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psychic phenomena

Scrubbing up religion to make it fit for polite society

I had the pleasure of meeting Jonathan Haidt on Monday at the RSA. Haidt, as you all know, wrote The Happiness Hypothesis, which really inspired me. I gave him a copy of my new book, so if you see it in a bin near the Strand, it’s yours! Haidt’s own new book is called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics.

It’s a very interesting and quite ideas-packed book. A lot of ‘intelligent non-fiction’, particularly in psychology, can be easily boiled down to a 10-minute TED talk (indeed many books should have stayed as TED talks), but Haidt’s book – shock horror! – has more than one idea in it. It talks about the emotions beneath different political ideologies, how our brains generate sacred values, and how religions help societies to cohere and bond.

It’s this last idea that Haidt discusses in his very slick TED talk on religion and ecstasy (I love the animated slides – it’s lecture-as-movie-experience). His talk begins with William James, and a brief look at revelatory ecstatic experiences – those moments where, as Haidt puts it, a door seems to open in our heads, and we are suddenly lifted from the profane to the sacred. Haidt talks about how such revelatory experiences can involuntarily happen to us (we are seized by forces, as the young Wordsworth feels himself to be), or we can voluntarily engineer them by taking psychedelic drugs, as shamans did (or do).

Then Haidt moves, quite rapidly, to a social or Durkheimian explanation of religion. Sacred values, he says, give societies something to cohere around, to coalesce around. They help us bond, and help our societies endure and resist external shocks. He shows us the fascinating work by the anthropologists Richard Sosis and Eric Bressler, who studied American communes in the 19th century, and found that the religious communes which demanded a lot more from their members survived far longer than the secular communes which demanded less (see the graph below).

So, and this is Haidt’s main point, perhaps there’s an evolutionary purpose to religions. Perhaps they evolved at a certain period in human evolution, around 10,000 years ago, to help human tribes to cohere and cooperate, making them more adaptive and resilient. They are the product, he suggests, of ‘group selection’ – apparently a rather controversial idea in biology. You can be an atheist, as he is, and still have respect for the sacred and its socially adaptive function. ‘

And you don’t need the supernatural for a sense of the sacred’, he insists. ‘You could get it from your country, or from nature.’ Well, maybe, though I’d suggest if people get really worked up about their country, there’s probably a bit of the supernatural mixed in – think of how American nationalism is often mixed in with a sense of manifest destiny.

Haidt is certainly right that religions can bond societies together and help give them a collective sense of meaning, and that this can help them respond to shocks and threats. Others have also argued this recently – from the philosopher Charles Taylor to Robert Wright to Alain De Botton. At a time of riots and revolutions, it’s unsurprising that liberals suddenly start talking about how religions create social stability, as Edmund Burke and William Wilberforce did after the French Revolution.

But I think the Darwinian social function theory of religion leaves something out. It leaves out the phenomena that Haidt begins his TED talk with – the sheer strangeness of revelatory and ecstatic experiences. In such moments, humans feel invaded by external powers, filled with the holy spirit, possessed, overwhelmed. There is something extremely wild, psychotic even, about some religious phenomena, and I think both Haidt and De Botton, in their eagerness to rehabilitate religion for a polite secular bourgeois audience, leave some of that wildness out.

Haidt presents a nice evolutionary story: at a certain stage of evolution, humans came up with religion to help our tribes cohere. But the story is weirder than that. At a certain stage in evolution, humans became conscious, and felt bombarded by messages from gods and angels. We tripped into consciousness, and this must have been both an awesome and a completely terrifying experience. It seems to me that William James appreciated the savage rawness and weirdness of the revelatory experience. Haidt does to some extent, but not sufficiently. (That’s St Theresa on the right, by the way, getting slapped around by some angel. Take that Theresa!)

