Science News has an article exploring similarities between continuationist religious experience, prayer, and people who hallucinate that, depending on who you ask, would be insightful or spectacularly offensive.

“The capacity to treat what the mind imagines as more real than the world one knows lies at the heart of experiencing God,” Luhrmann says. An aptitude for absorption can also influence experiences outside of startling religious shout-outs. It enables, for instance, temporary escape from one’s troubles by reading a book and entering an imaginary world.

Luhrmann met one Vineyard member who exhibited this pattern. This calm, well-respected churchgoer with a good job, whom Luhrmann calls Jane, constantly heard God talking to her. Jane said she heard “a little voice” as a child that she couldn’t make sense of.  The voice fell silent for a while until she joined an evangelical church as a young adult. God then spoke to her often while she prayed and at other times, providing counsel and encouragement.

Jane probably inherited a genetic propensity for absorption and for unusual sensory experiences that can contribute to schizophrenia in people with other brain and emotional vulnerabilities, Luhrmann suggests. “But that doesn’t mean that she is ill.”

Studies conducted by other researchers with small numbers of hallucinating volunteers suggest that when people hear voices out of nowhere, their brains are failing to identify internal thoughts as self-generated, Sommer says. In other words, neural activity reflects a mental state in which imagined statements are interpreted as coming from someone else. Confusion about the source of one’s own thoughts could apply to sensory overrides as easily as to psychotic hallucinations, Luhrmann says.

However minds and brains instigate hallucinations, cultural training may lie at the heart of sensing the immaterial, Luhrmann says.

Consider that different religions ascribe special meaning to different senses. Protestants emphasize hearing as appropriate for experiencing God, as do evangelical Christians and Muslims. Members of these faiths typically hear God’s voice but don’t see God. Catholics and Hindus privilege sight as a holy channel and more often have super­natural visions.

Cultural encouragement to focus carefully on inner thought, a characteristic of Islam, also prompts sensory overrides. And a study by Luhrmann has shown that evangelical Christians can develop a capacity for absorption by learning to focus on inner thoughts and feelings while praying. After a month of practicing this kind of prayer, many congregants reported that they had heard God’s voice for the first time. (link)

I get the sense that the readers of this blog tend to have more of a high church outlook, and maybe less sympathetic to these kinds of religious experience. However, I wanted to post this article because the latter section does seem to lend some weight to the Burkean idea of tradition as embedded in institutions insofar as it suggests that participating in them really is the path to an encounter with the divine. The article is clearly equivocal as to whether or not that encounter is real, it treats the relationship between prayer and schizophrenia like HIV and AIDS. Is disciplined prayer like practiced psychosis? Is the belief that one is talking to God a kind of mental attribution error?

But it raises the question of whether or not the breakdown of cultural institutions and the resulting ignorance of tradition leaves people in the cold to establish their own religious habits, for better or for worse. Habits such as date nights with God, as one woman in the article had taken to do, which means, “she buys a sandwich, finds a secluded bench and imagines that the big guy is sitting next to her.” I’m all for spiritual asceticism, but doesn’t this seem a bit lonely?

Some people, according to the article those with a predisposition toward absorption, or an “openness to absorbing or self-altering experiences,” will have hallucinatory experiences, some of which will be encounters with God. But some of those hallucinations will be harmless fata morgana, and some people will be goaded to suicide or worse, thanks in part to the absence of a framework of tradition to condition them.

One of the other interesting issues raised in the article is the idea that certain religious traditions are predisposed towards certain sensory expressions of the divine. Protestantism emphasizes preaching therefore God is heard, etc. Could that explain why I find it so unusual that some Christians feel compelled to get “Drunk in the Spirit”? It’s a sensory override of a sense (touch, maybe?) that my religion tends not to emphasize as a spiritual channel. Thoughts?

I leave you with the following: