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What is religious experience?

Updated on August 26, 2012

A lot of theists do not think an atheist can understand religious experience, which is why they cannot understand the religious mindset.

But religious experience makes perfect sense to me. I was raised catholic so I know that feeling of being watched by god; to have it in you, so to speak. When you are taught religion from an early age it is hard not to feel that constant presence.

Religion plays on a part of the brain Dr Persinger of Laurentian U calls the religious center. In the 1970s he did a lot of work with EM, and found that along with sensory deprivation he could manipulate a certain part of the brain with an EM pen, and produce vivid religious experience.

People under his pen had all kinds of experiences including talking to Jesus, god, Buddha, demons, angels, aliens, dead people, and even people they had met in the hall while waiting to see the doctor. They obviously did not share the experience with the subject.

All of the participants said their experiences were ultra real. One person said they experienced the best sex they ever had. Probably he or she was an atheist.

No one is sure what survival function religious feeling played in our evolution, if any. Or if it is just a center that creates vivid reality scenarios for us, as part of some other survival function. Probably it has to do with imagination and creative thinking.

Obviously it is not a portal put there by god as some suggest, because not everyone has the same kind of experience. Buddhists see Buddha, Christians see Jesus and demons and angels, and some people talk to living people who are not in the room, and obviously have not had a real conversation with them.

At age six I realized there was something wrong with the Catholic Church. I could not reconcile the loving god I was taught about and the hell fire and damnation aspects the priests were giving sermons about. But I kept my religious feeling for many years after. I had a real lust to know what was really going on; what life was all about.  It took a long time to get rid of Catholic or Christian religious feeling completely, and reading the bible was the biggest help in that endeavour.  Catholics are not allowed to read it, or weren’t when I was a kid. But when I did, I realized how irrational the story of the Christian god is, and it really opened my eyes.

It’s not that I even meant to lose my religious feeling. I went from religion to religion, from eastern back to western. In Zen I learned to reconcile paradox, which is something I needed and wanted to learn. I was able to accomplish almost every state of mind the Hindu’s talk about when describing enlightenment. I even had many out of body experiences. The only thing I could not accomplish was levitation, which would come in handy in the real world.

I eventually understood that it is all the brain. You can manipulate it to see, feel, and experience whatever you want. To this day I can, at will, set an entire orchestra playing in my head and hear it as clear as if it was actually there playing in front of me. I keep that feature because I like it.

But then I found science, and it was like the most profound religious experience I ever had. This was particularly true of the laws of conservation and the laws of thermodynamics. I know that doesn’t sound like profound stuff, but to me it was like a kick in the head. They explain the behaviour of everything, including human relationships, perfectly.  

Perhaps that religious center is what makes personal revelation so powerful and meaningful? But after that moment, religion seemed to melt away naturally for me. Just as some people suddenly find god in a profound way, I found science in exactly the same way. And from there, materialism and atheism were not far off.

So while I understand that people have religious experiences, I have to question what they really are. I will never question that someone has had a profound experience, only how they interpret it. You cannot trust your mind. It will tell you all kinds of stories. My imagination is too good for me to trust it. That’s why I practice non-belief. I believe nothing, while conditionally accepting facts. I use the scientific method in my thought processes.

But I do understand religious feeling. Perhaps all too well. 


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