Saturday, January 24, 2015

Epiphany Without a Cause: a Theory of Religion

Similarities between the near-death-experience, enlightenment, "spirituality", motivation, and the common core of religion.

I recently commented on near death experiences (NDEs), which have some very interesting characteristics. They are incredibly compelling, prompting both life changes in the person experiencing them, and gushing descriptions like "realer than real". They are highly emotional, typically positive, but sometimes negative. The subject feels love pervading the universe, and that this is knowlege which is not only true, but needs to be spread around to other people. But the experience is also vague, with a feeling of tremendous knowledge being gained, but an actuality of platitude after platitude, set in very stock archetypal images- angels, bright lights, butterflies, voices of god, telepathy, clouds.

Does this all sound familiar? It does to me. While one might take it, on the one hand, as evidence that religions are true in what they communicate, at least in some broad sense of a deep / alternate reality and motivation that unites them all, one might take it more skeptically as being a key to what makes humans so susceptible to religion and forms its internal wellspring, without being what it purports on its face.

But what is the point of such a mechanism, if we assume it is natural and biological, rather than a transmission from the beyond? The NDE may be the extreme form, by way of brain disconnection between areas that normally keep each other in check, of our normal positive motivational gestalt. As one is walking along, one occasionally reads into the landscape pleasant sensations- trees growing and birds singing, and more rarely, internal realizations and epiphanies of various kinds. We only know about some nice impression or great idea by way of an emotional reaction that wells up telling us that beauty or truth are at hand- that some nagging question has been solved, or some new perspective gained.

We must have a positive emotional system that is not simply the well-known, purely emotional reward system of drug addiction, but one that is more cognitively engaged, which labels our ideas and impressions with emotional valence and meaning. One might call it a key part of our imaginations. Untethered from inputs and more importantly, from its customary repression by normal cortical controls that harness it to only real, (or realistic) ideas, it might both gain intensity, and resort to dredging up archetypal dream-imagery for attachment.

Some partial form of this process might be at work in great art, and among the mystics of religion. Buddhists devote their lives to forms of meditation that fundamentally seek, I would suggest, to gain this NDE-like state of pure positivity and sense of vast knowledge and emotion, termed Nirvanna. Obviously, it is both extremely hard to attain, and all-to-fleeting when it happens. And it is not really knowledge of any this-world kind at all, merely the sense of knowledge.

This leads to a unifying theory of religion, where the NDE is merely the most intense form of a feeling that happens to everyone at various levels. Typically we seek to intensify this feeling through what are biologically and evolutionarily valid means- the true epiphany regarding a personal task which is indeed useful and oriented to the real world, and which gains us a precious practical advantage. But the lure of this feeling is strong. We can also seek it through what I would call false epiphanies, such as intense meditation, or the typical institutional religious apparatus of scripture, sermon, homilies, hymns, incense, etc. all purporting to vastly more meaning than they actually contain. Latter-day seekers even engage in postmodern philosophy!

This is reminiscent of Stephen Pinker's theory of music as being a kind of cheesecake for the mind. The evolutionary rationale of our capacity to make and appreciate music is not at all clear, but in any case, complex instruments like pianos that demand exquisite talent and dedication, and our unimaginable cultural wealth of composed and performed music, extend far beyond any evolutionary rationale. We are tickling pleasure centers whose original purpose was far more modest- perhaps the identification of a bird, or the seduction of a mate.

In similar fashion, religions seem to tickle a kind of meaning and positivity center in the brain, with more or less empty mantras and practices which yet carry intense meaningfulness. If they can inspire good morality, humility, and pleasant personal and communal feelings, that is wonderful. But religion can also form the nucleus of wider psychological complexes, attracting far darker tendencies like tribalism, magical thinking, superstition, intolerance, fanaticism, and patriarchial oppression, to generate thought and behavior systems that not only far outstrip their warrant, but go beyond all decency.

  • A little pushback from the new atheists.
  • Religion, violence, and psychological & moral primitivism.
  • Religion, power, and Nietzsche.
  • Religious morality is the least objective of all.
  • Faith is a bad thing, generally.
  • C. S. Lewis, revelation, heaven, etc.- uncritically reviewed.
  • Greece has not been well-served by austerity. It can not "sink".
  • Indoctrination, propaganda, and water-carrying for the 1% ... the war for home schooling.
  • Terrorist or hero? You make the call.
  • On the perpetuation of social class in the US.
  • "Washington [state] now makes low-income families pay seven times the effective tax rate that the rich pay."
  • Where does the Fed's free money go, and where should it go?
  • Bill Mitchell on neo-feudalism and the degradation of our concept of citizenship.
  • Gary Kasparov on the global culture clash, and why modern values are better than the other ones:
"It is less the famous clash of civilizations than an attempt by these 'time travelers' to hold on to their waning authority by stopping the advance of the ideas essential to an open society."