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Kindling God

Spiritual Experience among American Evangelicals
Tanya M. Luhrmann
Traduction(s) :
Allumer le Dieu


The article shows that spiritual experiences, whether sensory or supernatural, are not just triggered or learnt, they occur as part of a “kindling” pattern: events are habituated for individuals and depend on people’s reactivity as well as on social expectations. Supernatural experiences are events that not everyone has, they do not behave as discrete phenomena; instead they tend to occur more in relation to one another, like syndromes. Although constrained, some of these events are habituated for the group as well as for the individual. Cultural learning is not sufficient to explain the patterning of spiritual experience.

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‘It was the first time that I really felt God’s power. [At the retreat] they were talking about the Holy Spirit and stuff, and then the leader is like, we’re gonna start praying for everybody shortly. She said some of you might be feeling the spirit on you now, and I noticed about myself that my breathing was getting like really deep and like I was starting to shake a little bit. I just feel like my body has so much energy, and it’s like I’m gonna just leap out of my seat and just go running like 50 miles or something. She’s like, some of you may be sweating, and I’m like yeah, I’m sweating. She’s like some of you might have oily palms, and I’m like yeah, I got oily palms, and she’s like some of you might be shaking and heavy breathing, and some of you might just be like jittery. And I’m like check, check, check, check, I’ve got all that. I’m like she must have put something in my food or something. She’s just like I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit right here, and she points at me, but I’m like I’m not going up there, you know, I feel really uncomfortable like nervous and stuff, I don’t want to go up in front of all these people. There had to be fifty or sixty people there.

So she’s like, there’s also the presence of Him over here too, and there’s this other girl across the way that’s shaking and has the same things going on with her. She stands up and they pray over her. And it was just amazing. They keep praying over her, these two helpers, and the leader is explaining that the Holy Spirit administers to your heart and all this stuff. They have their hands on her, and she just collapses backwards and they catch her. She’s just laughing on the floor like you can't wipe the smile off her face.

Then they started praying for me, and I had this, it feels like, not really electricity, but like your body is touched by some kind of extreme power. You're just shaking, like you just can't handle all this stuff that’s being poured into you. They’re saying, ‘Come on, Holy Spirit, and fill him up to overflowing.’ I’m just so jittery, and then they’re like is there any gift [of the spirit] you want? We’d talked about the gifts of the Holy Spirit before. I was like I’ll take whatever, I’m open to tongue, I’m open to healing, I’m open to tongues, anything, like I don’t care, this is amazing. When I said that I felt like there was somebody else in me like dwelling trying to get out, and I was just overwhelmed in it. And as they prayed over me, my tongue starts moving around, and they say, just speak. So I start speaking. I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t know what the language was. I got the gifts of tongues that day. It was absolutely incredible. It was the most marvellous gift.

I could hear people praying around me, but it felt like I was in a bubble and that everything outside of this bubble just did not exist. Like it was me and God in this one little tiny capsule and the rest of the world could go by it a billion miles per hour and I wouldn't care. Time stopped, and where I was felt absolutely weightless.’

1The young man lay on the floor, sweating, heart racing, and ecstatic. He had gone to a weekend retreat to placate his Christian girlfriend. It was part of an eight-session course meant to introduce newcomers to the religion. The organizers hoped that at the retreat (sometimes called the ‘Holy Spirit’ weekend) the newcomers would have intensely personal experiences that would convince them of God’s reality. That had happened to Sam. He became, as he would later say, ‘reborn’.

2Evangelicals (and sometimes, Catholics) use this phrase to capture the moment of their decision to commit to God. It is a phrase out of the Gospels. Jesus says: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (John 3: 3). The text goes on to describe the rebirth as one of ‘spirit’ rather than ‘flesh’, and as a transformation that is chosen by the human but enacted by God. ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit ... the wind blows when it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.’ Because the moment is chosen, any true Christian (at least, any Christian who embraces the idea of being born again) will recognize such an event in his or her own past. But because the transformation is an act of God, one can never be sure that the event has taken place. Thus the many altar calls, the many invitations to choose Jesus that are directed at entirely Christian audiences. Evangelical Christians often have specific conversion narratives, a well-rehearsed story of choice, but they also often have been saved through an altar call again and again.

