Typical Misconceptions about Religous Experince


This was a post on my blog this July 14 (08) and involves the comments made in the comment section by a poster named "Andy Wright."

Andy Wright makes comments in response to "More on Extraordinary claims," I will answer his comments here because they are typical of certain atheist misconceptions that I have been trying to correct since I started on internet apologetics boards. The average atheist on the net seems to believe that religion is for feeble minded dullards who can't think, that's its effects are clearly proven to be very bad for both the individual and society, and that belief is receding into he mists of history. Not only are these ideas totally wrong, but they are the exact opposite of truth. Not only so, but that these things are totally false is clearly demonstrably provable with the best scientific evidence. Religion is actually very good for you, religious people are much better adjusted, by and large, than most atheists. Religious people are happier, they are less likely to commit crimes, if you except fundamentalists their marriages are better.

Wright was reacting to my statement that religion is normative for human experince, and the point of saying that was to show that belief is not an extraordinary claim. So let us keep that in mind, because most of Wrights arguments lose sight of this poin.

Andy Wright:

you say "religious belief is normative for human behavior. It is not merely "normal" but "normative" meaning it sets the standard. Belief is basic to human psyche, to our understanding of the good, of meaning in life, the ultimate limits of reality, the grounding of nature and being itself,"
this is not true. there have been and continue to be successful human societies where religion is not part of the society, where simply not knowing was acceptable.

This is clearly disproved by history. There has never been a single non religious society anyone where on earth. There have only been a handful of attempts to make societies that were non religious, and in not only did those cases fail, but they were the imposition of an ideology by an elite who imposed its will upon the masses.There has never been a single organic culture where the masses were just naturally not religious. Even in the Soviet union and china, where the only attempts to destroy the faith of the masses was imposed, it failed miserably. At the height of the cultural revolution in China when the government was the most anti-religious, the people were still 51% religious and Christianity made up a huge portion.

Wright again:

you seem to define religion as belief in a single higher power, yet among the societies that have religion, there have been as many societies that beleived in multiple spirits in a range from every single thing having a spirit to there being many extra powerful beings that you would call gods.

This is my true definition of religion, I've given it hundreds of times on message board all over the net and it is on my website in my credo where I clearly go over the all the beliefs I hold. I got this definition from Dr. Neil McFarlane in his lecture notes in his class on "religion in a Global perspective" at Perkins School of Theology (SMU). I think it was influenced by Dr Fredrick Strung ("string").

My definition of religion:

In my view Religion is an attept to identify a human problemic, that is the basic problematic nature at the heart of being human. Having identified it, reilgious traditions seek to resolve the problematic nature of human life by offering a transformative experince which allows one to transcend the difficulty and to be fulfilled or feel more human or be "saved." Religious traditions also usually seek to mediate this transformation through cerimony or some sort of theological orientation. These three things make up the nature of religion:

(a) identification of the problematic

(b) Transformative power to overcome the nature of the problematic

(c) a means of mediating this transformative power.

All religions offer these things, weather the problematic be seen as separation from nature, or imbalance with cosmic forces, re-birth through desire which leads to suffering, or moral sin in rebellion against God.

Transformations come in all sorts of packages too, they can be the big experince of born again Christianity (mediated through the "sinners prayer") or they can be the mystical experince, mediated through the mass, or enlightenment, mediated through mediation, mandala, mantra and other mediation aids, or what have you.

The reason for identifying with a particular religious tradition is because one feels that this particular tradition identifies the problematic better than others, and offers mediation in a more sure or certain or compelte way. One must go with the tradition with which one feels the strongest connection.

For me that is the Christian Tradition, primarily because I feel that the historical connection to Jesus of Nazareth, and the unique concept of Grace mark the Christian tradition as the best mediation of the Ultimate Transformative Experience. But more on that latter.

