Spirit realm

Confirming God's existence with supernatural experiences.

Anyone who has witnessed or participated in fervent religious ceremonies has some idea of how physically involved these events can be- people faint, move wildly, fall into a trance, weep with abandon, and speak in indecipherable 'languages.'

When such dramatic physical changes sweep over our congregation, how can we deny the presence of some external force or spirit, which moves systematically over each individual, and triggers the outpouring of such behaviour?

Surely this is a sign that some being from another realm has entered the hearts of the people? What else could explain the vivid transformations seen in people’s personalities, when individuals who look and behave normally in non-religious settings, suddenly become physically uninhibited, forceful, and brimming over with religious conviction?

The answer's simple.

It’s easy to influence people’s behaviour- just provide us with the right social settings and environment, and exert enough peer pressure to convince us that certain actions are appropriate under the circumstances.

We behave differently at work, from when we’re at home or on holiday. We communicate and present ourselves differently, depending on whom we’re talking to and where we are. Actors display a wide breadth of emotions on stage, while dancers leap and gesture in ways that would appear strange under other circumstances. Such displays are expected and desirable- audiences pay to watch these simulations of emotion and behaviour.

Given adequate incentive, each of us is capable of drumming up high levels of enthusiasm and fervour, within ourselves and others, regarding a particular cause. Behavioural changes are especially likely to occur when people are coaxed to let go of their inhibitions, and to follow the conduct of others around them.

If the social context is right, and it permits or encourages a display of demonstrative behaviour, then we usually have little difficulty slipping into our role and behaving as the situation demands.

Religious organisations encourage believers to take part in physical and emotional activities that stir up excitement, and make them feel engaged with the proceedings around them, rather than simply being passive observers.

The charged atmosphere generated during worship services is ideal for eliciting such displays- it combines soaring music, soul-searching song lyrics, intensely moving speeches, and passionate encouragement from religious leaders and helpers, to induce feelings of awe and religiosity in worshippers.

When surrounded by fellow believers, many of whom are vocalising loudly and intently, and moving their arms or jumping up and down, it’s no wonder that we find it fairly easy to join in.

The same phenomenon is seen at political rallies, pop concerts, and demonstrations. Make people stand up for prolonged periods of time, and it is likely that some will faint. Get us to recall emotional events in our lives, and many of us break down in tears. Lead others into states of high arousal, and it surprises no one when they begin to talk loudly and forcefully, and move vigorously.

One might not think of the average parishioner as being particularly vocal or physically energetic, but that is not the limiting factor. The fact is that the majority of people are physically capable of moving and making noise. Under the right circumstances, demonstrative behaviours emerge naturally.

The examples mentioned above may seem trivial- we all know that people weep, cry out, and dance, with relatively little provocation. What about religious experiences that lie on the more extreme end of the spectrum, such as spiritual visitations, hallucinations, or healing of diseases and ailments?

For most people, such events are not frequent occurrences in day-to-day life, so when they do happen, they appear to be strongly indicative of godly intervention.

Let’s examine what happens when believers:
  1. Lay hands on people,

  2. Heal afflictions,

  3. Receive spiritual visitations, and

  4. Speak in tongues.
Laying of hands and fainting
You may have seen religious meetings and rallies where spiritual leaders lay hands on believers, and the believers are instantly knocked out cold. Losing consciousness is a fairly significant event- after all, we temporarily lose control over our bodies and lack awareness of our surroundings. Such a dramatic transition between conscious and unconscious states does look rather like an intervention from God. We certainly wouldn’t like it to happen unless we were confident that it was safe to do so.

At religious events where such practices are common, people undertake preparations that allow their fellow believers to pass out safely and comfortably. As a religious leader makes his or her way down the line of fervent believers, placing hands on one person after another, volunteers position themselves behind those who are being prayed for, ready to catch and support the ones who lose consciousness, and lower them gently to the ground. People hold blankets at the ready, and drape them over those who have passed out, to protect their modesty as they lie prone on the floor.