I put this to Haidt, and he began by saying that James was a depressive recluse, so was focused very much on the individual aspects of religious experience rather than the social. Fair enough, though a bit harsh on James. Haidt then suggested that homo sapiens believed the universe was full of spirits as a side-effect of evolving a theory of mind. It was very adaptive to be able to infer other humans’ intentions, and as a result, we started to infer intentions everywhere – the sky thunders because God is angry etc (this is a theory known as the Hyper-Active Agency Detection Device, which Jesse Bering ably explored in his book The God Instinct).

But, again, I don’t think this adequately explains revelatory experience. The experience of hearing voices, seeing visions, feeling suddenly filled with the holy spirit etc is simply far more powerful and immediate than inferring divine agency when you hear some thunder. It’s a feeling of being actively invaded and overpowered by an external agency. Such experiences can certainly be socially cohesive, but they can also be highly socially disturbing. They are weird, uncanny, abnormal, frightening. The people who experience them are, traditionally, weird, frightening figures, half in the tribe and half out of it (half in the profane world and half in the sacred, as Mircea Eliade put it in his study of shamanism). They might be revered by their tribe and followed. Or they might be executed for being demonically possessed.

Haidt emphasizes the social cohesion role of the sacred, and seems to suggest our Enlightenment cultures need a bit more of the sacred in our lives and societies. But the sacred is notoriously hard to manage, politically, as King Pentheus knew (he’s the hero of Euripides’ Bacchae, who tries to ban the ecstatic cult of Dionysus. He even tries to imprison Dionysus, but the god of ecstasy escapes and sends Pentheus into madness. He ends up getting ripped apart by the maenads). What I admire about ancient Athens in the fifth century BC is its ability to balance the rationalist with the irrational and daemonic: Socrates and Sophocles, two sides of the human personality balancing each other out. But our Enlightenment societies have far more difficulty in seeing any value in the ecstatic, the revelatory or the daemonic. It simply terrifies us. It’s too weird, too uncivic, too impolite.

The last generation to be genuinely OK with revelatory experiences was the civil war generation of Oliver Cromwell, the Quakers and John Milton. In some ways, you could read Milton’s Samson Agonistes as the swan-song for revelatory experience in western culture. Samson sits in jail, wondering why God isn’t sending him any more messages. Well – we’re all wondering that now Samson. Why aren’t we getting any messages? What’s up with our reception! After the prophetic violence of Milton’s generation, England settled down to a calmer and more polite culture that was very suspicious of religious ‘enthusiasm’. And with good reason: the ‘voice of God’ often told people to kill, as God tells Samson to do. Such experiences have to be controlled and even banished in a multicultural rational commercial society. (Check out this excellent video of Stanley Fish discussing the inherent weirdness and illiberal savagery of Samson Agonistes, by the way).

Soren Kierkegaard was right, I think, to insist on the strangeness and irrationality of religious experience in his 1842 book Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard was surrounded by 19th century Deists and Hegelians trying to turn religion into something nice, polite, rational and civic (as Haidt and De Botton are trying to do today). And he responds, forget all that – religion is God telling Abraham to kill his son, and Abraham agreeing.

Religions certainly fulfill an important social role. But they also grow out of the fact that, as a species, we sometimes feel invaded and possessed by external forces. Religions make sense of such experiences and give them a structure and meaning. And perhaps they give us a way to tell the good messages from the bad ones – the pro-social from the anti-social. We could try and come up with an explanation for these experiences of receiving messages from beyond.

There are two possible explanations, it seems to me. Firstly, western science’s explanation: the feeling of being invaded by spiritual forces is a deluded by-product of human consciousness. I’m absolutely fine with that explanation. Secondly, perhaps there really are external beings ‘out there’ in the multi-verse, which communicate with humans and inhabit them. Perhaps some of them can be good for the host and their society, and others bad for them. Perhaps it’s all a question of letting the right one in.

I know such speculations are somewhat beyond the pale of polite rationalist Enlightenment discourse. Nonetheless, this is how humans have, for the last 10,000 years, understood their experiences of the daemonic (daemon means a messenger, and eudaimonia, by the way, means ‘having a good daemon within’ – tell that to the Office of National Statistics the next time they come round to measure your eudaimonia). It’s how most of the human species still understands such experiences. So I think it should be acceptable to at least entertain such a thesis, without being labelled insane.

