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The Religious Way Of Knowing

Here’s a big-think Douthat post about secularism, modernity, and how it changes the way we perceive the world of phenomena.  The idea he confronts here is that there is something different about the modern mind that closes off areas of perception to modern people. He references the Mr. Ono and the ghosts of the Japanese tsunami […]

Here’s a big-think Douthat post about secularism, modernity, and how it changes the way we perceive the world of phenomena.  The idea he confronts here is that there is something different about the modern mind that closes off areas of perception to modern people. He references the Mr. Ono and the ghosts of the Japanese tsunami story we talked about here a week or two ago, and he also references a story about the Dutch film director Paul Verhoeven.

In the latter case, early in his career, Verhoeven was going through a period of intense personal stress, which included the potential end of his nascent filmmaking career and the potential of arranging an abortion for his pregnant girlfriend. At this time, he stumbled into a service at a Pentecostal church, and had a staggering mystical experience. He ended up denying the religious aspect of what happened to him, but he couldn’t deny that something important had happened. Verhoeven consciously chose to turn away from the paranormal implications of what he had gone through, because he was afraid it would make him mad. He deliberately chose to live in a world that made sense to him, rather than the world he had glimpsed through that mystical event. Verhoeven joined that Pentecostal congregation for a month, which was unusual in Holland, but here’s how and why he left that congregation:

When an artist friend heard my problem, he told me that it wasn’t much of a problem. His father is a doctor of anesthetics at the Red Cross hospital in The Hague, and he could help us. So reality and pragmatism brought me out of it. This encounter with spiritual, mystical Christianity had an enormous impact on me. As a result, to get out of this dangerously sectarian thinking in which the subconscious elements of my brain were seeping into my conscious, I felt that I had to close the doors of perception, as Huxley calls it. The subconscious elements can be very powerful, and if one isn’t careful, they can take over the conscious parts of your brain. This is what happened to Nietzsche when he lost his mind in Turin. I wanted to protect myself by concentrating for years of my creative life on reality. That explains something of my enormous interest in the reality of everything, and my sense of the reality of violence, an aspect of my work that some people continue to have enormous problems with.

Notice that for Verhoeven, “recovering” from this mystical experience involved framing it as an irruption from his subconscious — as something generated from within, not as given from without. In other words, he had to think of it as a hallucination. If it had not been a hallucination, then he would have had to accept the possibility that he really did experience the Holy Spirit, or at least a spiritual reality independent of his own mind. That was apparently harder to accept than to believe he suffered temporary psychosis. One cannot know from this distance what was going through young Verhoeven’s head in those days, but it’s not hard to imagine that a man who wishes to arrange his girlfriend’s abortion to help save his film career would have a particular incentive to dismiss the possibility that he had encountered the living God, and instead had suffered from temporary insanity.

In any case, the key thing here is the role of Verhoeven’s will in deciding what is real and what is not. He is up front about his choice to suppress that experience, for the sake of preserving his sanity. What he is not up front about, maybe not even with himself, is his choice to deny the possibility that what he encountered in that Dutch Pentecostal church was objectively real. This too was a choice.

Douthat uses these two stories to talk about the epistemology and the secular mind, namely, to ask whether or not the framework through which we view the world is not only one of interpretation (that is, a structure that helps us make sense of the world we perceive), but also one of perception itself — that is, one that determines which information our bodies let our minds take in. Douthat cites the work of philosopher Charles Taylor, who draws a clear distinction between the way the Self experienced the world in pre-modern times, versus the way the Self experiences the world today. The difference is far more mysterious than a simple matter of working from the same set of facts to reach different interpretations; it’s more the case that the different mindsets produce a different set of facts, which is to say, allow different data to enter into the frame of reference. Here’s Douthat:

This isn’t just an academic distinction; it has significant implications for the actual potency of secularism. To the extent that the buffered self is a reading imposed on numinous experience after the fact, secularism looks weaker (relatively speaking), because no matter how much the intellectual assumptions of the day tilt in its favor, it’s still just one possible interpretation among many: On a societal level, its strength depends on the same mix of prejudice, knowledge, fashion and reason as any other world-picture, and for the individual there’s always the possibility that a mystical experience could come along (as Verhoeven, for instance, seemed to fear it might) that simply overwhelms the ramparts thrown up to keep alternative interpretations at bay.

