What is knowledge? Is it something that is subjective or objective? What I mean by that is, are claims of knowledge testable or are they opinion? Does it even matter?
Knowledge is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary in this way:
“The fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association.”
I think that with the above definition, the most important word is experience. When you experience something and become familiar with it, you have attained knowledge about it. So does this apply to everything? What about religion? Believers say that they “know” that God is real because they experience him, sometimes on a daily basis. Is that not knowledge? According to the definition, it might be able to be interpreted that way. But there is a difference between feeling something you interpret as real and something that can be experienced by others. Also, how do you know that what you are feeling is God and not some other phenomenon that can be explained by natural means?
Let’s take the idea of people who are said to be born again. I was once part of this group. I accepted Jesus into my heart, was baptized and proclaimed publicly that he was indeed my lord and savior. I even experienced what I felt was the holy spirit descending upon me during times of intense prayer and other times while listening to Christian music. I experienced what I was told was the holy spirit, anyway. I experienced what I was told was Jesus in me as well. I experienced what I was told was proof of the divine. So I must have known God, right? Not so fast.
All of the things I experienced were real. The sensations I had in the form of chills down my spine or shaking when I was praying intensely were real. The certainty I had about my prayers being answered that made me tear up was real…and so were the tears. All of these things were experienced, so that must mean I have attained knowledge of the spiritual realm, correct? No. Not even close.
I stopped believing in spiritual things due to unfulfilled promises and nothing to go on but ancient stories based on ancient hearsay. My suspicions about religion, coupled with my time reading, reading, reading and then doing some more reading about the truth of religion, caused the feelings to stop altogether. As I researched and learned more and more about the religion I was born into and was raised to follow, the knowledge I attained about it showed me that I had been believing in it for no good reason. I believed because I was told to and I got so involved that I actually experienced physical effects from it. But once I stopped believing, the feelings were gone. So what gives? Did God remove the good feelings from my life? Did Jesus take away my ability to communicate with the spiritual world? No and no.
You see, when you are brainwashed…or coerced forcefully if that sounds better, you start to accept what others around you have come to accept. The feelings you have as a result of outside stimuli cause you to believe whatever story is given to explain them. In my case, it was God. In others, people may feel a connection to nature or some other world not of Heaven or of Earth. It is often caused by serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is one of the chemicals in our brains that helps to make us feel good, along with endorphins. Lots of stimuli can trigger a release of it, including religious activities. But you can get the same result from taking a pill or participating in activities such as swimming, walking, biking or even having sex. People who have experimented with LSD have also had similar experiences. Scientists have found a link between religiosity and the amount of serotonin in one’s brain. So what you may be thinking is a genuine religious experience may in fact just be your brain making you feel that way.
According to an article by John Cookson posted on bigthink.com back in 2010:
“The implications of a brain-based origin of religiosity are that the brain’s makeup determines ones level of belief, rather than choice or inspiration.”
Brain damage, differences in brains from one individual to the next and what types of drugs people may be on help to determine how religious a person may become. Some people seem to be anatomically predisposed to belief. The chemicals in their brains convince them that they are truly experiencing God. And make no mistake, the physical experiences are real. However, the root cause of these experiences can be sorted out without resorting to supernatural explanations.
I won’t go into all of the details that scientists have discovered in studies, including some controversial things such as “the god gene” as I am not the expert on such things. But there have been numerous studies done that link serotonin to religion. According to Psychology Today:
“The concentration of serotonin receptors normally varies markedly among individuals. Those whose brain scans showed the most receptor activity proved on personality tests to have the strongest proclivity to spiritual acceptance.”
Again, I am not an expert on these matters, but the conclusions by scientists based on several studies seem to suggest that spirituality is much more prevalent in certain people based on the makeup of their brain. People experience something real and are told by religious groups that what they are feeling is God. The only evidence is a bunch of stories and your own “good feelings.” There is a lot that can be proven based on study, testing and repeatable demonstration. And then there is your own personal feelings on what is happening. Yes, you can have knowledge of what you are feeling and the effects on your body, but to attribute those feelings and effects to an invisible being is not knowledge. It is a belief. You have made a leap from having good feelings to absolute truth and have skipped many steps along the way.
Belief is not knowledge. And knowledge can be tricky if your brain is leading you in one direction or another. Just be aware that there are non-spiritual explanations for spiritual experiences. There is more to belief than just conviction. It might be in your genes. For me, having once believed and now so far from what I once believed, I am sure that outside influences as well as my brain functions can explain my religious experiences. I am now rather comfortable saying that it was all in my head. And there are several studies that help to explain why that is.