3As a result, dramatic and seemingly supernatural experiences at conversion, like Sam’s, are deeply appealing. They give confidence to the Christian that God himself was at work. Yet not everyone has them. Why not? What does this teach us about the nature of spiritual experience? I argue here that we need more than an account of ordinary learning and more than an account of bodily vulnerability to explain the patterning of spiritual experience. I will call this process social kindling.

Social kindling

4Let me begin by pointing out the obvious: there are different kinds of spiritual experiences. There are at least three kind of events people might consider to be evidence of the divine (as Cassaniti and Luhrmann [2014] suggest):

  • Named events without a specific bodily signature: phenomena that are explicitly named within a social setting, but recognized by individuals by an indiscriminate range of physical phenomena—goosebumps, tingling, warmth, temperature change, emotions like fear or joy or a sudden sense of peace—or even none at all. Hearing God speak through the Bible or through circumstances is a good example.
  • Common bodily events which can be identified, in some settings, as evidence of the supernatural: specific simple physiological experiences that are relatively common in human bodies and might be identified, in particular social settings, as indications of the supernatural, but often are not. Good examples might be: dreams, muscle weakness, sudden emotional or physiological rushes, or recognizing thoughts that seem louder or more spontaneous than other thoughts. These are phenomena that happen to people, and might or might not be given a supernatural interpretation. Examples might be the electrical rush reported above—one of the many experiences the young man reported.
  • Anomalous events: complex physiological patterns that have been identified across cultural boundaries as specific patterns of experience often identified as associated with the supernatural. These are sometimes also called unusual experiences: they are outside the range of everyday experience. Classic examples would include trance, hallucinations, mystical experiences, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and sleep paralysis. These are recognizable bodily events, much discussed in the anthropological and psychological literature, and identified under a variety of names in different social settings.

5It is easy to see the way the first two kinds of spiritual experiences are shaped by social salience. Of course people hear God speaking through scripture only in settings where people believe God speaks through scripture, and of course people remember goosebumps, dreams, and so forth, when they matter, and probably experience them more often.

  • 1 Andrew Newberg, Eugène D’Acquili and Vincent Rause (2001) makes one such argument, and Arnold Mand (...)

6But anomalous events are different. These are events that not everyone has—even when they yearn for them, even when the kind of event they want to have is highly salient in their social world. One man recalled: ‘I remember really desperately wanting to draw closer to God, having one of these inspired Holy Spirit moments ... I wanted those and I sought those out but I never really found myself encountering them.’ And so it is greatly tempting to understand anomalous events as particular and independent brain events made possible by idiosyncratic bodily vulnerabilities. God speaks, one might say, but when he speaks in such and such a way there is less activity in the parietal lobe, or an explosion in the hippocampus.1 From this perspective, spiritual experiences are bodily events that can be tracked by criteria and classified by dimensions and they are fundamentally distinct. You might have a propensity for unusual sensory experience, but not for mystical experiences. That you had an out-of-body experience says nothing about whether you will feel the presence of God.

7That is not what I have observed in years of talking to people about the experience of God. Anomalous spiritual experiences do have qualities of distinctness, in that one can recognize specific patterns in the accounts people give of their unusual experiences, even across cultural boundaries. But they do not behave as discrete, unrelated events. Instead they behave more like syndromes, as patterns of response—building blocks—that may be shaped by an array of factors (see also Taves 2009b). Moreover, these patterns look at least somewhat different in different social worlds. I have come to think that there are general patterns of reactivity that are distributed differently among individuals, and that in social settings or settings in which particular events are salient, individuals who are more reactive are more likely to have these events, to remember these events, and to develop an expectation of having similar such events in the future, all of which will make those events more likely for them.

8The ‘kindling’ pattern was first observed by Emil Kraepelin, who observed that to the extent that actually demoralizing events—a job loss, a breakup, a bad relationship—play a role in a first episode of depression, they play a less important role in later ones. The body’s response to the first blow predisposes its response to the second. Over time, the response is habituated. The pattern has since been named and applied to epilepsy, bipolar disorder and even alcohol withdrawal (see, e.g., McNamara 1986, Kendler, Thornton & Gardner 2000).

9Psychiatric anthropologists have demonstrated a related process: that local social context shapes the symptoms that someone who can be diagnosed with psychiatric distress will remember and report—and that as a result, in different social settings, those symptoms will be experienced more intensely than in other settings. To use Robert Levy’s (1984) useful terms, socially relevant symptoms are ‘hypercognized’, while socially irrelevant symptoms are ‘hypocognized’. Psychiatric anthropologists tell us that the difference in cognitive attention is not just a difference in reporting but also a difference in experience.