But if the advance of the secular world-picture actually changes the nature of numinous experience itself, by making it impossible to fully experience what Taylor calls “enchantment” in the way that people in pre-secular contexts did and do, then the buffered self is a much more literal reality, and secularism is self-reinforcing in a much more profound way. It doesn’t just close intellectual doors, it closes perceptual doors as well.

In practice, what he’s raising here is a fundamental questions about the nature of secularism and the experience of reality. Is the “buffered self” of secularism (in the sense that Charles Taylor means) a method of interpreting the same data we all perceive? Or is secularism something that makes it literally impossible to perceive a certain level of reality? Put another way, does the secular mindset help us to see reality more clearly, or does it blind us to things our pre-modern ancestors could see?

Personally, I think it does both, but it’s not at all easy to figure out when it is doing which thing. Douthat indicates that he’s more likely to believe that secularism is only one interpretive choice among many others, and is therefore weaker than some of us may think. The reality of mystical experience has the potential of breaking through the buffers the modern self erects. I’m more inclined to be pessimistic on this front, and to agree with this blog’s commenter Thursday, who holds that secularism fundamentally reshapes our perceptive abilities.

The anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann famously wrote about how embedding herself in the world of modern British pagans caused her to have a waking vision of six druids who came to her as shades. What’s interesting about this is that she still believes that this was an external projection of an internal state — an extreme example, you might say, of confirmation bias. Later, Lurhmann embedded with a (non-Pentecostal) Evangelical Christian community, one that believes you can train your mind to communicate with God. She wrote a book about it, When God Talks Back. In her review of Luhrmann’s book, Joan Acocella notes that Luhrmann’s own position on whether or not the Evangelicals were communicating with a being called God is cagey. Luhrmann, a trained and accomplished social scientist, says she is not a Christian, and give the impression of being a secular humanist who does not believe in a being called God. But this is not definitive; Acocella has the notion that Luhrmann herself might not be clear as to what’s real and what’s not. Acocella is willing to forgive her this, saying that the great value in Luhrmann’s work is that she’s willing to open herself critically but sympathetically to a world and to a set of experiences that most people in her position would not.

This kind of thing is at the heart of the entire WEIRD phenomenon — the idea that the secular Western mindset is all but unique in the world, and that we in the West, especially our scientists, err in thinking that our perception is normative for humanity. This 2013 article explains. Excerpt:

A modern liberal arts education gives lots of lip service to the idea of cultural diversity. It’s generally agreed that all of us see the world in ways that are sometimes socially and culturally constructed, that pluralism is good, and that ethnocentrism is bad. But beyond that the ideas get muddy. That we should welcome and celebrate people of all backgrounds seems obvious, but the implied corollary—that people from different ethno-cultural origins have particular attributes that add spice to the body politic—becomes more problematic. To avoid stereotyping, it is rarely stated bluntly just exactly what those culturally derived qualities might be. Challenge liberal arts graduates on their appreciation of cultural diversity and you’ll often find them retreating to the anodyne notion that under the skin everyone is really alike.

If you take a broad look at the social science curriculum of the last few decades, it becomes a little more clear why modern graduates are so unmoored. The last generation or two of undergraduates have largely been taught by a cohort of social scientists busily doing penance for the racism and Eurocentrism of their predecessors, albeit in different ways. Many anthropologists took to the navel gazing of postmodernism and swore off attempts at rationality and science, which were disparaged as weapons of cultural imperialism.

Economists and psychologists, for their part, did an end run around the issue with the convenient assumption that their job was to study the human mind stripped of culture. The human brain is genetically comparable around the globe, it was agreed, so human hardwiring for much behavior, perception, and cognition should be similarly universal. No need, in that case, to look beyond the convenient population of undergraduates for test subjects. A 2008 survey of the top six psychology journals dramatically shows how common that assumption was: more than 96 percent of the subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners—with nearly 70 percent from the United States alone. Put another way: 96 percent of human subjects in these studies came from countries that represent only 12 percent of the world’s population.

Henrich’s work with the ultimatum game was an example of a small but growing countertrend in the social sciences, one in which researchers look straight at the question of how deeply culture shapes human cognition. His new colleagues in the psychology department, Heine and Norenzayan, were also part of this trend. Heine focused on the different ways people in Western and Eastern cultures perceived the world, reasoned, and understood themselves in relationship to others. Norenzayan’s research focused on the ways religious belief influenced bonding and behavior. The three began to compile examples of cross-cultural research that, like Henrich’s work with the Machiguenga, challenged long-held assumptions of human psychological universality.


