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The End of Christianity as We Know It

  1. Terrapinzflyer
    The End of Christianity as We Know It
    Now we can move on from merely giving people pleasant worship experiences.

    A major motive for being a Christian and participating in its rituals and disciplines is about to collapse. This is going to make a lot of Christians panic, but I believe the recent development will be all to the good.
    The development is the discovery that hallucinogenic drugs can give people an experience seemingly identical to powerful religious experiences. A recent New York Times article by John Tierney describes the experience of retired clinical psychologist Clark Martin. Martin had been treated for depression for years, but counseling and antidepressants did nothing to help. At age 65, he enrolled in an experiment at Johns Hopkins medical school that gave people psilocybin, a psychoactive ingredient found in some mushrooms.

    When Martin was administered the drug, he says, "All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating … . Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water's gone. And then you're gone."

    Today, more than a year later, Martin says the six-hour experience helped him defeat depression and deeply transformed his relationships with his daughter and friends. "It was a whole personality shift for me," Martin said. "I wasn't any longer attached to my performance and trying to control things. … You have a feeling of attunement with other people."

    His experience, writes Tierney, is not all that unusual, and he says, "Scientists are especially intrigued by the similarities between hallucinogenic experiences and the life-changing revelations reported throughout history by religious mystics and those who meditate."

    The same connection was made by Barbara Bradley Hagerty in her popular Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality (Riverhead), which I reviewed last year. For example, she describes the experience of Michael Hughes, who had a mystical experience when he ingested some psychedelic mushrooms when he was 22 years old just before he walked into a Catholic church. "It was almost as if I had wandered into the magical place," he said. "I sat down and felt a really strong sense of sacredness." He said he encountered "Something"—"an intelligence to be sure, but it felt like an intelligence that imbues everything."

    When the Roman Catholic Hughes was asked to compare a non-drug-induced mystical moment he had with his mushroom-induced one, he said, "They were equally profound. They both changed me dramatically."

    From the point of view of experience, it seems it's impossible to tell the difference between drug-induced and "natural" mystical experiences. Both are powerful. Both enable people to enjoy a transcendent moment. Both seem capable of transforming people so that they feel a greater sense of empathy for and unity with other people—what most people would call love.

    * * *
    This sort of thing makes many a Christian nervous, and for good reason. We live in an age in which religious experience is the centerpiece of faith for many, many Christians. We disdain faith that is mere intellectual assent or empty formality. We want a faith that is authentic, that makes us feel something—in particular, one that enables us to experience God. When we describe the one time in the week when we put ourselves in the presence of God, we talk less and less about "worshipping God" and more about "the worship experience." The charismatic movement, with its emphasis on experiencing the Holy Spirit, has penetrated nearly all churches. This religious mood, which characterizes our era, is epitomized by the title of Henry Blackaby's continuing best seller, Experiencing God.

    So, to hear that people can have even more powerful religious experiences without Christian faith gives us pause. It's a lot of work to fast and pray and worship and deny oneself—and even then, experiencing God is a hit or miss proposition! What's the fuss if we can pop a mushroom and have a nearly guaranteed religious experience?

    * * *

    It would seem that just as God has given us the ingenuity and resources to heal the body of disease, he seems to have given us the tools to help us have religious experiences. Some Christians balk at the artificiality of drug induced mysticism, but that may merely be an aesthetic distaste. In the long run, it may not end up being any more serious than those who at first thought it unnatural to use penicillin to heal infections.

    I am certainly not encouraging readers to go and trip out on psilocybin! The field is still a huge unknown, and there are real dangers involved. Some people have very bad experiences on psychedelic drugs—though researchers seem to be discovering ways to minimize the bad experiences and maximize the good ones. Still, this is not something one does at home.

    But the research suggests a number of consequences for the way we do Christianity in our day. If religious experience is something that a drug can induce even more easily than spiritual ritual and disciplines, it may be time, for example, to rethink what many churches are trying to do on Sunday morning: create a memorable "worship experience."

    * * *
    This topic cannot be fully explored in the space of a column, but let me make a few forays into the matter, hear some of your reactions, and continue exploring this in future columns.

