Early in the history of this blog, I showed some disdain for some of my reductionist biologist brethren who in their frenzy to tie religion to brain impulses ascribed the visions of Mohammed and Joseph Smith to epilepsy. The desire to reduce the entire unseen world into mechanisms, impulses, and a pile of biological functions drives some science worshippers to distraction. In the comments, I commented on how rare these seizures really are, and I stand by that comment. As a child neurologist, I don’t run into spiritual seizures. However, In fairness, any child who feels a profound oneness with God during his seizures, likely does not have the vocabulary to express the wonder of their experience. I may just have patients who have this experience who cannot express it.
While the experience is rare, it is not unique. There are many who have described these spiritual seizures. Perhaps the most verbal and most eloquent description comes from the great Russian author and epileptic, Fyodor Dostoevsky.
” For several instants I experience a happiness that is impossible in an ordinary state, and of which other people have no conception. I feel full harmony in myself and in the whole world, and the feeling is so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one could give up ten years of life, perhaps all of life.
I felt that heaven descended to earth and swallowed me. I really attained god and was imbued with him. All of you healthy people don’t even suspect what happiness is , that happiness that we epileptics experience for a second before an attack.”
In fact, Dostoevsky himself stated the belief that Mohammed in his great vision of God must have had epilepsy because he recognized the experience. Curiously, though he knew and recognized this event as a seizure, It did absolutely nothing to cast doubt on the singular spiritual reality of his experience. Even though the seizure was an event happening within his brain, he was convinced that it was a physical event within his brain that gave him a very priveleged glimpse of the face of God. Far from throwing doubt on God’s existence, this experience drove him forward in the face of all kinds of obstacles, trials and discouragement. This siezure formed the absolute foundation of his faith.
The folly of discounting subjective experience with a materialist explanation is that the impulses in the brain simply do not mean that what we are sensing from those impulses is in any way not real. It would be silly to say that because you measure visual impulses in the occipital lobe as you look at an apple, olfactory impulses as you smell it, gustatory impulses as you taste it, that therefore the apple did not exist. Similarly, Dostoevsky saw the ecstatic and profound euphoria he experienced preceding his siezures as an inborn gift that put him in touch with a higher truth that people cannot ordinarily experience.
Working in this same vein, the 1996 movie Phenomenon features John Travolta as George Malley, an ordinary man who develops a brain tumor that enhances and supplements his brain function rather than destroying it as an ordinary tumor would. A neurosurgeon sees an opportunity to advance scientific knowledge by operation on his tumor in order to learn about brain function in a way that had never been done before, calling himself George’s ”biographer” in a sense. George then point out that ” that isn’t me, it’s just my brain.”
The real challenge for any of us when we come to any profound experience or realization is to embrace it, to share it and to help others experience it as well. What the fictional George had to offer was a glimpse of what was inside each of us, our true human potential. While the story is fictional, the moral rings true. We are more than our synapses and neuronal impulses. These represent sensations, ideas, inferences and experiences of something more, something real and powerful, something central to our humanity.
So when an atheist lazily discounts religious experience and accounts of the divine as simply seizures, he is missing the point. He is buying into an all to prevalent attitude that sees brokenness or dysfunction where true beauty and mystery might lie. This theme is masterfully explored by author Mark Salzman, in his book, Lying Awake. Based on a true story, he recounts the story of a Carmelite Nun who experiences the very seizures Dostoevsky describes, which drive her lifes choices to enter the sisterhood. Over time these ecstatic visions are accompanied by a more and more severe headache, leading to the discovery that seizures are behind her experience with the divine. The Nun is then given a heartbreaking choice, have her temporal lobe lesion removed surgically and cure her headache, losing a profound connection with God in the process, or to keep the connection, knowing her headaches may grow worse, and the episodes may eventually debilitate her. Salzman makes a very strong case for the counterintuitive, that one could very reasonably choose to keep their seizures, seeing them as key to their sense of self identity and happiness. That to lose her seizures would be to lose something wonderful and amazing. Doubtless the New Atheist crowd would be stupefied at such a crazy idea. Perhaps because they have already severed this profoundly human connection and experience from themselves, leaving them the poorer for it.