As the three continued their work, they noticed something else that was remarkable: again and again one group of people appeared to be particularly unusual when compared to other populations—with perceptions, behaviors, and motivations that were almost always sliding down one end of the human bell curve.

In the end they titled their paper “The Weirdest People in the World?”(pdf) By “weird” they meant both unusual and Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. It is not just our Western habits and cultural preferences that are different from the rest of the world, it appears. The very way we think about ourselves and others—and even the way we perceive reality—makes us distinct from other humans on the planet, not to mention from the vast majority of our ancestors. Among Westerners, the data showed that Americans were often the most unusual, leading the researchers to conclude that “American participants are exceptional even within the unusual population of Westerners—outliers among outliers.”

Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.


And here is the rub: the culturally shaped analytic/individualistic mind-sets may partly explain why Western researchers have so dramatically failed to take into account the interplay between culture and cognition. In the end, the goal of boiling down human psychology to hardwiring is not surprising given the type of mind that has been designing the studies. Taking an object (in this case the human mind) out of its context is, after all, what distinguishes the analytic reasoning style prevalent in the West. Similarly, we may have underestimated the impact of culture because the very ideas of being subject to the will of larger historical currents and of unconsciously mimicking the cognition of those around us challenges our Western conception of the self as independent and self-determined.

Here, thanks to Thursday, is a link to the WEIRD scientific paper, for those inclined to read more in-depth.

As Douthat intuits, this is all actually a much bigger deal than you might think, because it speaks directly to related fundamental questions: What is the nature of reality? and How can we know?

There are other questions, of course. Are there some things that can only be perceived by a religious mind, in the sense that adjusting the focus on a lens helps us to see things we couldn’t see before? How can we tell the difference between a madman and a visionary? How can we discern between someone who sees manifestations of God, and someone who sees manifestations of demons, but thinks they are of God? Or are they all the same?

And so forth. My Dutch friend Miriam, who died of cancer late last year, told me last summer that she had recently visited a shaman who induced, as Miriam’s request, an experience with ayahuasca, the psychedelic plant used ritualistically in South America. It was a terrifying event for Miriam, but in the end, cleansing, and healing, she said. I won’t reveal what she told me she learned, but I can tell you that it left me sitting at her table weeping over its profundity — in particular, what she learned about the roots and the character of the intense suffering she had been going through for a decade. The ayahuasca experience did not save her from cancer, but it helped prepare her to die. I didn’t know what to make of it, personally. I had no doubt at all that her experience was real, and healing. But was it entirely contained within the subconscious depths of her mind — or did the chemicals in the plant unlock the doors of perception of a reality beyond her ordinary cognition? Miriam, who was New Agey, would not have seen the difference. And maybe there’s wisdom in that. For her, a woman facing death, it was all useful to bring her to a point of peace.

The question doesn’t resolve itself, however: did she hallucinate, or did she experience a dimension of reality closed off to most of us? I recall someone very close to me once coming out of a depression after trying LSD. He reported that the drug awakened him to the beauty of the world, and to the immanent presence of God within all things. It was a chemically induced mystical experience that made him aware of a reality that he had not been able to see, so focused was he on his depression and rationalism. The interesting thing about it was that he knew that he had been in a drug-induced hallucinatory state, but believed that this artificial state had revealed to him things that existed beneath his standard perception — and that changed his life. He went on to become a Christian.

As I recall — this was college — most of the people he dropped acid with saw it as nothing more than something fun and weird to do. He was the only person I knew who interpreted that drug experience as a theophany.

Here is a riveting account from National Geographic Adventure of an ayahuasca experience in the Amazon. The author, Kira Salek, is an American who was raised atheist, but who struggled with depression as an adult. In his past, she had an ayahuasca experience that freed him from depression. For this piece, she goes back to the jungle for another experience, to write about it. She explains that the experience involves going deeply into one’s psyche — being dragged is more like it — and confronting one’s demons. The thing is, the shamans who administer the drug do not believe the demons are hallucinatory manifestations of internal psychological states, but actual spirit entities that attach oneself to the brokenness inside of us, and try to destroy us. From the piece:

I work on controlling my breathing. But such thick darkness. Clouds of bats and demonlike faces. Black lightning. Black walls materializing before me no matter which way I turn. Closer and closer, the darkness surrounding me, trapping me. I can barely breathe.