    There are many reasons to question the amount of attention our age gives to helping people have memorable religious experiences. For one, other religions seem to be equally capable of giving people an encounter with transcendence. For another, as we now increasingly see, drugs seem to be able to do the same thing.

    Similarly, we rightly question making our faith mostly about "deeds not creeds"—as if the Christian faith were primarily a religious ethic. Again, most of the ethical injunctions of Christianity are found in other world religions, and are even championed by many atheists. You don't need revelation to figure out that adultery, stealing, and murder are really bad ideas, and that there is something noble about caring for other human beings. We have countless examples of Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and others—even agnostics and atheists—living upright lives and giving themselves in sacrificial service to the marginalized.

    In short, what Christians uniquely have to offer the world is not religious experience or even a unique religious way of life. We're not hawking "your best religion now," for our religion, upon close examination, seems no more admirable or sinful than any other religion. Christianity stands under the judgment and grace of God—as do all religions.

    No, what Christians bring to the world is a message embedded in a story, and nothing less than a God-given, God-revealed message and story.
    The Gospel writer John put it this way: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

    The apostle Paul put it many different ways, and one was this: "God … through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation"

    The great theologian Karl Barth, when asked to summarize his massive Church Dogmatics—his best effort at summing up the substance of Christian theology—said, "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

    The Christian faith is, at its core, not about ethics or religious experience, but a message about a God who has gone to extraordinary lengths to be and remain on our side, to become the-God-with-a-name, Emmanuel, "God with us." Christians are not primarily mystics (those who experience God in a special way) or activists (those who live the way of Jesus). We are mostly witnesses of who God is and what he has done and what he will do in Jesus Christ, the God who in Christ has "a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:10).

    This is not to deny that our faith must be expressed in deeds and empowered by a genuine experience of God. Faith without works, or a genuine encounter with God, is not Christian faith. But after promising the disciples that they would receive the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus told them what their main mission was: "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

    We are shortchanging our people when we make worship mostly about experience or a pep rally to motivate people to good deeds. We practice religious neglect when we fail to witness to them the saving story of God in Christ and train them to be fellow witnesses of that story, so that they might share that story with a world that does not know its left hand from its right. A world which does not know God as Emmanuel, but merely as "Something." A world that knows transcendence but does not have eyes to see God with us even to the end of the age. A world that senses "attunement with other people," but does not recognize the One who holds everyone and everything together by his love.

    People will never figure this all out—and thus never be able to enjoy a full and saving encounter with God—unless someone tells them. And who will tell them if no one's been sent, because we're mostly creating wonderful worship experiences and teaching mere ethics?

    Mark Galli
    posted 4/15/2010 09:10AM



  1. chillinwill
  2. Erumelithil
    It's amazing to me that it never seems to occur to people that the religious figures, who's teachings they accept as gospel truth, may just have been stoned out of their trees.

    In my opinion, the kind of people who wander out into the desert for 40 days and come back saying they saw the devil, or who climb up a mountain to meet god because a burning bush told them to; those kind of people sound like typical, clichéd caricatures of someone who has been eating whatever strange mushrooms or cacti they found laying about.

    High as friggin' kites.
  3. missparkles
    Look, no amount of proof will stop people believing in God. Cos it's not about proof, if it were, they'd have stopped believing years ago. Belief doesn't need proving.

  4. Erumelithil
    It just amazes me that people will continue to believe something based on millennia old testimony, and the fact that they were told it was true when they were young.

    It's incredible to me that a Catholic can look at a Hindu and think, "Wow, his religion is really odd, they believe some pretty strange things" and yet be totally comfortable with the notion that their saviour was born of a virgin, could transubstantiate, walk on water, raise people from the dead or any of the other unbelievable and exotic things he supposedly did without ever considering, "oh wait, I believe some pretty strange things too."
  5. missparkles
    True Christians don't, they realise every religion is just worshiping one God, but that God has many different names.

  6. Erumelithil
    Do they? I love people who think that they can speak on behalf of a whole faith, they're the people who make this world such a special and exciting place.