Furthermore, all this takes place in a religious setting, and levels of mutual trust run high. People are comfortable with the idea of passing out, because firstly, they’re confident that fellow believers will not take advantage of them, and secondly, there are plenty of people in the vicinity who will protect them from anyone who might try to do so. This sense of security makes believers more willing, and therefore, more likely, to lose consciousness.

What happens at the physical level? How can a person’s conscious state be flipped like a switch? We don’t usually fall asleep while we’re walking around the supermarket or meeting business partners for lunch. (Some people do, though- they have a disorder known as narcolepsy, in which the brain fails to regulate conscious states and sufferers become dead to the world at the most inappropriate times.)

Remind yourself that you in fact go through this switching of states on a daily basis- when you fall asleep and wake up. Many of us, quite regularly, fall asleep as soon as our head hits the pillow. Loss of consciousness in this context is absolutely normal and expected.

By contrast, passing out at a religious event seems completely bizarre, because the believers in question are standing up, and are feeling extremely excitable and awake, at the time of the event. The key difference here is the context- the activity (passing out) is essentially the same, but the circumstances are different.

Are these two contextual situations really as different as they appear to be at first glance? Let’s examine the mental state of individuals who are about to receive a touch from God. Believers are often on the look out for signs from God, and being knocked out cold seems like a sure way of proving to oneself that God is real, and that God has the power to alter physical reality. It’s a confidence-booster- a way of validating one’s faith.

Most believers have witnessed loss of consciousness in others, and the awareness that such things are possible causes them to build up the expectation of undergoing the same experience themselves.

In fact, many believers place themselves in the lineup, hoping as hard as they can that they’ll experience a touch from God. Being knocked out is an affirmation of one’s faith in the Almighty, and indicates that one is a devout, obedient, willing servant, ready to be used or affected in whatever way God chooses.

Sleepiness is not the only reason for passing out- there are a variety of circumstances, such as being given a shock, that make people prone to fainting. People faint when they receive extremely good or bad news, or when they’ve been standing up for long periods and lack an adequate supply of oxygen to the brain. These criteria often apply to religious settings, with soaring levels of zeal and passion, and where believers work themselves up into a state of great excitement, sometimes frenzy.

Believers are usually aware of their religious leader’s progress down the line, and can hear their leader praying and laying hands on adjacent believers before it’s finally their turn. One may quite easily identify the exact time at which their leader will turn God’s powerful spotlight upon the faithful.

Thus, believers are often not only aware that loss of consciousness can take place, they're often ardently hoping that it will happen to them. They’re offered a safe environment in which to do so, and they watch as other devotees are overcome with God’s power, and feel pressured to match their peers in religious intensity.

They know when exactly they are expected to pass out, and the circuits in their brain that are responsible for switching between conscious and unconsciousness states obeys its timing cues with great precision. All these factors in combination help to explain why people faint as their leader approaches to lay hands.
Spiritual healing
It may seem harder to identify psychological reasons for observed changes in disease state- after all, when we hear about tumours shrinking or injured people rising from their wheelchair and walking, many people take that as a sign that some external benevolent force is at work. This requires a discussion of the power of the human psyche.

It may often seem as if we exert little direct effect on our environment through thoughts alone. However, the power of the human psyche is not to be underestimated. Thoughts, intentions and decisions do not only affect our mind. They have tangible effects throughout the rest of our body and contribute a great deal to what goes on outside the boundaries of the brain.

Our bodies and brains are inextricably connected- chemicals pass between the brain and the rest of the body via the circulatory system, while neuronal connections allow the exchange of signals between all parts of our body and the processing centres in the brain and spinal cord.

Glands in our body secrete various substances such as hormones, and these hormones are transmitted to target sites in our body, where they bind to receptors and exert their effects. The levels of production of these chemicals, and the size of their effect, depend on our particular mental state.

Drugs exert effects on our minds and bodies because they are similar in structure to compounds that are produced naturally by our bodies. They are thus able to substitute for the original compounds, and may interact with cells in our bodies in specific ways. Researchers study the molecular structure of various drugs to find out how and where they work.

