Though I have never encountered a persuasive argument for the metaphysical claims of any religion, for more than a decade — from the age of twelve until my mid-twenties — I was convinced that I had direct, firsthand, and incontrovertible knowledge of God’s existence.
My father was a moderately devout Anglican who encouraged his children to attend church; he occasionally taught Sunday school, but he rarely discussed religion at home. I don’t recall my mother ever expressing an opinion on the subject. My elder brother, though, began to take religion very seriously in his early teens, and eventually converted to Catholicism.
The particular group of Catholics my brother associated with were involved in what was known as the Charismatic movement; they believed that “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” was essential for salvation. This practice, probably most familiar to the wider community these days from its prominent role in various strands of American Protestantism, is based on the Biblical account of Acts 2, 1-4:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
In the summer of 1973-74, I was eagerly awaiting high school, convinced that it would be the start of a great intellectual adventure. Though I had already taught myself calculus, my brother, four years older than me, seemed dazzlingly intelligent and sophisticated in comparison; he had studied foreign languages and mastered what seemed from my twelve-year-old’s vantage point to be vast swaths of worldly knowledge. We shared a room, and each night — after our mother finally succeeded in making us switch off the light and stop reading — we’d often spend an hour or so talking in the dark, chewing over some perennial scientific or philosophical question.
One night, the conversation turned to God. Though church services bored me witless, I was still a believer by default. I don’t recall having experienced any profound sceptical insights; there were things I found puzzling about the claims of religion, but my attitude was that some of these would probably be resolved in the course of my education, and as for the remainder, I was well aware that understanding the universe was an ongoing human project, and there was no reason to expect to be living in an age when every question had been answered.
My brother talked about the history of Christianity, and the arguments for belief that various theologians and philosophers had made over the centuries. To my surprise, he freely admitted that all of those arguments were inadequate; you could not, he said, reason your way to God. Belief had to be a matter of faith, and faith was a gift from God. But it was not a gift to be bestowed only upon a select few. If I asked God sincerely for this gift, it would be granted to me. All I had to do was kneel down and pray, and ask Jesus to send the Holy Spirit into my heart.
I’m sure I sensed that I was being led towards a place I didn’t actually want to go, because I tried to argue my way out of the ambush, or at least buy myself some time. Maybe this wasn’t necessary for everyone, I suggested. Maybe I could think about it for a few days. But my brother was having none of this. Anyone who wasn’t baptised in the spirit would be damned, and the fear I felt was being put there by Satan. This had to be done now, or Satan would claim my soul.
So we rose from our beds and knelt down together, and I did as I was told.
When I’d finished praying, I felt a great sense of contentment, but I wasn’t actually sure that the crucial event had taken place. My brother assured me that it had, and the feeling grew stronger. When I silently prayed, my prayers were answered immediately by a powerful upswell of emotion, and this wordless dialogue became richer and more intense, until all I had to do was mentally invoke the name of Jesus and I felt overwhelmingly happy, safe, and loved. Within a matter of hours, I had gone from someone who would dutifully repeat the tenets of his religion, but might easily have been persuaded to reconsider them, to one who found it as absurd to question God’s existence as to question the reality of the sun while lifting his face to the sky at noon.
In the weeks that followed I entered my brother’s circle of friends as a kind of mascot, tagging along with him to prayer meetings and services at the local Catholic church. This was the era of the musical Godspell, and the nuns, monks, priests and lay people who formed the Charismatic movement resembled nothing so much as guitar-strumming, drug-free hippies. If they had any political or social agenda, though, it went right over my head; all I remember is a lot of praying and singing. I even began praying in tongues myself, emitting strings of foreign-sounding syllables that favoured the consonants sh and l. My brother recounted the anecdote of a woman who had begun praying in Hebrew, despite never having heard the language; a speaker of Hebrew had supposedly authenticated this claim. But nobody was making recordings of our prayer meetings and sending them to linguists to analyse; if the thought ever crossed my mind, I probably dismissed it as vaguely blasphemous. Faith wasn’t meant to be tested.
I don’t recall exactly how long I spent as part of this group, but eventually some sense of adolescent independence kicked in, and I cut myself loose. I stopped going to church services, Anglican or Catholic, and in a superficial sense my life returned to normal.