    Oh, and by the way, for whoever left that reputation comment below, who the fuck do you think you are? If you don't like my attitude, don't read my posts, or at least have the balls to call me out on it personally instead of anonymously.

    edited once again, May 4th....
    Apologies to all, I don't know what came over me the night we had this discussion. I was needlessly aggressive and unpleasant. The negative reputation marks were all richly deserved.
  7. missparkles
    You're accusing me of attempting to speak for a whole faith? No, I was just talking about the idea that all religions worship one God.
  8. Erumelithil
    Arrogant? This from the woman who has decided she is qualified to decide what is and what is not a "True Christian."
    Hah, careful of the wind up there, that pedestal is terribly high
  9. Space Numpty
    Is it not possible to have a sensible debate without it turning into a flame war?

    SWIErumelithil you have every right to disagree with others beliefs, but its not necessary to belittle them for it. SWIY is right in that the beliefs of the average Christian are no less fantastical than the beliefs of, say, the Hindus and most of the people SWIM has met who proclaim to be avid Christians are fuckin bigots, but its not exclusive to Christians.

    SWIM agrees to an extent with Sparkles, personally he would say "Any truely religious person understands that there is only one God under different names" as its not limited to Christians in SWIMs eyes. For the record thats what SWIM believes but he doesnt consider himself a Christian any more than he would call himself a Hindu, he just knows there is a God, weather that be literally an energy within us all or a concious being.
  10. Terrapinzflyer
    ok people- lets keep this discussion on topic and respectful.

    Personally, for all the issues I have with religions, I think anything that makes its followers see the loving,accepting, healing side of their "god" rather then the vengeful spiteful side is a good thing, which is what I think by and large these psychedelics do. So long as ones beliefs do not foster intolerance and hate (something we in America love to blame the muslim faiths for while ignoring our own breed of right wing christianity) then more power to ya.
  11. Erumelithil
    Yeah man, sorry about that. Sometimes I get carried away, usually I try to be all respectful of peoples right to believe in whatever, but from time to time I can be a bit bollocky.

    Anyhow, your OP was actually very interesting because it reminded me of a similar thing I read years ago, unfortunately I remember so little about it that my description is going to be frustratingly spare on details and references.

    Basically it was a series of experiments performed by a canadian scientist, he used electro magnets attached to a kind of helmet which would be placed onto his test subject.
    According to what I read, by applying the correct amount of electro magnetism to the region above the correct part of the brain, hallucinations could be induced in the test subject.

    The interesting part was that the belief structure of the subject heavily influenced the content of the hallucination.

    Religious people would be struck with a sense of calm, or euphoria, and become aware of a presence standing behind them. After a while the presence would move forward to reveal themselves, usually to be an archetypal figure of the subject's religion, the Virgin Mary, Jesus etc. etc.

    I think that the next most common trend was for people to hallucinate that they were seeing aliens.

    Hmmm, I'll try to find more detail on this, I remember when I read it I was impressed by a lot of what I was seeing, and reading back over this post is distinctly underwhelming. I'm forgetting some important conclusion or something.
  12. Terrapinzflyer
    ^^ if memory serves Leary did some LSD research in his Harvard days with priests etc of varying religions, and their preconceptions influenced their experiences- ie- christians saw Jesus, muslims saw allah, hindus saw their various deities, budhists saw buddha etc etc
  13. MrG
    Personally, I refuse to tolerate religious tolerance. Sure we can all recall mildly inoffensive or even, and I shudder to use the phrase, ‘well-meaning’ religious folk from our past but, and this is the important bit, ‘magical thinking’ of any kind instils in children a perception that reality extends beyond what can be rationally understood and ventures deep into the supernatural and, to be honest, creepy. Who wants to fool young minds into believing that they are being watched by invisible entities? Religious apologists, that’s who. Children have a tough enough job learning how to cope with the rabid dysfunction that passes for mainstream society these days without having to accept the idea that there’s a whole load of ooky-spooky nonsense to contend with on top of it. My children know that there is no such thing as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ forces, their understanding of the world is based around the fact that people do bad things because their minds are damaged. Asides from genuine brain injury, the ‘evil that men do’ is entirely down to nurture, not nature. I’m not a Militant Atheist, I’m an Evangelical Atheist and, trust me, the moment I stopped looking for the supernatural I stopped seeing it, everywhere! Everything makes sense now, the good times, the bad times, everything.

