Humanist Perspectives: issue 152: Dying and Supernatural Experience

things that go bump
Dying & Supernatural Experience
by James Alcock

illustration by Zela Lobb

illustration by Zela Lobb

‘There are no atheists in foxholes.’
‘Atheists always find God on their deathbeds.’

Although not true, such sayings reflect both common anxiety about death and the role that religion plays in assuaging that anxiety. Despite the success of modern science and its importance in our daily lives, many people still turn to religion, to the ‘supernatural,’ in times of crisis. For many others, religion is part of their daily lives.

The supernatural is not the province of religion alone. Parapsychology, a common subject of this column, focuses on putative supernatural phenomena, and religion and parapsychology have some important things in common. Both address ‘miracles’ — events that violate the rules of nature as we know them; both presume a dimension to our personalities that is independent of the physical body and therefore not necessarily dimmed by the passing of the flesh; and in both, belief is often bolstered by powerful personal experiences. There are also significant differences, of course. While formal parapsychology posits no deities, most religions assume the existence of one or more intelligent super-beings who may intervene at will in worldly matters — be it through winning wars, curing illnesses, bringing prosperity or sending plagues of locusts. And while parapsychologists attempt through scientific means to demonstrate the reality of miraculous phenomena, religion is accepted on faith, and religious people do not generally seek for ‘proof’ of their god or gods (despite some recent efforts to demonstrate ‘scientifically’ the power of prayer). Another major difference is that formal parapsychology is focussed on research which is reported in journals and conferences. Religion on the other hand involves no research, apart from interpretation of the scriptures, and has a strong social component, being invested with a history, rituals, and a formal organizational hierarchy.

Religion and parapsychology arguably serve a common need to believe that there is more to the human condition than molecules, neurons, and biochemical reactions in the nervous system. Indeed, formal parapsychology began in the late nineteenth century partly as the result of the intellectual despair produced by the conflict between emerging materialistic science and formal religion. For many of its founders, parapsychology was a path towards putting the existence of a soul, and post-mortem survival, on a scientific footing while leaving the seemingly mythological components of religion behind. Thus, to some degree, parapsychological belief may serve for some people as a sort of secular religion.

In any case, whether it be the opiate of the masses, as Marx argued, or the pathway to heaven, religion is a powerful force not only in the individual lives of many hundreds of millions of people, but also in social and political life around the world. Virtually every society, in every era from most ancient to most modern, has borne witness to the power of religion to motivate, inspire, comfort, inflame, unite, divide, or destroy. Every major religion embodies the Golden Rule in some form — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — and religion has motivated countless acts of charity and kindness. At its best, it helps believers cope with disaster, with loss of loved ones, with personal misfortune and illness, and it provides an existential framework that gives both hope and meaning to life and provides a sense of unity amongst those who share a common faith. At its worst, religion has fuelled hatred, racism, inquisitions, crusades and massacres. In each case, an invisible god or gods is presumed, through the medium of ancient texts, to direct mortals to carry out acts that are noble or loving, destructive or vengeful, all to satisfy a heavenly imperative that mere humans can never hope to understand fully. That such belief not only survives to the present but flourishes is not surprising if one examines the psychological foundations of religious belief. If religion is so ubiquitous, so resistant to science and modernism, it is because it provides something very important to its adherents.

One could argue, of course, that what religion provides is the truth. The faithful need no psychological understanding of their beliefs, for their foundation is their Holy Scriptures. Yet, even if one were to accept that one particular religion is right and true — as most believers think of their own faith — then many, if not all, others are mistaken, for there are insurmountable inconsistencies amongst the ‘realities’ described by various religions. Hinduism’s reincarnation and thousand gods are hardly reconcilable with the Christian God, redemption, and everlasting life, for example. Indeed, what is so fascinating about the study of religious belief is that almost nothing seems too bizarre, too straining of reason, to be accepted as truth. In one religion, any form of birth control is a sin, in another, cows are worshipped and protected as though they are divine, and in a third, the dead are left atop tall towers for the birds to eat in order to avoid defiling the sacredness of earth, air, fire and water. To Scientology, once considered a cult and now officially recognized as a religion in Canada, humans are the descendants of omnipotent gods called Thetans, thoughts have mass, and engrams in the brain caused by traumas in prior lives are responsible for our emotional problems. The Mormon faith traces back to Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century, who was allegedly informed by an angel about where golden tablets written in Egyptian by the ‘ancient Hebrews of America’ were buried. Smith apparently found the tablets, translated them into English, and published the translation as The Book of Mormon. Mormonism is now one of the fastest-growing religions in North America.

Thus, it does not seem to matter how reasonable or odd is the content of a religious belief system. This suggests that it is not the set of beliefs per se that is important in bringing forth devotion. And while it would be easy to regard people who hold such beliefs as credulous and foolish, that would be simplistic. Religious belief is not the product of lack of intelligence, or intellectual laziness, or childish anxiety, or unbridled credulity. Such beliefs are passionately held to be true both by educated and unschooled people, by wise and foolish, by sophisticated and naive. To understand such belief, one must look not so much to the believer, but to the process that generates the belief, the functions that it serves, and the experiences that reinforce it.

