severe depression. However, this was not the case in my teens and 20s when I was investigating the phenomenon as best I could and developing a personal meditation practice.




They also serve…

I was expecting a flow of new posts as I started in with helping on the new Alpha course at the Belfrey, and various ideas again came up which I did not have time to explore or which it would not be helpful to mention in the discussion groups.

To date, that hasn’t happened, and this is largely because I’ve not been getting to the groups – indeed, the first week I didn’t get to the talk either! What proved to be most needed was helping to set up, to prepare and serve food, to wash up and to clear away.

OK, I know I can probably be most useful in discussions, and equally I know that some people are disappointed that I’m not there to give “different” slants on the topics; these activities play to my personal strengths and preferences. But this wasn’t nearly as necessary as making sure that tables and chairs were there and looked reasonably inviting, that people got fed and that everything returned to normal afterwards.

So that’s what I’ve been doing, mostly. OK, I did try discussing the range of atonement theories while trying to stack a dishwasher on Wednesday, but that wasn’t a wholehearted success. I can chew gum and walk, but this was a little more taxing than that!

I don’t consider it particularly self-sacrificing, just as what God is happening to call me to do on this occasion – and doing that is not a sacrifice, it’s a joy (or as my Jewish friends would put it, a mitzvah). Linking to my previous post and my slight regret at not having a set of rules that I could just perform and rest easy in having observed, this is an occasion where I can, indeed, say I have (a very little piece of) perfect obedience. I am grateful for this, as (since my depression vanished on 26th May this year) I can both feel God’s call to do it in the first place and feel a sense of satisfaction at something done adequately well. The contrast with six and a half years of no sense of direction and no sense of anything adequately done is very strong, and from this side of 26th May, very much appreciated!

I can also think that just as in Twelve Step, one day at a time eventually mounts up to years and (hopefully) a lifetime, so I can add more small pieces of obedience to make a larger whole, a life.

I recall John Milton’s words in “On His Blindness”, written in response to Miltons own failing eyesight:-

“When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

The Jesus he never knew

A friend (thank you, Anne) recently lent me Philip Yancey’s “The Jesus I Never Knew”, which I read as light relief from the current main event of Douglas Campbell’s “The Deliverance of God”.

A couple of chapters in, my reaction was “Was he not listening in Sunday School, or to many years of sermons?” as, in essence, this is mainly an exploration of the Synoptic Gospels from a very uncritically naive viewpoint (it introduces some bits of the Fourth Gospel later). In the churches I know reasonably well, this kind of reading would have been started by about age 10; it is the first level of reading comprehension of the gospels, before embarking on any exploration of (for instance) the difference in the pictures painted by the four gospel writers.

However, I paused and went back and reread Mr. Yancey’s short biography, and recalled the “suggested readings” put forward as a start point for reading the Bible in some evangelical circles. Fourth Gospel (highlights), Pauline Epistles (highlights), Genesis (highlights) more of the Fourth Gospel, Epistles and Genesis, then (and only then) carefully selected highlights from the synoptics (parables for the most part) and from the major prophets and psalms, by this time read entirely through the lens provided by the initial readings.

Then I thought about the direction of sermons and worship songs, banging out the basics of PSA and the exalted status of Christ-as-cosmic saviour to the exclusion of any consideration of his humanity. Yes, I thought, it could well be that people manage to remain quite a while in that kind of environment and never consider Jesus as really human.

Yancey does spend quite a bit of space on the Sermon on the Mount later in the book, as well. Aside from “be perfect”, this does not figure large in evangelical circles, it seems to me.

So, my conclusion is that while I am absolutely not Yancey’s target audience, for what I envision his target audience to be, the book is a helpful corrective for the overwhelming stress on Christ as atoning sacrifice and divine intermediary, which to me verges on docetism (a view of Christ which denies his humanity).

I just wish both that it wasn’t needed and that it went further – much further.

I create evil…