“Hamilton!” I belt out. “Help me!”

“On my way, Kira,” he says calmly. “Hang in there. Don’t give in to the fear.”

That’s the trick: Don’t give in to it. But it’s much easier said than done. I must tell it that I’m stronger. I must tell it that it has no effect upon me. But it does. I’m terrified. The darkness presses against me; it wants to annihilate me.

Hamilton is standing over me now, rattling his chakapa, singing his spirit songs. Inexplicably, as he does this, the darkness backs off. But more of it comes in a seemingly endless stream. I see dark, raging faces. My body begins to contort; it feels as if little balls are ripping through my flesh, bursting from my skin. The pain is excruciating. I writhe on the mattress, screaming. Hamilton calls over one of his helpers—a local woman named Rosa—with directions to hold me down.

“Tell the spirits to leave you with ease,” Hamilton says to me.

“They won’t!” I yell out. And now they appear to be escaping en masse from my throat. I hear myself making otherworldly squealing and hissing sounds. Such high-pitched screeches that surely no human could ever make. All the while there is me, like a kind of witness, watching and listening in horror, feeling utterly helpless to stop it. I’ve read nothing about this sort of experience happening when taking ayahuasca. And now I see an image of a mountain in Libya, a supposedly haunted mountain that I climbed a year and a half ago, despite strong warnings from locals. A voice tells me that whatever is now leaving my body attached itself to me in that place.

Haunted mountains. Demonic hitchhikers. Who would believe this? Yet on and on it goes. The screaming, the wailing. My body shakes wildly; I see a great serpent emerging from my body, with designs on Hamilton. He shakes his chakapa at it, singing loudly, and after what seems like an infinite battle of wills, the creature leaves me. I grab the vomit bucket and puke for several minutes. Though my stomach has been empty for over eight hours, a flood of solid particles comes out of me.

The visions fade. My body stops shaking. Hamilton takes his seat again and Rosa releases her grip on me. I examine the vomit bucket with a flashlight: Black specks the size of dimes litter orange-colored foam. The shamans believe that what we vomit out during a ceremony is the physical manifestation of dark energy and toxins being purged from the body. The more that comes out, the better.

“Good work, Kira,” Hamilton says to me from across the room.

My entire body hurts. My head throbs. I can hear the others in the room, whispering to each other. I had barely been conscious of their experiences, they had seemed so quiet by comparison.

“Is Kira OK?” Christy asks Hamilton.

“She just had a little exorcism,” Hamilton explains with relish. “She’s fine.”

“Bloody hell; was that what it was?” says Katherine.

“She just picked up some travelers,” Hamilton says. “We had to get rid of them.”

“Bloody hell!” Katherine says again. “Is this what you’d consider a normal ceremony, Hamilton?”

“About one out of a hundred ceremonies is as intense as this one. We kicked some real demon butt tonight.”

The apprentices agree that they’ve never experienced anything as intense as tonight’s ceremony. I hope it’s not true, though. It’s hardly a distinction worth celebrating.

“Once you get the upper hand over demons energetically,” Hamilton says to me, “they leave you without any trouble. That’ll come. One thing at a time.”

Read the whole thing, all the way to its startling end. This is an exorcism, and close to what Christian priests do when they engage in ritual exorcism. Yet it was accomplished with a hallucinogenic drug administered by a pagan shaman. I do not know what to make of this; I am a believing Christian, after all, and would never open myself to this kind of ceremony. Nor do I accept the shamanic cosmos (read the story to the end for more explanation). But I suspect the shaman’s account of what happened there corresponds more to the truth than a Western psychologist’s account. Still, there is enough in this piece to make just about anybody want to put it on a shelf and not deal with it.

But there it is.

The most important sociological question Douthat raises is about the future of faith. If it is the case that individuals and cultures can lose the ability to perceive the numinous, then it follows that the religious sense can die, as a matter of sociobiological evolution. That is, having lost the ability to perceive spiritual reality, it will not be possible under normal circumstances to regain it, because it will literally not make sense.

