Secular Americans’ worst fears have come true: there is now scientific evidence that evangelical churches brainwash believers. They don’t merely teach that Adam and Eve actually existed and that gay marriage is an abomination. They change the way their members’ brains work. But T. M. Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist at Stanford, argues that this is not as insidious as it sounds. On the contrary, mental conditioning has a noble lineage in the history of religion, and even (or especially) in this modern age, it can help humans flourish. “When God Talks Back” explains how rational people living in the 21st century can believe that God speaks to them — and why the rest of us should take them seriously.
Luhrmann reportedly spends a lot of time with members of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, a Pentecostal(ish) denomination that believes Christians can train themselves to hear (“hear”) direction from the Holy Spirit. More:
After more than four years of observing and interviewing Vineyard members, and participating in prayer groups, Bible study and weekly worship, Luhrmann arrived at a simple but arresting hypothesis: Evangelicals believe in an intimate God who talks to them personally because their churches coach them in a new theory of mind. In these communities, religious belief is “more like learning to do something than to think something. . . . People train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God.”
Though I am reflexively skeptical when anyone claims “God told me” something, I believe this is generally true. In Orthodox Christian teaching, the heart (more accurately, the nous) is the faculty within every person through which we communicate with God, and through which the divine energies/graces that transform and heal us, that make us more like Christ, enter the soul. It is like a windowpane through which light pierces. The more clean it is, the more light can come through it. Or, to switch the metaphor, it is like a radio transmitter. The more one fine-tunes it through regular prayer, fasting, receiving the sacraments, and carrying out good works, the better able one is to hear the voice of God speaking to the soul. So, the Vineyard folks are right to believe that one can train oneself to hear God more clearly — though I would strongly caution one to be very, very careful about claiming that this or that thing that has occurred to them is an authentic communication from the divine. One must be humble about this, and discerning.
More from the review:
Many believers rely on Rick Warren’s best seller “The Purpose Driven Life” — which Luhrmann calls “a folksy, spiritualized manual for cognitive behavioral therapy” — but they have also rediscovered St. Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises,” the classic Catholic guide to training the religious imagination. Luhrmann herself spent nine months working through the exercises with a women’s church group; the intensity of visualizing images from Christ’s life moved her to tears. Her research convinced her that Warren and Ignatius alike devised spiritual disciplines that work.
The reviewer, Molly Worthen, an academic who teaches religious history, concludes:
But Luhrmann has helped to explain something else: why the carefully reasoned arguments that the “new atheist” writers mount against religion often fall flat. The most convincing “proof” of religion is not scientific but psychological. There is no way to undo the conviction of believers that God himself told them he is real and his story is true.
That’s her perspective. The converse must also be true: The most convincing “disproof” or religion is not scientific, but psychological. There is no way to undo the conviction of unbelievers that God himself cannot have told anybody that he is real and his story is true, because no matter what these believers say they’ve seen, heard, and experienced, God does not exist, period.
In other words, a certain kind of unbeliever has an unbreakable epistemic closure. She demands proof of God’s existence, but holds an a priori denial that experiential evidence suggesting the reality of God can be taken seriously.
UPDATE: Below, a passage from a 2006 Damon Linker review essay in The New Republic (available to subscribers only), in which he says Leo Strauss taught that both religious believers and conventional atheists began with a priori convictions that their side was right, but that in Strauss’s view, there was a third way to non-question-begging atheism. As Daomon put it to me, Strauss held that “one can only refute the existence of God by refuting morality itself. In other words, the moral man is always and everywhere the potential believer in God — and the authentic atheist always and everywhere lives beyond good and evil.” From the review essay:
The lecture that Meier provides for us proves beyond dispute that . . . Strauss believed that philosophy could not settle for leaving revelation intact as an existential possibility. Philosophy is “radically atheistic.” And to confirm the truth of this atheism, the philosopher must confront revelation’s contrary claims about the world and man, with the ultimate aim of demonstrating that these claims are fundamentally false. The philosopher has no choice but to “refute revelation”–that is, to “prove that revelation or miracles are impossible.” When it comes to philosophy, no pluralist tolerance is extended to religious faith.
Meier points to strong evidence that Strauss’s entire intellectual project grew out of an effort to chart a third way between biblical faith (especially in its Christian variant) and modern unbelief, which Strauss considered to be insufficiently rigorous. Modern atheists tend to be too quick to dismiss revelation and too blind to the remnants of biblical morality in their own thinking. Hobbes, for example, repudiated many aspects of Christianity, but he failed to recognize the extent to which his desire to benefit humanity derived from Christian moral convictions. Marx dismissed piety as the “opiate of the masses,” but he unthinkingly adhered to an ideal of egalitarian justice with Jewish and Christian origins. Heidegger described the idea of a Christian philosophy as a “square circle,” but he was preoccupied with Pauline themes of existential anguish and the guilty conscience. Even Nietzsche, a master of detecting and exploding the subterranean influence of Christianity in his fellow philosophers, remained in thrall to the ideal of probity, or intellectual self-cruelty–a distinctly Christian virtue. Strauss insisted that to refute revelation–to demonstrate its impossibility–it is necessary to go beyond Nietzschean atheism, to recover an even more radical, more thoroughgoing critique of piety. That is what he claimed to have found in Socratic philosophy.
As Strauss describes it, the ancient philosophical critique of revelation and miracles surpassed its modern variant in rigor and cogency by insisting on beginning from the premises of the religious believer. Unlike early modern philosophers, who begin their thinking by assuming the impossibility of revelation and miracles, Socratic philosophy supposedly begs no questions, taking the assertions of believers with the utmost seriousness. The Socratic philosopher invites the pious man to make the strongest case he can in defense of his beliefs, and even volunteers to help him make the case even stronger. The point of this generosity is not to strengthen religious faith, but rather to prepare a thoroughgoing dialectical examination of those beliefs.
How would such an examination proceed? Strauss claims that the Socratic philosopher attempts to show the believer that he assumes, perhaps without being fully aware of it, that God must be absolutely perfect–which means, among other things, absolutely wise. Once this has been established, the philosopher then seeks to “prove that revelation or miracles are impossible,” because they are “incompatible with the nature of God as the most perfect being.” How can the philosopher show, on the basis of the believer’s own premises, that God’s wisdom is incompatible with revelation or miracles? He does so by turning his attention to the believer’s views about morality–about justice, deserving, nobility, reward, and punishment–and by seeking to demonstrate that those moral views are such a tangle of contradictions that a perfectly wise being would refuse to abide by them. The philosopher denies, in other words, the “decisive and ultimate significance of moral criteria” for rendering wise judgments, and he thus flatly rejects the possibility that “the cosmic principle, or the first cause, is in any way concerned about morality.”
Strauss’s statements about the relatively low status of morality have long perplexed his conservative admirers. While he admitted that “the philosophic life, especially as Plato and Aristotle understood it, is not possible without self-control and a few other virtues,” Strauss also insisted on treating those virtues as “subservient to philosophy,” which he described as “not only trans-social and trans-religious, but trans-moral as well.” For all of his moralistic rhetoric and impassioned denunciations of relativism, Strauss was far more radical than such contemporary academic atheists as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who combine professions of godlessness with conventionally liberal moral and political opinions. Strauss would insist that to demonstrate the truth of their atheism–to transform it from dogmatic opinion into knowledge–they would have to subject their moral convictions to the same degree of critical scrutiny that they typically direct against religion alone.