Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index
Why God Won't Go Away:
Brain Science and the Biology of Belief
Newberg, Andrew; D'Aquili, Eugene; and Rause, Vince. (2001)
New York: Ballantine Books.
Description: Hardcover, first edition, viii + 226 pages.
Contents: 9 chapters, chapter notes, references, index.
Chapter 1. A Photograph of God? An Introduction to the Biology of Belief
The primary job of the OAA [orientation association area] is to orient the individual in physical space - it keeps track of which end it up, helps us judge angles and distances, and allows us to negotiate safely the dangerous landscape around us. (pages 4-5).
What would happen if the OAA had no information upon which to work? we wondered. With no information flowing in from the senses, the OAA wouldn't be able to find any boundaries. What would the brain make of that? Would the orientation area interpret its failure to find the borderline between the self and the outside world to mean that such a distinction doesn't exist? In that case the brain would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses. And this perception would feel utterly and unquestionable real.
This is exactly how Robert and generations of Eastern mystics before him have described their peak meditative, spiritual, and mystical moments. ...
Robert was one of eight Tibetan mediators who participated in our imaging study. ...
Later, we broadened the experiment and used the same techniques to study several Franciscan nuns at prayer. Again, the SPECT scans revealed similar changes that occurred during the sisters' most intensely religious moments. unlike the Buddhists, however, the sisters tended to describe this moment as a tangible sense of the closeness of God and a mingling with Him. Their accounts echoed those of Christian mystries of the past, including that of thirteenth-century Franciscan sister Angela of Foligno: "How great is the mercy of the one who realized this union ... I possessed God so fully that I was no longer in my previous customary state but was led to find a peace in which I was united with God and was content with everything." (pages 6 - 7)
... Gene and I further believe that we saw evidence of a neurological process that has evolved to allow us humans to transcend material existence and acknowledge and connect with a deeper, more spiritual part of ourselves perceived of as an absolute, universal reality that connects us to all that is.
The goal of this book is to present the surprising context for these hypotheses. We will examine the biological drive that compels us to make myths and the neurological machinery that gives those myths shape and power. We'll discuss the connection between myth and ritual, and show how the neurological effects of ritual behaviors create those brain states associated with a range of transcendent experiences, from the mild sense of spiritual community felt by the members of a congregation, to the deeper states of unity triggered by more intense and prolonged religious rites. We'll show that the profound spiritual experiences described by saints and mystics of every religion, and in every period of time, can also be attributed to the brain's activity that gives ritual its transcendent powers. We'll also show how the mind's need to understand these experiences can provide a biological origin for specific religious beliefs.
... The work we did together - the scientific research that lay the groundwork for this book - has forced me time and again to reconsider my basic attitudes about religion and, for that matter, my attitudes about life, reality, and even my sense of self. It has been a transforming journey, a journey of self-discovery toward which I believe our brain compels us. What lies ahead in these pages is a journey into the deepest mysteries of the mind, and to the very center of the self. (pages 9-10)
Chapter 2: Brain Machinery: The Science of Perception
The visual association area may also play a prominent role in religious and spiritual experiences that involve visual imagery. For example, the visual association area is likely to be active in individuals who use images (such as of a candle or a cross) to help facilitate meditation or prayer. Furthermore, spontaneous visions that occur during meditation and prayer or that are associated with unusual spiritual states such as near-death experiences may also originate in this area. We know this, in part, because electrical stimulation of this area results in various types of visual experiences. ...
