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Spiritual experience is and always has been the heart of faith. Believers across the globe experience the focus of their religion as real, and many who participate in faith communities have spiritual experiences that go beyond the transcendence of corporate worship. More than six in ten American adults (65%) recently reported having an experience of “supernatural phenomena,” and half of Americans (49%) say they have had “a mystical experience” that was “a moment of spiritual awakening.” But do these personal experiences necessarily point to something that exists outside ourselves, or are they confined to human minds?

The eclipse of a daimonion-haunted world

Before the Modern Age, spiritual experiences were accepted as foundational revelations that unveiled deeper truths and hidden realms of reality. Sacred texts from numerous faith traditions contain accounts of such experiences, and even logic-driven philosophers such as Heraclitus and Socrates affirmed that they were instructed by daimonion or guiding spirits.  As Nicholas of Cusa’s mystically inspired empirical method became standard in Modern Science, natural philosophers, such as Galileo, increasingly questioned phenomena that could not be mechanistically modeled, clearly seen, or precisely measured. Thus, Galileo dismissed Johannes Kepler’s theory of a gravitational “force” from the moon (which Kepler argued was the true cause of the ocean’s tides) as mysterious mystical nonsense. By the time of Laplace, the natural world had become tamed and domesticated within the sphere of predictable objectivity and, under the influence of Freud, the field of psychology (once “the study of the soul”) would soon follow.

The psychological verity of religious experiences 

In the early 20th century spiritual experiences came into clearer scientific focus as American psychologist and philosopher William James endeavored to understand the role of the brain within such experiences. While Freud and others before James had dismissed spiritual experiences as either undiagnosed medical pathology or psychosexual obsession, James was convinced that such experiences were central to a mentally healthy human existence. Acknowledging that psychological pathologies could play a role in spiritual encounters, James nevertheless contends that if specific brain regions were found to participate in these experiences it would not necessarily entail that such occurrences were merely a misfiring of neurons in that brain region. Pointing out the pitfalls of reductionism, James explains that discarding religious experiences by “calling them ‘nothing but’ expressions of our organic disposition,” commits a logical fallacy.

Truth, asserts James, “is measured not by origin, but by outcome,” and the truth of religious experiences must be judged by their moral fruit.

In his 1902 Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience, James argued that mystical experiences of God may count as strong evidence for the existence of God for the person having these experiences: “Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come.” 

However, continues James, “No authority emanates from them which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically.” In other words, those who have spiritual encounters are justified in believing they are real, but those who do not have experiences of transcendence are equally justified in being skeptical.

Beyond the “God Spot” 

James’ focus on the neurology of spiritual experience was largely dropped until the 1970s when reports of intense religious experiences were correlated with neuroscientific studies of epileptic seizures in the temporal lobes. In the 1990s cognitive neuroscientist Michael Persinger explored the relationship between temporal-lobe seizures and religious experience, demonstrating that temporal lobe seizures—and even electrical stimulation—can produce experiences similar to those described by meditators and people who have had a near-death experience. Such experiences could not be artificially produced in everyone, however, but in only about 80% of the participants. For instance, in 2003 atheist and biologist Richard Dawkins took part in one of Persinger’s experiments intended to induce a mystical experience. Much to Dawkins’ disappointment, he did not have a revelation of transcendence. Persinger himself argued that his experiments show that spiritual phenomena are only in the brain and thus not real

Other neuroscientists, such as Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg, however, have contended the opposite. For them, the fact that religious experiences result from neurochemistry (and can even be replicated) does not necessarily entail that belief in the objective reality of what is experienced is unjustified. Using SPECT (Single-photon emission computed tomography) scans to examine patterns of brain activity during spiritual experiences such as prayer and meditation, d’Aquili and Newberg demonstrated a clear foundation for these activities within the electrical and chemical activity of the brain. Finding that human religious experience is rooted in the biology of the brain, they concluded, contrary to Persinger, that it is quite possible—or even probable—that there is a corresponding reality that is beyond the brain. Indeed, contend d’Aquili and Newberg, such neural mechanisms mediating spiritual experience would not have evolved in the first place if there were not some corresponding reality that was being experienced.

Born believers, supernatural agents, and collateral damage

In the early 21st century a field of study known as Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) began to approach religious experiences through focusing on common psychological processes that all humans share. Research in CSR suggested that

“belief in God is an almost inevitable consequence of the kind of minds we have. Most of what we believe comes from mental tools working below our conscious awareness. And what we believe consciously is in large part driven by these unconscious beliefs.”

According to CSR, belief in a God and/or gods is an intrinsic part of human nature and certainly not a result of cognitive pathology. Yet, are such innate cognitive faculties ultimately deceived? 

CSR pioneer Pascal Boyer believes so. For Boyer religious experience emerges from complex process of computational scanning and pattern recognition that is aimed at detecting intentional agents. It “is not so much that people see ‘faces in the clouds’…as ‘traces in the grass.’ That is, people do not so much visualize, concretely, what supernatural agents must be like as detect traces of their presence in many circumstances of their existence.” As inferences regarding such perceived traces accumulate, algorithm-driven cognitive mechanisms create and project a God or gods as the agents behind the scene. Boyer contends that such cognitive intuitions cannot be ultimately trusted.

While Boyer’s perspective may very well debunk the cognitive foundations of religious experience as being an avenue to truth, this type of argument comes at a very high cost. Namely, explain Helen De Cruz and Johan De Smedt, “it would force us to reject a wide variety of other beliefs as well, including common sense and scientific beliefs.” If we cannot trust our basic cognitive intuitions, and if evolved cognitive mechanisms are not truth-directed in general, then a problem of collateral damage arises, and we become mired in a state of global skepticism. Arguments that aim to debunk the truth behind religious experiences thus “end up undermining their own rationality.”

A scientifically informed leap of faith

Scientific research on spiritual experience has revealed that the details of brain chemistry and cognitive intuitions play a significant role in the life of faith. Yet this is also the case for all our experience of reality—our whole experience of our physical and psychological environment can also be reduced to the details of brain chemistry. Does this mean that such things as physical objects, colors, sounds, people, and the feeling of love are not real? 

As Newberg reflects:

“If you were to dismiss spiritual experience as ‘mere’ neurological activities…you would also have to distrust all of your own brain’s perceptions of the material world. But if we do trust our perceptions of the physical world, we have no rational reason to declare that spiritual experience is a fiction that is ‘only’ in the mind.”

Similarly, the evidence from CSR shows us, according to CSR pioneer Justin Barrett, that “simple epistemic conclusions cannot readily be drawn either in support of or against religious beliefs. That is, by itself the science appears neutral with regard to whether or not religious (or non-religious) knowers are warranted in their beliefs.” 

So, are there divine traces in the grass that our cognitive intuitions may follow, or are they only figments of our imagination? In the end, what we conclude still comes down to faith—in one direction or the other.