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Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science: Part 4 of 6

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IV. The Born Again Experience.

I prayed harder and just then I felt like everything I was saying was being sucked into a vacuum. When I stood up, I felt like thin air; I had to brace myself. I felt this energy, it was a kind of an ecstasy." -- Cathy.

"Something began to flow in me -- a kind of energy . . . Then came the strange sensation that water was not only running down my cheeks, but surging through my body as well, cleansing and cooling as it went." -- Colson.

"It was a beautiful feeling of well-being, warmth and loving . . . I went home and all night long these warm feelings kept coming up in my body." -- Jean.

"I felt something real warm overwhelming me. It was in just a moment, yet it was like an eternity. . . a joy, such a joy hit me with such a tremendous force that I jumped . . . and ran." -- Helen. (From Conway & Siegelman, Snapping, pp 24, 32, 12, 31)

For many Christians, being born again is unlike anything they have ever known. A sense of personal conviction, yielding or release followed by indescribable peace and joy -- this is the stuff of spiritual transformation. Once experienced it is unforgettable, and many people can recall small details years later. In the aftermath of such a moment, an alcoholic may stop drinking or a criminal fugitive may hand himself in to the authorities. A housewife may sail through her tasks for weeks, flooded by a sense of God's love flowing through her to her children. A normally introverted programmer may begin inviting his co-workers to church.

This experience, more than any other, creates a sense of certainty about Christian belief and so makes belief impervious to rational argumentation. A believer knows what he or she has experienced and seen. Even converts who don't feel radically transformed after praying "the sinner's prayer" may feel overwhelmed by God's presence during subsequent prayer or worship. Evangelical and Pentecostal forms of Christianity that are gaining ground around the world particularly emphasize emotional peaks such as faith healing or speaking in tongues. Worshipers may get caught up in exuberant singing, shouting, dancing and tears of joy.

What most Christians don't know is that these experiences are not unique to Christianity. In fact, the quotations that you just read come from two born again Christians, a Moonie, and an encounter group participant. Their words are similar, because the born again experience doesn't require a specific set of beliefs. It requires a specific social/emotional process, and the dogmas or explanations are secondary.

Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman have written an excellent book on what they call sudden personality change, or "snapping." The first edition of their book, Snapping focused on small counter-cultural cults and self-help groups that sprang up in the 1960's and 1970's such as Hare Krishna, Transcendental Meditation, EST, Mind Dynamics, Unification Church, Scientology, and others.

When asked about whether Evangelical Christianity might fit the pattern, Conway and Siegelman were reluctant to say yes. Today they admit, "In America today, increasingly, that line [between a cult and a legitimate religion] cannot be categorically drawn. . . Our research raised serious questions concerning the techniques used to bring about conversion in many evangelical groups."(p. 37).

Conversion is a process that begins with social influence. As sociologists like to say, our sense of reality is socially constructed. We will come back to this later. Suffice for now to say that missionary work typically begins with simple offers of friendship or conversations about shared interests. As a prospective converts are drawn in, a group may envelope them in warmth, good will, thoughtful conversations and playful activities, always with gentle pressure toward the group reality.

In revival meetings or retreats, semi-hypnotic processes draw a potential convert closer to the toggle point. These include including repetition of words, repetition of rhythms, evocative music, and Barnum statements (messages that seem personal but apply to almost everyone -- like horoscopes). Because of the positive energy created by the group, potential converts become unwitting participants in the influence process, actively seeking to make the group's ideas fit with their own life history and knowledge. Factors that can strengthen the effect include sleep deprivation or isolation from a person's normal social environment. An example would be a late night campfire gathering with an inspirational story-teller and altar call at Child Evangelism's "Camp Good News."

These powerful social experiences culminate in conversion, a peak experience in which the new converts experience a flood of relief. Until that moment they have been consciously or unconsciously at odds with the group center of gravity. Now, they may feel that their darkest secrets are known and forgiven. They may experience the kind of joy or transcendence normally reserved for mystics. And they are likely to be bathed in love and approval from the surrounding group, which mirrors their experience of God.

