Personal Experience – Part 2

According to C. S. Lewis, per­sonal religious experi­ences come from within us. From where within us? Surely not from our gyneco­mastia, islets of Langerhans, or pelvic girdle. No, religious experienc­es trace back to the brain, the conduit of all our experiences.

That physiological fact prompts a ques­tion. Is there something about how the mind works that gives rise to spurious religious experi­ences or makes us prone to bogus religious beliefs?

Absolutely. Let’s start with evidence that we’re all natural-born animists. The developmental psychologist Kathleen Stassen Berger reported the following:

Attempts to measure children’s animism find that many children simultaneously hold rational and magical ideas (Mescheriakov, 2005). This was evident in a series of studies in the United States that explored children’s understanding of death (Bering & Bjorklund, 2004). Young children saw a puppet skit about a sick mouse that was eaten by an alligator. When questioned after­wards, nearly all the children asserted that the mouse was dead and would never live again, but most of those under age 7 thought the dead mouse still felt sick: almost all the children thought the mouse still loved his mother.[1]

Note the facility with which children attribute minds and emo­tions to puppets. Studies conducted by the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom reveal that in­fants attribute personalities even to triangles, squares, and circles that move in animal-like ways.[2] Note as well the quasi-immortality of the mouse’s consciousness.

Animism comes naturally to children, one reason to be skepti­cal of the anthropologist David Eller’s notion of natural atheism. It diminishes as children mature, or at least it gets eclipsed by higher reasoning.

Even as college-educated adults, we exhibit lingering traces of an­imism when we say com­puter programs “want” to write data to hard drives or when we, like Frank Sinatra, plead, “Luck, be a lady to­night.” We may embrace Henri Bergson’s élan vital or teleological arguments. We may perceive wispy shadows of a deistic conductor lurking behind the evolution­ary pro­cess, infusing evolution with a larger purpose, the je ne sais quoi vague­ly intimated by the self-identified agnostic Robert Wright in verbi­age that masterfully grants him plausible deniability.[3] Milder forms of animism help us suspend disbelief when watching movies about ghosts.

Stressed-out people are inclined to see non-existent patterns in grainy images (apophenia). They’re also prone to fall for conspiracy theo­ries, seeing motives that aren’t present.

In 2008 Adam Galinsky and Jennifer Whitson reported in the jour­nal Science how test subjects, without being prompted, seek patterns in their daily experi­ences. A subsequent study con­firmed that anxiety increases one’s inclination to see motive and pur­pose behind the universe and to endorse theories of intelligent de­sign.[4] Schizophrenics exhibiting symptoms are more likely to express belief in God.[5] We hear whispers on the breeze and spot human likeness­es in Martian rocks. The neuro­transmitter dopamine intensifies our pro­pensity to see such pat­terns.[6]

An article in Intelligent Life magazine reported,

If a rat is faced with a puzzle in which food is placed on its left 60% of the time and on the right 40% of the time, it will quickly deduce that the left side is more rewarding, and head there every time, thus achieving a 60% success rate… When Yale undergrad­uates play the game, they try to figure out some underlying pattern, and end up doing worse than the rat… [7]

Gambling casinos exploit our innate tendency to see nonexist­ent patterns. According to games designer Chris Brune, “The [slot] machine may have had this [random] series of payouts in the past,” but drawing inferences about future payouts is merely “the human brain playing a trick on you.”[8]

Users of the Apple iPod com­plained that the shuffle function did not randomly shuffle songs.[9] Users cited the shuffle function’s ten­dency to sometimes play a string of songs by the same artist. In reali­ty, such strings of songs do occur in a random sequence. Regardless, Apple modified the shuffle algo­rithm, making it less random, to satisfy users’ mis­conception of what constitutes a random sequence. Our innate pattern-recognition faculty runs in overdrive and is sometimes too aggressive for our own good.

Michael S. Gazzaniga explains, “It is the [brain’s] left hemisphere that en­gages in the human tendency to find order in chaos, that tries to fit everything into a story and put it into a context. It seems that it is driven to hypothesize about the structure of the world even in the face of evidence that no pattern exists.”[10] Vilayanur S. Ramachan­dran has reported that a patient with a split brain (severed corpus callosum) may have a left brain that is atheistic and a right brain that believes in God.

We also see patterns in one another. Your ability to detect con­sciousness, motivation, and agency in your fellow humans is a gener­ous gift you get from your brain’s right tem­poral parietal junction, a walnut-sized region above and behind your right ear. Deciphering our fellow humans’ thoughts and feelings is essential to our survival as social animals. Being natu­rally adept at social poli­tics, we may not appreci­ate how much intelli­gence it requires or how many of our waking hours are devoted to it.

The forensic psychiatrist J. Anderson Thompson argues that by the time Homo erectus evolved, nearly two million years ago, the most challenging aspect of their environment was one another. According to Robin Dunbar, anthro­pologist at the University of Liverpool, two thirds of human conver­sation is devoted to social gossip.[11] Steven Pinker, in his book How the Mind Works, recom­mends that we keep a journal of our daily activities and then see how many of our thoughts and activities throughout the day would be relevant if we lived in isolation from others rather than being social creatures.

I certainly would not have written this book if I never expected to interact with others, nor would you be reading it. This book is there­fore a monument to the same impulses that helped give rise to religious belief. Damn.

