Via Atheist Climber Blog
Religion really is an oddity in humanity. When citing religion, one can be excused for irrational behaviour or beliefs. It gives people an excuse to not take part in the cultural norms of the society they live in. It allows people rights and privileges that people not of that religion are denied. It regularly excuses wrongdoing and lawbreaking if these are done "in the name of God". It preaches love but inspires war. It preaches tolerance and acceptance, but has been the cause of so much bloodshed in history. Religion is the only place where once can make claims for an unseen being, and not be institutionalised.
The most amazing thing about religion is that, according to religious people I have spoken to, it can create in believers an incredible sense of peace and belonging in the world, and comfort in times of stress or loneliness. I can only believe what I'm told on this, as I've never actually experienced this. And all this is above and beyond the dogmatic, the texts and the scriptural followings.
It's a very powerful phenomenon, and in extreme cases, people have reported feelings of transcendence, of leaving behind their corporeal bodies, of physical ecstasy and of being possessed by a "higher being".
Trance-like states can be achieved by repeating a certain string of words together while moving in a certain way. Some people say this brings them closer to God. But you can also reach a trance-like state by being hypnotised.
The sculpture above, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of St. Theresa
, (1647-52 Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome) features St. Theresa in the throes of orgasmic ecstasy, a cherubic figure poised above here holding a spear, caught in the act of plunging this into her heart. From the account by St. Theresa:
Beside me, on the left, appeared an angel in bodily form.... He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire.... In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share.
This reads like a passage from an Anïas Nin short story, not the memoirs of a saint!
Another interesting moment in the bible that comes to mind is the conversion of Saul, soon to become the apostle Paul, and his conversion to Christianity after falling from a horse and bumping his head, where according to the New Testament, he "heard" God speak to him: "I am Jesus, whom you persecute, arise and go into the city."
, an ex-evangelical preacher spoke at the Rise Of Atheism Convention in Melbourne of the experience of speaking in tongues as a highly powerful experience.
There are other accounts where people are completely overcome by the "Spirit" of God, Jesus, Allah or whatever deity you choose. All of them, if not related to religion, would be written off as a psychotic episode, the side effects of concussion or a wet dream. Delusional hallucinations can be caused by all manner of things, from injury or extreme mental stress, to hallucinogenic substances. If these "visions" are interpreted as divine, the person suffering from the delusion elevates this experience to be above the physical. I would go so far as to say that many, if not all, holy visions have been the result of trauma (eg. a bump to the head), illness (eg. a brain tumor), a waking dream (eg. visitations from angels) or the deliberate or accidental ingestion of hallucinogens (eg. shamanistic visions).
Karl Marx is quoted as writing "Religion is the opiate of the people" but when read in the context of the rest of the paragraph
, this is not exactly what I'm talking about. He seems to speak of religion as a pain-reliever, a way to satiate and soften the heavy burden of existence, rather than a way to get high. I feel this statement may often be said in the wrong context.
I'd like to suggest that religion can trigger in people a drug-like state, and fulfill a need that humans seem to have for reaching altered states of consciousness. I wonder if, like with drugs, there's not some sort of addictive quality to a so called "higher consciousness". If that were true, then religion really does act as an opiate to the masses.