Tag Archives: god science

Notes from the field

To be a scientist, through and through, is to cherish What Is when What Is reveals something unexpected. At least, that is what it is to me. It is not unlike my relationships with my gods: alongside the experience of divine communion there is the opportunity to glimpse.

Look at what is happening. Just look.

My divine dance partner stepped aside. What Is glided seamlessly into awareness, and the divine stood back patiently and watched What Is along with me.

So many times in high school and college I imagined what I would say to others, fantasizing conversations in which I made my points and won the day. It was always so riveting in my head, to me and all around. All those times. I was reliving all those times, except in a different realm.

I bargain with the divine. I say that not expecting understanding, and I don’t say it to preach. It’s just something that can happen with theistic gods because of how theistic gods are perceived, as agents and wills working with or against. Joseph Campbell experienced this too, the feeling of being helped along, the feeling of some other guiding wills alongside his. Just a feeling. It’s fine to feel feelings. It’s often fine to feel feelings all the way to their final consequences if one wants.

Faced with challenges, I sometimes find myself asking, “What do you want?” It is also fine to think thoughts, and to think thoughts as questions directed at forces which follow you because you are you— because you have a mind that says that they are they.

“I need help. What would tempt you to bend the rules just a little this time? Please. You know what’s on the line just as much as I do. You know…”

There was no immediate answer, only more thoughts.

Gods care about what we do, at least in our heads. Studies have consistently shown this. The perceived moral desires of gods shape the thoughts of theists, and for those who balk too much at that word, gray area polygnostic freaks like me. So as in high school, and in college, and sometimes recently, the pretend began.

I imagined temptations, great temptations that I would have to refuse. I imagined getting down to business, being an obedient devotee, cracking open files and debugging like a champion with no distractions. I imagined being better in my relationships, and in my correspondence which suffers when my mind suffers even slightly. In each of these imaginings there was more than one person, more than just me, and I was winning the day by making sure this other was satisfied.

Then scientist-me took over. “Look! Look at what is happening!”

How often had it happened in the past? How often before now had I been unaware? The connection was made, “I’ve been here before, and now I’m here with you (god).” Except this time the imaginings seemed far less egotistical. They looked like growth, and maturity. They looked like me at my best, the me that my gods want to see actualized.

I stopped to write down the data in my virtual notebook. Notes from the field: gray area unapologetic polygnostic freak edition.

Answers eventually came, answers that weren’t my imaginings… or would *you* call them imaginings? That is fine if you would, but they didn’t feel of my will, so I will call them something different.

Will I heed them? No telling yet, but if I do it might be interesting.

Hypotheses on the underpinnings of my divine experiences

I’m an odd activist, trying to tell my own story in two worlds which largely don’t accept people like me: the world of religion and the world of secularism. That’s why I jump to answer writing prompts which I feel apply to me in any way. I feel guilty, like I might be speaking over people for whom the opportunity is meant, though if that’s the case I’ll likely be dismissed. That’s not a bad thing; at least I get an opportunity to put words to my experiences.

Today’s writing prompt comes courtesy of Recovering From Religion:

Hello, my name is Arda, and gods talk to me all the time. I’m also a secularist and an ex-fundie Christian. I currently identify as a nondenominational polygnostic. With that out of the way…

I’m sorry, this is tricky. I still don’t know if I qualify for the question. You see, I don’t “believe” that gods speak to me. I’m a non-believer who experiences gods in ways that people have experienced gods throughout the ages. I sense divine presences in places, in inanimate objects, and in fictional characters. I experience gods as subtle forms who interact with me, speak with me, and present visions. Sometimes they set up elaborate events in the physical world to teach me important lessons. However, all of this is part of my personal gnosis— my personal understanding of the divine as it relates to me and my own life. This isn’t something I would put forward as objective truth, or natural law; my personal gnosis is there to contribute meaning to my life and to help me to understand myself, my art, and my purpose, by giving me new perspectives on everyday matters. When other people are involved I mostly turn to secular ethics to inform my actions, save for minor influences from my personal gnosis, like considering the gift of a good meal a sacred act.

Still, confounded framing aside, in my paradigm gods speak to me. So let’s focus on that point, because it interests me greatly as a rational person. What makes the subtle experiences of my gods stand out? Why is it that when my cherished divinity speaks to me the words take on a characteristic that feels so *beyond me*?

I’m not schizophrenic. I don’t have trouble relating to reality from moment to moment. I don’t suffer from delusions. The things that my gods say to me seem sensible. So, I know that this isn’t the result of mental illness. In When God Talks Back, anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains at length that people who hear God speak to them, in the ways that I hear my gods speak to me, aren’t mentally ill. My experiences are also not all that uncommon. In many pagan circles it’s accepted that people have what’s referred to as a “godphone”.

Alright, so much for this being the result of mental illness or my being an outlier. Back to the main question: what do I think is going on?

