Explaining Religious Experience

  1. Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquill and Vince Rause. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief. Ballantine Books, 2002.
  2. James McClenon. Wondrous Healing: Shamanism, Human Evolution and the Origin of Religion. Northern Illinois University Press, 2002

Can neurology and evolutionary psychology explain the origin of religion? The authors of these two books see the origin of religion in physiological states and actual human experience, rather than in terms of culture. Newberg and D’Aquill who were professors at the University of Pennsylvania believe they have found a neurological basis for the mystical sense of unity. These mystical states may have evolved from states associated with sexual ecstasy and have now become something very different. It is clear that the authors are aware of the reductive implications of such speculations and spend much of their book trying to combat these, arguing for their own beliefs which might be some kind of mystical pantheism.

The problem with invoking mystical states as the origin of religion, is that these states are quite rare, and furthermore in the Western religious traditions are very much on the sidelines, and have a very definite whiff of heresy about them.

McClenon’s thesis looks much more promising, for he sees the origins of religion in healing rituals based on suggestion, and that this might have led to an evolutionary selection for suggestibility. At the heart of the healing rituals are the shamanic personalities, who are boundary deficient, have many anomalistic experiences and are highly hypnotizable. In other words they are seen to be the sort of people who have UFO and other paranormal experiences. One of their abilities is that of being able to convince others they too are having anomalistic experiences

Healing rituals employ techniques to increase suggestibility, which greatly increases the placebo effect and which produce altered states of consciousness in which anomalistic perceptions are experienced. Darkness, ritual drumming, magic tricks and the beliefs carry people along with them.

We can see the same thing at work in contemporary settings, séances for example employ darkness (a form of sensory deprivation), ritual hymn singing, and a variety of dramatic performances to increase suggestibility. The lines between actual trickery and hallucination (or should that be reprogrammed perception?) becomes completely blurred. Sceptics attended and become convinced, though, as with some of the cures which McClenon relates this can be temporary

For the shamanic personality, anomalous experiences and perceptions can be commonplace, and with their ability to increase suggestibility among others they can become the nucleus around which a circle of anomalous experiences can develop. McClenon sees physiological processes which may or may not involve 'real' paranormal abilities, as the source of such experiences, as opposed to the cultural source hypothesis. As Magonia readers will know, your reviewer thinks this experiential source/cultural source opposition is largely false. There is no culture without experience, no experience outside of culture. Across cultures their are broad similarities of anomalistic experience, though the details often differ more than McClenon concedes.

McClenon is clearly not your armchair paranormalist. He has not only investigated haunted houses and had some very curious experiences in one of them (suggestion, or environmental factors such as suggested by Persinger?), but undertaken fire walking feats and led his own healing séances; and avoids taking up a highly partisan position as either sceptic or believer.

Both books tend to take a rather rose-tinted view of religions Actual religions tend to be started when the magical wondrous shamans become the centre of a cult, sometimes in their own lifetime, more often in the followers'. Of course shamans, being human, can use their abilities to gain power, and sooner or later they become one head in the bicephalous ruling class, the other head being that of the warrior. Thus the shaman-priests proclaim that the rule of the warrior élite has supernatural sanction, and the warriors provide the fire and sword to enforce the ideology of the shamans. Between them they offer spiritual and physical protection in exchange for food and labour. Magic and the sword will protect the elect chosen children of light and righteousness against the alien others, the reprobate children of unrighteousness and darkness, the heathen kaffirs out there and the heretics within. Wondrous experiences become divided also, between the holy magic of the righteous and the demonic magic of 'the others'. Our magic versus theirs.

Today the shamans can be secularised, healing rituals maybe marginalised, but others remain: sports matches, pop concerts and the cult of celebrity. For a truly traditional shamanic ritual of mass suggestion see the funeral of Princess Diana. Of course the really big suggestion machine is now run by ad-people, tabloid editors, spin doctors and the like. Shamans all. -- Peter Rogerson (Published on-line January 2002)

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