We believe that four association areas in particular play an important role in producing the mind's mystical potential. The visual association area, which we've just discussed, is one. The others are the orientation association area, the attention association area, and the verbal conceptual association area. ... (pages 27-28)
Defining the Self: The Orientation Association Area
The orientation association area, situated at the posterior section of the parietal lobe, receives sensory input from the sense of touch as sell as from other sensory modalities, especially vision and hearing. These give it the ability to create a three-dimensional sense of "body" and to orient that body in space. (page 28)
We believe that the orientation association area is extremely important in the brain's sense of mystical and religious experiences, which often involve altered perceptions of space and time, self and ego. Since the orientation association area is instrumental in shaping these basic perceptions, it must somehow be an integral part of spiritual experience. (page 29)
The Seat of Will: The Attention Association Area
The attention association area, also known as the prefrontal cortex of the brain, plays a major role in governing complex, integrated bodily movement and behaviors associated with attaining goals. ... On an even more complex level, the attention area seems to be critically involved in organizing all goal-oriented behaviors and actions, even purposefully directed patterns of thought that are intended to focus the mind upon a particular object or idea. (page 29)
We believe that part of the reason the attention association area is activated during spiritual practices such as meditation is because it is heavily involved in emotional responses - and religious experiences are usually highly emotional. So it seems reasonable that the attention association area must have some important interaction with other brain structures underlying emotion during meditative and religious states. (page 31)
Naming and Cataloging the World: The Verbal Conceptual Association Area
The verbal conceptual association area, located at the junction of the temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes, is primarily responsible for generating concepts and for relating those concepts to words. ...
The verbal conceptual association area is extremely important for all of our mental functioning, and it should come as no surprise that it is equally important in religious experience, since almost all religious experiences have a cognitive or conceptual component - that is, some part that we can think about and understand. (page 31)
Chapter 3: Brain Architecture: How the Brain Makes the Mind
What we think of as reality is only a rendition of reality that is created by the brain. (page 35)
... For example, our experiment with Tibetan meditators and Franciscan nuns showed that the events they considered spiritual were, in fact, associated with observable neurological activity. In a reductionist sense, this could support the argument that religious experience is only imagined neurologically, that God is physically "all in your mind." But a full understanding of the way in which the brain and mind assemble and experience reality suggests a very different view. (page 36)
Similarly, tracing spiritual experience to neurological behavior does not disprove its realness. If God does exist, for example, and if He appeared to you in some incarnation, you would have no way of experiencing His presence, except as part of a neurologically generated rendition of reality. ...
Correspondingly, God cannot exist as a concept or as reality anyplace else but in your mind. In this sense, both spiritual experiences and experiences of a more ordinary material nature are made real to the mind in the very same way - through the processing powers of the brain and the cognitive functions of the mind. Whatever the ultimate nature of spiritual experience might be - whether it is in fact a perception of an actual spiritual reality, or merely an interpretation of sheer neurological function - all that is meaningful in human spirituality happens in the mind. In other words, the mind is mystical by default. (page 37)
YOUR AROUSAL AND QUIESCENT SYSTEMS
Because of its ability to prepare the body for action, we will consider the sympathetic system, along with its connections to the brain and the adrenal glands, as the body's arousal system. (page 38)
Because of its ability to exert a calming, stabilizing effect upon the body, we will call the parasympathetic nervous system, along with its associated structures in the upper and lower parts of the brain, the quiescent system. (page 39)
These alternating interactions generally occur during routine everyday activity. There is evidence, however, of cases in which both systems function at the same time when pushed to maximal levels of activity and this has been associated with extraordinary alternative states of consciousness. These unusual, altered states can be triggered by various kinds of intense physical or mental activity, including dancing, running, or prolonged concentration. These states can also be intentionally triggered by specific activities that are overtly religious in nature, such as ceremonial rituals or meditation. The similarities between these intentionally and unintentionally triggered states point to a clear link between the autonomic nervous system and the brain's potential for spiritual experience. (page 39)
... But we have identified four autonomic states that we believe contribute to understanding the broad range of altered and potentially spiritual states. These states can help us explore the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and religious experience. (page 40)
AUTONOMIC STATES AND SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE
Hyperquiescence is a state of extraordinary relaxation. The body usually experiences it only during sleep, but it may also occur during certain phases of meditation. it can be evoked through slow, quiet, deliberative rituals, such as chanting or group prayer. At intense levels, the body and mind have a sense of oceanic tranquillity and bliss in which no thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations intrude upon consciousness. Buddhists describe a similar state, reached through meditation, as "access consciousness," or Upacara samadhi.
The flip side of hyperquiescence, the hyperarousal mental state is characterized by an unblocked flow or arousal and excitation, resulting in a burgeoning sense of excitement, keen alertness, and fierce concentration to the exclusion of any extraneous feelings of thoughts. ...