Personal experience of divine agency is likely promoted by what’s called hyperactive agency detection (HAAD). Kurt Gray, Daniel Wegner, and Pascal Boyer observe that HAAD is far less detrimental to our survival than is an under-active instinct to detect agency. It therefore makes perfect sense that evolution would have endowed us with a bias toward perceiving agency and consciousness even where it may not exist. Seek (or not) and ye shall find.

Many vertebrate species use their own minds as a template for understanding other minds. When monkeys watch other monkeys perform physical feats, neurons fire in the watchful monkeys’ brain regions that control physical actions: pre­motor cortex, supplemen­tary motor area, prima­ry somatosensory cortex, and inferior parietal cortex. This enables the audi­ence of watchful monkeys to “feel” the actions per­formed by their compatriots. They’re not merely perceiv­ing agency. They’re psychologically communing with other agents.

I once witnessed a blue jay attacking its reflection in a glass win­dow pane. The attacks were launched tirelessly, day after day, for two weeks. I don’t know why the attacks finally ceased, whether because the blue jay decided to move on to new territory where the opposi­tion wasn’t so relentless, or whether it retired to mend a pulled neck muscle. It seems unlikely that someone finally persuaded the blue jay that the being he was so focused on was only a reflection of himself. Similarly, animistic religious believers will never be persuaded that the being they are so focused on is only a vague reflection of themselves.

The dogged insistence by some humans on an animistic conclu­sion reflects a deep truth, not about the cosmos, but about the psy­chology of social animals. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles identifies in human nature a reli­gious impulse that seeks a greater consciousness.[12] For that reason he assures us that atheism will never achieve a total victory over the mind of man. I agree with the rabbi that our species is predisposed toward a religious perspec­tive, but I get no delight from knowing that we suffer this cognitive bias.

Our uncritical impulse to seek some greater consciousness is a toxic by-product of our evolutionary history. Fortunately, it can be counter­acted through education, just as we use education to repair our false intui­tions regard­ing the physics of projectiles, statis­tics, and geocentrism.

Rec­ognizing that our innate predispositions can mislead us is admit­tedly humbling. Overcoming these predispositions is difficult and at times disorienting. Such self-correction is, however, the only path to intellec­tual and emotional maturity.

The weepy-eyed avowal that we can directly feel the presence of God is the ultimate hubristic folly of the unrepentant animist. William Lane Craig, in a book oxymoronically named A Reasonable Faith, says that “the experience of the Holy Spirit is… unmistak­able… [A] person does not need supplementary argu­ments or evi­dence…to know with confidence that he is in fact expe­riencing the Spirit of God…Such experience does not function in this case as a premise in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God himself.”[13] Craig is quite explicit that the feeling of the Holy Ghost overrides all intellec­tual critiques and that “with most people there’s no need to use apologetics at all. Only use rational argumentation after sharing the gospel and when the unbeliever still has questions.”[14]

These words are from a man widely recognized as the intellectual standard-bearer of modern religionists. He explicitly relegates ration­al argumentation to the fallback strategy.[15] If you’re shaking your head and wondering why he would do this, he provides the answer. There’s general agreement, in Craig’s words, that “the person who follows the pursuit of reason unflinch­ingly toward its end will be athe­istic or, at best, agnostic.”[16]

Modern religious apologists don’t view arguments as crucial for discovering the truth. Arguments are, instead, expedient tools to win con­verts. If you just caught a whiff of something rotten, it’s the corpse of natural theology. It’s being gang-raped by theo­logians who smile and invite you to join them in having a “per­sonal experience.”




[1] Kathleen Stassen Berger, The Developing Person Through Childhood and Adolescence, p. 273.

[2] Paul Bloom, “The Moral Life of Babies” (The New York Times, May 5, 2010)

[3] Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (2001)

[4] Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design (Tracy, Hart, Martens; 2011)

[5] Mental Health, Religion & Culture (Vol. 5, #3, 11/1/2002), p. 267-284.

[6] OINTS (Old Issues New Thoughts), Patternicity, Causality and Distress: Why we make mistakes in stressful times, June 20, 2010, /2010/06/20/patternicity-causality-and-distress-why-we-make-mistakes-in-stressful-times/

[7] Ian Leslie, “Non Cogito, Ergo Sum”, article from Intelligent Life magazine, May/June 2012 (online at

[8] Chris Brune, interviewed by the Cambridge mathematician David Spiegelhalter, “Tails You Win: The Science of Chance” (BBC television documentary),

[9] John Fuller, “How the iPod Shuffle Works” (How Stuff Works, cited February 17, 2015),

[10] Michael S. Gazzaniga, Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, (Harper Collins, NY, 2011), p. 85.

[11] ~45 min. into Nova video “Evolution: The Mind’s Big Bang”,

[12] David Wolpe, “David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens: The Great God Debate”, March 23, 2010, John Hancock Hall, Boston, MA.,

[13] William Lane Craig, A Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Crossway Books; Rev Sub edition, July 1994), p. 43.

[14] Ibid, p. 57.

[15] Craig also says explicitly that only the operations of the Holy Spirit can make an unbeliever become a believer.

[16] William Lane Craig, “Advice to European Christian Apologists: Tips to budding European Christian apologists.” (Reasonable Faith, 4/3/2001?, cited 12/19/2013),

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