I once read an article on Cracked.com by a Christian who seemed to be fairly informed about atheist arguments regarding God’s non-existence. However, despite this knowledge, he continued to believe in God because he claimed he could feel God’s presence as though he was sitting right next to him. How could anyone feel the presence of God unless he was actually there to be felt? As usual, science has some interesting answers.
About 30% of American children between the ages of 3 and 6 years old develop a friendship with an imaginary companion. According to psychologists, this behavior is perfectly healthy and may even help improve a child’s social abilities. What is worthy of note, however, is that many children get so caught up in their fantasy that they believe they can see and hear their invisible comrades. While a child’s psychology is different from that of adults, it is still possible the same mechanisms that make invisible friends so real to children are the same that make God seem so tangible to fervent theists.
Remember Wilson the volleyball from the Tom Hanks movie “Castaway”? For those of you who are unaware, the story was about a man named Chuck who was stranded on an island all alone for 4 years. Wilson was a volleyball on which Chuck drew a face and which became his closest companion during his years of social isolation. They laughed, they cried, and they argued just like real friends, except Wilson was just a volleyball. “Castaway depicts a deep truth about the irrepressibly social nature of Homo sapiens,” says John Cacioppo, a psychologist who studied people’s tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects. In one of his studies, he discovered that lonely people are more likely to describe gadgets in terms of humanlike mental states compared to non-lonely people.
Beyond inanimate objects, lonely people also turn to television and other media personalities as a form of social surrogacy. Just as normal friendships evolve by spending time together and sharing thoughts and stories, these relationships evolve by observing media personalities and becoming involved with their personal lives, idiosyncrasies, and experiences as if they were real friends. Studies suggest these relationships can be taken so far that people can become just as traumatized by the loss of a TV character as they would by the loss of a close friend.
While feeling God’s presence may not be the result of loneliness, the neuronal wiring which allows humans to become enveloped in one-way illusory relationships may still play a role in the phenomenon.
When God Talks Back
In the book “When God Talks Back” anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann set out to describe her 4 year study of a “charismatic” sect of Pentecostal Christians who are well known for their “concrete experiences of God’s realness.” In her research, Tanya sought to understand the mechanisms that led to these experiences. What she discovered was that these particular Christians learned to experience God by training their minds to think in a particular way. Specifically:
- They learn a new theory of mind in which “the mind is not private, but thoughts and images are sensations one might have understood as self-generated are actually God speaking”
- They literally pretend that God is present. For example, one pastor suggested pouring God his own cup of coffee each morning.
- There is a common practice of congregants becoming emotional and crying while being reminded by their peers that God loves them unconditionally.
- Prayer was an important practice, which Tanya described as a “daydream-like engagement in which you are having a dialog with God”
Those who were most adept at prayer reported experiencing more vivid mental imagery, and in some rare cases, brief auditory messages they believed were from God. Tanya observed that practice played a major role in congregants’ ability to have these experiences, and decided to perform an experiment to see if she could elicit them in others. This mini-study consisted of providing IPods to two groups of Christians with different messages to listen to over a period of several days. One group was to listen to a collection of lectures on the New Testament. The other was to listen to a recording of Tanya walking through her version of the spiritual exercises practiced by the charismatic sect she studied. This recording included passages from the Bible, soothing music, and cues to the listener to try to imagine God and visualize what the passages were discussing.
After the study, the group members that listened to Tanya’s recording were more likely to:
- Experience auditory sensory experiences (i.e. the voice of “God”)
- Experience vivid mental imagery
- Feel their sense of God changed as though he were more like a person
- Feel their spirituality had changed
The phenomena of childhood imaginary friends, anthropomorphization of inanimate objects, and social surrogacy all show that people are capable of having intricate human-like relationships without the presence of other humans. The Pentecostal charismatic study shows that by training their minds to better imagine God, he became so real to people that they could hear him speaking to them. Most Christians/theists likely do not go to these extents to experience God. However, over the course of their lives, the idea that God exists, God cares about them, and God is listening to them is reinforced time and time again by their co-religionists and during prayer. Thus, their minds are trained, often from childhood, to imagine a God that is present in their lives. This means there are likely large numbers of neurons in their brains dedicated to the idea of God, and the more fervently they seek to experience him, the more vivid his presence will appear to be. It is for this reason that many theists find atheism to be quite preposterous, as they feel evidence of God’s presence every day.
Good overview of “When God Talks Back”
Great lecture on “When God Talks Back”
Good article on imaginary friends
Good article about social surrogacy
Good article on the science of Wilson the volleyball