Here’s a piece I wrote for Wired UK. I am trying to feel my way towards a pragmatic attitude towards revelatory experiences, that avoids the black-and-white dichotomy of either ‘definitely a message from God’ or ‘definitely a symptom of mental illness’. But this pragmatic position may perhaps end up offending both believers and non-believers…
Recently I was at the wedding of an old school friend. The friend has since discovered Jesus in a big way. The congregation was split down the middle — 50 percent were young evangelists, swaying with their eyes closed and hands in the air; and 50 percent were old school friends, tight-lipped and looking very uncomfortable amid the rapture.
I had evangelists either side of me at dinner. The woman on my right was beautiful, charming and, technically speaking, psychotic. I mean that in the nicest possible way. Her eyes grew wide as she told me how God regularly spoke to her, cared for her, entered her. She believed she had witnessed many miracles, that her eyes had been opened to a hidden level of reality.
A western psychiatrist would nod and tick off the classic symptoms of psychosis: hearing voices, feeling guided by spirits, feeling singled out by the universe, believing you have magical abilities to save the world. Our psychiatric wards are full of people locked up for expressing such beliefs.
We define ourselves, as a culture, by our attitude to such experiences. Before the modern age, they were very common and were categorised as heavenly or demonic visitations. Some of the founding figures of civilisation were, technically speaking, psychotic: Socrates, the father of western rationalism, had a daemon who gave him orders.
But since the 17th century such phenomena have been shifted to the margins of our secular, scientific, post-animist culture and defined as pathological symptoms of a physical or emotional disease. Today, if you tell your doctor about such experiences, you are likely to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia and be prescribed debilitating anti-psychotic drugs.
And yet such experiences are very common. A new paper by Heriot-Maitland, Knight and Peters in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology (BJCP) estimates that 10-15 percent of the population encounter “out-of-the-ordinary experiences” (OOEs) such as hearing voices. By automatically pathologising and hospitalising such people, we are sacrificing them to our own secular belief system, not unlike the Church burning witches.
Now, some scientists are trying to find a more sympathetic way to understand OOEs, to help people to integrate them and find value and meaning in them. Of course, many people find such experiences deeply distressing and actively seek medical help. But not everyone does. As the authors of theBJCParticle note, OOEs can often be deeply emotionally fulfilling and meaningful for people, particularly if those who have them don’t get hospitalised.
Whether an OOE is integrated or not depends, the authors say, on whether the person finds a supportive social context to help them make sense of the OOE, such as a religious organisation, a network such as Hearing Voices, or a sympathetic and open-minded therapist.
Perhaps we need to find a more pragmatic attitude to revelatory experiences, an attitude closer to that of William James, the pioneering American psychologist and pragmatic philosopher. James studied many different religious experiences, asking not “Are they true?” but rather “What do they lead to? Do they help you or cause you distress? Do they inspire you to valuable work or make you curl up into a ball?”
We can evaluate the worth of a revelatory experience without trying to find out if the experience “really” came from God or not.
Take the example of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the most successful social organisations of the last 100 years. The founder, Bill Wilson, overcame his alcoholism when he had a religious vision after taking the psychedelic drug belladonna. That’s interesting, but what’s more interesting is the practical work he did after the vision, which helped millions of people.
Many of us will experience an OOE at some point. You may decide you are uniquely blessed by God. You’re not. It appears our species’ inbox is being constantly filled with messages from beyond (God, the unconscious, aliens, wherever). Some of these messages are useful, others less so. It’s what you do with them that counts.