People in hyperarousal states often feel as if they are effortlessly channeling vast quantities of energy through their consciousness, resulting in the quintessential "flow" experience. (pages 40 - 41)
3. Hyperquiescence with Arousal Breakthrough
Under certain unusual conditions, the quiescent branch of the autonomic system can be driven to such intense levels of activity that the normal antagonistic reaction between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems is overwhelmed. ...
In meditation or contemplative prayer, powerful quiescent activity can result in sensations of great bliss, but when quiescent levels reach a maximum, the arousal system can simultaneously erupt, causing an exhilarating rush of energy. Someone who experiences this state while concentrating upon some object - a candle for example, or a cross - may feel as if he were being absorbed into that object. Buddhists call this state of absorption Appana samahdi. (page 41)
4. Hyperarousal with Quiescent Breakthrough
The maximal stimulation of the arousal system can also cause a spillover effect, which causes quiescent responses to surge. The resulting trancelike state is experienced as an ecstatic rush of orgasmiclike energy. This state can be induced by intense and prolonged contemplation, during rapid ritualistic dancing, and sometimes, briefly, during sexual climax. (page 42)
The Mind's Taxonomist: The Abstractive Operator
In an even more complex function, the abstractive operator allows the mind to find links between two separate facts. Any idea that is based on factual evidence but is not known to be factual itself is generated by the abstractive operator. Thus, the abstractive function is capable of generating scientific theories, philosophical assumptions, religious beliefs, and political ideologies. (page 49)
The How and the Why: The Causal Operator
The causal operator is likely the driver of almost all human curiosity. It drives us to find the causes of things that interest or concern us, and is apparently the compulsion behind all the attempts of science, philosophy, and especially religion to explain the mysteries of the universe. (page 50)
The conclusion to be drawn from this growing fund of knowledge is that every event that happens to us or any action that we take can be associated with activity in one or more specific regions of the brain. This includes, necessarily, all religious and spiritual experiences. This evidence compels us to believe that if God does indeed exist, the only place he can manifest his existence would be in the tangled neural pathways and physiological structures of the brain. (page 53)
Chapter 4: Myth-Making: The Compulsion to Create Stories and Beliefs
… All of the lofty reaches to which human achievement has carried us - from the first flint spearhead to the latest innovation in heart transplant surgery - can be traced to the mind's need to reduce the intolerable anxiety that is the brain's way of warning us that we are not safe.
The high-level thought processes that allowed human beings to perceive complex threats and resolve them in creative, sophisticated ways are what we have referred to as the cognitive operators.
... Gene and I have referred to this involuntary mental drive as the cognitive imperative; it is the almost irresistible, biologically driven need to make sense of things through the cognitive analysis of reality. (pages 59-60)
In this scenario, the creation of mythologies is a two-step process. First, a neurologically inspired flash of insight empowers a story with the authority of myth; second, the sharing of the story triggers a similar, and usually milder, flash of insight in whoever hears the tale.
This leaves us with a pair of obvious, but intriguing questions: Why, of all ideas, would the notion of the soul rising to the heavens strike such a strong holistic resonance ... and why would the same idea resonate at all in the minds of the others? Or, in a broader sense: Why are the myths of all world cultures so strikingly, consistently similar? (pages 73 - 74)
Whether or not the archetypes described by Jung do indeed exist, we agree that myths are created by basic, universal aspects of the brain, in particular, the fundamental neurological processes through which the brain makes sense of the world. Although culture and psychology may influence them significantly, it's the neurological grounding of mythic stories that gives them their staying power, as well as the authority through which they resolve our existential fears. (pages 75 - 76)
Chapter 5: Ritual: The Physical Manifestation of Meaning
... Research reveals that repetitive rhythmic stimulation ... can drive the limbic and autonomic systems, which may eventually alter some very fundamental aspects of the way the brain thinks, feels, and interprets reality. These rhythms can dramatically affect the brain's neurological ability to define the limits of the self. (page 79)
RITUAL AND UNITY
The transcendence of the self, and the blending of the self into some large reality, is a major goal of ritualized behavior. In a religious context the transcendent aim of ritual is to unite worshipers spiritually with a higher sense of reality. The goal of the contemplative rituals practiced by Catholic mystics, for example, is to attain the state of the Unio Mystica, the mysterious union that the mystic experiences as a sense of union with the actual presence of God. In Buddhism, the aim of meditative rituals is to encounter the ultimate oneness of everything by defeating the limiting sense of self generated by the ego. Few people very attain these lofty states, of course. For most worshipers, ritual provides a much milder degree of transcendence - the uplifting sense of togetherness shared by the members of a congregation as they finish a hymn, for example, or the sense of an intimate closeness of Jesus, felt by individuals during the ritualistic rhythms of the Catholic mass.
