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

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 countercultural 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.

Such a powerful experience cannot go unexplained, and being meaning makers, humans immediately begin interpreting altered states. “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.”(Conway, 30)

In a conversion context like missionary work or revival meetings, from the moment snapping occurs, religious interpretations of the experience are provided. These explanations become the foundation stones on which whole castles of beliefs 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.

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 they have hit on 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.

Conversion activities can be harmful, primarily because they go hand in hand with exclusive truth claims and tribalism. But with few exceptions the evangelists, from mega-church ministers to “friendship missionaries” genuinely think they are doing good. After all, they have their own born again experiences to convince them that they are promoting the real thing. Conversion feeds conviction, and conviction feeds conversion. What decent person wouldn't want to share the secret to healing, wholeness, and happiness?

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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Dave said...

Valerie (may I call you Valerie?), I can't begin to tell you how much I am enjoying this series. Cognitive science, and epistemology in general, has never interested me all that much (or so my conscious mind has insisted -- I must have had a bad experience with a term paper in my M&E class in college), but yours is a valuable approach to the phenomenon of Christianity.

Do you plan to address the question of the veridicality of the conversion experience? What you and I refer to as social and neurological mechanisms involved in the experience, someone like William Craig would no doubt call tools employed by the Holy Spirit to draw those who seek him closer to him. Does cognitive science make this hypothesis unnecessary? Does it have anything else to say about it?

edson said...

These paranormal events a new born christian expiriences after converting are just icing on the cake. The real cake is the beauty of Christ as described in the bible. In fact personally I have had several of these, the first one is the most memorable of all. I was in a Church, and the sermon impressed me so much and when it ended and wanted to thank God for this, I began speaking but after a minute later I realized I didnt understand what I'm talking. It was a strange feeling of pleasure and I wasn't really prepared for that and as I realized myself, the feeling stopped and all of a sudden I resumed my normal state.

Now whether this feeling can be studied scientifically and that several books have been written describing the experience or not, does not matter to a believer. A believer is concerned by the fact that he/she has been forgiven of sins. He/she is concerned by the fact that God is meeting his/her needs everyday. He/she is concerned by the fact that God has promised him/her a better life after they are dead.

I'm just curious how will Valerie respond to a man from the remotest village from Sub Saharan Africa who has been cured of Cancer? I'll be curious to know how will Valerie speak of a Staunch Jihadist who has converted to Christianity after a vision of Jesus? I think Valerie knows well of a story about a boy who was blind but received sight after Jesus had performed a miracle. When the Pharisees called him and questioned him of the experience, he only replied, "You guys are telling me things that are beyond me, all I understand is I was blind all my life but now I'm seeing".

eheffa said...


You say: ...whether this feeling can be studied scientifically and that several books have been written describing the experience or not, does not matter to a believer.

It should matter if you care about truth.

Recognizing that people of very disparate & incompatible faiths (& by Christian definition - errant belief systems) can experience the same sort of emotional ecstasy you have had, one has to conclude that these emotional experiences are not reliable indicators of the veracity of their exclusive truth claims.

You say it "does not matter to believer"(s). I agree with you; because in general, true believers only want reinforcement for their comforting delusions. If you were a truth-seeker, the data Valerie presents should be very troubling.

What if these emotional spiritual experiences are simply the product of the right sort of environmental factors and a receptive neurological / psychological state? What if those third-hand promises that "God" has promised this or that after you die are just as reliable? How would you recognize truth as anything different from the warm fuzzy, wishful thinking assertions you encounter in your particular faith group?

BTW, there is no evidence that Jesus believers experience healing anymore than the general population. "Miraculous cures" happen to all kinds of folks - rarely, but without discrimination for the underlying belief system.


Valerie Tarico said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Valerie Tarico said...

Hi Dave -
You may call me whatever you want ;)--and valerie is just fine.

I would answer your question about veridicality as you have. Most supernatural explanations are simply unfalsifiable, but understanding the biology/psychology makes them unnecessary. It is no longer necessary to hypothesize demon possession as a cause of grand mal seizures, because we have a necessary and sufficient natural explanation. We are close to having the same for these "snapping" experiences.

edson said...

Hi eheffa,

I think we both have argued for sometimes and by now you should have at least understood at the minimum level, what is my philosophy about religion at this point.

I do agree that there are numerous religions with differing life philosophies and certainly there are so many converging emotional experiences among believers in all these religions. Even drug addicts feels these same kind of emotional ecstasy after consuming their concaines, so that is certainly not a big deal.

My point is that, I, as believer in Christianity, find no reason to abandon my belief in Jesus for one main reason among many others. That the story of Jesus, as depicted in the gospels, far outweighs any other story I have ever heard, up until this time. I also have no reason to doubt the narrators of this story for they led compelling life. People say that History is written by the conquerers. And here we have the conqurers writing the story of Christianity. No matter which viewpoint you look at Christianity, the reality is Jesus won, the Apostles won and as a result Christianity won.

Chuck said...

Great stuff.

This series has helped me make great sense of my conversion and de-conversion and has helped me quiet my shame around both.

Admitting the emotional stress I was suffering when coming to faith and seeing how the friendly community was the draw helps me put into proper perspective my circumstances.


Purple Energy said...

this is wonderful.Really appreciate it.

zenmite AKA Marshall Smith said...

As a student of world religions, I am curious as to why you think the story of Jesus outweighs any other. Did you first read the gospels as a believing christian, skeptic or adherent to another faith? And, which other 'stories' are you talking about? Many world religions are not founded upon biographical stories or myths about it's founders but upon the teachings of the founders. Though like most religions, Christianity has become more the religion about Jesus than the religion of Jesus...thanks mainly to Paul.

Did you read these other 'stories' after you had already converted to Christianity? My curiousity stems from the fact that I too have read and studied the Christian story and (o.t.) bible for many years. I still read it on occasion. But I've also read the Quran, Book of Mormon, parts of the Zend avesta, The Hindu Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, all the principle Buddhist sutras and writings, the Tao te Ching, Chuang Tzu, parts of the Kabbalah and writings of Martin Buber, as well as various mythological stories of antiquity.

Have you at least read all of these? Or others? I've discovered it is very common for followers of all religions to readily proclaim their own faith as the 'best'...then upon further questioning it is usually discovered they know little or nothing about the other religions they are comparing to their own faith. It's like saying my mom's apple pie tastes better than anyone elses because I really love my mom...but I haven't actually tasted all other's apple pies.

As one who adheres to no religion and having studied these competing faith stories, teachings and claims, I do not find anything especially compelling, wonderful or superior in the Christian teachings.

"People say that History is written by the conquerers. And here we have the conqurers writing the story of Christianity. No matter which viewpoint you look at Christianity, the reality is Jesus won, the Apostles won and as a result Christianity won."

You are correct, it won. Constantine claimed he saw a vision (a cross perhaps) and thought Jesus was on his side as he slaughtered his enemies. Rome's first Christian emperor went on to murder his wife and son. It won by burning and torturing heretics, imposing laws against competing 'heathen' religions. It won by dominating society (as it continues to attempt in the modern u.s.) It won by conquering unbelievers militarily too. By this criteria Islam won too. Muhammed won, Islam won, the mullahs won. They also violently conquered their opponents, converting many Christians in the middle east.