Measuring Religious Experiences

Image: Shutterstock

Image: Shutterstock

Religious experiences have long been mysterious events that only the mystics have understood. However, whether you are a mystic or not, how do you explain a religious experience? How do you account for life-altering religious conversions, near death experiences, or simply worship and prayer? And, can these experiences even be measured or explained in any way?

Richard Gunderman addressed some of these questions in his recent article on The Atlantic entitled “Sensing God and the Limits of Neuroscience.” In the article, Gunderman responds to an article posted by neurologist Oliver Sacks on why religious or “other-worldly” experiences can be explained in material or “this-worldly” terms. Sacks argues that any religious experience is merely a neurologic abnormality or a misfiring of electrical activity in the brain, meaning that anyone who has a religious experience is simply mistaking abnormal neurologic events to be spiritual or transcendent occurrences.

Gunderman, in response, seeks to debunk this understanding of religious experiences. Gunderman argues that associating religious experiences with misfirings in the brain really doesn’t tell us anything new or unique about the nature of any sort of transcendent reality. Gunderman asks,

What if the transcendent is no different from any other aspect of human experience, in at least one crucial respect? Namely, that there are both false and true experiences of the transcendent, just as there are false and true experiences associated with the senses, with reason, and with feeling.

In other words, the fact that electrochemical activity in the brain takes place does nothing to help us distinguish between right and wrong, or non-religious and religious experiences. Sure, some individuals seem to have a greater propensity for certain religious experiences, but this does not mean that such experiences are necessarily abnormal or “wrong.” All experiences, whether religious or not, are associated with patterns or changes in the electrochemical activity in the brain. Even ethereal experiences such as love, beauty, and goodness are associated with changes in brain activity. Therefore, to explain an experience on the basis of neurochemical activity in the brain is neither to affirm nor discount that experience, it is simply to describe the experience. If one wants to affirm or discount a religious experience based on neurochemical activity in the brain, it would require a proper definition of that experience, which is more difficult than it sometimes appears.

Gunderman uses music as an example of something that is, like religious experiences, difficult to define because it is a material reality that can invoke a sense of the transcendent. In describing music, Gunderman says:

A physicist might come along and say that what I call music is merely the scraping of horse’s hairs across cat gut, a mechanical vibration in a particular frequency range. A neurologist might come along and explain that I am merely experiencing the transduction of kinetic energy into electrical energy as processed by neurons in the auditory and higher associative cortices of the brain. And yet, there is something about the music that is hard to reckon in such terms. It would be like saying that a passionate embrace is merely the pressing of flesh on flesh.

Therefore, even though things such as religious experiences, music, love, beauty, and goodness can be described to a certain degree in scientific terms, they cannot be fully understood in those terms alone. Many of the greatest scientists, including Newton and Einstein, knew this. They understood that humans only know in part what the divine knows in full. Science is extremely helpful and necessary in showing us the part that we can know, but we should not begin to think that science can show us the whole of what can be known.