So your statement is quite false. I do not limit by view of religion to belief in a single "powerful being." In fact that view of what I believe is so far off, you clearly know nothing about my views. Obviously you are merely reacting to the label "Christian" and have not bothered to find out that Christianity is very diverse. I do not believe that God is a single powerful being! I do not believe that God is "A being." I believe that God is "being itself." That means God is the basis of what being is, the foundation of all being, not a being, but the basic ground of all being. I further believe that differing religions and concepts of God and gods are merely sign posts that point to this foundation of being. The are metaphors and analogies that point to something beyond themselves, something beyond our ability to understand. I have written many pages on this on my website. The major such pages can be found here: The Ground of Being

Wright goes on:

the range and differences among them are so great as to make lumping them all under 'religion' is almost ridiculous.

That is indicative misunderstanding the nature of religion is. Religion is so much bigger, better, and more important than you are willing to accept, or even than you suspect.

there have been many societies around the world where a human was thought of as the current incarnation of god. this differs so much from Christianity as to again, be almost impossible to be considered the same thing.

That's a misconception. It doesn't really matter, it's a meaningless point anyway, because I'm sure I know much more about world religion than you do. Remember the class I mention, above, "religion in a global perspective?" Neil McFarland who taught that class lived in Japan for 30 years. He was the leading expert on the New Religions of Japan (his book was Rush House of the Gods--I love that title!). He was very sympathetic to Eastern religions and he studied them with major Shinto and Buddhists priests in Japan. That class focussed on religions of Asia, especially Japan. There are not other societies or religions which have exactly the same understanding of deity as Christianity. There are none where a human being was thought of as God in the way that Christian theology came to regard Christ after the second century or so. But to say that these religions can't be regarded as the same thing is just poppy cock. They all fit with the definition given above and they all fit with the concept of mystical union which I have clearly espoused for years.


and in all of those societies, there were a wide range of level of belief in the locally accepted 'religion'. some were vigorous hyper believers and most belived some of it but had doubts about a little of it and some believed very little or none at all of it. societies varied a great deal in how much they tolerated the non-beleivers, from none at all to total tolerance, and still, even when there was no tolerance, there were non-beleivers who kept silent about it. your claim that religion is 'normative' lacks anthropological basis for societies and is lacking even more when applied to individuals.

Notice that you don't give a single example. Prior to the eighteenth century true atheists who really believed there was no God at all of any kind were very rare, and mostly they were uneducated. They had no scientific basis for their claims, merely anger toward religious people and institutions.No actually your misconceptions lack anthropological backing. I am quoting anthropologists. I'm quoting major social scientists such as Abraham Maslow who did studies on the nature of religious experience and found that its one of the greatest things or people. Maslow's book was Peak Experience and there is a copy online. A vast body of social sciences data shows that religion is far better for you than unbelief.


Atheists today have all that stuff you claim belief is basic to and they have it without . . . guess what . . . belief in any god or religion. you might not want to admit there are well adjusted atheists making positive contributions to the world, and i am not sure why you are so intolerant of atheism or why it threatens you so, but you claim about belief being essential to a person or a society is . . . bogus.

Saying that religion is normative is not at all the same as saying that there are no well adjusted atheists. That's not the issue at all. In fact the data does show that believers are much better "adjusted" and less mental illness and less depression than unbelievers.

again from my website:

Religioius belief indicative of good mental health

a)Religous Pepole are More Self Actualized

Dr. Michale Nielson,Ph.D. Psychology and religion.


"What makes someone psychologically healthy? This was the question that guided Maslow's work. He saw too much emphasis in psychology on negative behavior and thought, and wanted to supplant it with a psychology of mental health. To this end, he developed a hierarchy of needs, ranging from lower level physiological needs, through love and belonging, to self- actualization. Self-actualized people are those who have reached their potential for self-development. Maslow claimed that mystics are more likely to be self-actualized than are other people. Mystics also are more likely to have had "peak experiences," experiences in which the person feels a sense of ecstasy and oneness with the universe. Although his hierarchy of needs sounds appealing, researchers have had difficulty finding support for his theory."



