The Worst Nightmares of Born-Again Christians

04/01/2015 08:00 am ET | Updated May 31, 2015

As anthropologists like Ruth Benedict, Dorothy Eggan, and Barbara Tedlock have long told us, dreaming has cultural as well as psychological dimensions of meaning. People's dream experiences reflect not only their personal interests and concerns, but also the interests and concerns of the broader social groups to which they belong. This makes the study of dreams a valuable source of insight into collective life. New research technologies, such as those available at the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb), are making it possible to explore cultural themes and sociological patterns in dreaming with great flexibility, precision, and transparency.

One of the most promising areas for studying collective themes and patterns in dreaming has to do with people's religious beliefs. Organized religions provide systems of meaning, value, and life guidance for large groups of people. Based on the "continuity hypothesis" that dream content accurately reflects waking life concerns, we might expect that members of religious traditions would be prone to have dreams reflecting especially meaningful and emotionally salient aspects of their traditions.

How can we test that idea? Here's one quick way to do it. Drawing on the word search function of the SDDb, I selected the "worst nightmare" reports of at least 15 words in length from American adults who identified themselves as "Born-Again Christians." After removing the handful of non-dream reports in the two sets, I ended up with 48 "worst nightmare" reports from Born-Again Christian women and 50 from Born-Again Christian men. These are good-sized sets for the present purposes--just big enough to do some statistical analysis, but not too big to prevent careful reading of the narrative texts.

The first observation to note about these nightmares is how similar they are to the nightmares of people from all religious and cultural backgrounds. Fears of harm to one's children, falling from high places, being attacked by bad people--these concerns are not exclusive to Born-Again Christians. They reflect common nightmare themes shared by people everywhere.

"On a stormy night, my young son slipped out of the van's passenger seat, and was washed away in the water-filled ditch."

"I dreamt I was in a box and couldn't get out....I called out, but couldn't vocalize anything."

"I was walking in front of a store with my husband and was attacked over the back of the head. I was hurt badly and never saw the blow coming."

The second observation is that many of these dreams do include direct references to Christian beliefs, practices, and beings. In the women's set, 7 of the 48 dreams (15%) had at least one reference to religion, and for the men's set it was 5 of 50 (10%). These are slightly higher frequencies for religious references than I have found in more general collections of dreams.

Looking more closely at the dreams with explicit religious references, four of the Born-Again Christian men were battling the devil or a demon, and three of the women were interacting with demonic beings.

"Devil dreams....being lifted out of bed and flung around the room or the house."

"I was being chased by the devil to take the mark of the beast--I just kept running and begging God to help me."

In one of the women's dreams, she tried to use a standard religious method to fight the demons, and to her dismay it did not work:

"I was chased and attacked by demons. I tried to 'rebuke' them in the name of Christ, as I've heard you should do in real life if ever confronted by demons, but they just kept coming toward me. They were hitting me, throwing me around, and otherwise tormenting me. I woke up in a cold sweat."

In one of the men's dreams, his nightmare antagonist turns out to be the members of his own church:

"I was kicked out of my church because the people there had learned what I had done before I became a Born-Again Christian."

In a recent article in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Patrick McNamara and I looked at the appearance of "supernatural agents" in dreams. Supernatural agents can be defined as non-human entities with autonomous powers and intentions. Their bodies may or may not be visible, but they do have minds and they frequently have unusual powers far beyond the capabilities of ordinary agents.

We are still trying to figure out the best ways of identifying supernatural agents in dreams. But there can be little doubt that these nightmares from Born-Again Christians include many supernatural agents--at least 10 (20%) in the men's dreams and 12 (25%) in the women's. In addition to devils and demons, the men's dreams mentioned monsters, witches, and disembodied voices, while the women's dreams had gargoyles, the Holy Spirit, a detached but moving hand, and an evil vacuum cleaner. The imprint of Born-Again Christian religious beliefs can be seen in almost all of these cases.

These brief comments could, of course, be developed into a much more detailed analysis. Further research needs to be done to determine if the word usage frequencies from Born-Again Christians are higher or lower than those from people of different religious backgrounds, or people with no interest in religion at all. For now, we can use these initial observations to affirm that the dreams of Born-Again Christians do provide accurate reflections of their religious beliefs and concerns. And this adds new empirical support to the classic anthropological idea mentioned at the outset that dreaming can be studied as a valuable source of insight into cultural and social dynamics.