QUESTION Are supernatural experiences (eg visions of The Virgin Mary, Jesus, Krishna etc) likely to be unintentional delusion or even fraud?

It occurs to me that since we now know that the brain can cause us to distort reality that it seems highly likely that many reported supernatural experiences will not correspond to events which are real in the normal sense of the word. Failed predictions of dates for the end of the world based on such experiences, examples of those caught in fraudulent attempts to fake miracles and the sheer variety of claims should at the very least make us cautious when hearing of each new further claim.

From the reported studies on those whose perception is distorted by emotion or chemical imbalance we know this is a common phenomenon. The altered memories of those caught in traumatic situations bedevil many a high court trial.
For example those raped by unknown strangers regularly describe their attacker as bigger and more frightening in appearance than they turn out to be and the vivid, yet fanciful, experiences (eg things crawling up the wall) of those who are alcoholics or drug takers are so common as to be considered uncontroversial and even typical.

I want to suggest that when it comes to supernatural phenomena, many of these experiences and beliefs are not accessible to testing but that since we now know that what is experienced has a component due to brain processing as well as the more direct link to the agreed stimulus giving rise to the response, it is not just stimuli capable of independent verification which are responsible for reported experiences. A highly qualified psychiatrist assured me a few days ago that we know so little about the workings of the brain and the complex biochemical pathways that it is almost impossible to say with certainty what controls particular perceptions. In the time since I last studied the topic, the number of known neurotransmitters in the brain had evidently ballooned out from the once commonly accepted four to more than 100.

When it comes to supernatural phenomenon it is far from clear how the brain processes the complete set of experienced sensory inputs including those from prior educational and social settings and then stores them as acquired memory.

What may be less realised is that religious supernatural experiences are reportedly surprisingly common. For example in 2007 Baylor University based in Waco, Texas administered a nation wide poll with the Gallup Poll organisation in which 350 items relating to supernatural experiences were administered to 1648 randomly selected adults through the US.

In the results published by Baylor University (Institute of Studies in Religion) under the title Wave Two of the Baylor Religion Survey we note that on the basis of this presumably accurately representative sample, that the most common religious and mystical experiences reported by Americans include: protection from harm by a guardian angel (55 percent); calling by God to do something (44 percent); witnessing a miraculous, physical healing (23 percent); and hearing the voice of God (20 percent), according to the second part of the Baylor Religion Survey.
Researchers say they did not expect to find such high numbers of Americans reporting supernatural experiences, in particular, the guardian angel result cf Baylor University’s Sociologist Christopher Bader “the biggest surprise to me in our findings.”

Perhaps it reflects centres of interest of the different denominations that although almost half of those sampled reported having such religious experiences there were clear differences between those belonging to the Pentecostal, Assemblies of God, and Baptist denominations (along with the Mormons) who were the most likely to cite having such experiences with at the other end of the scale while the Unitarian, Roman Catholic, and Jewish respondents were the least likely to report religious and mystical experiences. When examining results by denominations, respondents belonging to conservative Protestant churches were more likely to report such supernatural experiences than those in liberal Protestant churches.

On the other hand a self classification of “evangelical”, greatly decreases belief in the occult and paranormal such as UFOs, Bigfoot, haunted house, communicating with the dead and astrology.

Those who see themselves as Conservative Christian were better represented among the sixty-seven percent of Americans who said they were “absolutely sure” heaven exists, while 17 percent thought it “probably” does.

In the same survey seventy-three percent of Americans also claimed that they believe hell absolutely or probably exists.

Given the above difference, if however we do accept the insistence that there are genuine supernatural experiences, we are left with some interesting issues to ponder. For example if the Virgin Mary is thought to have appeared to selected people who reported the visitation in good faith, is that somehow different in validity to someone else who reports a visitation of some other religious figure eg Krishna? Again if the experiences are indeed genuine, how do we account for the implications of denominational differences? For example does it mean that a Baptist or Mormon (who are both reportedly more likely to have such supernatural experiences), is more likely to have a valid faith than a Unitarian or a Roman Catholic?

Another issue is the question whether or not the total number believing in a particular set of supernatural experiences should be what determines the likelihood of the experiences having validity. Eg if there are more Roman Catholics than Baptists and more Sunni than Shia Muslims, should we therefore take more notice of their subgroup views on the Supernatural than those with smaller following. And finally since some supernatural beliefs are clearly related to denominational differences, if they all have validity does this mean that members of different denominations have a different destiny? Your thoughts please.

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