A column in the New York Times this week, entitled “Conjuring Up Our Own Gods,” discusses the efforts some people will go to in order to experience the presence of God, and the difficulty sometimes involved in maintaining the feeling once they’ve experienced it.
Author T. M. Luhrmann begins by observing that the thirst for the supernatural is almost universal, at least with Americans. “In 2011, an Associated Press poll found that 8 in 10 Americans believed in angels,” Luhrmann notes. “In 2009 the Pew Research Center reported that 1 in 5 Americans experienced ghosts and 1 in 7 had consulted a psychic.”
She goes on: “One interpretation of these data is that belief in the supernatural is hard-wired.” Of course, another is that stupidity is hard-wired.
Luhrmann observes, rather obviously, that fear has played a large role in man’s persistent belief in the supernatural. “When we’re scared in the dark, we populate the world with ghosts,” she says. But then she remarks, quite rightly: “When we consider in full daylight whether the ghosts were real — ah, that is another matter.”
Should we then consider our fear in the bright light of day? Not a bit of it. We should try to justify the fear!
Luhrmann describes the ends to which some people will go to “make what can only be imagined feel real.” She considers the case of Jack, a young man she interviewed, who created a tulpa – a creature of his imagination -- when he was in college. He spent 90 minutes a day conjuring this tulpa, which took the form of a fox. (“He liked foxes,” Luhrmann explains – what young guy doesn’t?). “After four weeks, he started to feel the fox’s presence, and to have feelings he thought were the fox’s.”
Jack felt that the fox spoke to him, one day after a chemistry exam. “I heard, clear as day, ‘Well, how did you do?’” Jack claimed. (Chemistry with foxes—always on a college dude’s mind.) Luhrmann says, “For a while he was intensely involved with her, and said it felt more wonderful than falling in love with a girl.”
The fox was every bit as fickle, however, for when Jack let his meditative sessions lapse, it went away. It “comes back, sometimes unexpectedly, when he practices,” Luhrmann says.
“The mere fact that people like Jack find it intuitively possible to have invisible companions who talk back to them supports the claim that the idea of an invisible agent is basic to our psyche,” Luhrmann concludes. This sounds profound, but really all that it says is that we, and our fears about higher powers, are childish. Still, we take the trouble – sometimes a lot of trouble – to nurture them. Luhrmann puts it this way:
“Experiencing an invisible companion as truly present — especially as an adult — takes work: constant concentration, a state that resembles prayer.”
In other words, it’s a process that requires us to constantly remind ourselves that someone is looking over our shoulder.
At this point, Luhrmann hazards the guess that evangelical churches have been more successful at keeping the worship of God alive than the traditional, mainstream ones have been, because they preach the idea of a personal God. Evangelical pastors exhort their flocks to keep God constantly in mind, lest He slip away. And “when it works, people experience God as alive.”
Luhrmann is clearly on the side of the credulous. She brings up the old untrue saw that there are no atheists in foxholes, and adds insult to injury with the remark that “there are atheists who have prayed for parking spots.” But she betrays just how flimsy the conjuring trick can seem: “While the idea of God may be intuitively plausible…belief can be brittle.” Sometimes, as she says, “keeping God real” is hard work. You’ve got to bring out the smoke and mirrors.