Saturday, November 15, 2008

Inside the Mind of a Religious Mystic

Dan Barker has been on a speaking tour and came to CSUS to speak. He had a number of interesting things to say. From his teens until his thirties, Barker was an evangelical, fundamentalist preacher. As he matured, and was exposed to people with different views, an interest in learning led him to ask more and more questions about the rigid, dogmatic worldview he had constructed. When he was deep in the faith, like lots of Christians, he was utterly convinced that the particular reading and doctrine that he and his church peers took away from the Bible was the “one, true reading” and that only those who agreed completely could go to heaven. All others would be cast into eternal torment for their heresies.

But as Barker began to realize that there were other reasonable, earnest, decent Christians out there who had a different view about the exact doctrines of the Bible, doubts began to creep in. At first, Barker slowly began to broaden his circle of inclusion for “good” Christians, reasoning to himself that perhaps some of what he had taken to be an obvious, literal truth in a passage of the Bible could be reasonably construed in another way. And he even began to suspect that some of those passages might be metaphorical, not a literal transcription of truth straight from the realm of God. A broadening base of experience, an honest look around the world, and some courageous self-critique inevitably led him to doubt the complete self-assurance that he once had.

Barker described the mystical experiences he had of God during this period in great detail. On a daily basis he said he could sense a presence, a voice, and a guiding force in his thoughts. Barker, like a significant percentage of humans, has/had a strong tendency towards auditory and mental hallucinations. He says that we could think of the distribution of people across a bell curve of a propensity for religious experience. For people like him out at the edge of the curve, the feelings of transcendence, elation, and a non-sensory awareness of a divine presence are powerful and undeniable. If you couple that propensity with the cultural expectations of charismatic, evangelical Christianity, the result is people who are utterly convinced that God is a real presence in the world, and their sect is the authentic means of access to him. The innate neurological dispositions of lots of human beings are going to predispose them to find this notion of the “testimony of the Holy Spirit in your heart” to be completely plausible and familiar. Of course, if they had been raised in a Buddhist, Sikh, or Zoroastrian cultural tradition, they would have attached a different significance to those same feelings. And we must assume that if someone like this received a robust scientific education that included some neuro-biological basics about human dispositions towards altered conscious states, then the results would have been quite different. Given that we know that the human nervous system is capable of falsely, producing a wide range of quirky, strange experiences, it’s a crime that so many people remain in the dark about what they are going through. And it’s also a tragedy that ignorant, religious zealots fill the heads of these people with their Stone Age supernaturalism. The God delusion has such a deep hold on their minds and lives that many of those people will never be able to struggle free the way Barker did.

Take a look at Barker’s recent book for a surprising and internal account of someone whose consciousness has been throttled by a religious delusion: Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists.

Barker is not also the co-founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and the co-host of Freethought Radio, a nationally syndicated talk show about atheism.


Bror Erickson said...

Of course not all religious people base their belief on experiences. Some of us reject other beliefs on simple rules of logic, other interpretations of the Bible on grammatical grounds etc.
I am very firmly convinced of the correctness of Lutheranism for example. I do not believe based on any experience I have ever had. I don't know that I have ever had one.
Of course, I have never thought people who belong to other Christian churches were going to hell because they disagreed with me on some interpretation of the Bible, either. In that regard maybe I am a little different than the young Barker.

Anonymous said...
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Eric Sotnak said...

Bror Erickson wrote:
"I am very firmly convinced of the correctness of Lutheranism for example."

Does that include Luther's doctrine of the bondage of the will? If so, do you read Luther as a full-blown predestinarian?

Jamie said...

First, while we shouldn't base beliefs solely on personal experiences, they are an integral part of the total experience. We use reason AND experience AND things we learn AND faith as the basis of faith.

So don't discount experience just because its 'subjective'. I would argue that reason and logic can be just a subjective as experience because nothing happens in a vacuum! Every person is influenced by culture, society, family, education, etc and it is very hard to look at anything with pure objectivity.

Also, regarding the other comments, I don't think the question of whether of not Lutheranism is correct is even relevant. The only questions we really should ask is "Who is Jesus?" and "What opinion do you hold about Him?"

That should always be the starting point and ending point of any discussion about Christian life and faith.

Eric Sotnak said...

Jamie wrote:
"I don't think the question of whether of not Lutheranism is correct is even relevant."

Indeed. But as a Lutheran Pastor, I thought Rev. Erickson might have an interesting perspective on what has always semed to me to be the stickiest point in Luther's theology. Interesting digressions can be fun.

Anonymous said...

Did Dan Barker debate Michael Butler?

Anonymous said...

If you are an atheist I invite you to
to the debate section to get discussion going concerning atheism. We are trying to get more discussions going so feel free to post. That includes you Matt.

Jamie said...

Eric you said - "Interesting digressions can be fun."

Sure, but only if you're trying to keep from discussing the real issues.

If you want to nit-pick(sp?) about religious doctrines and theologies (which are man's practices and thoughts about God) that's fine. But if you want to deal with the fundamental issue (does God exist) bring your best stuff, or go home. But if you're already at home, then that, oh well, whatever, i digress...

Anonymous said...

I think the key question is how to test if a given belief system is true. If a belief system is based on mystical experience and we have fairly conclusive non-mystical explanations for them are they still valid reasons to believe?

The decision to me seems more based on presuppositions than the facts at hand. Like Dan Barker I am on the edge of the bell curve for religious experiences. I have experienced cosmic oneness while meditating, been enveloped in the blinding light of god, etc. At the same time I have had similar experiences while on psychedelics. that leads me to believe that they are physical experiences. If i take a physical substance into a physical body i fail to see how that could then produce a non-physical result (ie access to the supernatural). That is exactly what seems to happen though. That leads me to believe that I am not a reliable judge of what constitutes physical experiences.

Given that, the fact that a science based worldview can make predictions seems like much more compelling evidence for it's veracity than mysticism in regard to spirituality. But then again perhaps i don't know what i am talking about. It wouldn't be the first time.

Is there a reason to believe in any spiritual doctrine that is not based on either first or second hand mysticism?

Anonymous said...

It reminds me so much of the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. I thought we agreed that the conversion experience of another is not really a valid basis for belief. Are you stooping to the level of the Christians?

Sam Harris believes "the world is stranger than we as atheists make it out to be"

a couple of questions)

Because drugs produce effects such as hallucinations in the visual cortex, does that mean vision is not real?

If not, then why would drug induced spiritual experiences prove that they are not real?

Bror Erickson said...

Sorry forgot to check back here after the first day.
In any case. Jamie, as a Lutheran I fully agree with you the question is about Christ. That is the fundamental and most important. Any true Lutheran would tell you that.
To answer Sotnak. Lutherans are bound to the Bible and Book of Concord, not to everything Luther wrote. However, I do tend to agree with what Luther wrote in the Bondage of the Will. Though it has been quite some time since I last read it. I am though a predestinarian, not in a Calvinest sense, and at the same time I would not classify myself as a determinist in the philosophical realm. But in spiritual matters we are dead.
I will again be gone for some time.

Anonymous said...

If so many people are prone to these experiences, you'd think an intelligent person could come up with a better response to such people than dissing them all.

As someone who has such experiences, I value atheists' and skeptics' contributions to the discussion about them, along with the explanations they offer for them. I agree that there is no evidence for any cause besides neurology, and that it'd be foolish to base one's decisions on those feelings without using one's conscience and reason as filters.

But then, the same could be said about love.