Illusion of God’s Presence: Humanist Talk

The Illusion of God’s Presence – John C Wathey – Humanist Society of Santa Barbara 4-21-18

By Robert Bernstein 

Imagine if we could get parents to teach children science and reason from an early age instead of religion. How many think religion would fade out after a few generations?
Computational Biologist John Wathey asked this of Humanist Society attendees and about a quarter raised their hands.
Here are my event photos.

Wathey thinks there is an illusion of God’s presence that exists apart from religious indoctrination. He has published a book on the subject.

Science so far has mostly studied religion as social behavior:
Divine Judgment
Group Rituals
He calls this the Social Root of religion. But the “Illusion of God’s Presence” interests Wathey even more.
This illustrates the feeling.

The feeling of God’s presence can be “gradual and persistent” as quoted from Andrew Sullivan. He said he has never doubted God’s existence from the earliest age. It was never a matter of finding faith or being taught it.

Or it can be “sudden and transient” as in the case of someone who is exhausted and despairing. At wit’s end, the person finds the most wonderful sense of God’s presence.

William Lane Craig knows Christianity is true “by the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit.”

Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, asks, “Why do we have a ‘God-shaped vacuum’ in our hearts unless it is meant to be filled?”

The feelings are real. Wathey admits that he has had them, too. It cries out for an explanation. He starts with examples of visual illusions. A visual illusion occurs when the internal neural model differs from reality.

The Ames Room gives a powerful visual illusion of distorted size

In many such cases, knowing the “trick” does not diminish the illusion. He calls this “cognitive impenetrability”.
Mooney Faces are highly degraded images of real faces. When they are presented upside down they appear as random blobs of black and white. When presented upright, most people will see faces even though very little information is present.

The Thatcher Effect Illusion is another case. If the eyes and mouth are turned upside down on an upside down face, they are seen as normal. Inverting that image to right the face produces a grotesque effect.
Wathey wondered if this is innate or learned? Twin studies found a strong genetic contribution to holistic face perception:
Face vs. House Recognition            39% genetic
Face Inversion Effect    25% genetic
Composite Face Effect    31% genetic
Wathey notes that face recognition occurs in a very specific brain area: The fusiform gyrus. If this area is damaged, no other brain area can take over. Not even if that area is damaged in a one day old infant. The brain is a learning engine, but some areas are hardwired for specific kinds of learning.
The human visual system is strongly wired to see faces. Even where no face is present. He gave the example of the “face on Mars” seen in a 1976 Viking Mars image.

And, of course, the numerous sightings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary on a frying pan or a piece of toast. But only if the “face” is presented in an upright orientation.
What does any of this have to do with experiencing the presence of God? Wathey hypothesizes that the brain is wired to expect something God-like just as it is wired to expect faces. But… He hypothesizes it is not actually God that is expected. It is our instinct at birth to expect Mother. Mother is the figure that is there to help.
Wathey also hypothesizes that this Mother seeking is normally dormant in adults. But, that it can be aroused in adulthood.
He gives a similar example of a herring gull. It has a red spot on its bill and newborn chicks are wired to peck that spot so the mother will feed them. It turns out it is possible to make a “super-normal” stimulus that is even more apt to cause pecking than the real bill of the mother.

Wathey says God is a “super normal” stimulus like that: A figure that is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly loving and answers prayers. Like a super-Mother.
He compares it to a phantom limb that can occur after amputation. Knowing that the limb is gone does not diminish the powerful sense of a phantom limb. Wathey explains that the God of unconditional love is a super-normal phantom just like that. Not a supernatural spirit. “God’s presence is a phantom presence.”

