This is part of my series on doubt. You can access the whole series here.
In my last post, I offered a definition of God that can be proven scientifically: God is at least the set of natural forces that created and sustain the Universe. Like any good scientific idea, this definition is falsifiable, meaning it can be tested and proven true or false. This definition also supports one of the traits most commonly ascribed to God across all religions: God made the Universe. There’s a problem, though: this definition is incomplete.
Most faiths show God as being more than a creative/sustaining force. God is something that people experience, and something that acts in our world. The Bible speaks of God appearing to Moses as a burning bush that was not consumed. Elijah met a “still, small voice” that followed fire, earthquakes, and other sings of power. Paul wrote of a blinding light on the road to Damascus.
As helpful as my first definition of God was to me, it failed to explain these accounts–as well as the contemporary accounts of people hearing God speak to them. This isn’t just academic to me. God has moved in my own life in similar ways.
I became an atheist as a result of intense study, which began by reading the Bible four times in one year. It wasn’t any logical argument or fact-based insight that brought me back to faith. Instead, it was a direct experience with God that brought me back despite my utter lack of belief in God, or anything supernatural.
I once heard Jesus whisper in my ear. A few hours later, I met God on the beach in one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I understand that this sounds ridiculous to modern ears, but I’m relaying my own experience here. I heard a voice, and then I had a time where I felt like I connected with something beyond physical space and time.
This is not rare. Many people report experiencing God as something clearly beyond their own consciousness, and this has been documented and studied scientifically. People pray and receive insights that seem to come from beyond themselves, and sometimes people even have moments where they see and hear things that are obviously not a part of physical space. The anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann calls these events sensory overrides, and hypothesizes that people have varying predispositions to these experiences that can be enhanced through religious rituals. In other words, we all have some baseline ability to experience God, and that can be strengthened or weakened by how we practice faith (or not).
The most powerful of these God moments are called mystical experiences. They’ve been studied and documented and there are seven characteristics that define them:
- The experience transcends language.
- The experience reveals hidden knowledge.
- The experience is limited in duration.
- The experience happens to you, it is not initiated or controlled by the one who experiences it.
- A sense of unity or completeness.
- A sense of transcending time.
- An encounter with the “true self” that transcends life, death and ego.
My moment on the beach met all these criteria. I couldn’t put the experience into words at all. I felt like all the questions we struggle with in life had meaning, even horrible things like evil and suffering. It only lasted a few moments (I can’t be sure how long, but at some point I did leave the beach and go to bed). It happened suddenly, and without action on my part. I felt connected to all life, all matter, and to God. I had no perception of the passage of time, and I felt like I found the essence of who I am–beyond life, death, or awareness.
There is no way to describe a mystical experience to anyone who hasn’t had one, and you’ll sound crazy if you do. I am not the first person to have one, and I will not be the last. It’s also critical to note that most people never have a mystical experience, but most believers have some sort of personal interaction with God that they perceive as coming from outside their own consciousness.
I’ve written that belief in God is something that occurs naturally in humans. Not all humans are equally predisposed to religious experiences. As is common among human behaviors, the contributing factors to innate religiosity are complex and not well understood.
Some people have a gene that is associated with religious belief. It’s been dubbed “The God Gene” in popular media. This gene causes increased activity in certain neurotransmitters that cause optimism and infuse meaning/wonder into ordinary life experiences. I heard one neuroscientist remark that people who have the God Gene, “live life on a sort of low dose hallucinogenic.”
Neuroscientists have found that believers use a similar part of their brains when talking to God as they use when talking to a dear friend. The field of Neurotheology reveals that believers devote tremendous neurological resources to building and maintaining a model of God in their minds.
Andrew Newberg offers a detailed map of this model in his book How God Changes Your Brain. Newberg revealed that there are two major neurological models of God in our world today. The first exists in people who view God as primarily angry or wrathful, and the second in people who view God as primarily loving. Both of these God models affect the way that people view the world and interact with others.
Newberg found that the angry God offered certainty and impulse control, but at the cost of elevated stress and increased hostility toward outsiders. The loving God, on the other hand, produced benefits to health and cognition.
Tanya Luhrmann found that an individual's score on the Tellegen Absorption Scale was a reliable predictor of an individual’s likelihood to respond to religious stimulus like prayer or meditation.
As numinous and mysterious as faith is, we can study and quantify its effects. Human religious faith can be tested and measured via psychology, sociology, anthropology, and neuroscience. That research tells us that people seem to have variable predisposition to faith that can be either reinforced or suppressed by our experiences. People whose innate religiosity is reinforced develop incredibly sophisticated neurological structures devoted to understanding and experiencing God. Humans naturally build a psychosocial model of God in response to environmental pressures.
So, while there is no God-shaped hole in our hearts, there is a God-shaped neurological predisposition in our brains.
God is not just something “out there.” God is also something that happens within us in the most intimate, personal ways possible. God is not a distant and uninvolved Creator–God is active and involved in our cognition, and even below it. God is in our feelings and experiences, and sometimes God moves so powerfully that people write about bushes that burn without being consumed, or a blinding light on the road to Damascus.
Incorporating these scientific insights about how we experience God updates my axiom for God:
God is at least the set of forces that created and sustain the Universe as experienced via a psychosocial model rooted in evolved neurological features in humans.
Thinking of God this way is testable, and explains not only that God created us, but also that we experience God in our daily lives. Humanity’s unique relationship with God is also explained: our brains alone have the capacity to contemplate God and drive spiritual experiences. It also explains religion's enduring power: Natural Selection seems to favor populations that include individuals with predispositions toward religiosity.
Of course, such an understanding of God does nothing to justify following Jesus, or accepting the Bible as anything other than ancient mythology. We’ll cover those topics in my next couple of posts in this series.