10This is the way that approach to psychiatric experience can be crafted into a theory of the social kindling of spiritual experience (see Cassaniti & Luhrmann 2014). First, a phenomenological experience is an interaction between cultural invitation and bodily physiology. By ‘cultural invitation’ is meant the implicit and explicit ways in which a local social world gives significance and meaning to sensation, whether mental or bodily, and the behavioural practices (like meditation) that may affect sensation. By ‘bodily physiology’ is meant the array of genetic and individual historical factors that shape the body’s responsiveness. Second, when a local social community gives significance to specific sensations, either fearing them or desiring them, sensitivity to having an experience of the supernatural increases, requiring a lower threshold for such experiences than in a community in which people do not have such supernatural experiences and in which such fears and desires are hypocognized or unelaborated. Such events thus become more common. Third, the more that the experience of the supernatural is associated with a specific physiology (like sleep paralysis), the more the frequency of the event will be constrained by an individual’s vulnerability to these experiences. Conversely, the less tied to specific physiology an experience is (like the experience of God speaking through scripture), the more directly its frequency will reflect social interest in it. Fourth, when that pathway is established for the individual, that individual is more likely to report such experiences in the future. The response becomes habituated.

11I now want to offer evidence to support this theory.

The experience of God

12At some points and in some ways, many people experience the supernatural in a manner that feels real in the world. That is what Sam said. ‘I would always ask my girlfriend why do you believe? How do you know that God really exists? I mean I know that I accepted Christ my Saviour, I mean I kind of know he’s there. But like I’m not a hundred per cent sure. And she’s like you just know, you’ll just know, he’ll show you. After that day, I knew.’ They feel a warm, loving presence wrap their shoulders. They stand under an oak tree and feel what they call a sense of transcendent awe. They find themselves in dialogue with an invisible other, sometimes as if that other were standing beside them as a friend. Sometimes they catch a still small voice on the breeze, and it holds them motionless, until they cry.

13I have spoken to hundreds and hundreds of Christians about these moments, these events when they felt that the supernatural was present to them. In these conversations I have sought to listen for the shape of the event as much as for its content. My approach has been more bluntly empirical than philosophical, more William James than Maurice Merleau-Ponty. When people have told me that they have sensed the presence of God, I have wanted to know where he was located and how precisely they knew he was there. I have been interested as much in the phenomenology of the event than in its meaning.

14Some of these events are moments that may have some degree of bodily experience, but the bodily experience is neither physiologically particular nor particularly noticeable. One of the best examples for evangelical Christians is the experience of hearing God speak through the Bible. People have this event when they are reading scripture, and a verse ‘jumps’ out at them. Maybe they will notice this because they become very sleepy, or very awake, or different in some way.

‘So he spoke to me totally through his word. Totally, like, whoa.’ [What was it that made you feel that it was God speaking?] ‘The physical manifestations, like electricity in my head and a sense of love around me. And then I opened up my Bible and he literally spoke to me, cause I was freaked out and afraid and it says, “It is I. Do not be afraid.”’

15Some people have striking moments like this, others have moments which are far less so. Another example is hearing God speak through circumstances of people. Someone prays about something, and then something happens or they run into a person and somehow that event seems to address the issue in the prayer. Sometimes there is a bodily flush of awareness, sometimes there is not. ‘When I got the email from the person, it was almost like it’s God was saying to me, “you’re just getting yourself into a bad situation,” you know?’

16Another kind of event is when people identify ordinary and everyday human events as moments of supernatural presence and they rely on those moments as proof of such presence: thoughts, feelings, a sudden warmth or coolness on the skin, or more striking experiences like an adrenalin rush, muscle weakness and overwhelming emotion. We might call those moments of everyday mental and bodily experience ‘affordances’, using the word as the psychologist James Gibson (1979) did to point towards the possibility of all that can be attended to in ordinary human life.