Religious rituals have occurred, in virtually every human culture, with an almost infinite variety of forms. But in every known case, a singular principle appears to hold true: When religious ritual is effective, and it is not always effective, it inclines the brain to adjust its cognitive and emotional perceptions of the self in a way that religiously minded persons interpret as a closing of the distance between the self and God. (pages 80 - 81)
THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF RITUAL
From the neurobiological perspective, human ritual has two major characteristics. First, it generates emotional discharges, in varying degrees of intensity, that represent subjective feelings of tranquillity, ecstasy, and awe; and second, it results in unitary states that, in a religious context, are often experienced as some degree of spiritual transcendence. Both of these effects, we believe, are neurobiological in origin. (page 86)
... For example, when the hippocampus senses that brain activity has reached excessively high levels, it exerts an inhibitory effect on neural flow - in effect, it puts the brakes on brain activity - until action in the brain settles down. As a result, certain brain structures are deprived of the normal supply of neural input on which they depend in order to perform their functions properly.
One such structure is the orientation association area - the part of the brain that helps us distinguish the self from the rest of the world and orients that self in space - which requires a constant stream of sensory information to do its job well. When that stream is interrupted, it has to work with whatever information is available. In neurological parlance, the orientation area becomes deafferentiated - it is forced to operate on little or no neural output. The likely result of this deafferentiation is a softer, less precise definition of the boundaries of the self. This softening of the self, we believe, is responsible for the unitary experiences practitioners of ritual often describe.
The same neurobiological mechanism underlying unitary experiences can also be set in motion, in a slightly different manner, by the intense, sustained practice of slow ritual activity such as chanting or contemplative prayer. These slow rhythmic behaviors stimulate the quiescent system, which, when pushed to very high levels, directly activates the inhibitory effects of the hippocampus, with the eventual result of deafferentiating the orientation area and, ultimately, of blurring the edges of the brain's sense of self, opening the doors to the unitary states that are the primary goal of religious ritual. (page 87)
THE RITUAL-MYTH CONNECTION
Restoring this original union between individuals and their spiritual source is the promise of virtually every known system of belief, from the primal myths of early hunting cultures to all the great religions that flourish today. In Christian theology, for example, Jesus provides the pathway to God; in Buddhist belief, oneness with all can be reached by following Buddha's teachings; and in Islam, reconciliation is possible through submission to the will of al-Lah.
Such assurances, spelled out in scriptures, can provide a powerful basis for faith and an effective buffer against existential fears. But these assurances are, ultimately, only ideas, and even in their most potent state, can only be believed in the mind by the mind. The neurobiology of ritual, however, turns these ideas into felt experiences, into mind-body, sensory, and cognitive events that "prove" their reality. By giving us a visceral taste of God's presence, rituals provide us with satisfying proof that the scriptural assurances are real.
... Thus, the neurobiological effects of ritualized behaviors give ceremonial substance to the stories of myth and scripture. This is the primary function of religious ritual - to turn spiritual stories into spiritual experience; to turn something in which you believe into something you can feel. It's why dervishes whirl, why monks chant, why Muslims prostrate themselves, and why primeval hunters, hoping to win the favor of the great animal spirits, donned the skins of bears and wolves, and danced reverently around the fire.
