I just listened to a lecture on ‘Apparitions, Alien Abductions and Hearing the Voice of God’ by Glynn Harrison, a Christian psychiatrist from Bristol University. His take on spiritual experience is similar to that of the psychologist Justin Barrett, who works on childhood belief at Oxford, but he spends a bit longer explaining the application of the scientific knowledge from a Christian point of view.
Harrison explained that, based on research in cognitive psychology, we can see that our brains are wired to find meaning in our experiences. For example, we might see anthropomorphic images in random patterns. Everyone uses these non-rational intuitive thought patterns to make sense of the world, alongside more ‘scientific’ rational step by step processes. And these might result in ‘non-rational beliefs’. So as well as accepting that vegetables are good for us and that 2 plus 2 is 4, we would probably avoid buying a serial killer’s house, or we might think it was perfectly reasonable to pay more for a dress worn by Marylin Monroe than an identical one from a charity shop.
But these intuitive thought processes can sometimes get us into trouble. People hear voices (it’s more common than you think) and ascribe significance to them. Some hold superstitious beliefs, like the huge number of people who think that astrology works. And some people are more likely than others to be ‘suggestible’.
Harrison is firmly convinced that all truth is God’s truth, and that any new scientific knowledge is to be welcomed and not feared. There are two ways to interpret the data; either our search for meaning is a survival mechanism, or ‘our faith is a reality for which the brain is prepared’. He goes on to explain that he believes ‘intuitive processes can be a vehicle for God’s truth, and a great gift’. What is important is that the intuitive and the rational are used together responsibly. For example, the church has a long tradition of ‘testing’ prophecy using the Bible and other rational thought processes. If the two agree, a prophecy (for example), is more likely to be genuine.
What’s important here is that the findings of cognitive psychology fit with what one would expect if God did exist – that we are wired for belief. It is also a reminder for those in positions of leadership to act responsibly in teaching and guiding people in matters of faith.