James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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Is belief a trick of the mind?:

Dr James Le Fanu maps the mental routes that can lead to Christian faith.

SEEING the Christmas story through the youthful eyes of my three-year-old son, I am struck by the immense appeal of its magical details to the innocent imagination of childhood. But, by itself, this wonderful accessibility of Christian myth is an insecure foundation for religious belief – which the rationalists tell us is nothing more than a physical artefact of the brain.

There is the view, for example, that Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus, was an attack of temporal lobe epilepsy. Certainly ‘the light from Heaven’, the auditory hallucinations (‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?’) and, more controversially, the subsequent temporary blindness, are compatible with this diagnosis, as were ‘the strange and violent tremblings of the body’ and celestial visions of St Theresa of Lisieux. Further, many of the experiences of Christian mystics, seen through modern eyes, are indistinguishable from hysteria – transient paralysis and loss of speech and heightened sensitivity.

Psychiatrists at the Maudsley Hospital, studying patients with epilepsy-associated mental illness, found that mystical delusional experiences were ‘remarkably common’ and not infrequently associated with dramatic conversions. One, a bus conductor, was ‘suddenly overcome with a feeling of bliss… he carried on collecting his fares correctly, telling his passengers at the same time how pleased he was to be in Heaven’. Another ‘had a dreamlike feeling, saw a flash of light, and suddenly knew he could have power from God if only he asked for it’.

Mind-altering drugs can have a similar effect. Famously, Aldous Huxley came to believe that mescaline had revealed to him the personal presence and certainty of God.

On the other hand, religious belief can be extirpated by psychiatric treatments with drugs or psycho-surgery. The late psychiatrist William Sargant reported the case of a woman obsessed with the belief that she had sinned against the Holy Ghost.

Immediately on recovering from her leucotomy, she reported that she had ‘now lost all belief’ in its existence. It is equally true, however, that the same treatments can, by curing depression, restore religious faith, temporarily lost during ‘the dark night of the soul’ of psychiatric illness.

For those not afflicted by such neurological or psychological problems, revelation, in the form of new beliefs suddenly arrived at, may often occur in the highly-charged atmosphere of intense religious ceremony. Much of the success of John Wesley’s revivalist movement has been attributed to his ability to induce in his audience great states of anxiety about their sinfulness, their helplessness to save themselves from the wrath to come, and the impossibility of salvation from Hellfire, except by the sudden acquisition of faith.

But it is also true that the ultimate mystical experience of achieving unity with God can come from the opposite extreme, when, distanced from the world, the mind is emptied of everything other than the search for enlightenment.

Mary of the Incarnation described this as ‘knowing with great power and certainty that here is Love Himself, ultimately joined to me, and joining my spirit to His’.

The value of any religious belief would seem to be compromised by the facility with which self-induced hysteria or abnormal discharges of the brain can so easily simulate Divine Revelation, and, indeed, some agnostics justify their disbelief on just these grounds. Luckily, this is a superficial view. Religious faith is indeed a broad church, ranging from the voodoo worship of the Haitian magic man to the high intellectual argument of Cardinal Newman, from primitive demonology to ethical monotheism. And just as it is easily possible to discriminate between these polarities (and their intrinsic worth), so it is possible to distinguish the ecstatic experience of the epileptic fit from that acquired as a culmination of a prolonged period of intellectual and spiritual contemplation.

Certainly epileptics can have religious experiences. Similarly, the neurotic and mentally unstable may well be attracted to religion, and it would be utterly surprising if some of those medieval nuns cooped up in convents for years did not exhibit some hysterical traits. I would share the rationalists’ scepticism that mystic revelation was the sole basis for religious belief. Their mistake is in not realising that the real authority of Christianity rests on the much more secure foundations of Reason and Tradition.

And on that note, I wish everyone a merry – and mystical – Christmas.

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd