Thanks to a David Chapman tweet, I came across an academic article about religious belief. Interesting stuff. Below I've chosen some excerpts from Pascal Boyer's piece which capture, pretty much, the gist of his commentary on another scholar's book, "When God Talks Back."
Since for many years I was a member of an India-based organization, led by a guru, which believed it was possible to communicate with God in a supernatural fashion, I was intrigued by how similar the basic process used by Christian evangelicals is -- when they try to convert their "reflective" beliefs into "intuitive" experiences of God's presence.
Yes, belief is hard work.
Not so much a conceptual belief that God exists and cares about us, but a belief founded on some sort of experiential evidence that God is communicating with us. This requires cultivating a conviction that a thought (or sensory perception) isn't "ours." It is a message from God. Read on...
Excerpts from Pascal Boyer's "Why 'Belief' is Hard Work: Implications of Tanya Luhrmann's When God Talks Back":
The London practitioners of “witchcraft” among whom Tanya Luhrmann did her first fieldwork engaged in practices widely perceived as ridiculous, indeed preposterous. Their stated beliefs were eclectic and generally couched in rather inchoate metaphors. By contrast, American evangelicals practice a respected version of mainstream Christianity. What makes them special is a clearly articulated belief that God can, precisely, talk back.
But the rub is, he does not. Or, to be more specific, the definite intuition that an agent is around, that this agent really is the god, that the god is talking, requires a lot of work, and is rather rare and frustratingly elusive. Even among the most accomplished of believers, a few islands of intuition are surrounded by oceans of doubt and disbelief.
...As Luhrmann’s book demonstrates at length, it takes a considerable amount of work to reach some degree of intuitive belief that “God” is around, that “He” is listening and talking back. From the outside, Evangelicals are often perceived as people with certainties: they know there is a god, they know what he is like, they communicate with him.
Inside the group, we find more or less the opposite. Christian beliefs are of course held with fervor, but the crucial element, the presence of and communication with a superhuman agent, are described as goals to achieve rather than a starting point. Many Evangelicals readily admit that they have not (or not yet) reached that point.
...Practice works—somewhat, sometimes. Many members of the group have experienced the “breakthrough” when inchoate thoughts or images seem to organize themselves into a coherent feeling of presence and a clear message from the imagined agent. Personality variables clearly help in the process, as Luhrmann’s data on interpersonal differences demonstrates, but the main factor remains dedicated practice—one is led to the intuition of a god’s presence through sustained practice.
But why on earth is it that difficult?
......In the spirit of Lurhmann’s ethnography, one should generalize the observation. Many religious practices seem exceedingly odd if we see them as based on preexisting unproblematic beliefs. Once we realize that the belief is a conjecture, these activities make more cognitive (and existential) sense.
Initially, spirits may or may not be around. But after the whole night of ritual and the 10,000 verses, to some people at some junctures this conjectural representation becomes more vivid, more accessible, is associated with actual experience, is given some explanatory power—in other words is potentially turned into what we commonly call a belief. It is highly doubtful that shamanistic songs ever helped deliver infants—but making people think that might be the case is the real “symbolic efficacy.”
...The distinction is relevant to the question at hand, because in most places, at most times, most people’s representations of superhuman agents (gods, spirits, etc.) are of the reflective type. People entertain deliberate thoughts to the effect that, for example, “So-and-so’s illness had to do with the spirits” or “God has a plan for me.” These are the metarepresentational “beliefs” that we anthropologists elicit or infer from people’s statements and behaviors.
But such reflective thoughts can, sometimes, be associated with specific intuitions. This happens for instance when a magician announces that his “mystical force” will “annihilate” the object placed on the table (such statements create reflective, explicit representations in the minds of the audience), and, indeed, touching the object makes it disappear, or so it seems. The reflective thoughts about “mystical force” are now associated with intuitions (remembered perceptions), which of course makes them vastly more attention-grabbing, and potentially more plausible.
One should not look down on such cheap tricks. They are important, if not essential, in many religious traditions. Getting to see an image of a god in a piece of toast may not seem to us the most profound instance of religious experience, but that is because we are used to highly intellectualized, institutionalized forms of religious activity. In many places the world over, conjuring tricks and manufactured illusions are perfectly respectable adjuncts to more sober myth and ritual.
...The Evangelicals in Tanya Luhrmann’s group have set themselves the Herculean task of associating reflective beliefs with intuitions without ever resorting to cheap tricks. Instead, the process requires gradual changes to their conscious appraisal of their own thoughts. Starting with material that most Christians would agree with, for example, that “God is everywhere, can hear all our thoughts and talk to us,” they endeavor to calibrate their own mental systems until this conceptual description fools, so to speak, their perceptual systems.
How can one achieve that? The techniques used are all “empirical,” fashioned though trial and error in the various Evangelical communities, and taught largely through individual testimonials. I cited above the various domains of training—imagination, sensory imagery, emotion. But how does this lead to the intuition of superhuman presence? Given a variety of specific thoughts and experiences, some more coherent or vivid than others, how is one to judge that a particular one is the real thing?
This is indeed the pivotal question in the Evangelical’s progress. A crucial element here is the ownership of thoughts. To become (somewhat more) convinced that a thought of yours is a direct message from the god, you have to feel that it is not yours.
More accurately, once you feel that a particular thought did not come from your own cogitations, the conjectural reflective interpretation, that it came from another agent, is considerably strengthened. This is why believers train themselves to identify and monitor those thoughts, the ownership of which is not certain. They are told about and pay special attention to various diagnostic signs.
First, pay attention to emergent thoughts that seem too odd or unexpected to feel like “yours.” Second, check that the thoughts in question “fit” what you would imagine the god might tell you. Third, most important, others around you should agree that the thought may be of divine origin. Fourth, the thought should trigger a unique feeling of peace, the emotional signature of an experience that supposedly cannot be self-generated.
...At the beginning of the book, Luhrmann comments that evolutionary psychology (so far) does not explain why many people think of their gods as real. That is quite true. In fact one could go further. The more we know about our evolved psychology, the more we understand why most people, at most times, in most situations will not consider their gods real, in the sense of having a definite intuition that the gods are actually there.
Our agency-detection and behavior-interpretation mechanisms were tailored to allow the smooth operation of human communication and coordination. Getting ownership right is part of the design of the system, so we should expect that, barring severe pathology, intuitions of nonownership will remain exceptional and difficult to cultivate.
This of course may seem surprising, as a reflective notion of superhuman agency, and its involvement in human affairs, is so pervasive in human cultures, indeed probably one of the most easily acquired pieces of socially transmitted information. But, as I indicated above, the paradox is mostly an artifact of our folk understanding of “belief,” which gets in the way of a proper understanding of mental states.
We cannot really understand why a successful cultural notion describes an exceedingly rare intuition as long as we confuse intuitive mental content with explicit reflections, as is very generally the case in anthropology, but also, sad to report, in many areas of cognitive psychology. Sometimes ethnographers have to step in where cognitive scientists got it all muddled up. We should be grateful to the rare anthropologist who, like Tanya Luhrmann, does just that.