That’s not to say that religions are all correct and true – they couldn’t be. But it would suggest that religions grow out of actual interactions with non-human intelligences. Such a theory doesn’t have to make any claims about the identity of these beings – if there is one God communicating with us, or many gods, or no gods at all, simply other intelligences, mortal or immortal, who can communicate with us through revelations. These are all possibilities. It simply suggests that the reason humans came to believe that other intelligences send them messages is because they actually do. I’m going to call this the animist theory of religions.

I certainly don’t mean to attack the Enlightenment and all its achievements, and to welcome in some sort of degenerative age of magic like that of late antiquity. I personally don’t like talk of ‘malevolent demons’, because it seems to me to open the door to all kinds of unhealthy superstitions (nicely illustrated by the famous ‘sleep of reason’ drawing, on the right). But I wonder if we should at least entertain the hypothesis that revelatory experiences genuinely are communications with other beings in the multiverse – some benevolent, some perhaps malevolent.

Skeptics, at this point, will charge me with being an utter loon, and will insist that science’s great achievement was to free us from all our spooky fears of being in what the astronomer Carl Sagan called a ‘demon-haunted world’. But Sagan himself thought higher beings might be trying to communicate with humans, and imagined such a possibility in his book and film, Contact. Aliens, angels – same same, but different?

Well, maybe speculations about where such messages come from are pointless, unprovable either way, and we should ask more pragmatically what people do with such experiences, to what social uses they put them, and how we can hold them to rational account (unlike Kierkegaard, I think we must hold revelations to rational account and try to make sense of them). But if you’ve had such experiences, as much of the population have, I’m sure one can’t help but wonder…where did that come from?


Here are some interesting other links for newsletter subscribers:

Here’s Angie Hobbs robustly defending philosophy’s ability to teach us how to live.

Here’s Mark Williamson of Action for Happiness talking about the ‘Sachs effect’ – or what Jeffrey Sachs’ support for national happiness measurements means for the ideology of happiness.

One thing that amuses me about happiness economists is that they tell us that constantly comparing ourselves to others makes us less happy, but their own international rankings of country happiness leads us to do just that. Here, for example, is a journalist in Malaysia worrying about his country being less happy than Singapore (but at least it’s happier than Thailand).

This chap from Nesta thinks the arts and humanities should be more willing to measure their impact scientifically. I’m fine with that, as long as social scientists are happy to express their theories through dance. Wait…they are happy to do that! Check out all the YouTube entries for ‘dance your PhD’, like this. OK you crazy scientists, we’ll try.Here’s an Economist piece on the drive to make academic journals open access.

Two pieces showing the harshness of our cultural and media attitudes to female celebrities’ bodies (and hence the harshness of our attitudes to women in general). First, the actress Ashley Judd responds to the media / internet abuse over her ‘puffy face’. And then, a nasty time-lapse video appears on YouTube showing Lindsay Lohan’s face ageing. The New Republic suggests it shows the corruption of celebrity. Well, maybe, I think it also shows how vicious we can be to women. Everyone has some bad photos of them, right? We don’t subject male celebrities to this sort of body-policing.

Ilona Boniwell, who teaches a masters in Positive Psychology at University of East London, is one of the people behind this Personal Well-Being Centre, which has devised a ‘well-being curriculum’ for schools, and which also does free (or very cheap) ‘psychology in the pub‘ sessions. Cool! I shall go to one to discuss my daemon obsession.

Finally, here’s my favourite philosopher, footballer Joey Barton, on Lucian Freud, trans-genderism, body-consciousness and other stuff. ‘I’m body-aware, not body-conscious’, sighs Joey. Do I see the beginning of a floppy wrist for football’s hard-man?

