One of my friends posted a link to Luhrmann’s article on a CNN blog, which my readers may peruse in full here. I have to say, the argument Luhrmann makes is counter-intuitive, and I take issue with it on a number of points.
Luhrmann, a Watkins University professor in the department of Anthropology at Stanford University, mischaracterizes the nature of Schizophrenia, a very complex class of psychotic thought disorders. According to David A. Blair, an LCSW R and former Chief Executive Officer of a Community Mental Health Center who has 35 years of experience in the field of Psychology and Social Work, there are many types of Schizophrenia, and not all sufferers of various types of Schizophrenia “hear voices” — these “voices” not necessarily being “negative” in nature, contrary to Luhrmann’s erroneous claims that thought disorders can be sweepingly characterized by the hearing of “bad” rather than “good voices.” Various types of Schizophrenia can simply feature cognitive disorganization, or extreme paranoia, and have nothing at all do do with the hearing of “voices.” Schizophrenic disorders are highly convoluted, and no two cases are exactly the same. Furthermore, Luhrmann falsely reports on the epidemiology of this class of thought disorders. Blair states that the statistic is closer to 2 or 2.1 out of 100, not merely 1 out of 100. Luhrmann makes this statistic seem insignificant by presenting the ratio in this form, thus reassuring, but when incorporated into the greater scheme of the American population, translates to millions of sufferers. Schizophrenia diagnoses are hardly a rarity (though are not exactly an epidemic, either). All facts and figures aside, the statistics inevitably fail to account for the number of untreated, undiagnosed sufferers, how the given strain of Schizophrenia was activated, and their symptoms.
I agree with Luhrmann’s assertion that most people who have religious and/or extra-sensory experiences are likely not “crazy.” However, that is where my agreements with her end. Whether Luhrmann intended to or not, she merely defers the explanation for these experiences to other forms and expressions of personal instability, thus undermining her own argument.
Luhrmann cites Neurologist Olivers Sacks’ experimentation with methamphetamines, and his hearing an internal voice during an hallucinogenic “trip” — the voice an obvious aberration of the senses caused by the drug, and an experience not typical of a religious practitioner’s experience(s) with Deity, the use of entheogens being relatively uncommon in Modern Western religious practices. In other words, “he heard voices, but he wasn’t crazy. He was just on drugs.” Which, I must add, is just another way to call someone “crazy.”
While I wouldn’t call that “voice” Sacks experienced the voice of a God, or an interaction with any God, I wouldn’t dismiss him as “crazy,” either. Honestly, I think that particular anecdote is irrelevant to Luhrmann’s article, and that it would’ve served her better to have left it out. It only served to confuse and detract from whatever point(s) she was attempting to make.
Regarding the frequency of unusual sensory experiences, namely perceived “voices,” Luhrmann has this to say:
They were more common among those who felt comfortable getting caught up in their imaginations. They were also more common among those who prayed for longer periods. Prayer involves paying attention to words and images in the mind, and giving them significance. There is something about the skilled practice of paying attention to the mind in this way that shifts — just a little bit — the way we judge what is real.
Her words insinuate that these religious and/or extra-sensory experiences are the product of a colorful imagination, not an actual connection with Deity. While prayer does indeed have a profound impact on the human psyche, her words reflect the dismissive popular notion that theists are merely deluding themselves into believing they are experiencing something (or Someone) greater than themselves. Ultimately, that is simply another way of calling someone “crazy,” and saying that someone is “out of touch with reality.”
By the end of her article, I felt exceptionally confused. Not about my own experiences with the Gods, but regarding my thoughts and feelings about Luhrmann’s article. She argues against (religious) “people hearing voices” being “crazy,” yet goes on to obliquely attribute their experiences to other forms of personal instability.
Which is it? Either I’m crazy, or I’m not crazy, for having experiences with Deity. I am fairly certain that I can’t be both mentally stable and mentally unstable at the same time, in the same brain.
I’m a rational academic. I possess and employ my reasoning abilities daily. I have a decent grasp on the disciplines I’m invested in. I suffer from an anxiety disorder, but I have no history of thought disorders, nor have I been diagnosed with any psychosis whose symptoms include hallucinations or other forms of sensory aberration. I know I’m not “crazy.” At least, not by any formal psychological standard. And I am fairly in touch with what most human beings agree to be reality. I also have never done drugs in my lifetime, nor shall I ever.
Could it be that maybe, just maybe, what I have experienced, do experience, and will potentially experience in my future is entirely real? Could it really be that millions and millions of other Modern Polytheists and Monotheists who have had similar experiences to mine aren’t simply “hallucinating” or “imagining things” or “on drugs”? How is it that such experiences are popularly considered to be categorically implausible, yet it’s entirely plausible that every person who has ever worshiped and prayed to a God at any point in human history is “crazy” or otherwise “unstable”?
In all truth, it may very well be the case that those who dismiss theists as being either “crazy,” drug-addled, or overly-imaginative are the people who are out of touch with the actual state of reality. Maybe the Gods do in fact exist as numina that are mentally but not directly physically perceived, that there are other parts to this existence that we can’t concretely probe and prove beyond every shadow of doubt (indeed, there are a vast number of things that promissory materialist science cannot explain about our immediately perceived existence, and may never be able to explain, such as human consciousness). Given that we live in a mind-shatteringly disordered Multiverse rather than a streamlined, symmetrical Universe of total Order and Beauty, it’s within the realm of possibility that some of us are in touch with other realities, other planes of existence, that “non-crazy people” aren’t.
It’s a matter of parallax, and a colossal amount of speculation.