In every time and culture, it seems, humans have intuitively found ways to tap the neurobiological mechanisms that give ritual its transcendent power, by bringing their most important myths to life in the form of ritualized behaviors. (pages 91 - 92)
Chapter 6: Mysticism: The Biology of Transcendence
... Our own scientific research, however, suggests that genuine mystical encounters like Sister Margareta's are not necessarily the result of emotional distress or neurotic delusion or any pathological state at all. Instead, they may be produced by sound, healthy minds coherently reacting to perceptions that in neurobiological terms are absolutely real. The neurobiology of mystical experience makes this clear, ... (page 100)
... Still, we do not believe that genuine mystical experiences can be explained away as the results of epileptic hallucinations or, for that matter, as the product of other spontaneous hallucinatory states triggered by drugs, illness, physical exhaustion, emotional stress, or sensory deprivation. Hallucinations, no matter what their source, are simply not capable of providing the mind with an experience as convincing as that of mystical spirituality. (page 111)
THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE
The Passive Approach
All mystical spirituality begins as an act of will. In our model, passive meditation, which is practiced in various forms by many Buddhist orders, begins with the willful intention to clear all thoughts, emotions, and perceptions from the mind. This consciousness intention is instated by the brain's right attention association area - the primary source of willed actions - as the need to shield the mind from the intrusion of sensory, as well as cognitive input. (page 117)
As the quiescent and arousal systems both surge, the mind is overwhelmed by simultaneous floods of calming and arousal responses. This results in an explosion of frantic neural activity, flashing up from the hypothalamus through the limbic system and back to the attention association area, which is forced, by the sudden surge, to operate at its own maximal rates. In response, the deafferenting effect that the attention area is directing toward the orientation area becomes supercharged, and in milliseconds, the deafferentation or the orientation area becomes complete.
The total shutdown of neural input would have a dramatic effect on both the right and left orientation areas. The right orientation area, which is responsible for creating the neurological matrix we experience as physical space, would lack the information it needs to create the spatial context in which the self can be orientated. Its only option, when totally deprived of sensory input, would be to generate a subjective sense of absolute spacelessness, which might be interpreted by the mind as a sense of infinite space and eternity; or conversely, as a timeless and spaceless void.
Meanwhile, the left orientation area, which we have described as crucial in the generation of the subjective sense of self, would not be able to find the boundaries of the body. The mind's perception of the self now becomes limitless; in fact, there is no longer any sense of self at all.
In this state of total deafferentation of the orientation area, the mind would perceive a neurological reality consistent with many mystical descriptions of the ultimate spiritual union: There would be no discrete objects or beings, no sense of space or the passage of time, no line between the self and the rest of the universe. In fact, there would be no subjective self at all; there would only be an absolute sense of unity - without thought, without words, and without sensation. The mind would exist without an ego in a state of pure, undifferentiated awareness. The name Gene and I have used for this state of pure mind, of an awareness beyond object and subject, is Absolute Unitary Being, the ultimate unitary state. (pages 119 - 120)
The Active Approach
Active types of meditation begin not with the intention to clear the minds of thoughts, but instead, to focus it intensely upon some thought or object of attention. A Buddhist might chant a mantra, or focus upon a flowing candle or a small bowl of water, for example, which a Christian might pray with the mind trained upon God, or a saint, or the symbol of a cross.
For the sake of discussion, let's imagine that the focus of attention is the mental image of Christ. (page 120)
… Now, as the attention area reaches the maximal levels, it does not block the flow of information to the right orientation area, as it does to the left; on the contrary, the attention association area drives the right side to focus more and more intensely upon the image of Christ.
To bring the mind's focus more sharply upon this image, the attention area also begins to deprive the right orientation area of all neural input not originating from the contemplation of Jesus. In other words, the right orientation area, as it strives to create the spatial matrix in which the self can exist, has nothing to work with but the input streaming in from the attention area. It has no choice, therefore, but to create a spatial reality out of nothing but the attention area's single-minded contemplation of Christ. As the process continues, as all irrelevant neural input is stripped away and the mind becomes more focused, the image of Jesus "enlarges" until it becomes perceived by the mind as the whole depth and breadth of reality.
