TL;DR: We’re aware that there are things beyond us and beyond our understanding, but we don’t know exactly how to explain it. So we use images to describe these things indirectly, and these are the images that have built our religions.
When we talk about God, these are the two most important points:
- Our perception of God came from the human mind’s ability to perceive itself as an individual who belongs to an environment with natural laws.
- Our experience of God is linked to our intuition regarding the logic of how the universe operates; this intuition is verbalized through moral codes and religious myths.
Endlessly discussing whether or not God literally exists, how God acts (and what they are capable of), or identifying God’s personality are topics that come from a deeply human need to project one’s better self into something eternal, something that cannot die when we die, and something we can strive towards. If this seems oversimplified, that is probably because things are simpler than we make them out to be. We keep debating whether God exists, but the fact that humanity has sensed a higher power since the dawn of man proves that there is, most likely, something there — we are only interpreting this real experience on the basis of one’s childhood influences (especially one’s relationship to one’s parents), group biases, or neurobiological properties.
Religious experience is an intuition of mysterious but powerful natural forces. It has, of course, the added benefit of being able to control the will of millions to conform to political agenda, but this only shows how God is felt as a psychological experience that overwhelms rationality. One might even say that belief in God is irrational. This does not mean that it’s not real: most of our actions are, in fact, informed by unconscious motivations. There are things we do without thinking about them, attitudes we have for or against certain objects that we can’t clearly explain (but we can feel in our gut), and feelings we have for others that aren’t spoken but are understood. These experiences are intuitive and empirical science will no doubt have difficulty measuring them, but that doesn’t mean that our irrational experiences — that is, religious experiences — are untrue.
Yes, religious experiences may be product of electromagnetic or chemical reactions in the brain. But what comes first, the experience or the reaction? How could the body react to something that isn’t there? Even if something were imagined, it might still find its origins in external stimuli. Our perception might be skewed by weakness in the body (being tired, hungry, or horny) or colored by childhood beliefs, but once that external stimulus enters, our mind perceives it and reacts to that perception. Not to the external object as it really is, but to our perception of that object. One might even argue, as the psychologist William James did, that we never react to external, tangible objects — only to our perception of these objects.
All that being said, what are the external stimuli that have influenced our perception of God? A paper by Will M. Gervais stated that perceiving the existence of God (or a higher order of things) is linked to our ability to perceive that the people around us have their own minds. A mental tension arises in childhood, when one realizes that other people have their own minds. How we deal with this has implications on our tendency for prosocial behavior and self-awareness. Acknowledging the existence of other minds, especially in an age of increased surveillance, leads to higher levels of self-awareness and an increased incentive to act according to current social norms. This cognitive process is projected onto an idea of an almighty being who sees all things: moral law is also social law. Psychologist M. Scott Peck echoed this in “The Road Less Traveled” by stating that the way one describes the Divine is heavily influenced by one’s relationship with one’s parents. The faith a religious person has on a higher power depends on how one’s parents satisfied one’s childhood needs. Religious belief, therefore, is how one intuitively understands one’s environment.
Furthermore, observation of brain regions related to religious practices revealed that activity in those areas were similar to when an individual perceives a human mind external from one’s own. This interplay between the perception of tangible external entities and an external omnipotent being is used effectively as a coping mechanism for feelings of isolation and a lack of control. However, Gervais also noted that mental inability to perceive other minds (such as in autistic people) was related to the tendency for atheism. The dissolution of ego boundaries and heightened sense of empathy is therefore related to a tendency to have religious experiences. Alejandro Parra’s study on the relation of empathy to paranormal/anomalous experiences concurs with this conclusion, stating that people with higher scores of empathy (that is, who better connect with others) are more likely to sense invisible presence or witness apparitions. This ability to sense presence is not only imagined: Michael Persinger’s review on the neuropsychiatry of paranormal occurrences showed that these events can be replicated in a laboratory setting using low frequency electromagnetic waves. That implies that the brain does react to external stimuli, but the individual interprets this using their personal beliefs. Persinger concludes, however, by saying that a scientific study of paranormal events, in the context of neuropsychology, may allow us to differentiate “illusions of intrinsic stimulation and the validity of information obtained through mechanisms yet to be explained.”
In a study on the social influence of religion, Barry Markovsky and Shane Thye suggested that religious experiences are interpretations of external reality, and the person who experiences it uses familiar, cultural language. Furthermore, as parapsychologist Dean Radin suggested, ancient myths and occult symbolism, though laughed at in a modern scientific era, were in fact early attempts at a psychological understanding of the relation of the individual to their chaotic, unpredictable environment. In differentiating religion and magic, historian Brian Copenhaver has suggested that religion is the moralization and rationalization of raw, emotional experience (that is, magic). Early magical philosophy did not attempt to verify; they attempted only to explain, because these phenomena were already accepted as factual.
Interpreting religious experience in the context of a history of human consciousness, occult writer Phil Hine identified four models of thinking. The first is what he called the “Spirit Model”, where the religious authority is the shaman, who acts as the traveler between the material world and the tangible metaphysical world. The second, which arose along with the age of scientific enlightenment, was what he called the “Energy Model”, which emphasized the existence of certain physical fields of energy that can be manipulated by scientific methods. The third coincided with the psychoanalytic movement, wherein “the Otherworlds became the Innerworlds, demons were rehoused into the Unconscious Mind, and Hidden Masters revealed as manifestation of the ‘Higher Self’”. He observed how, during this time, occult tools like Tarot cards, transformed from being divinatory systems to tools of self-discovery; and how gods transformed from being powerful natural forces to psychological archetypes. The fourth model is what he called the “Cybernetic Model”, which suggests that neurological activity causes quantum fluctuations in observable reality. Furthermore, he stated that “should you ever find yourself in the position of having to ‘explain’ all this weird stuff to [a] non-afficiando or skeptic, then the Psychological model is probably your best bet”. Though his models were presented informally, they do reflect some intuitive (albeit oversimplified) understanding of historical perceptions of the paranormal. In fact, Hines’ final model is a real problem in the field of physics: Hilary Putnam, writing about the role of the observer in quantum mechanics, notes that there is a consensus that “there are real entities; but which they are is relative to the observer”. An assertion that there is an external reality that operates in specific, logical, and measurable natural laws is an important first assumption, but Brigitte Faulkenburg, writing about astroparticle physics, says that “physicists working in this field take this realism with caution”.
- Copenhaver, B. (2015). The book of magic: From antiquity to enlightenment. United Kingdom: Penguin Classics.
- Faulkenburg, B. (2012). Pragmatic unification, observation and realism in astroparticle physics. Journal for general philosophy of science / Zeitschrift für allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie, vol 43(2), pp. 327–345.
- Gervais, W.M. (2013). Perceiving minds and gods: How mind perception enables, constrains, and is triggered by belief in gods. Perspectives on psychological science, vol 8(4), pp. 380–394.
- Hine, P. (1992) Oven-ready chaos [eBook]. Retrieved from:
- Markovsky, B. and Thye, S.R. (2001). Social influence on paranormal beliefs. Sociological perspectives, Vol. 44(1), pp. 21–44.
- Parra, A. (2013). Cognitive and emotional empathy in relation to five paranormal/anomalous experiences. North American Journal of Psychology, vol 15(3), pp. 405–412.
- Peck, M.S. (1978). The road less traveled. New York: Touchstone.
- Putnam, H. (1981). Quantum mechanics and the observer. Erkenntis: Measurement, probability, and quantum mechanics, part 1, vol 16(2), pp. 193–219.