17For example, people have described thoughts they might once have seen as self-generated but have come to identify as the presence of God. ‘He’ll talk to me through my thoughts.’ The process of identifying God in one’s thought depends on what one might call the texture of thought itself. In the flow of awareness, words and images appear with different qualities. They can be more or less spontaneous. They can seem loud or soft. Some thoughts will grab your attention so completely that you come to a halt, gazing beyond what stands before you. We say that some thoughts bring us up short, or stop us in our tracks. It may be a general principle that those thoughts that seem more spontaneous are more likely to be attributed as generated by an external source, to an agent different from the self. Certainly that is true of dreams, the prime example of mental events that feel spontaneous and unchosen. Even secular college students are likely to be afraid if they dream of a plane crash the night before they fly (Morewedge & Norton 2009). At the church where I met Sam, one of the new charismatic evangelical churches in which people seek out intimate conversational relationships with a supernatural God, people say that they know that God might be speaking to them when a spontaneous thought or sensation grabs their attention and is relevant to their life in a way of which God might approve.

‘When people were praying over me and I’m just receiving it [meaning the prayer] and all of a sudden I hear, ‘go to Kansas.’ [Her parents lived in Kansas.] Because I was debating whether to go to Kansas, but I hadn’t been thinking about it within a 24-hour period. It makes you want to say, where did that come from?’

18People have also described specific sensations: an electric rush that moves through you, emotion so intense you fall apart in tears, a sense that your muscles are giving way and you need to fall. These sensations are often identified with ways in which people recognize God’s presence not so much in their thoughts, but in their activities. For example: ‘It was not specifically that I heard a voice. It was sort of a wave of emotion that brought me to that conclusion. And then when I was dreaming it came up again.’ Again, these are events that people have to learn to identify as God, because otherwise those events—tingling, a wave of emotion, that sense of electricity—seem very human. The act of recognizing that they signal the presence of God is called, among these subjects, the task of discernment.

19The third kind of events are these anomalous experiences: specific kinds of events that are not common to everyday human experience (although they are more frequent than one might think). These are sensory and quasi-sensory events, or an intense sensation of presence, in the absence of a material sensory stimulus. Ann Taves (2009a) calls such events the ‘building blocks’ of religion because they so readily invite people to identify the presence of something unseen.

20Often, these anomalous events appear to have a phenomenological structure across the boundaries of space and time. Many of these phenomena do seem to have a kind of experiential regularity, with sensory or sensational features that recur again and again. Some can be reproduced in laboratory conditions or by substances. They form a spiritual inventory: a range of events which are experienced as set apart, as different from the everyday, and sufficiently distinct that they can be listed as discrete entities. To be sure, no such list can be either definitive or complete. There are likely to be events perceived through the body with sufficient regularity that if we could name them in our spirituality or psychology, we would recognize them—and yet we do not. (One of the ones I have always wondered about is the white light Evans-Pritchard took to be evidence of witchcraft in the Sudan, and that others seem to take as evidence of alien spacecraft.) Here is a partial list, with the probes I have used to begin the discussion with my subjects.

Sensory overrides: Voices

Some people hear what seems to be a voice when they’re alone, sometimes when they are falling asleep or waking up, or even when they are fully awake. Has something like this happened to you? Have you ever heard God speak in a way you could hear with your ears?

  • 2 Details and discussion can be found in Luhrmann 2011 and Luhrmann 2012.

21I use the term ‘voice’ to describe the sensory experience of hearing an audible voice in the absence of a material stimulus for that voice. I consider this an example of a category of experiences I call ‘sensory overrides’, events in which the sensory experience overrides the available stimulus. To see if an experience has an auditory trace, I ask the speaker whether the voice originated outside the head; whether they could hear it with their ears; and whether they turned their head to hear. This last marker is the most significant. If someone says that they turned their head to see where the voice came from, one can be fairly confident that it was an auditory experience.2

‘I’ve had other times when there’ve been words and I’ve just been startled beyond startled. And one time I looked around because I thought sure there’s got be somebody else there.’

Sensory overrides: Visions

Some people experience themselves seeing things that aren’t really there in a material way, sometimes very quickly out of the corner of their eyes, or sometimes when they’re falling asleep or waking up or even in the middle of the day. Have you ever experienced anything like that? Have you ever had a religious vision?

22Visions are the corresponding sensory override for the domain of sight. It is harder to ask people about visions and understand what they are describing because an internal experience can rise up and command all one’s attention. I sometimes ask: did you see it with your eyes? Was it opaque or transparent? Was it external? But even so, the markers of difference are less easy to grasp. Sometimes they are very clear:

  • 3 Quotation has been shortened.