As these changes unfold in the right orientation area, the deafferentation of the left orientation area is also in progress, causing the perceived limits of the self to soften. As the sense of self is completely undone, by complete deafferentation, the mind would experience a startling perception that the individual self had been mystically absorbed into the transcendent reality of Jesus.
In this fashion, neurology could explain Unio Mystica - the Mysterious Union with God that characterizes the spiritual experiences of so many Christian mystics, Sister Margareta included. It would, in fact, provide a neurological explanation for any mystical encounter in which the presence of a personal deity is perceived.
The experience of the Unio Mystica would be inexpressibly profound. It's important to understand, however, that this state of mystical union is not the same as the ultimate transcendent state, Absolute Unitary Being, in which no sense of self is possible, and no specific images of God or even of reality can exist. It's likely, though, that if active meditation carries a mystic state as far as the Unio Mystica, it may carry him or her even further, to the ultimate unitary state. This would occur as the mystic tires, and the willed intentions of the attention association area weakens. The mind would relax its efforts to focus concentration, depriving the right orientation area of its only neural input, and sending it, along with the left orientation area, into a state of total deafferentation. At this point, the mind would enter the same selfless and limitless reality that can be reached through the act of passive meditation, the reality of absolute unitary being. (page 122)
ABSOLUTE UNITARY BEING, EVOLUTION, AND SELF
This forces us to address a difficult but fascinating question: Why would the human brain, which evolved for the very pragmatic purpose of helping us survive, possess such an apparently impractical talent? What evolutionary advantage would a mystically gifted mind provide?
We can only speculate, of course, but the nature of the evolutionary process suggests that the mind's ability to enter unitary states did not evolve specifically for the purpose of spiritual transcendence. (pages 123 - 124)
We believe, in fact, that the neurological machinery of transcendence may have arisen from the neural circuitry that evolved for mating and sexual experience. The language of mysticism hints at this connection: Mystics of all times and cultures have used the same expressive terms to describe their ineffable experience: bliss, rapture, ecstasy, and exaltation. They speak of losing themselves in a sublime sense of union, of melting into elation, and of the total satisfaction of desires.
We believe it is no coincidence that this is also the language of sexual pleasure. Nor is it surprising, because the very neurological structures and pathways involved in transcendent experience - including the arousal, quiescent, and limbic systems - evolved primarily to link sexual climax to the powerful sensations of orgasm. (page 125)
… [B]y explaining mystical experience as a neurological function, we do not intend to suggest that it can't be something more. What we do suggest is that scientific research supports the possibility that a mind can exist without ego, that awareness can exist without a self. In the neurological substance of Absolute Unitary Being, we find rational support for these inherently spiritual concepts, and a scientific platform from which to explore the deepest implications of mystical spirituality. (pages 126 - 127)
Chapter 7. The Origins of Religion: the Persistence of a Good Idea
Evidence suggests that the deepest origins of religion are based in mystical experience, and that religions exist because the wiring of the human brain continues to provide believers with a range of unitary experiences that are often interpreted as assurances that God exists. As we have seen, it's unlikely that the neurological machinery of transcendence evolved specifically for spiritual reasons. Still, we believe that evolution has adopted this machinery, and has favored the religious capabilities of the religious brain because religious beliefs and behaviors turn out to be good for us in profound and pragmatic ways. (page 129)
… Conventional thinking among many psychologists and sociologists explains the rise of religion as a cognitive process, based on faulty logic and incorrect deductions: In very simple terms, we feel fear and we long for comfort so we dream up a powerful protector in the sky.
