Andrew Brown from The Guardian recently attended a talk by Tanya Luhrman, a cultural anthropologist at Stanford who is studying the charismatic Christian Vineyard churches in California. Having attended similar churches in my youth, I was particularly interested in the kinds of things an ethnographer might have observed. Brown’s report provides some context:
The Vineyard churches are a loose international network of mostly white, mostly middle class, very charismatic churches. They aren’t exactly fundamentalist but they see the Holy Spirit everywhere and talk to God every day. They were the source of the “Toronto Blessing” – a craze which swept through the English charismatic network in the 90s where people fell on the floor and made animal noises. Luhrmann is interested in how you get to talk to God like this. After all, most churches for most of history, haven’t done anything like that.
I’ve seen this behavior, and it is not really so much a matter of “talking to God” as it is being “possessed by the Holy Spirit.” I also have to disagree with the statement that for “most of history,” people have not done anything like this. Spirit possession has a venerable history: shamans and trance dancers have been doing similar things for thousands of years and continue to do them. San trance dancers and Evangelical worshipers achieve a state of “possession” that is difficult to differentiate.
Professor Luhrman, who apparently is writing an ethnography about these California charismatics, offered these insights:
Her answer is that you need a certain kind of temperament, one which makes you good at make-believe, and then you need to work at it. If you have this talent, or temperament, in the first place, these churches will nourish it. By treating God as real, you come to detect his presence more easily; and the God for whom the are searching is one just like another person. All this activity is the subject of tremendous social reinforcement. These are not Sunday only churches. Members can fill their lives with meetings with other members – and with God. “It is striking”, she said “Just how explicit is the invitation to suspend belief”. Some churches urge people to pour a second cup of coffee for God at the breakfast table; some members would invite God for dinner, and lay a place for him. One woman would have “Date nights” with God, where she would go into the park and sit on a bench with him, eating a sandwich.
After listening to this, The Guardian reporter soberly comments: “All this sounds like reasons entirely to dismiss the experience as obvious make-believe or hallucination which anyone could be reasoned out of.” A classic case of British understatement.
Luhrman has her own reasons for not dismissing these beliefs and behaviors as borderline psychotic delusions. Her reasons are primarily cultural, which are fine insofar as they go, but there are additional reasons not to dismiss them as a form of mental illness. Anyone familiar with those aspects of mind which lead humans to attribute agency to perceptions and thoughts will not be surprised by any of this.
A hyperactive agency detection device seems to be a universal property of the brain. In Plio-Pleistocene environments filled with all manner of potential predators, it would have been highly adaptive to over-attribute agency. Agency attribution has the added benefit of “explaining” the inexplicable, and thus providing some sense of order or even control. When you build on this substrate with powerful social reinforcement, the result is an intense anthropomorphism similar to what Stewart Guthrie writes about in Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion.
Once you start talking to these faces and inviting them to dinner and dates, things not only get weird — they become real.