Mind Hacking God

"Igor, would you mind telling me whose brain I did put in?"
"And you won't be angry?"
- Young Frankenstein

At one time, I believed that (Christian) religion was required to experience ‘God’s Love’, which is often identified with an uplifting feeling of acceptance and comfort, or of reverence and awe. Religious people often say that they can feel God’s presence in their lives. They can feel forgiveness. This blinding moment of transcendence, of rising above and outside of yourself is often the defining moment in many ‘born again’ Christian’s lives. While I was Christian I experienced this feeling, and was amazed and humbled by it.

I no longer believe that you have to be Christian to experience this sensation of the divine.

I started thinking about this again when one of my friends recently told me that religion was difficult to give up because she needed the feeling of spirituality it gave her. As an American Indian, she enjoys rising above her consciousness and communing with others in her sweat lodge.

Here is a somewhat edited version of what I told her:
When I was a Christian, there were several occasions when I experienced the feeling of God’s divinity, when I felt like God was watching over me with warm loving acceptance. That feeling was one of the reasons why it was so difficult for me to leave Christianity. The bible was self-contradictory and spoke of an evil, mean, spiteful and jealous God. Religion didn't make sense – where was this feeling of acceptance and love and forgiveness coming from??

I finally read about how people of other religions, or practices, also create this feeling of transcendence, Bodhi, Satori, Nirvana or enlightenment in themselves; Monks from Tibet, Masters from India, or from elsewhere in Asia where they worship ancestors or animal spirits instead of God, sweat lodges, even fasting. Throughout history people have found different ways to attain these feelings, this insight, or 'god' feeling.

Since most religions are mutually exclusive, the feelings can’t all be coming from one god. Either there is a multitude of gods, or it is all in our heads.
The field of Neurotheology is currently a ‘borderland science’ that is still hotly contested. Religious results seem to be inconsistent when magnets are used to stimulate the brain – perhaps because individuals all seem to be ‘wired’ somewhat differently. In other cases there are firm results that show a connection between brain and religious experiences in people who experience seizures, or when electrical stimulation is applied directly to the brain during brain surgery. An experiment involving Nuns has also shown that a variety of brain locations seem to be affected during the recreation of religious feelings.

I find it very plausible that religious experience is created in the software of our minds as it runs on the wetware of our brains. I think this way because after I became Atheist, I was able to re-achieve transcending feelings of awe, of acceptance, of being comforted, and of reverence.

I don’t think that feelings of Nirvana come from outside of us because the feelings are not created by a common cause. Fasting in a sweat lodge, singing in mass, inspired group visualization (i.e. preaching) and meditation can all bring people to achieve these feelings.

Religion isn’t the answer because these feelings can be achieved in mutually exclusive religions.

I've managed to recreate these religious feelings as an Atheist by using music while meditating. Classical music will do it for me. Oddly enough, so will Van Halen's "Jump". It's the same feeling of love, peace and acceptance that I got when I was Christian, only now I know that I’m the one making it happen.

Sam Harris was, unjustly in my opinion, criticized by non-believers for his position on meditation in his book “The End of Faith.” Non-believers were upset that Harris seemed to be edging into ‘woo woo’ areas; especially since he seems to be saying that meditation can be used to discover new things.

I don’t think Sam Harris is talking about using meditation in order to somehow psychically gain new knowledge. I think that the experience of transcending one’s self can be profoundly life-affirming, even life-changing. Perhaps it is a necessary part of being a whole person. This experience allows us to find new insight into our lives. I think that although it may feel mystical, and magical, it's really just happening inside our heads.

What this means to me is that it is possible to be a spiritual Atheist, not in some pseudoscientific paranormal sense, but in the sense that ‘mind’, the software that runs on the brain, has the capacity to achieve a different level of awareness of itself.

UPDATE: January 2012

You can listen to me talking about this subject in a digital recording stored at Archive.org.  Just follow the link.

Or listen below:


AmberKatt said...

What methods or techniques did you use in your meditiation?

Anonymous said...

Certain pieces of music, when I'm in a receptive mood and serene location, are a kind of "shortcut" that lead me very quickly outside of myself.

I'm very aware of the sounds and noises that surround me - they can facilitate or deny my finding an "altered state."

But no matter what I hear, I can't transcend without shutting down my own internal dialog first. That was very hard for me to learn how to do, and it took a lot of practice.

I sit in a "Zen" style, not because I studied Zen, but because if I'm too relaxed I'll slip into sleep. I try to concentrate on not concentrating - on experiencing my own breathing, on feeling my effort to keep my body sitting.

A mantra helped too, but I don't use one anymore.

This is what Sam Harris was trying to get across in his last chapter of "End of Faith" - it's hard to actually talk about this without using "mystical" terms.

Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed reading your article. It was very refreshing in this world, in which we are surrounded by many brainwashed people believing in a story book called 'Bible' that a person (not God) wrote. Thanks!

Olandera said...

I am glad I found this website, it has a lot of info I have been looking for. I agree with many things you are saying! I am doing a graduate work in Physiological Psychology, and I need to find good sources for my project: Religion and brain, and where do religious experiences come from. You touched on that with your comment about magnets and other experiements. Any ideas, which books or other sources can I use? Thank you very much olandera99@icqmail.com

Calladus said...


You might want to sign up for the mailing lists of both CSI Online and the Center for Inquiry. They often announce scientific studies that deal with the brain experiencing a "God State".

For example, the University of Southern California is testing the feeling of God that people get while listening to music.

Anonymous said...

I really like your thoughts here. It definitely helps me feel less weird! This divine feeling that you have felt, is it a feeling of connectedness with life on such a grand scale that you are minute and inconsequential but that doesn't freak you out because without each living entity, this "fabric" of life or universe or whatever you want to call it, would have a hole if any one was missing. Everything feels beautiful and looks beautiful, as in aesthetically pleasing, even mundane or things you normally think are ugly like a huge Pharma company (ugly) or the trees that you see everyday (mundane).

I watched a documentary on PBS about epilepsy and there was an interview with a guy that has frontal lobe epilepsy. The feelings he experiences after a seizure seems to be an amplified version of what I felt. I think you know what I mean since it is talked about in your post. Many researchers think that the frontal lobe is the "religion" center of the brain.

When I experienced that (which was an extremely confusing yet amazing experience) I ended up thinking that I may have had a mild seizure, maybe a few neurons sparked. It was the only way I could explain it since I've always been an atheist since childhood. My concept of God was exactly the same as Santa Claus; God was a mythical, storybook character just like Santa Claus, I think I was around eight when someone told me that Santa Claus isn't real, and just overgeneralized that the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, and God aren't real.

Anyway, I hope I haven't bored you with my rambling comment! I wanted to say that I definitely agree with you about that feeling not being about any religion. Personally, no one can even know what came first, did the frontal lobe give us the need to create religion or does God exist and our frontal lobe evolved so that we have an "antennae" to perceive God.

bananda said...

Some friendly propaganda: Buddhism has an essentially athiest/ agnostic core, although lots of religious trimmings have been added in the 2500 years since Buddha was around. It's basically about how we can use our brain/mind/body to lessen suffering. Stephen Batchelor has some interesting books about the general topic of Buddhist atheism (although they're more oriented towards drawing Buddhists out of superstitious traditions than drawing atheists into Buddhism). much metta, Rick