A neurological approach, however, suggest that God is not the product of a cognitive, deductive process, but was instead "discovered" in a mystical or spiritual encounter made known to human consciousness through the transcendent machinery of the mind. In other words, humans do not cognitively invent a powerful God and then depend on this invention to gain the feeling of control: instead, God, in the broadest and most fundamental definition of the term, is experienced in mystical spirituality. These intimate, unitary experiences of the presence of God make the possibility of control apparent. (page 133)
… But science has surprised us, and our research has left us no choice but to conclude that the mystics may be on to something, that the mind's machinery of transcendence may in fact be a window through which we can glimpse the ultimate realness of something that is truly divine. This conclusion is based on deductive reason, not on religious faith - it is a terrifically unscientific idea that is ironically consistent with careful, conventional science - but before it will make any sense, we must second-guess all our assumptions about material reality, and understand how the mind decides what is essentially and fundamentally real. (pages 140 - 141)
Chapter 8. Realer Than Real: The Mind in Search of Absolutes
… Our goal here is to understand, as accurately and logically as possible, what the neurobiological "realness" of spiritual experience might imply. Since we hope to reach this understanding in a way that will satisfy the empirical demands of science, we'll begin by discussing the concept of reality that has provided the foundation for centuries of scientific thought.
WILL THE REAL REALITY, PLEASE …
In simplest terms, "scientific," or objective, reality is based on the belief that nothing is more real than the material world. (page 144)
Mystics, however, have different ideas about what is fundamentally real. They believe they have experienced a primary reality that runs deeper than material existence - a state of pure being that encompasses the lesser realities of the external world and the subjective self. Science rejects this claim, not only because it holds that nothing in existence is more real than the reality of matter, but also because it cannot accept that something other than science, especially something as subjective and unmeasureable as mystical experience, can yield useful truth about what is fundamentally real. (page 145)
All perceptions exist in the mind. The earth beneath your feet, the chair you're sitting in, the book you hold in your hands may all seem unquestionably solid and real, but they are known to you only as secondhand neurological perceptions, as blips and flashes racing along neural pathways inside your skull. If you were to dismiss spiritual experience as "mere" neurological activities, you would also have to distrust all of your own brain's perceptions of the material world. On the other hand, if we do trust our perceptions of the physical world, we have no rational reason to declare that spiritual; experience is a fiction that is "only" in the mind. (pages 146 - 147)
Since no empirical method can objectively test that realness, we have to turn instead to the more subjective approach of the philosophers. After centuries of inquiry, philosophers have come to suggest that true reality possesses an unmistakable quality. The Stoics defined this quality as the phastasia catalyptica: certain German thinkers call it Anweisenheit, and phenomenologists describe it as intentionality.
All these phrases mean that what's real simply feels more real that what's not. This may seem like an unsatisfyingly soft standard, but it is the best guidance that the greatest minds and experts have produced. In most cases, it works quite well, and all other approaches to this problem are ultimately reduced to this assertion. …
The realness of the material world, therefore, is made clear to us when we compare it with other states. Since most of us have never experienced a state more real than the one our mind portrays for us every day, we have no reason to suspect that any higher reality exists beyond our subjective awareness of the material world. More important, we have no experimental reason to believe that any higher reality is even possible.
Those who have experienced advanced states of mystical unity, however, claim that these states do feel like a higher reality. Passionately and consistently, with a preponderance of agreement that stretches across history and embraces all faiths, they insist that when compared to our baseline sense of reality, Absolute Unitary Being is more vividly, more convincingly real. (pages 152 - 153)
Again, we cannot objectively prove the actual existence of Absolute Unitary Being, but our understanding of the brain and the way it judges for us what is real argues compellingly that the existence of an absolute higher reality or power is at least as rationally possible as is the existence of a purely material world.
Although the notion of a reality more real than the one in which we live is difficult to accept without personal experience, when the mind drops its subjective preoccupation with the needs of the self and the material distractions of the world, it can perceive this greater reality. Mystical reality holds, and the neurology does not contradict it, that beneath the mind's perception of thoughts, memories, emotions, and objects, beneath the subjective awareness we think of as the self, there is a deeper self, a state of pure awareness that sees beyond the limits of subject and object, and rests in a universe where all things are one. (page 155)
Chapter 9. Why God Won't Go Away: The Metaphor of God and the Mythology of Science
History suggests that religious intolerance is primarily a cultural phenomenon, based on ignorance, fear, xenophobic prejudice, and ethnocentric chauvinism. We believe, however, that intolerance is rooted in something deeper than mere narrow-mindedness; we believe it is based in the same transcendent experiences that foster belief in the absolute supremacy of personalized, partisan gods.