In terms of psychological correlates, well-being and happiness has been associated with mystical experiences,(Mathes, Zevon, Roter, Joerger, 1982; Hay & Morisy, 1978; Greeley, 1975; Alexander, Boyer, & Alexander, 1987) as well as self-actualization (Hood, 1977; Alexander, 1992). Regarding the latter, the developer of self-actualization believed that even one spontaneous peak or transcendental experience could promote self-actualization. Correlational research has supported this relationship. In a recent statistical meta-analysis of causal designs with Transcendental Meditation (TM) controlling for length of treatment and strength of study design, it was found that: TM enhances self-actualization on standard inventories significantly more than recent clinically devised relaxation/meditation procedures not explicitly directed toward transcendence [mystical experience] (p. 1; Alexander, 1992)

b) Christian Repentence Promotes Healthy Mindedness

william James
Gilford lectures


"Within the Christian body, for which repentance of sins has from the beginning been the critical religious act, healthy-mindedness has always come forward with its milder interpretation. Repentance according to such healthy-minded Christians means getting away from the sin, not groaning and writhing over its commission. The Catholic practice of confession and absolution is in one of its aspects little more than a systematic method of keeping healthy-mindedness on top. By it a man's accounts with evil are periodically squared and audited, so that he may start the clean page with no old debts inscribed. Any Catholicwill tell us how clean and fresh and free he feels after the purging operation. Martin Luther by no means belonged to the healthy-minded type in the radical sense in which we have discussed it, and be repudiated priestly absolution for sin. Yet in this matter of repentance he had some very healthy-minded ideas, due in the main to the largeness of his conception of God. -..."

e. Recent Empirical Studies Prove Religious Believers have less depression, mental illness lower Divorce rate, ect.

J. Gartner, D.B. Allen, The Faith Factor: An Annotated Bibliography of Systematic Reviews And Clinical Research on Spiritual Subjects Vol. II, David B. Larson M.D., Natiional Institute for Health Research Dec. 1993, p. 3090


"The Reviews identified 10 areas of clinical staus in whihc research has demonstrated benefits of religious commitment: (1) Depression, (2) Suicide, (3) Delinquency, (4) Mortality, (5) Alchohol use (6) Drug use, (7) Well-being, (8) Divorce and martital satisfaction, (9) Physical Health Status, and (10) Mental health outcome studies....The authors underscored the need for additional longitudinal studies featuring health outcomes. Although there were few, such studies tended to show mental health benefit. Similarly, in the case of teh few longevity or mortality outcome studies, the benefit was in favor of those who attended chruch...at least 70% of the time, increased religious commitment was associated with improved coping and protection from problems."

[The authors conducted a literature search of over 2000 publications to glean the current state of empirical study data in areas of Spirituality and health]

This part is very important becasue it speaks diretly to what you said about atheists being well adjusted.

2) Shrinks assume religious experience Normative.
Dr. Jorge W.F. Amaro, Ph.D., Head psychology dept. Sao Paulo

[ http://www.psywww.com/psyrelig/amaro.html]

a) Unbeliever is the Sick Soul

"A non spiritualized person is a sick person, even if she doesn't show any symptom described by traditional medicine. The supernatural and the sacredness result from an elaboration on the function of omnipotence by the mind and can be found both in atheist and religious people. It is an existential function in humankind and the uses each one makes of it will be the measure for one's understanding."

I know you are going to get angry about that because people usually do. but this is a scientific fact. It comes from many studies that compare those who have reilgious experiences to those who do not. They find constantly that those who are are better ad musted, less depression and mental illness. It's not just anyone says "I am a Christian" but those who have religious experinces.

b. psychotherapeutic discipline re-evalutes Frued's criticism of religion



"Nowadays there are many who do not agree with the notion that religious behavior a priori implies a neurotic state to be decoded and eliminated by analysis (exorcism). That reductionism based on the first works by Freud is currently under review. The psychotherapist should be limited to observing the uses their clients make of the representations of the image of God in their subjective world, that is, the uses of the function of omnipotence. Among the several authors that subscribe to this position are Odilon de Mello Franco (12), .... W. R. Bion (2), one of the most notable contemporary psychoanalysts, ..."