The otherworldly mental state that I refer to as the domain of mystics is known in clinical settings as a "transcendence hallucination," but this term fails to reflect how normal and profound the experience can be as a part of human spirituality. The transcendence hallucination is an acute sense of connection with a reality that lies beyond and behind this natural plane. It typically lasts for just a few seconds or minutes but may leave profound impression that lasts a lifetime. For a Christian it may be interpreted as an encounter with a supernatural person -- Jesus, or an angel. A fan of the paranormal might be convinced of an encounter with space aliens or ghosts. More often, the person has a disembodied sense of connection accompanied by intense feelings of joy, wonder, peacefulness or alternately terror, depending on the context.

A transcendence hallucination can be triggered by neurological events like a seizure, stroke, or migraine aura; or by a drug such as psilocybin, but it also can be triggered by over or under-stimulation of the brain. Some mystics from the past have described or even drawn these events with such impressive detail that a diagnostic hypothesis is possible. Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval mystic created scores of drawings that show the visual field distorted in keeping with a migraine aura.

In modern times, author Karen Armstrong describes the seizures that she first thought to be triggered spiritually. In discussing an altered state known as Kundalini awakening, one migraine sufferer commented, "I usually don't follow any of the mystic/esoteric stuff, but I must say it is kind of strange to see all my symptoms lined up like that outside of a western/medical context." I should emphasize, though, that these altered states don't depend on some kind of neurological damage or pathology. They can be unforgettable, peak experiences for normal people, long sought by those who care about the spiritual dimension of life. Sensory deprivation, fasting, meditation, rhythmic drumming, or crowd dynamics have all been used systematically to elicit altered states in normal people.

Since we humans are meaning-makers to the core, such a powerful experience demands an explanation. But for most of human history, naturalistic explanations simply were unavailable. "Lacking understanding and with no reliable method for investigating the phenomenon, people through the ages have grappled imaginatively with their experiences, looking to some higher order and ascribing these abrupt changes in awareness to a source outside the body. They have been explained as messages from beyond or gifts of revelation and enlightenment, personal communications that could only be delivered by a universal being of infinite dimensions, a cosmic force that comprehends all space, time and earthly matter."(30) Whether in fact, the experience of transcendence offers a glimpse of something beyond the natural sphere is argued hotly even by scholars in the field of neurotheology. Needless to say, some supernatural hypotheses are more compatible with what we know about ourselves and the world around us than others.

In an evangelical conversion context like a revival meeting or missionary work, religious interpretations of the snapping experience are provided both before and after it occurs. These explanations become the foundation stones on which whole castles of beliefs later will be constructed. The authorities who triggered the otherworldly experience are trusted implicitly, which gives them the power to now transform the convert's world view in accordance with their own theology. Conversion activities can be harmful because all too often authorities use this power to promote a kind of tribalism that is built around exclusive truth claims and Iron Age moral priorities. The unforgettable born again experience gets used to justify beliefs that may be factually or morally bankrupt.

The conversion process as I have described it sounds sinister, as if manipulative groups and hypnotic leaders deliberately ply their trade to suck in the unsuspecting and take over their minds. I don't believe this is usually the case. Rather, natural selection is at play. Over millennia of human history, religious leaders have hit on social/emotional techniques that work to win converts, just as individual believers have hit on spiritual practices they find satisfying and belief systems that fit how we process information. Techniques that don't trigger powerful spiritual experiences simply die out. Those that do get used, refined, and handed down.

With few exceptions the evangelists, from mega-church ministers to "friendship missionaries," are unaware of the powerful psychological tools they wield. They are persuasive in part because they genuinely believe they are doing good. After all, they have their own born again experiences to convince them that they are promoting the Real Thing. Consider, for example, the Apostle Paul, whose Damascus Road event (possibly a temporal lobe seizure) transformed his moral priorities and sustained a lifetime of missionary devotion. What decent person wouldn't want to share the secret to healing and happiness? The challenge is trying to figure out exactly what that secret is. As I say to my daughters, it is not enough to be well intentioned--even joyfully, generously so. We also have to be right.

Essentials:
Flo Conway & Jim Siegelman, Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change.
Sharon Begley. "Your Brain on Religion," Newsweek May 7, 2001.

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