But the Holy Spirit wasn’t something you could walk away from as easily as a roomful of singing nuns. I still woke up every morning knowing, beyond all possibility of doubt, that Jesus had died for me, that his Father loved me, and that ultimately everything would turn out right.
Apart from the absolute core of Christianity, though, I found myself uncommitted to any doctrinal, or even scriptural, detail. I could not believe that people who failed to be baptised in the spirit — or even people who believed in other religions entirely — would be damned; I wasn’t even sure that I believed in Hell, except perhaps as a purely voluntary alternative to Heaven, where anyone too proud to accept God’s love could sit around and endure each other’s Sartrean company. As I entered my teens, an ever greater proportion of official Christian teaching began to strike me as either unjust or, frankly, childish and silly, but the messenger from Jesus living inside me had none of those qualities, and that took precedence over anything a Pope, bishop, theologian or dodgily-translated apostle might declare. The bottom line was, I knew that God would save all of humanity, because the love I felt from Him was unconditional.
My religious convictions certainly didn’t diminish or constrain my interest in science; I’d never even met a Creationist. Still, my sense of God as a kind of supervisory presence had an uneasy accommodation with my growing understanding of the laws of physics. I even went through a phase of subscribing to the inane notion that quantum uncertainty allowed a window for divine intervention and the actions of the soul upon the human body. But I didn’t really expect a neat resolution to be at hand. The existence of God was a given, as much as my own existence. Science would continue to reveal whatever it revealed, and I had nothing to fear from that. Since I didn’t even grasp more than the tiniest fraction of what scientists had found, and they themselves seemed to have no shortage of unanswered questions, any suggestion that the whole conceptual jigsaw puzzle might fail to fit together seemed ludicrously premature.
Given that I’d ended up with a faith that was perfectly compatible both with my own conscience, and with anything the natural sciences might reveal, it might easily have lasted my whole lifetime. Having access to a sense of great peace and contentment, and a conviction that in the end all wrongs will be made right, is not a burdensome state to be in.
Why, then, did it finally unravel? Very slowly, I turned my attention to the thing itself: the reason for my faith, the source of my conviction. What exactly had happened to me when I prayed beside my brother that night? What exactly was going on, each time I called upon the Holy Spirit?
My faith didn’t like to be scrutinised. When I asked myself these kinds of questions, the reply was a jolt of transcendental happiness and a reminder that I shouldn’t expect to understand such things. But I was not part of any religious community; there was nobody around to reinforce the interpretation of the experience that had first accompanied it. I felt joyful when I prayed. This proved ... what? Perhaps it simply meant that I’d discovered a way to feel joyful when I prayed. The human brain is a flexible organ, and compared to all the complicated trance states and meditative practices of other religions this seemed like a very modest achievement, something even a twelve-year-old child subject to the right kind of duress might manage.
Nevertheless, I resisted that conclusion for years. A vague alternative explanation was not a disproof of my original interpretation — and even if someone could have put me in a scanner and pointed out every detail of some physical mechanism, what would that mean? That religious joy — just like every other kind of joy — had certain physical correlates. How was the Holy Spirit supposed to comfort me without laying a finger on my neurotransmitters?
I don’t recall any one thing that finally drove a stake through the heart of my faith. Perhaps it boiled down to a question of which was most likely: that I had been born into a culture that, out of all the many religions on Earth, happened to worship the true creator of the universe, or that I had put my own spin on an emotional Rorschach blot that could easily be explained without invoking anything supernatural at all.
It would be absurd to over-generalise from my experience, but equally absurd to treat it as singular. Perhaps neurologists will eventually pin down a particular mechanism associated with the kind of religious practice I’ve described, but to me it seems equally likely that the mechanisms will be diverse. What I do suspect I once shared with a great many religious believers is not so much the core of mystical experience as the larger package that was wrapped around it: the belief that the universe has a purpose, and that despite the unspeakable horrors of our history and the smaller miseries of everyday life there is a promise that everything will be put right in the end. This is a powerful and appealing notion; once you have it in your grasp it’s hard to let go, and some of us will go to very great lengths to rationalise holding on to it.