See you next week,


Newsletter 5/3/11: Ghosts, guillotines, Charlie Sheen, and other curious phenomena

Ever seen a ghost? A quarter of Brits say they have, up from 7% in the 1950s. Our experience of the spooky is apparently on the rise. Yet modern psychology has typically pushed such experiences to the margins. The profession seems embarrassed, in its eagerness to establish itself as a respectable science, that some of its leading lights – Carl Jung, William James – also believed in wacky things like spirit mediums and synchronicity.
Which is a pity, because paranormal experiences – or experiences interpreted in a paranormal way – are, for better or worse, part of the human experience. And they’re interesting. That’s probably why professor Richard Wiseman, who studies such phenomena, is the most followed psychologist on Twitter. He has a new book out, called Paranormality, which examines whether any paranormal phenomena stand up to scientific scrutiny. Check out his website of freaky ghost photos.

Wiseman’s last book, 59 Seconds, debunked many myths of self-help while sharing useful self-improvement tips for which there was actual evidence. You can see Wiseman talking with Oliver Burkeman, Frank Furedi and Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation in this clip from the School of Life’s self-help summit.

Nic’s colleague from the New Economics Foundation, Charles Seaford, came and talked to the London Philosophy Club this week (the LPC is just about to pass the 1,000-member mark! Hooray!) Charles told us how the British policy debate over how to define and measure well-being split into two camps: the Benthamites, who define well-being as ‘feeling good'; and the Aristotelians, who define it as eudaimonia, or optimal human functioning.

I have much more sympathy with the Aristotelian approach, but I wrote this piece on why I don’t think eudaimonia can be empirically measured. In brief, eudaimonia involves questions of virtue, the meaning of life, the function of man, and the existence (or non-existence) of God and the after-life. These questions can’t be answered empirically, because they are questions of moral belief, and also of faith. I argue that measuring well-being may be a technocratic solution to a spiritual question.

Lord Layard recently conducted a ‘Sunday Sermon’ on happiness at the School of Life. As I explore in this new report for the Franco-British Council, someone else once performed a ‘secular sermon on happiness’ – the Jacobin revolutionary, Joseph-Marie Lequino, in 1793. He told the people of Rochefort: “All, in a word, big or small, strong or weak, young or old, we all dream of happiness!”

Get happy! Or else, the guillotine. In other happy news, Cambridge University’s Well-Being Institute published interesting results from a 65-year longitudinal study in the Journal of Positive Psychology, which found that happy children were more likely to be happy adults…but also more likely to get divorced. This could be a problem for Lord Layard’s happiness agenda – his Good Childhood report found that children with step-parents or single parents were ‘50% more likely to suffer emotional and behavioural problems’. So whose happiness comes first?

Philip Blond’s think-tank, ResPublica, is increasingly looking at well-being issues. This week, they hosted Professor John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia, who talked about the importance of trust to well-being. The more we trust the people around us, the happier we feel. This brushes against the ugly elephant in the well-being chat-room: does multiculturalism make us less trustful, and therefore less happy? Harvard professor Robert Putnam has argued it does. He studied the relationship between trust and diversity for a decade, and concluded the American city with the highest diversity, Los Angeles, also had the lowest levels of trust: “In the presence of [ethnic] diversity, we hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.”

Is that one of the reasons Scandinavian societies are happier (although minorities in Scandinavian countries are particularly unhappy)? How do we get different ethnicities within the same local community talking to each other? How can we talk about pluralism and multiculturalism in such a way as not to offend each other? These issues have been in my head this week – the London Philosophy Club is an example of a very diverse, vibrant group that shares a common love of ideas and debating. Someone posted a discussion thread on our website this week called ‘How do we protect ourselves from Islam?’ Some members complained, I deleted the thread, now other members are complaining about infringing their free speech. Doh…

Finally, we can’t go this week without mentioning the King of Winning, Charlie Sheen. The world has marveled at his series of media interviews this week, and the sheer scale of his Hollywood egomania: ‘tiger blood’, ‘fire-breathing hands’, ‘Adonis DNA’, ‘bitchin’ rock-star from Mars’. Wow. No wonder Scientology is so popular in Hollywood. Here’s a mash-up someone did of Sheen’s quotes with cartoons from the New Yorker.

See you next week,