‘I was about to throw away my faith. It was the only time I’d really been angry at God. In this melodramatic way, I even raised my fist to kind of curse him. And something that I can only assume was Christ, an angel, or something, bright little figure, probably about four feet high, was suddenly in the corner of the room. And—[It felt external?] Oh, that was absolutely external. Absolutely visible. And I was overwhelmed with awe. And shock.’3

23Sometimes the vision seems to impose itself as an idea over a perceived reality, and the person is startled to recognize that what they experience as a vision is not something they really saw.

Sense of presence

Have you ever had the clear sense that God was almost tangibly present, as if God was sitting or standing beside you?

24People often use the word ‘presence’ loosely, to describe a range of what appear to be different phenomenological experiences. They describe a sense of being surrounded, or a sense of thickness in the air. Sometimes they speak of heaviness, sometimes of lightness. Sometimes they talk as if they experience the presence of the supernatural as a person-like presence, sometimes as if the supernatural were a substance in the air, sometimes—as William James (1935) pointed out—as if it were an idea that suddenly manifests itself in external space. Sometimes, in the tradition of the great mystics, presence is like making love.

25Sometimes, however, there is a sense of God’s presence localized in space. That kind of event seems more specific. In those events, often there is no sensory quality to the recognition, but the person knows exactly where God stood (or sat) in the room.

‘I had a physical sense of God’s presence right here. It was such a strong, tangible sense of God’s presence, I did not have words for it. And it was right here. [pointing to a place]’

26This sense of localized presence has been called the ‘Third Man’ phenomenon because a sensation of an invisible presence who walks by one’s side has been reported by mountaineers and polar explorers.

Mystical experiences

Have you ever had a very unusual and very powerful spiritual experience that was so powerful that it seemed to completely change every thing all at once? (If so:) Did you fell that you were suspended in space and time? Did you feel that the experience could not be described in words? Did you feel that you knew something in a way you’d never known it before? How long did it last?

27Saul on the road to Damascus, Teresa of Avila in the garden of prayer: these are the events which stand for us as a kind of ideal type of the spiritual experience, although everything we know tells us that such events are rare. William James (1935) was so confident of their phenomenological structure that he literally numbered their common features: they are, he wrote, transient, lasting a few minutes or less; ineffable, despite driving those who have them to write at such length to recapture and to explain; they suspend their subject in space and time; and they give those who experience them an intense sense that they know something about the world to which all other knowledge is somehow incidental.

28I have indeed met people who have had experiences that met these criteria, and who have reported as well the tail of ‘saintliness’ that is said to linger for hours after the event itself has passed away. These are hard experiences to ask about because they are so rare, and because those who have not had them sometimes interpret the prompt in a very different way. ‘Mystical experiences? I have those every afternoon.’ Yet experiences that have the qualities that James described do come up, and they carry the rapt astonishment he described over one hundred years ago.

Out-of-body experiences

Have you ever had an out-of-body experience, in which you experienced yourself to leave your body?

29Out-of-body experiences are events in which people experience themselves as looking at their bodies from the outside. Some of these events may be associated with anaesthesia failure. People report being in the hospital, floating over the operating table, looking down from above. Some are associated with epilepsy. Some may be the result of training. In the world of London magicians in which I carried out my dissertation fieldwork (Luhrmann 1989), people thought that you could train yourself to have out-of-body experiences. They would look at a geometric shape, or a tarot card, with great attention, and then they would imagine that the image grew bigger and bigger until they simply stepped through it and into the world. Then they went ‘hunting on the astral plane’. Christians reporting these experiences thought, for the most part, that they were odd, and not spiritually significant.

‘So, I was sitting on the floors, and you—you know, crossed legs, slouched like in a 16-year-old slouched kind of way and my world was kind of slouched at that time, but, I remember there was a scaffolding behind me because we were hanging lights for a show or something, and then all of a sudden, I’m on the scaffolding and I’m … looking down, and I’m seeing me… that was just the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my life. I mean, bar none. I was—I could see myself from the back, and I was up on the scaffolding and I had that perspective …’

Sleep paralysis

Did you ever have an experience of being awake but unable to move?

  • 4 Hufford 1982. More recently, Shelley Adler (2011) has documented the ‘nocebo’ effect of sleep para (...)

