Religious Experience with Dr. Michael Ferguson & Dr. Jeff Anderson
Updated: Jul 19, 2020
I was just a young teenager when I attended my first miracle convention. As soon as my mother heard that Benny Hinn was coming to a nearby auditorium, she had to be there. That meant we kids had to tag along. In hindsight, I am glad for the experience. What a show! Hinn bounced around the stage, laying hands on people, filling them with the spirit and pulling them out of wheelchairs. It was exciting!
Miracle-working is one of my favorite art forms. I prefer the work of Derren Brown or MarJoe (clips below) because they don't require me to play along with any superstitious claptrap, but no matter who the artist, there is something invigorating about being part of a large group of people who are expecting--DEMANDING--to witness the unwitnessable, to experience the impossible--to be healed or restored or rewired.
Sigmund Freud described religious experience as "a peculiar feeling...a sensation of eternity, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded, something oceanic...it is a feeling of indissoluble connection, of belonging inseparably to the external world as a whole."
Its never more oceanic than what we feel during a miracle convention. What the believers call "miracles" do indeed occur, no doubt about it. As a reasonable student of evidence, I can not ignore the fact that many people who are "healed" at these conventions often experience long-term (even permanent) relief from the conditions they were suffering. But as a reasonable student of evidence, this is no place for the conversation to end. A miracle is the place to begin looking closer--to figure out what the fuck just happened.
In Freud's construction of adulthood (& most psychoanalysts since), we were always inescapably shaped by our past experiences. A baby spends the first months of its life figuring out that it is separate from the rest of the world--that its body is a different thing than its caregiver's body or the table it is laying upon. But the feeling of oceanic oneness that must persist until one comes to recognize this lonely state of affairs--this is what Freud thought we are tapping back into as part of religious experience--an oceanic feeling, as if we were connected to everything. He believed that we all mourn the loss of the illusion of being connected to the entire world--of not having yet realized that our own skin acts as a barrier between us and everything else.
Imagine the buzz of being in front of 10,000 of your closest friends (whom you have never met) as they all behave as if someone is going to be healed of their cancer or heart arrhythmia, or that the stage is going to levitate. Fuck if it wouldn't be difficult to ignore that collective energy. Especially if the miracle worked!
And like I said--it DOES work. I mean, not for everyone--I never received a miraculous healing or a cure from the human condition during the three decades during which I practiced Charismatic Christianity. But I knew plenty of people who had, and they weren't faking it. They had knee injuries or back pain that disappeared and never came back (at least not that they would admit).
But the church isn't the only one selling miracles. And as often happens with capitalism, the price is often quite a bit cheaper across town.
Marjoe Gortner was preaching up a storm by the time he was 4 years old. And he was good!
The clip below is almost guaranteed to make you smile, even if you are not a religious person. When Marjoe got a hold of the microphone, the spirit would descend, and God's people would dance, shout, and most importantly, they would give. Bring ye the tithes into the storehouse
By 1972, Marjoe (whose parents named him after Mary and Joseph--MarJoe) was all grown up, and as happens to many of us religious folks who are over-indoctrinated at a young age, the luster wears off, the chrome peels back, and the squeaks become too much to bear. We finish the book early and begin picking apart the narrative. By the time many of us have reached our 30s & 40s, we are not only disillusioned, but infuriated and well-equipped to speak truth to power using the very tools taught to us by those who duped us into believing fairy tales.
Marjoe had been preaching fire and brimstone for 20 years, and when he spoke, even as a child, the spirit moved. But surely that wouldn't happen anymore if he didn't believe what he was saying. Surely he couldn't perform the same miracles without god as he could before, with god. If he could, we might have to admit something very basic about religious experience--something many of us are not prepared to admit.
But that is exactly what he did. He set up a revival service, juiced-up the attendees with a vigorous praise-and-worship session, and then proceeded to preach up a storm. He laid hands on the sick and they recovered. He blew on people and the spirit knocked them down. He spoke God's word and the crowd fawned and swooned. And then he came backstage and reminded the television audience that it was all just a show--that he didn't believe any of that shit he was saying, and that the crowd didn't need him to believe it.
Derren Brown does the same things as Marjoe in many of his Netflix specials, and he doesn't even have to pretend to be a prophet of the Lord. He just tells people that he is going to use the same methods, and then he uses them—and they work! Something in people is hard-wired to believe in miracles, and to put our trust in those who say they can do impossible things. And the energy—the high that comes from that experience is often enough to rearrange our thinking, or to act as a turning-point between injured and healed.
This high—the buzz of religious experience—is what my guest and I discussed this week.
Dr. Michael Ferguson and Dr. Jeff Anderson joined a group of other researchers to examine the curious condition of religious experience, and in 2018 the research was published. As suspected, reward circuits in the brain are indeed activated during religious experience (link here). But that was just the beginning of the story.
The experiment worked like this.
19 devout Mormons were places in an MRI machine and asked to follow these directions:
Close your eyes and think about whatever you want for 6 minutes.
Then watch 6 minutes of boring, business stuff related to the Mormon Church.
Then read 8 minutes of quotes taken from non-religious people, but attributed to religious people (C.S. Lewis quotes were attributed to in-group and out-group leaders, like pastors).
After each image flashes for 10 seconds, respond to the question, "how much are you
feeling the spirit?"
Now close your eyes and pray for 6 minutes.
Followed by 8 minutes of real scripture reading from the Bible.
Watch two 6-minute video passages from church.
End with another 8 minutes of fake (mis-attributed C.S. Lewis) quotes.
Among other results, after praying, the participants saw out-group quotations as less threatening and more spiritual—they were more capable of engaging with the statements of outside-group (non-Mormon) leaders. In other words, they exhibited less distrust and more willingness to listen to people whom they might otherwise find (spiritually) threatening.
What Ferguson & Anderson's group of researchers found was revealing, and it makes sense of the religious high we experience when we participate in religion.
Historic attempts to name and describe religious experience—Freud's collective "oceanic" feeling of oneness," Marx's "opium of the masses," and "Paul's" "peace that passes all understanding"—are evolving to include neurological responses and biological functions.
Check out the podcast (episode 10) to hear more (Live 7.20.20).