I have some hypotheses here: first, my innate discernment, my sense the divine that I get from certain fictional characters, places, or things — statues, my tarot cards (sometimes), good meals — is the same sense that makes certain profound thoughts, or thoughts with certain characteristics, seem like the work of a great god. The thoughts in question also happen to be directed at me, and they usually have a conversational “tone” about them while they give sound, helpful, and enlivening advice. I don’t know why the sense of discernment seems to activate at the same time that one of these thoughts arises, though. It’s as though an “important message incoming” notice precedes the event, and my whole body takes notice. All of my muscles relax ever so slightly and I become more attentive. Maybe the relaxation makes the depth of such thoughts possible in the first place. Maybe it’s all a cycle that works to make these experiences happen, that makes them profound in the first place and recognized as divine in nature afterward.

A related hypothesis, and one I feel important to disclose here, is that this whole divinity thing may be so compelling to me because the phenomenon of divinity may be inherently related to moral being, personal morals in particular. Studies show that people perceive numinous beings like gods as being particularly concerned with morality, and that monotheists align their God’s morality with their own sense of morality. Combine this with the fact that morality is closely entwined with people’s sense of self, and it’s easy to understand why theists place a great deal of importance on their gods, the nature of their gods, and their relationships to their gods. My own sense of what is divine is very closely related with what I consider to be chief goodness, or that which is of utmost importance to me. While my gods feel like they’re astounding beings beyond me in ability and wisdom, they may in fact be more myself than I am, if that makes sense.

Because I am objectively agnostic, I don’t claim to know that my experiences *aren’t* caused by gods who exist in some form in the natural world, but I also don’t claim that they are. I identify them as divine because it helps me to understand myself more than anything. To me the question, “What are your gods *really*?” is akin to the question, “What is your gender *really*?” or, “What is your love *really*?” I could know all of the biological underpinnings for the phenomena, but it wouldn’t change what I call it or how I relate to it.

Science (yes, science!) on god-concepts, god-perceptions, and predispositions thereof

Reading When God Talks Back, by T.M. Luhrmann, was a revelatory experience for me in many ways. When I picked up the book I was by and large unfamiliar with the scientific literature surrounding god-perceptions and god-concepts, and since then I’ve quickly found my way into the loop on such topics. When God Talks Back also clued me into some of the processes by which people conceive of and understand gods, such as the extension of theory of mind to perceived acts of gods like physical world occurrences, voice-like mentations, subtle visions, and other phenomena.

What truly blew my mind, in When God Talks Back, was the part about the study which Luhrmann conducted on types of prayer, in which she recruited monotheists to commune with God once a day in one of three ways: through apophatic prayer, through kataphatic prayer, or through lectures on the gospels. Her findings suggested that people who practiced kataphatic prayer, through which people actively imagine their gods, were able to grow closer to their gods by growing their god-concepts. The results weren’t what blew my mind— I suspected those results! What blew my mind was actually the idea of undertaking scientific studies on gods in the first place.

I thought, why haven’t more people done this? why isn’t this all over the news? God-perceptions and god-concepts can be studied in ways which can illuminate their underlying predispositions and behavioral characteristics. Shouldn’t this be more of a driving force in the discourse on theism?

It took me a while, but I found other studies like Luhrmann’s. I want to highlight one here: Benjamin Grant Purzycki’s paper in Cognition titled “The minds of gods: A comparative study of supernatural agency”, in which he looks at people’s gods’ (or god-like beings’) perceptions and interests of various moral and nonmoral happenings— moral happenings being occurrences like thefts and offers of assistance, and nonmoral happenings being things like sneezes and reactions to loud noises. One of his hypotheses was that all gods, even gods which societies claim aren’t very interested in moral affairs, are in fact perceived to care more about moral occurrences than nonmoral occurrences. That hypothesis held up very well, and in surprising ways. Here is an excerpt which I found particularly cool:

If there is a relationship between omniscience and concern for morality, then attributed breadth of knowledge should predict knowledge of and concern for moral behaviors. While there were no significant effects for knowledge-breadth on knowledge (F(1, 76) = 0.00, p = 0.99) or concern (F(1, 76) = 0.02, p = 0.90) of proximate moral items, attributed breadth of knowledge does in fact predict knowledge (F(1, 76) = 9.05, p = 0.004, ω = 0.31) and concern (F(1, 76) = 9.08, p = 0.004, ω = 0.31) for distant moral behaviors. This is consistent with previous findings of the positive relationship between omniscience and moral concern across populations, but these results are the first of their kind from a single population.

In other words, the more perceptual capacity attributed to a god or god-like being, the more likely that the god or god-like being is also perceived to care about moral behaviors of individuals. Given that such results aren’t unique to this study, it seems likely that god-concepts are predisposed to intermingle with moral senses.

Like many concepts prevalent throughout cultures, god-concepts seem to come with their own predispositions, both in their inherent natures and in their behaviors. That these predispositions can be discerned by scientific means suggests that god-concepts themselves have some amount of consistency.

This all matters to me because it suggests that behaviors of god-concepts can and, I contend, should be thoroughly studied. Scientific findings can serve to show how god-concepts can function in any number of contexts, and how god-perceptions can be approached for any number of practical benefits. The latter field of knowledge, regarding practical benefits of god-perceptions, is also going to have to expand through pioneering efforts of people who are willing to experiment with their own god-concepts, and to develop them in novel ways.