[sources sited by Amaro BION, W. R. Atenção e interpretação (Attention and interpretation). Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1973.

MELLO FRANCO, O. de. Religious experience and psychoanalysis: from man-as-god to man-with-god. Int. J. of Psychoanalysis (1998) 79,]

c) This relationship is so strong it led to the creation of a whole discipline in psychology; transactionalism

Neilson on Maslow


"One outgrowth of Maslow's work is what has become known as Transpersonal Psychology, in which the focus is on the spiritual well-being of individuals, and values are advocated steadfastly. Transpersonal psychologists seek to blend Eastern religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) or Western (Christian, Jewish or Moslem) mysticism with a form of modern psychology. Frequently, the transpersonal psychologist rejects psychology's adoption of various scientific methods used in the natural sciences."
"The influence of the transpersonal movement remains small, but there is evidence that it is growing. I suspect that most psychologists would agree with Maslow that much of psychology -- including the psychology of religion -- needs an improved theoretical foundation."

3) Religion is positive factor in physical health.

"Doctrors find Power of faith hard to ignore
By Usha Lee McFarling
Knight Ridder News Service
(Dec. 23, 1998)


"Some suspect that the benefits of faith and churchgoing largely boil down to having social support — a factor that, by itself, has been shown to improve health. But the health effects of religion can't wholly be explained by social support. If, for example, you compare people who aren't religious with people who gather regularly for more secular reasons, the religious group is healthier. In Israel, studies comparing religious with secular kibbutzim showed the religious communes were healthier."Is this all a social effect you could get from going to the bridge club? It doesn't seem that way," said Koenig, who directs Duke's Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health .Another popular explanation for the link between religion and health is sin avoidance."

"The religious might be healthier because they are less likely to smoke, drink and engage in risky sex and more likely to wear seat belts.But when studies control for those factors, say by comparing religious nonsmokers with nonreligious nonsmokers, the religious factors still stand out. Compare smokers who are religious with those who are not and the churchgoing smokers have blood pressure as low as nonsmokers. "If you're a smoker, make sure you get your butt in church," said Larson, who conducted the smoking study."

see also: he Faith Factor: An Annotated Bibliography of Systematic Reviews And Clinical Research on Spiritual Subjects Vol. II, David B. Larson M.D., Natiional Institute for Health Research Dec. 1993 For data on a many studies which support this conclusion.

4) Religion is the most powerful Factor in well being.

Poloma and Pendelton The Faith Factor: An Annotated Bibliography of Systematic Reviews And Clinical Research on Spiritual Subjects Vol. II, David B. Larson M.D., Natiional Institute for Health Research Dec. 1993, p. 3290.


"The authors found that religious satisfaction was the most powerful predicter of existential well being. The degree to which an individual felt close to God was the most important factor in terms of existential well-being. While frequency of prayer contributed to general life satisfaction and personal happiness. As a result of their study the authors concluded that it would be important to look at a combindation of religious items, including prayer, religionship with God, and other measures of religious experince to begin to adequately clearlify the associations of religious committment with general well-being."

(5) Greater happiness

Religion and Happiness

by Michael E. Nielsen, PhD

Many people expect religion to bring them happiness. Does this actually seem to be the case? Are religious people happier than nonreligious people? And if so, why might this be?

Researchers have been intrigued by such questions. Most studies have simply asked people how happy they are, although studies also may use scales that try to measure happiness more subtly than that. In general, researchers who have a large sample of people in their study tend to limit their measurement of happiness to just one or two questions, and researchers who have fewer numbers of people use several items or scales to measure happiness.

What do they find? In a nutshell, they find that people who are involved in religion also report greater levels of happiness than do those who are not religious. For example, one study involved over 160,000 people in Europe. Among weekly churchgoers, 85% reported being "very satisfied" with life, but this number reduced to 77% among those who never went to church (Inglehart, 1990). This kind of pattern is typical -- religious involvement is associated with modest increases in happiness

Argyle, M., and Hills, P. (2000). Religious experiences and their relations with happiness and personality. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 10, 157-172.

