Has God ever talked to you? Have you ever heard divine sounds, or seen divine visions? If so, you've got lots of company according to "Is That God Talking?" by T.M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford.
A questionnaire posed to 375 college students found that 71 percent reported vocal hallucinations of some kind, according to a study published in 1984 (a finding consistent with my own research). A 2000 study found that 38.7 percent of the population reported visual, auditory or other hallucinations, including out-of-body experiences.
Fairly frequently people post comments on this blog or send me emails about "inner" experiences that, to them, prove that they're right and I'm wrong: God certainly does exist, as do heavenly supernatural realms.
Well, by that logic we'd have to believe in the validity of countless Godly experiences, many of them decidedly contradictory with each other.
Is God a person, a power, a universal presence? Is there one God or many Gods? Is God involved with the world, or does God sit back as a passive observer? Is there a single favored way to know God, or many ways?
People who have religious experiences come up with all kinds of answers to these sorts of questions. Christians almost always find the tenets of their faith confirmed; Hindus, the tenets of their faith. It's rare for someone who is a fervent believer in some religion to have a vision of the divine that leads them to proclaim, "I was wrong! Christianity isn't correct -- Buddhism is!" [or whatever}
Yet if God is objectively real, why don't people who hear or see God agree about what the divine nature is like?
Luhrmann suggests an obvious answer: what religious people fervently believe conceptually to be true, eventually becomes experientially true for them. The mind is a marvelous creator of subjective reality. It will deliver what is wanted, if the desire is strong enough.
I eventually discovered that these experiences were associated with intense prayer practice. They felt spontaneous, but people who liked to get absorbed in their imaginations were more likely to experience them. Those were the people who were more likely to love to pray, and the “prayer warriors” who prayed for long periods were likely to report even more of them.
The prayer warriors said that as they became immersed in prayer, their senses became more acute. Smells seemed richer, colors more vibrant. Their inner sensory worlds grew more vivid and more detailed, and their thoughts and images sometimes seemed as if they were external to the mind. Later, I was able to demonstrate experimentally that prayer practice did lead to more vivid inner images and more hallucination-like events.
Again, if descriptions of these inner sensory images -- sights, sounds, smells, and such -- were consistent across religions, this would be much stronger evidence that those who pray and meditate were coming into contact with an objectively true supernatural reality.
But this doesn't happen. Again, Christians have Christian'y experiences; Buddhists have Buddhist'y experiences; Hindus have Hindu'y experiences.
What the mind dwells upon and expects, the mind delivers as inner experiences. Nothing supernatural involved. Just the mind doing its thing. Prayer and meditation are powerful tools that create "divine" experiences. So, of course, do psychedelic drugs like psilocybin.
The more interesting lesson is what it tells us about the mind and prayer. If hearing a voice is associated with focused attention to the inner senses — hearing with the mind’s ear, seeing with the mind’s eye — it suggests that prayer (which today, the National Day of Prayer, celebrates) is a pretty powerful instrument.
We often imagine prayer as a practice that affects the content of what we think about — our moral aspirations, or our contrition. It’s probably more accurate to understand prayer as a skill that changes how we use our minds.