    Articles like the one in the OP serve a useful purpose but could go further. People who aren't 'spiritual' are willing to accept scientific research that explains how their brain, under the influence of particular drugs, can create the illusion of a 'mystical' experience, which allows them to rationalise their 'trip'. Sure, they can still enjoy a multi-faceted step outside of reality but, on their return, they are less likely to claim that what they saw, or felt, was anything more than the result of an alteration in their brain chemistry. If religious people would be willing to accept that their oh-so-special relationship with their GOC (God of choice) is, too, nothing more than a psychological 'trip', they'd be less inclined to be so arrogant in demanding 'respect' for the whole genuflecting excuse for, what can only be described as, child abuse.
  14. missparkles
    Although the original post just mentions Christianity I don't believe you can talk about Christianity and not mention other religions, cos if belief in one is lost, by extension, so is belief in all the other religions. Although I don't subscribe to any religious philosophy (that I'm aware of) I try to treat everyone with respect whatever their religious (or lack of) beliefs.

    I do think belief in a supreme being does help a lot of people. When they have terminal illness for example their belief system can make their last months alive more comfortable. I think that true religious believers, people who actually practice the philosophy of showing love to everyone, being as non judgmental as possible, and tolerant of all, have always seemed more positive to me. Perhaps they are in denial, maybe they do live in a world of fantasy, who knows? But having the courage to stand up for what they believe, and show that by example, is quite impressive IMHO. I'm not talking about the people who attend church every Sunday, who then revert to their judgmental, bigoted, and close off beliefs on Monday. No, I'm talking about people who actually live their faith every day of their lives.

    I do think equating beliefs learned in childhood and child abuse is rather extreme, and as a survivor of horrific childhood abuse, I find it diminishes what some people have suffered. To be honest, if I'd have been given the choice of being dragged to church every Sunday, and being made to sit through interminable sermons, or being sexually and emotionally abused from a very, very early age, I can tell you which I'd have preferred. You can overcome early religious indoctrination, overcoming child abuse is sometimes nigh on impossible. And unlike religious indoctrination, child abuse detracts from a persons sense of worth and quality of life, religion can enhance it.

    I suppose if you consider the recent flurry of resignations, due to scientific findings about the effects of drugs by Dr. David Nutt, chair (until recently of course) of the ACMD, it doesn't seem to matter what science can prove, people will go on believing just what they want to.

  15. MrG
    Sparkles, that is not a reasonable defence and you're smart enough to know that. I'll put it down to the early morning.

    Choosing the lesser of two evils does not make one acceptable or right. Both are wrong.
  16. missparkles
    I do get your point, but that wasn't what I meant, perhaps I explained it rater badly? I think it's purely speculative to call it abuse in the first place, cos if you've never suffered abuse, how can that comparison be made, by anyone. there's a huge difference between misguided parenting, and deliberate child abuse. Secondly, if you have suffered childhood abuse, you just wouldn't use religious indoctrination as a comparison.

    Taken to extremes you could easily argue that bringing your kids up to believe one specific political party (the Labour party for example) was abusive, cos by the time kids can question, the belief is there. Or that stupid parents are abusive. I'm talking about the religious indoctrination most kids get whilst growing up, not some kinda religious extremism.


    I'm a little concerned about pulling this off topic...ok?:)
  17. MrG
    It's still abuse of power in both cases.

    As for supporting a particular political bent, that's simply opinion, however misguided. Yes kids will likely support whatever team is persistently lionised by their parents, but it's not on the basis that there's anything supernatural being claimed.
  18. missparkles
    I do take your point, but the difference being the degree of the abuse of power.

  19. MrG
    They both concern the betrayal of a child's trust with long-term ramifications concerning the mental and physical health of the individual. There's no defence for either of them.
  20. Rin_Weh
    Before Christianity and during Christianity, spirituality and good intentioned religion have ever been changing from "as we know it", as it has and always will....as every other practice of spirit...they're all based on one origin which is Love (if it is true) and it is ever shaping, correcting, expanding.
    As for the politics of the church well that's just not Christianity.

    Confession: I never read the thread. I just wanted to respond to the thread title.
    There has never been a concrete "as we know it".

    Well, there could be....

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