30It was known in folklore as the old hag experience, and described in the medieval witchtrials as a demonic rape. Properly speaking, sleep paralysis consists solely of being awake but unable to move, a condition thought to result from being in between the states of sleep and wakefulness. In addition, people often experience intense fear, pressure on the chest, and difficulty breathing. The also often report a ‘presence’ that is sometimes seen and heard.4 It is a remarkably easy event to ask people about. When people say yes, they mostly describe this kind of event.

‘Yeah. But I think I was just overtired. It was pretty recent. No, no. I think I just over did it and I got home from the gym one day and I was like—you know, and I was like, I cannot move. [Laughter] So it wasn’t anything spiritual. It was kind of trippy though. Cause I couldn’t move.’

31Most of these experiences are negative. ‘Someone is trying to do something to hurt you and you sense it. And you’re trying to scream out and you’re trying to say something, but you realize that your vocal cords are paralysed. You can’t even say anything.’ But not all of them.

Evidence for a theory of social kindling

32My turn to a theory of social kindling is motivated by five observations:

  • Some people do not have anomalous events, even if they wish to have them. A simple theory of cultural learning is not sufficient to explain the patterning of spiritual experience.
  • Anomalous events are associated with each other. If someone has had one, they are more likely to have another.
  • These events are habituated for the group. Local social expectations shape the kinds of events people report.
  • These events become habituated for individuals, and often an initial experience is preceded by more powerful anxieties than later events.
  • The patterning of spiritual experience is such that events which are named but which have no particular physiological markers are most common and will always reflect social expectations; events which depend on bodily affordances are next common and will likely reflect social expectations; and anomalous events are least common, and while they likely reflect social expectations, they do not always reflect social expectations.

33These observations are supported by the systematic collection of data for the Spiritual Disciplines Project, which I carried out ten years ago to complement my ethnographic work among charismatic evangelical Christians. The Spiritual Disciplines Project was structured to examine the effect of prayer practice, which we did by randomizing people to different undertakings. Before we randomized them, we interviewed close to 130 mostly evangelical Christians about the way they experienced God and the supernatural. People were asked the same questions about spiritual experience, with similar follow-up probes. After all interviews had been completed, researchers evaluated whether the experience described matched the account of the event on the spiritual inventory. We coded these responses as ‘no’, ‘maybe’, and ‘probable’. We observed the following.

34First, not everybody reported anomalous events. Nearly half reported they had never had anything like a mystical experience nor an out-of-body experience; over a third had never had any kind of unusual auditory experience and half had never had any kind of unusual visual experience.

  • 5 First interview, pre-intervention correlation of absorption score with clear images from God r(128 (...)
  • 6 First interview, pre-intervention correlation of absorption score with sense of presence r(126) =  (...)

35Second, anomalous events did not behave as independent events. Proclivity (talent) mattered (see Luhrmann, Nusbaum & Thisted 2010, Luhrmann 2012). Those subjects who rated themselves more highly in absorption—judged by the Tellegen Absorption Scale, a validated measure that seems to capture whether people enjoy being caught up in their inner or outer senses—were more likely to report that God spoke to them clearly in their thoughts, that he gave them strong images, and that he even spoke to them in a way that they could hear with their ears and gave them visions they could see with their eyes.5 They were also more likely to report any of a number of varied spiritual events: a sense of presence, mystical experiences, out-of-body experiences, and sleep paralysis.6 (We judged whether they had experienced presence loosely, marking the event as present if they reported not an abstract awareness but something more embodied.) Absorption seems to capture a kind of spiritual and perhaps sensory curiosity that at least enables people to remember these kinds of events when they occur. These anomalous events are more likely to happen to those who attend to the world in a particular way.

  • 7 Correlations of out-of-body reports with reports of God’s audible voice r(126) = .256, p = .004; w (...)
  • 8 After the phenomenological evaluation, there are fewer events. Out of body events lose their signi (...)