Think of the Piraha tribe of the Amazon, written about by the American linguist Daniel Everett, who went there as a young missionary to learn their language and convert them to Christianity. No missionaries prior to him could figure out why this tribe was so immune to the Gospel. What he found out was that they had no way to conceive that the Gospel story could be true. For the Piraha, the only way a story is believable is if it is related to them by someone who experienced is himself, or who heard it from someone who experienced it himself. The entire past is cut off from them, then, and in most respects, so is the world outside of their jungle habitat. Their minds simply cannot process what they are not prepared to consider. The natives ended up deconverting Everett from Christianity, but he did not come to believe in their own cosmos of jungle gods, whom they saw among them. This experience living for 30 years among the Piraha did leave Everett still mystified by the connections between subjectivity, culture, and knowledge of ultimate reality. (Everett’s theories are not without controversy; read about it here.)

Your thoughts?

UPDATE: Here is Kira Salak’s National Geographic Adventure piece from 2006 about her visit to Libya, and her ascent of the “haunted mountain.” Excerpt:

We rendezvous with the Tuareg man who is supposed to guide us for the next few days. But after Magdy explains our plans, he says, “To hell with you,” and walks off. This becomes the usual reaction whenever we approach any Tuareg about guiding us, and all because I want to visit to the “Devil’s Hill.” Kaff Jinoon. It’s a curious series of eroded sandstone peaks jutting from the dunes north of Ghat. Unique not only for its two obelisk-like spires, or horns, it’s also believed to be Grand Central Station for genies—spirits—from thousands of miles around. And not just any spirits, but those most wicked and base. The spirits of torturers and murderers. The spirits of those wrongly slain. Lost and sickened souls, attracted to the vortex that is Kaff Jinoon.


Clapperton and his companion Dr. Walter Oudney camped near the mountain, to the terror and vexation of their Tuareg guides who believed that small, red-bearded devils lived on it and caused mischief to all who passed, while spirits taking on the appearance old men materialized out of the night to terrify lone travelers. It was considered akin to suicide to go anywhere near the dreaded mountain. Wrote Clapperton, “[My guide] Hatita said he would not go up it for all the dollars in the world.” And it’s the same story now in Ghat, no Tuareg willing to travel with us to the mountain, no matter how much we’ll pay. They all have their own stories. There were the French tourists a few years back. They drove out to the mountain, thinking it’d be a good joke to climb it, but as soon as they got out of their car they were attacked by swarms of wasps. Libyan authorities found the group wandering along the road, unable to get in their vehicle, their faces covered with stings. And this, I’m told, was minor. Much worse has occurred. Like the Libyan soldier at a checkpoint near the mountain who saw something so awful, so terrifying, that he went into shock and couldn’t walk for a year. To this day, he is unable to speak of what he saw. And then there is the man who swore by Allah that he saw an entire army division march around the base of the mountain one night—a ghost army, that disappeared before his very eyes.

Jinoon and its vicinity has been considered a stomping ground for evil genies for centuries. Intrepid Arab traveler Ibn Battuta first wrote about this desert in the 14th century, describing it as a place “haunted by demons; if the [traveler] be alone, they make sport of him and disorder his mind, so that he loses his way and perishes.” Western explorers journeying in the Fezzan regarded such tales with derision, determined to see the mountain and to try to climb it. In 1822, Dr. Oudney made the first recorded attempt, reaching the mountain’s 4,500-foot-high saddle and returning without incident. “The Doctor has got a high reputation for courage for his visit to Jinoon,” Clapperton wrote about his friend’s successful climb, “and every newcomer is sure to ask him about it.” Later explorers were less successful. British adventurer John Richardson attempted the climb in 1853, getting lost on the descent and wandering in the desert, near-death, for two days. Robust German explorer Heinrich Barth had an almost identical experience in 1857. I am determined to see the place. I want to climb the mountain. we decide to go there unguided.

Magdy tells me that Omar No.2 pulled him aside last night to ask if I’m crazy. Don’t I know that it’s lunacy to climb Jinoon? If Magdy were a truly responsible guide, he would advise me against it before something awful happens. But Magdy shrugged. He is a cosmopolitan with a degree in French Literature. He lives as far from this corner of the Fezzan as a person in Anchorage lives from Tucson. What does he know? If I want to risk my life climbing a mountain haunted by demons, so be it. Insha’allah, God willing, I’ll make it to the top and back down again.

They did make it up and back again, these WEIRDoes. But if the Peruvian shamans are to be believed, Kira Salak brought something down the mountain with her.

Did the Tuaregs know something Salak did not? Were they superstitious … or wiser?




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