Religion is typically intertwined with a group’s history and culture. Children are taught religious information in the same way that they are taught that the earth revolves around the sun: it is taught as fact. Moreover, children typically learn that while curiosity and logical analysis are laudable with regard to secular beliefs, religious belief merits different treatment, and that it is inappropriate, or even sinful, to question religious teachings. Resultant guilt aroused by any doubt about the beliefs is a powerful deterrent to future intellectual challenges, and thus the individual learns not to question religious precepts, but to accept them on faith. Thus, the beliefs may remain forever insulated from logic and reason, and very resistant to change.

It is also likely that supernatural beliefs, whether they be religious or parapsychological, will be reinforced by experience, even if the beliefs are false. For example, no matter the gods to which one prays, it is relatively easy to interpret subsequent events as indications that one’s prayers are being answered. Desired outcomes are likely to occur from time to time whether one prays or not, providing intermittent reinforcement for prayer and for belief in its efficacy. Such intermittent reinforcement leads to learning that is the most resistant to decay. Moreover, any apparent failure of prayer is often explained away in terms of ‘God has his reasons,’ or ‘Sometimes, God says no.’

Religion, once inculcated, serves important functions. For one, it provides a major bulwark against anxiety, especially existential anxiety and fear of annihilation. It can provide great comfort in times of threat. It can help deal with the loss of loved ones, especially for those who believe they will meet them again in Heaven, or that this life is only one of many incarnations. Soothing too are such sayings as, ‘This happened for a reason,’ and ‘God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world.’ Further, religion, whatever the content of the belief system, also provides meaning and purpose to life in a way that science cannot, thereby relieving existential anxiety.

Religion also plays an important role in group maintenance. For many people, religion defines who they are, and it promotes group cohesion and social support. Further, it frequently plays an important role in maintaining social order, although it is not unique in this regard. Threat of God’s punishment or fear of returning as a stoat in the next incarnation are powerful agents for social control. Deviation from group beliefs can be seen as threatening to the group, and so religious conformity is often demanded from group members.

For many devoutly religious people, however, religion is more than a set of beliefs, more than a set of written directives contained in holy books, more than something that defines them socially; it is also a vital experience. For example, many people of all faiths have reported having felt the power of a divine presence during prayer. Afterwards, they ‘know’ that their god is real, their belief is unshakeable, and they are understandably uninterested in other, more prosaic, explanations of their apparent encounter with the divine. Some religions even encourage such experience, and the resurgence of charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, sometimes involving speaking in tongues and prophecy, reflects the appeal of such experience.

Such transcendent, or ‘mystical,’ experience has always played a part in religion, and throughout history, sudden and dramatic religious conversions have followed ‘illuminations’ and visions of God. Mystical experience is more common than is generally presumed. In 1974, a survey by sociologist Andrew Greeley found that fully half of the American population reported experiences of union with ‘a powerful spiritual force that draws me outside myself,’ leaving the individual with a certainly that there is life after death.

Such experiences have been widely studied, and from a psychological perspective are understandable as altered states of consciousness that are related to the way the brain works rather than to any supernatural encounter. Psychologist Abraham Maslow devoted much of his career to the study of such experiences, which he referred to as ‘peak experiences’. He described them in terms of a powerful emotional reaction involving feelings of wonder, awe, and humility, combined with disorientation of time and space; they are reported to be so strikingly wonderful that they are often described as a ‘sweet death.’

Altered states of consciousness can occur in a number of forms. The so-called near-death experience is one example, and the out-of-body experience another. Neither is especially puzzling from a psychological/neurological perspective. Altered states are sometimes brought about indirectly through changes in body chemistry. Fasting, for example, a ritualistic activity in many religions, produces hypoglycemia which sometimes leads to hallucinations. Hyperventilation can alter the blood carbon dioxide level and bring about an altered state. Aldous Huxley suggested that the psalm-singing of Christian and Buddhist monks, the chanting of medicine-men and shamans, and the shouting and screaming of revivalists for hours on end bring about an increase in the carbon dioxide level, triggering an altered state; unless singers are highly trained, they exhale a larger volume of oxygen than they inhale. Drugs can also bring about such experiences, and, depending on the context in which the drugs are ingested, the experiences can be interpreted as religious encounters rather than as psychophysiological reactions.

Just because religion, regardless of the specific set of beliefs involved, serves important functions and satisfies important needs, that does not mean that it is the only means of fulfilling those functions and needs; many individuals do very well without any religion at all, and as noted earlier, for others, parapsychological belief may satisfy some of the same functions and needs. The secular humanism movement is another avenue that serves most of the individual and group functions of religion, but without the supernatural component. In any case, it would be unwise to view religion only as a set of supernatural beliefs held in error by adherents. Take away the beliefs, and the needs they serve are not going to disappear. The tremendous appeal of cults and fundamentalism during the 1970s and 80s, as organized mainstream religion was declining in popularity, was in large part a response to those needs.

In Canada, we are fortunate that most religious people are content to live and let live, and view their religious beliefs as a private matter, to be kept separate from work and politics. That is not the case everywhere in the world, where dogmatic religious belief and dogmatic politics often commingle. It is the dogmatism, and not the beliefs themselves, that is the real enemy of freedom and rationality.

James Alcock is Professor of Psychology at York University in Toronto and a Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Books he has written or co-authored include Parapsychology: Science or Magic, Psi Wars and A Textbook of Social Psychology, 6thEd.