36Moreover, the events on the spiritual inventory themselves co-occur. People who reported one of them were more likely to report another one. Those who reported out-of-body experiences were more likely to report voices and visions, more likely to say they’d had a mystical experience, more likely to report sleep paralysis. For that matter, they were more likely to report near-death experiences and events in which the felt some other force—like the Holy Spirit—had taken over their body.7 This did not seem to be just a story of discourse, a way of talking about the world. The relationship holds up if one looks at whether people reported the event, or if one looks at what they said and, judging from their phenomenological content, decides whether they have indeed experienced the event. That is, looking at phenomenological content, there was still a significant relationship between hallucination-like voices and visions, out-of-body experiences, mystical experiences, near-death events, presence, and sleep paralysis, although some of the relationships become less tight.8 The events of the spiritual inventory, in short, do not behave like a true taxonomy. They behave as if they are related, cousins rather than strangers on the street.

37Third, these events are habituated for the group. Only some of the items on the spiritual inventory list are valorized by Christians: voices and visions (think Samuel and those shepherds in the fields at night); mystical experiences (Saul); and the presence of God. For the specific spiritual events for which we have some epidemiological data (voices, visions, mystical experience, out-of-body events, and sleep paralysis) the rates for the events valorized in a Christian setting occur at a rate elevated above the US national average. One in seven of our subjects reported mystical experiences that we judged, from their description, to meet the criteria William James laid out. Even if we coded too inclusively, that is far higher than the various estimates of rates based on interview data or specific probes (roughly one in a hundred, or fewer; see Thomas & Cooper 1980, Wulff 2000). The rates of important sensory overrides (around one in six) are higher than the rates for these events collected in similar ways (in the Census of Hallucinations and then the later NIH Epidemiological Catchment Area Survey, a rate of roughly 10-15% of the general population; see Sidgwick et al. 1894, Tien 1991, Luhrmann 2012). The rate of out-of-body events, which are not seen as desirable for a Christian congregation and which for the most part were not experienced as spiritual, are closer to the national rate. One in eight of our subjects reported at least one; five studies have found a rate of around one in ten in the general population (Alvarado 2000). The same is true of sleep paralysis, again not marked as desirable nor generally experienced as spiritually salient by our subjects. One in four of them of them reported having experienced sleep paralysis; estimates in the general population are around the same (Adler 2011).

  • 9 We added up answers to all the non-ordinary ‘classic’ spiritual questions we asked people before a (...)

38Fourth, the events are habituated for individuals and the stimulus for the first major event often seems more striking the first time than it is later on. It is a cliché in this social world that the first time God speaks, he needs to go to an effort to catch your attention, and later events are compelling, but less surprising. The Spiritual Disciplines Project was not developed to capture this kind of pattern with statistics, but comments that support it run through my ethnographic notes. As one man explained to me: ‘It like the first day I got this whole cake, and then from now you get to have little servings of it from time to time again, but sometimes it’s bigger and sometimes it’s smaller.’ Another man told me of a vivid moment in which God grabbed hold of his heart, and told him that he loved him and would always be with him. ‘In subsequent events, I have been more left with the sense that I can choose to believe this is from God or I can think this is just from me, and the reality is that it could be either, and I know that. But about that one, there was never any question. Everything else, there is a question. Not that.’ The data from the Spiritual Disciplines Project do tell us that those who experienced significant spiritual events before the one-month trial were more likely to report them afterwards,9 but our interview data tell us that in most cases whatever they experienced during the month of the trial was less startling.

39Finally, the patterning of experience reflects the theory of social kindling. The most common events are those that have names, or specific descriptions in the local social world, but no specific bodily markers. Almost all these congregants (99%) will say that God speaks to them through scripture, when a verse seems to leap off the page and grab its reader. They almost all say that God speaks through circumstances (92%), as when someone goes for a walk and unexpectedly runs into a friend who says something specifically relevant to the issue he’s been praying about. They almost all say that God speaks into their mind (92%), but about one in five report the muscle weakness, almost two in five the emotional surge, and one in three the electrical surge associated with the Holy Spirit (22%, 37%, 31%). Anomalous events are less common: something like mystical experiences (17%); sleep paralysis (26%); out-of-body events (12%).


40Birgit Meyer (2015: 11) wrote recently that William James was a complicated figure for anthropology because he assumed that the spiritual events people reported were authentic. For her, she wrote, R.R. Marett was more compelling because he insisted that a sense of awe was embedded within a particular social world. I read James as a more radical figure who sees reality itself as shaped by expectation, interpretation, and meaning, the ‘overbeliefs’ which give form and substance to the something ‘more’ in the world.