Transcendent states, as we've seen, exist along a continuum of progressively higher levels of unitary being that ultimately leads to the point at which unity becomes absolute. In the state of absolute unity, there are no competing versions of the truth; there is only truth itself, so conflicting beliefs, or conflicts of any kind for that matter, are not even possible.
If however, a mystic falls short of absolute unity - if, in neurological terms, the deafferentation of the orientation area is not complete - then subjective awareness would survive, and the mystic would interpret the experience as an ineffable union between the self and some mystical other. We examined the neurobiology of just such a state - the Unio Mystica - in our discussion of active meditation.
Like all advanced unitary states, this mysterious union would have a profound sense of realness; the mystics would viscerally feel that he or she had stood in the presence of absolute reality. A Christian might call this truth Jesus, a Muslim might invoke the name al-Lah, in primal cultures it might be interpreted as some powerful spirit of nature, but in every case it is experienced as a spiritual truth that stands apart from and above all others.
We've seen that the "discovery" of such truth through mystical experience, provides believers with a powerful sense of control over the otherwise uncontrollable whims of fate. The presence of a powerful spiritual ally convinces believers that their lives are a part of some comprehensible plan, that goodness rules the world, and even that death can ultimately be conquered.
What makes these beliefs more than hollow dreams is the fact that the God that stands behind them has been verified, through a direct mystical encounter, as literal, absolute truth. Any challenge to the authenticity of that truth, therefore, is an attack not only upon ideas about God, but also upon the deeper, neurobiologically endorsed assurances that God is real. If God is not real, neither is our most powerful source of hope and redemption. There can be only one absolute truth; it is a matter of existential survival. All others are threats of the most fundamental kind, and they must be exposed as imposters.
In other words, the presumption of "exclusive" truth, upon which religious intolerance is based, may rise out of incomplete states of neurobiological transcendence. Ironically, when the process of transcendence is taken to the logical, and neurobiological, extreme, the mind is confronted with a state of absolute, uncompromising unity, in which all conflict, all contradictions, all competing variations of the Truth, disappear into harmonic, monolithic oneness. If we are right, if religions and the literal Gods they define are in fact interpretations of transcendent experience, then all interpretations of God are rooted, ultimately, in the same experience of transcendent unity. This holds true whether this ultimate reality actually exists, or is only a neurological perception generated by an unusual brain state. All religions, therefore, are kin. None of them can exclusively own the realist reality, but all of them, at their best, steer the heart and mind in the right direction. (pages 163 - 165)
This does not mean, however, that we are condemned by human nature to live in a world of dissention and discord, because the same brain that inclines us toward egotistic excess also provides the machinery with which the ego can be transcended. In these transcendent states, whatever their ultimate spiritual nature may be, suspicion and dissention disappear into peace and love of an indescribable unity. The transforming power of these unitary states is what makes mysticism our most practical and effective hope of improving human behavior, believes Beatrice Bruteau. "If we could arrange energy within," she says, "if we more often nurtured our companions and promoted their well-being, we would suffer much less. Rearranging energy from within is what mysticism does."
Generations may pass before human society is ready for such transforming ideas, but it is intriguing to know that if such a time should arrive, the brain will be ready, possessing the machinery it needs to make those ideas real. (page 168)
The neurological roots of spiritual transcendence show that Absolute Unitary Being is a plausible, even probable possibility. Of all the surprises our theory has to offer - that myths are driven by biological compulsion, that rituals are intuitively shaped to trigger unitary states, that mystics are, after all, not necessarily crazy, and that all religions are branches of the same spiritual tree - the fact that this ultimate unitary state can be rationally supported intrigues us the most. The realness of Absolute Unitary Being is not conclusive proof that a higher God exists, but it makes a strong case that there is more to human existence than sheer material existence. Our minds are drawn by the intuition of this deeper reality, this utter sense of oneness, where suffering vanishes and all desires are at peace. As long as our brains are arranged the way they are, as long as our minds are capable of sensing this deeper reality, spirituality will continue to shape the human experience, and God, however we define that majestic, mysterious concept, will not go away. (pages 171 - 172)
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This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby, © 1995-2003 CSP