I think today I will take a short detour to talk a little bit more about attribution errors and religion. I’ve been thinking (and researching) after reading GFelis’s comment on yesterday’s entry. Here’s one of the salient points:
[T]here can’t be propositional attitudes (like belief or disbelief) in the absence of any concept defined and delineated well enough to call a proposition, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be other sorts of attitudes. A person doesn’t have to have a clear conception of God to have feelings in response to the word “God,” even if that word is literally meaningless when that person uses it because he or she doesn’t have any concept in particular attached to the word.
This concept got me thinking about “religious experiences” and how people feel about them. In particular, I tried to remember religious experiences that I had when I was a Christian, and how they felt, emotionally and intellectually, to me at the time. I remembered two experiences in particular.
The first was when I was a young teenager and became involved with a “charismatic” church that believed in things like speaking in tongues and casting out demons. If you’re not familiar with speaking in tongues (Glossolalia, for you nerds), it’s an especially bizarre practice in some Christian denominations, where people speak in what amounts to gibberish. Most charismatics believe “tongues” are a personal prayer language between the speaker and God. The idea is that God knows how to pray to God better than you know how to pray, so why not let God do the praying through you in his own private language? (Remember, these are the same people who believe God sacrificed himself to himself to allow himself to forgive himself for making us how he made us. It’s not really that much of a stretch to believe he also prays to himself.)
Anyway, I was standing in the congregation while there was a prayer circle at the altar. A bunch of men were laying hands on another young teenage boy, jabbering and “lafalaallamalla-ing” all over him, hoping he’d start jabbering in his own prayer language. Music was playing, the whole congregation was swaying back and forth with their hands in the air.
And then it happened. I went… somewhere. Very suddenly, I felt very detached from myself. It was as if I was watching myself sway unconsciously to the music. I wasn’t in control anymore. I was part of the mass of humanity, hypnotized by the music and the atmosphere of the place. Time and space didn’t seem quite right. There was a warm, fuzzy “glow” in my chest that spread through my whole body. It was almost orgasmic, except that it didn’t feel sexual in any way. I was convinced that God’s spirit had entered my body and given me that experience.
The second experience happened in a very different kind of circumstance. I was playing with a band — a secular band, mind you, with a bunch of non-believers — and we were about five minutes into a long instrumental section that had a very repetitive, hypnotic rhythm. I was playing a solo, and suddenly, there I was again. Everything that had happened to me in my church experience, only now, I was watching myself play a solo that was technically very difficult. I wasn’t controlling my hands. They were just moving, and the notes were coming out. Even though the music was linear, I wasn’t moving in space and time. I was moving in sound. Only I wasn’t moving. The music was moving, and I was just there… motionless.
Really. It was very trippy in a Pink Floyd kind of way.
In remembering these two experiences, it’s clear that they were virtually identical neurologically. What’s interesting is how I interpreted them. When I was a Christian, I felt God. There was no doubt in my mind. I felt my spirit in my body. I felt God’s spirit mingling with mine. It was a real, physical experience. But then, when I had the second euphoric episode, I did not feel God. I didn’t even think of God. It didn’t even cross my mind to think about God until days later when I remembered the experience at the church.
It turns out that there’s a scientific explanation for this. In 2001, scientists in Germany used neuroimaging on a group of religious believers while they were having “religious experiences.” Their goal was to determine whether or not these events were immediate, preconceptual, and affective, or whether they were cognitive processes. In layman’s terms, they wanted to know if believers were unconsciously talking themselves into religious experiences.
The short answer is that religious experiences are cognitive processes. Certain areas of the brain, notably a frontal-parietal circuit composed of the dorsolateral prefrontal, dorsomedial frontal and medial parietal cortex, are associated with representations of knowledge structured as cognitive schemas. These are the areas of the brain that are consistently active during religious experiences. In other words, these religious experiences are the brain’s cognitive interpretation of pre-existing beliefs about religion. The believer is then literally creating God in his own image.
To put it another way (and get out of all this technical jargon), religious experiences are Attribution Errors at a very basic level. The believer feels as if the experience is immediate and “triggered” from an external source — namely God — but in reality, the brain has already worked out the logic of the religious experience as part of an existing belief structure.
There is substantial evidence from the psychology of religion to suggest that people are ‘prepared’ for religious experiences. This ‘readiness’ is probably mediated by the dorsomedial frontal cortex, leading to the commonly reported felt immediacy of religious experience. The experience, however, becomes religious when the subject has consciously identified it as consistent with the subject’s own religious schema. (Azari, et al. 2001)
What does it all mean? It lets us figure out which is the chicken and which is the egg. It gives us scientific evidence that the believer is literally talking himself into having a religious experience. It’s not God. It’s not magic. It’s just the brain doing what brains do — trying to make sense of the world based on what it’s experienced.
Azari, Nina P., et al. Short Communication: Neural correlates of religious experience. European Journal of Neuroscience, Vol 13, pp. 1649-1652, (2001).