One of the reasons that faith is so strong among religious believers is that they come to ‘feel’ the presence of spiritual forces (whether felt as Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Mother Earth, alien beings, or whatever deity or force they come to believe in). These experiences can range in intensity, from a feeling of ‘something higher’ during the course of prayer or meditation, to a full-on mystical experience.
But separating what is objective from what is subjective and psychologically triggered in such experiences is very difficult.
If I experience the sprinkle of droplets on my head, I can look up to verify if is raining or whether I have inadvertently ventured too close to the sprinkler! In other words, I can visually verify the droplets falling on my head, and I can track down the source of the droplets using my senses and my empirical understanding of likely sources. Is the sky blue? If yes, then I look around for a sprinkler.
But if I am praying and feeling the ‘spirit’ flow through my body, I cannot verify whether this perceived force is emanating from outside myself, because it does not involve an empirical process that can be verified objectively by the senses. Therein lies the problem of appealing to religious experience as a justification for one’s faith – one cannot verify the source of such feelings outside one’s self.
Let me share an example of an intense experience that I once felt, and the difficulties involved in deciphering its cause. When I was in my early 20s, I decided to meditate once after a day of high intensity martial arts training (my muscles were thoroughly exhausted). Because of the training, my body was very relaxed, and I was probably still flushed at that time with endorphins (the so-called “runners high”), which act like a natural dose of morphine in alleviating pain when the body is subject to trauma.
I had read the book by Gopi Krishna about channelling a mystical energy called Kundalini, and my mother had reported regular experiences of this energy, so I was interested in seeing whether I could produce a more intense euphoria than what I was already experiencing.
I began by focussing on the feeling of giddiness in my navel region, visualising it as a flow of energy slowly expanding upwards. The more I focused on this feeling, the more that it grew in intensity. I then began visualising the same feeling in my head. I was feeling very relaxed and giddy throughout most of my upper body, when suddenly the energy intensified dramatically. My body rumbled like an earthquake. My heart pulsated rapidly. I felt a torrent of heavy, pleasurable sensation burst from my head region to my groin, flowing down like a mighty river. My head filled up with a golden light, and I felt my body being pushed upwards, which I tried to pull back from, unsure of what might happen.
I imagine the experience felt much like the rush of heroin to a first time user.
Therein lies the problem – were the forces I felt anything more than a saturated release of endorphins that make up the body’s natural chemistry (but are normally released at much lower levels, unless replicated by a dose of morphine or heroin)? If I put aside the ancient Vedic literature and stories of swamis and yogis who view Kundalini as a higher state of consciousness, even enlightenment, then the answer is probably not.
At the end of the day, I did not levitate five feet off the ground, or teleport to Venus. I simply had an ecstatic experience, which the body is fully capable of producing through natural processes.
So in terms of the feelings of peace and warmth that one feels when they pray, or the love, joy and rapture when a Christian raises their hands and calls to Jesus, are we talking about anything more than a psychologically triggered sensation that mirrors everyday emotions? Do such experiences really point to the existence and presence of a divine force outside oneself? If one is honest with oneself, the answer is probably not. Occam’s Razor states that the simplest explanation is usually the right one, and in these cases, the experiences are perfectly explainable by natural psychological and biological functions.
The fact that believing in God makes one feel good does not make such a belief true. Karl Marx once described religion as the opiate of the people, because it dulls them into accepting everyday reality (and its unjust social order) through an other-worldly orientation. But it is also an opiate in a much more literal sense – people become chemically dependent on the pleasure they experience during the course of prayer and meditation, and come to accept its otherworldly reality on the basis that they feel they directly experience it.
To the extent that faith makes people feel relaxed, peaceful, loved and ritually cleansed, that is not a bad thing. To the extent that they are deluded into thinking that it is something outside themselves responsible for those feelings, this can be a bad thing, because it leads to dependency on a false belief system.