41Yet I agree with Meyer in citing an ancestor many of us have forgotten. Marett argued that there is indeed something like a religious instinct, but that the powerful sense of awe that seemed to him to be the prime expression of it was in fact profoundly shaped by the social.

‘To put the matter as broadly as possible, whether we hold with one extreme school that there exists a specific religious instinct, or whether we prefer to say with the other that man’s religions are a by-product of his intellectual development, we must, I think, in any case admit the fact that in response to, or at any rate in connection with, the emotions of awe, wonder and the like, wherein feeling would seem to have stripped the power of the ‘natural’, that is, reasonable explanations, there arises in the region of human thought a powerful impulse to objectify and even personify the mysterious or ‘supernatural’ something felt, and in the region of will a corresponding impulse to render it innocuous, or better still propitious, by force of constraint, communion or reconciliation.’ (Marett 1997: 10-11)

42Marett refused to treat awe either as a pathological or mistaken apprehension of the natural world (as Tylor did) or as direct evidence for the reality of the supernatural (as James did). But he took awe seriously, and he thought anthropologists could do so while nonetheless bracketing the question of whether awe responded to a transcendental. This is what Meyer wants us to do. The work reported here has shown that we can and should study spiritual experience, and that we can show that it responds to social invitation in a manner that is structured in a way we can analyse and judge.

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1 Andrew Newberg, Eugène D’Acquili and Vincent Rause (2001) makes one such argument, and Arnold Mandell (1980) the other.

2 Details and discussion can be found in Luhrmann 2011 and Luhrmann 2012.

3 Quotation has been shortened.

4 Hufford 1982. More recently, Shelley Adler (2011) has documented the ‘nocebo’ effect of sleep paralysis, particularly among the Hmong; see also Hinton, Hufford & Kirmayer 2005.

5 First interview, pre-intervention correlation of absorption score with clear images from God r(128) = .224, p = 011; with thoughts from God r(128) = .291; p < .000; loud thoughts r(90) = .384; p < .000; God’s audible voice r(128) = .379; p < .000; vision from God r(127) = .271; p = .002 [last two, visual hallucination pre-interview; auditory hallunication pre-interview, both as judged by researchers]. [These numbers are a conventional expression of the closeness of the relationship between a subject’s absorption score (0–34) and the score of the other item, typically 0 = did not occur, 1 = maybe occurred, 2 = occurred. The r symbol marks the correlation coefficient between two variables. It ranges between -1 (for a strict negative correlation) and +1 (for a strict positive correlation), 0 corresponding to the absence of correlation. The higher the absolute value of r, the closer the relationship. The p-value, between 0 and 1, is the probability for the observed or a higher correlation value under the null hypothesis model of no actual dependency between the variables. For example, r(125) = 0.15, p = 0.25 means that, for a 125 people population, the positive correlation observed (0.15), or a higher value, would be expected to be observed a quarter of the time under the null hypothesis of no association between the two variables. When p is equal to or less than .05, the convention is to reject the null hypothesis and to therefore describe the relationship as ‘significant’. p = .05 means that the probability of this, or a more extreme, observation would be 5% under the null model of no association.]

6 First interview, pre-intervention correlation of absorption score with sense of presence r(126) = .176; p = .001; mystical experiences r(126) = .235; p = .048; out-of-body experiences r(126) = .368; p < .000; sleep paralysis r(125) = 187, p = .037.

7 Correlations of out-of-body reports with reports of God’s audible voice r(126) = .256, p = .004; with visions r(126) = .250, p = .005; with presence r(126) = .162, p = .069; with mystical experiences r(126) = .279, p = .002; with near-death events r(126) = .418, p < .000; with dissociated agency r(124) = .234, p = .009; with sleep paralysis r(125) = .346, p < .000.

8 After the phenomenological evaluation, there are fewer events. Out of body events lose their significant relationship with mystical experiences and with presence, although mystical events retain a significant relationship with God’s voice, visions and have a close relationship with presence; out of body events remain significantly correlated with God’s voice, visions, sleep paralysis and near death events.

9 We added up answers to all the non-ordinary ‘classic’ spiritual questions we asked people before and after the trial. The responses are significantly related r(108) = 491, p < .000.

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Tanya M. Luhrmann, « Kindling God », Terrain [En ligne], 66 | octobre 2016, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2016, consulté le 19 avril 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Tanya M. Luhrmann

Stanford University

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