The fact that certain chemicals, whether produced within our bodies or administered artificially, have the ability to influence our minds and bodies, is beyond question.

So, what does this have to do with our religious experiences? Plenty!

Our psychological state affects our body and our health at numerous levels. Firstly, it exerts direct effects on the biological processes taking place in our bodies. By changing our mental state, we alter the levels of hormones produced, the levels of DNA and RNA transcription in our cells, and the levels of protein production, each of which trigger multitudes of downstream effects.

When a believer reports that a miracle healing has taken place, there are a whole variety of possible explanations. The patient’s body may have healed itself spontaneously. Medicine and treatment may have had beneficial effects. Or, the original diagnosis may have been incorrect to begin with. Just because we do not have detailed-enough understanding of our own bodies to pinpoint the exact reason for improvement does not mean we have to attribute everything to God.

Secondly, our mental attitudes affect our perception of our body. When necessary, we are able to suppress the sensation of pain, motivate ourselves to draw on reserves of energy and muscle power, and accomplish things that we thought almost impossible.

Sheer willpower and determination go a long way towards helping people to achieve a goal or perform an action- even if that means getting out of a wheelchair to which one has been confined for years.
Visions from God
Extensive medical evidence shows that the consumption of mind- and body-altering substances, such as hallucinogens, alcohol, and opiods, or the onset of certain diseases, such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s, can alter a person’s perceptions of reality. In schizophrenia, for example, instead of attributing images and sound to one's own imagination, patients believe that such sensations arise outside the body, making to difficult for them to distinguish imagination from reality.

The phenomena seen in these patients are examples of what happens when alterations are extreme. At a smaller scale, all of us experience effects of chemicals that are secreted by cells in our bodies on a moment-to-moment basis.

Furthermore, our thoughts influence the production and efficacy of these chemicals. Our mental activity affects our bodily state and influences our perceptions and interpretations of the external world, to some degree. You do not need to be suffering from a full-blown brain disorder to experience occasional lapses in judgment while trying to determine whether a sight or a sound was imagined or occurred in the external world.

Many people experience distortions of perceptions, even when not under the influence of drugs. You may have seen images and heard sounds that appear unquestionably real, but seem to come from the spiritual realm, as they are out of sync with reality.

Well, you're not ‘crazy,’ neither are you imagining things- you’re simply experiencing and constructing reality in your own mind, as everyone does. It’s just that our brains sometimes get tricked. Instead of attributing an internally-triggered event to our own imaginations, we attribute it to an external source.

Think of the times when young people get together late at night and trade ghost stories, and make the hair rise on their backs. Are there really spirits and demons lurking around, causing people to feel this way?

No- we induce these states of excitement and anticipation through the power of the mind. We instinctively believe that our apprehension is motivated by a real, external presence, but such beliefs are mistaken- it actually arises from a real, internal mechanism.
Speaking in tongues
Try asking a young child to make up an imaginary nonsense language and speak it rapidly and determinedly, as if it were a real language- this is something that adults may not engage in very often, but are perfectly capable of doing, should they choose.

In religious settings, newbies often find it hard to let go of their inhibitions and speak aloud in front of others. With a little bit of practise and encouragement, it's possible to get quite fluent and confident. At first, one could try the strategy of imitating the sounds, rhythms, and phrases that others use. This isn’t hard in itself- imitation comes naturally- it just takes a while to loosen up sometimes.

Then one could try slight variations which are based on a similar motif, but which feel more comfortable to one’s palate. And depending on the intensity of one’s feeling at different points in time, one could vary the pace and loudness of the utterances. People often ask themselves and others what the phrases mean. Some reports claim that the words are intelligible to those who speak Hebrew, or Greek, or some other language that is unknown to the speaker.

The answer: the words mean whatever you want them to mean, and they are gibberish. They are not, after all, from any real spoken language. We are all perfect capable of making up nonsense words and modulating our voice to convey desired emotions.

(Read more about speaking in tongues here.)
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