experience is purely subjective
and is to some extent ineffable
. Our language
is only public if all of our experiences correlate to the
degree of unanimous consensus; we also all rely on the testimony of everybody else to verify the consensus of ‘real world
’ experiences. It’s the chicken
and egg scenario, one begets the other in a circle of question-begging. The assumption is that all subjects experience the same reality
but our ideas of
reality are almost nothing but mere ideas
. We do not experience the real world, only second hand sensory data which is then interpreted by our
Our experiences are the basis of all science since science is the recording and analysis of observed events but the only thing we know for certain is
that enough individuals claim to agree with our worldview to make it real, for all of our intents and purposes, simply by virtue of being held by the
majority. Whether consensual reality represents the true nature of things or not is irrelevant because we are incapable of experiencing anything but energy
directly. It all just comes down to majority rule. Anybody whose worldview does not correlate with the majority is branded a psychotic, as were the
prophets of earlier times.
But in the words of Bertrand Russell, the fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd. This was, of course, an
argument against organised religion but it applies to consensual reality too. There have been reports of mass hallucinations but even if a hallucination
is universally experienced, this still does not mean it represents reality.
So given that all experience is subjective (and that we are not experiencing objects but quantum energy), how is religious experience definable as any
different from ordinary experience?
Religious experience differs from what can be called ordinary experience in that in religious experience, there is no objective, observable phenomenon,
not even in the sense that the external world can be described as an objective phenomenon. There have been reports of several people experiencing the same
numinous ‘object’ simultaneously but if something can not be universally experienced it does not fit into consensual reality and we say it does not really
exist. Religious experiences have been put forth as evidence for the existence of a god or gods. The argument is that if something has been experienced it
must be out ‘there’, in the world of objective reality. Now if we accept, simply for the sake of argument, that there is a world of objective phenomena, God
is evidently not a part of it as he is not a part of our consensual worldview. Scientifically verifiable evidence for God would involve the possibility of
experiencing him at will, as we experience other objects local to us. The nature of religious experience however is that it is incredibly rare, even among
the religious, and because of this it remains outside of the sphere of science. Richard Swinburne’s principle of credulity is reasonable enough but naïve
and weak. Mere testimony is not sufficient evidence that an event took place, reason to lie or not.
This is not to dismiss those who claim to have experienced something ‘other’ as liars, they could well have but until we find a reliable alternative to
science we simply have no way of knowing. Science cannot verify the existence of the object of the experience itself, but what it can do is define and
categorise the religious experiences of people by their effects on them, and thus identify an experience as religious based on the definition.
Religious experiences vary from person to person but they have been categorised broadly into the numinous, the mystical, the ecstatic and the
enthusiastic. Numinous experiences are generally associated with the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition- there is a sense of impotence before the Divine,
which is wholly other; mystical experiences in the East and in European paganism- these involve the complete loss of ego and submission and self
sacrifice to the universe; and the ecstatic and enthusiastic (possession) experiences in Shamanism, Sufism, and many forms of Christianity- out of body
experiences and possession by the Holy Spirit/ancestor spirit guides. The common elements all forms of religious experience share are firstly, the
experience of the metaphysical, be it God or Jesus or the Virgin Mary or Krishna or a feeling of enlightenment or even some sort of vague force,
conscious or not, that seems to be pushing a person’s life in a certain direction. There is also a sense of loss and change and general positive feelings
about life. Religious experiences may not always bring on an instantaneous change in a person but there is always definitely a change, from whatever degree
of religious belief to some degree higher.
The theologian Richard Swinburne divided religious experience into two categories of public and private experiences, which he then further divided into
experiences that can and cannot be described in everyday language, and a final fifth category of a general feeling of the presence of God and his involvement
in one’s life. The category of public experiences is not what a lot of people would class as religious experiences as they are more subtle than the St.
Paul on the road to Damascus variety but they still involve the inner subjective feeling, except it is an inner feeling about a public, observable event.
For example, the way a witness to a miracle would be filled with awe, or the way somebody watching an everyday scene taking place might decide it is a
miracle. The private category of religious experiences is more along the lines of what one would consider classic religious experience- the visions described
by the prophets of the Old Testament, Gautama’s enlightenment and so forth.
There is a psychological and physiological aspect to religious experiences. The altered state of consciousness is a result of hormones in the brain
behaving in strange new ways. This could be the physical manifestation of something deeper and metaphysical, but science cannot comment on the plausibility
of this theory. Nevertheless, there is a very physical aspect to religious experiences. Andrew Greeley identified several triggers to mystical experiences.