Wathey identifies the temporoparietal junction as giving both phantom illusions. It gives a sensed presence. Not religious. Just a presence.
The orbitofrontal cortex is associated with reinforcement learning in monkeys. It is activated only if the goal is reinforced with a tasty treat. Humans need this area to reinforce learning proper social behavior. It needs to persist in adulthood.
Damage to the orbitofrontal cortex leads to acquired sociopathy. Other cognition is OK. But the person cannot feel the emotional consequences of reward and punishment. They lose gut feelings. They make terrible decisions. Most are not criminal, but they may be pathological liars, acquire bizarre eating habits or marry prostitutes.
(At this point an audience member shouted out that it sounds like President Trump.)
As with the fusiform face area, the orbitofrontal cortex is a learning machine that is very specific. No other brain area can take over if it is damaged.
Neuroscientists recruited Carmelite nuns in Montreal to scan their brains when they claimed to be feeling the presence of God. Indeed, it turned out that this brain region was activated during this experience. They were feeling God’s presence. Infinite love. Plenitude. Peace.
But why is God two-faced? On the one hand he is willing to damn people to infinite torment in hell. Yet he is also offering infinite love.

This is where Wathey brings together the two Roots of religion. The first is the Social Root mentioned at the start of his talk. This is what scientists have mostly studied: Divine Judgment, Cooperation, Tribalism, Sacrifice, Group Rituals.
The Social Root at its extreme can allow parents literally to say that it is worse for their child to lose faith in God than to die. Or to lead people into religious battles.
The second Root he calls the Neonatal Root. It is that seeking for Mother that we all feel at birth. It turns out that in general, women are more religious than men. This is seen individually and at a country level. Wathey hypothesizes that being more caring and nurturing leads to being more religious due to this Neonatal Root.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has noted that a stubborn seven percent of elite scientists believe in a personal God.

They are the ones we should study!

The Royal Society of London studied this among its elite members. It turned out that childhood religious upbringing was not significantly related to current religious belief.
Eugene Cernan was the last human to stand on the Moon. In the documentary film “In the Shadow of the Moon” he expressed this feeling:

“There has to be somebody bigger than you and bigger than me. And I mean this in a spiritual sense, not in a religious sense, there has to be a creator of the universe who stands above the religions that we, ourselves create to govern our lives.
It all comes down to feeling that there are things that are beyond science. That there is somebody bigger than ourselves. Wathey calls this the innate model of Mother. And that creates the phantom presence of God.
Former Humanist Society President Ron Kronenberg asked why God is seen as male, then. In fact, this varies by religion. The Social Root gives a male god. We get this especially from Wahhabism and ISIS. But even Islam has Sufism which is dominated by the Neonatal Root.
There is a constant tug of war between these roots. Just as there is a constant battle among religions. Wathey grew up in a religious household with a Catholic mother and a Presbyterian father. He realized as a teen these religions could not both be true. Perhaps none of them are true.
The values we teach in the Humanist Society are compassion and scientific reasoning. Wathey notes that these values do not come naturally. But we see that in Scandinavian countries teaching these values does in fact reduce religious thinking.
As in the case of visual illusions and phantom limbs: We can get to the point where we can feel the phantom illusion of God and still remember it is just a powerful illusion.


Written by sbrobert

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  1. Science can’t explain why anything exists. How can a beginning be derived from nothing? So, even scientists and those who are anti God have faith in the unexplainable.
    BTW, I am very comfortable in my atheism. Nor do I proselytize and those who do don’t bother me.
    Many great people have invoked religion. Washington, Madison & Lincoln come to mind. Many philosophers. Works for me.

  2. Bernstein, why do you always go off topic to make personal jabs? Using the “acquired sociopathy” example you cite, can you honestly say those you supported don’t fit that model of being pathological liars, poor decision makers, and married to whores in one form or another. Tell the truth, Robert, and shame the devil – the lesser of 2 evils,LOL!
    FYI, science has no shortages of Gods, idols, and myths like Narcissist “reflection.”

  3. Why are people so concerned (and almost obsessed) with what others believe? I find hardcore religious folks tiresome to be around but FAR more preferable than “holier than though” (pun intended) atheists, who are bent on telling everyone how “stupid” they are for actually believing in something more. I’m agnostic and don’t believe in any organized religion, but have a feeling there is something more out there. Don’t like it? Don’t worry about it.

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