Inglehart, R. (1990). Culture shift in advanced industrial society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Nielsen, M. E. (1998). An assessment of religious conflicts and their resolutions. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37, 181-190.

Nielsen again:

In the days before research boards reviewed research proposals before the studies were conducted, Pahnke devised an experiment to induce people to have a religious experience. On a Good Friday, when they were to meditate in a chapel for 2.5 hours, twenty theology students were given either psilocybin or a placebo. The students who were given the psilocybin reported intense religious experiences, as you might imagine. Their levels of happiness also were significantly greater than the control group reported. But what is especially interesting is that these effects remained 6 months after the experiment, as the psilocybin group reported more "persistent and positive changes" in their attitudes to life than did the placebo group.

Pahnke, W. H. (1966). Drugs and mysticism. International Journal of Parapsychology, 8, 295-314.

Now finally let's not forget the context of the original issue. I was showing that belief in God cannot be an "extraordinary claim" because it's normative for human experince. That means it sets the standard. I have proven that it does. This has nothing to do with proving that it's true, it is merely a matter of proving that it is standard for human experince. The vast majority of all humans who have ever lived have believed in some form of God, we are fit to be religious, it's better for our minds and our bodies. We were religious 65,000 years ago, our distant ancestors, our cousins the Neanderthals, were religious. Humanity has been religious longer than it has been human! Obviously then it is normative. IT doesn't matter that there are few exceptions, that's not the point. It doesn't make you a bad person, to not be religious. Nor does it make you abnormal or somehow lacking. But is the standard human experience to be religious. that is simply a fact.


Anonymous said…
Would it be fair to say that to be religious, in this sense, (or spiritual if that''s a better word) does not require a belief in God(s)?

I sometimes have described myself as a spiritual atheist; I can identify with pretty much everything in your definition of "religious," but I see nothing in it that requires, or even suggests to me, a need for belief in anything I would call God.
Yes I agree. Buddhism is a religion and many Buddhists don't believe in any kind of God (although the "Buddha mind" is a great deal like Tillich's "God as being itself").
Anonymous said…
Then it's not unreasonable to see what you call religious experience as a product of human nature, and not indicative of anything beyond that, especially if my own experiences point me in that direction.
Then it's not unreasonable to see what you call religious experience as a product of human nature, and not indicative of anything beyond that, especially if my own experiences point me in that direction.

as a product of human nature you can't expalin the result of long term dramatic life chaning effects. Ohter things can't produce that. No tirck of the mind, pathology, mental illness or any technique that produces that.

if you could no one would have any problems in life.

I have never said the feelings within the experience are miracles. The argument has always been around the outcomes, not the amazingness of the experience itself.
Anonymous said…
"as a product of human nature you can't expalin the result of long term dramatic life chaning effects."

Why not? I experienced a positive, long term, dramatic, life-changing event when I realized I was actually an atheist. Best "high" of my life...

Seems to me that a change in a human life is perfectly consistent with a product of human nature.
He hasn't put in my answer yet. I don't know why. But I said emprical data shows hat those who have had RE have a much greater and deeper sense of self actualization than do those who have not had it.

Your experiences were not scored in the M scale where they? There have been developed several empirical methods of measuring the depth of mystical experince, the M scale is the best one.
Anonymous said…
"emprical data shows that those who have had RE have a much greater and deeper sense of self actualization than do those who have not had it."

I suspect there may be some degree of self-selection error in that dataset, but in any case if we agree that such life-changing experience can be had without reference to a God then it's quite possible (even likely) that such experiences are a normal, natural product of our humanity.

"Your experiences were not scored in the M scale where they?"

Didn't have one handy at the time...;-) All I can tell you is that it was much more profound, persuasive and liberating to let go of my faith and accept a Godless existence than any transcendent moment I may have thought I was experiencing as a believer. (Better than the drug trips, too...)
Steven Carr said…
'Religion is actually very good for you, religious people are much better adjusted, by and large, than most atheists.'

If you are an atheist in the Bible Belt of America, you are really not going to be happy.

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