These ranged from going to church to meditation to listening to music. Other triggers have been added to his original list, such as sex, heavy physical
exercise and drug taking. All of these triggers are actually simple emotional triggers. A strong enough emotional state is a religious experience at its
most basic and emotions are essentially just a change of balance of the chemicals in a person’s brain. The cause of the shift is not important. All highs are
literally a cocktail of endogenous chemicals swimming around a person’s brain.
Drugs, particularly the psychedelic class, have a very long history of religious use that precedes the introduction of psilocybin, mescaline and
LSD to the west. Psychedelic experiences seem to mimic the various kinds of religious experiences. The classic psychedelic drugs (mescaline, LSD,
psilocybin &c.) tend to bring on mystic experiences. These bring on time distortion to the point of loss of time and experiencing nothing but the moment,
as in a mystical religious experience where one is alone with the object of experience for an eternity.
DMT taken by South American shamans in the form of ayahuasca tea (essentially a cocktail of an MAOI and DMT) brings the drinker, they believe, into
contact with the spirits of their ancestors. The extensive research Dr. Rick Strassman conducted into the effects of DMT on the human brain led him to
conclude that there was no observable difference between the ecstasy and spirit possession experienced by shamans under the influence of psychedelic drugs
and that experienced by mystics ‘sober’. He also found that people who meditated regularly and over a long period of time tended to have more religious
experiences than those who did not. He concluded that meditation must alter the pineal gland over time to produce more DMT.
It is the conviction of Terrence McKenna, the authority on DMT, that the third eye yogis and Zen Buddhists claim to have opened is in
reality a flooding of endogenous DMT into the brain.
Users of DMT often report contact with alien beings or elves, which the Amazonians describe as spirit ancestors and people who have been brought back from
the dead would describe as dead relatives. DMT users also often report near death experience-like phenomena, particularly tunnel vision and
transportation to another world.
Most psychedelics are basically endogenous, particularly cannabis, the tryptamine family (including serotonin, psilocin and psilocybin, and
DMT) and the phenethylamine family. Our brains naturally produce and release similar chemicals constantly. Cannabis has been used in India,
particularly by the cult of Shiva, who believe that Shiva, the destroyer aspect of the creator-maintainer-destroyer trinity, gave mankind the cannabis
plant; in the middle east in certain Islamic sects (although mainstream Islam forbids the use of any intoxicants, some jurists have played with the
definition of ‘intoxicant’ enough to justify it); and more recently within the Rastafari religion in the Caribbean, the Church of the Universe in Canada,
and so forth. In 1988 the Israeli neurologist Raphael Mechoulam discovered receptors in the brain and peripheral nervous system (which he called CB1 and
CB2 respectively) that were there specifically for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis. He later discovered
the endogenous fatty acid the receptors CB1 and CB2 were really there for and named it anandamide, after the Sanskrit word for bliss. Anandamide is short
lived but it is similar to THC in its structure and acts as a mild analgesic. There have not been many, if any at all, reports of a profound religious
experience on cannabis but it is used very often as an aid or trigger to help bring along the experience. It is generally used to bring about a state of
mental tranquility to help with meditation.
LSD however is frequently used by itself, not as a part of the ritual but as the entire event. The state of pure comfort and bliss that is described by
those who have had a religious experience is replicated in the LSD experience. Distortion of time and space has been reported, as has the loss of identity
and will- to use Osho’s analogy, the straw ceases to fight against the current of the river. There is a feeling of being a part of something much bigger,
being a single cell in a gigantic organism. Many people on LSD have concluded- or rather realised- that the universe was god and all it contained was god.
This is not something that an ordinary experience will result in.
Religious experiences are complex and highly varied but because they have superficial, observable effects they can be categorised into different specific
types. What differentiates them from what we call ordinary experience is the absolute subjective nature of them. There is arguably a world of content outside
of our minds which can be described in ordinary terms but the world inside is personal to the extent of ineffability. Even something as personal as a
sensation of pleasure or pain can be understood by others when described because pleasure and pain are universal sensations, almost everybody will have
experienced them at some point and regardless of relative pain thresholds, we have a common language in which we can describe pain to another person. But
religious experience is something that few people have had in their lives. We can speak of it in semi-scientific terms, but this involves ignoring the fact
that the premise we are setting out from, that a person had a genuine religious experience, has not and cannot be proven scientifically.
The Varieties of Religious Experience- William James
Principles of Human Knowledge- George Berkley
An Enquiry Surrounding Human Understanding- David Hume
The Spirit Molecule- Rick Strassman
The Idea of the Holy- Rudolph Otto
TiHKAL- Alexander and Ann Shulgin
Cannabis- Jonathan Green
A Neuro-Psychological Explanation of Religious Experience- Anne L. C. Runehov
Mystical Experiences, Hallucinations, and Belief in God- Alistair I. McIntosh