Worshipping Waterfalls: The Evolution of Belief

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Original Air Date: 
May 14, 2017

Jane Goodall has seen wild chimpanzees dance and bristle with excitement around roaring waterfalls — and she thinks it’s an experience of awe and wonder — and possibly a precursor to animistic religion.

But can we ever know why our ancient human ancestors developed spiritual beliefs? Can evolutionary science uncover the roots of religion?  

At some point our ancestors went from admiring waterfalls to worshipping them - and all kinds of spirits and gods. They developed sacred rituals and turned stones into totems. And then came the Battle of the Gods.

This was produced in partnership with the Center for Humans and Nature, an organization that brings together scholars from a diversity of disciplines to think creatively about our relationships with nature and each other. What do you think evolution can tell us about love and morality? Share your thoughts at humansandnature.org. This episode was made possible through the support of the John Templeton Foundation.


African chimps store caches of big rocks to throw at certain trees. And some scientists wonder, are those trees sacred to them?


Ancient humans lived as hunter-gatherers, with animistic religions. So why did people start to believe in Big Gods? University of British Columbia psychologist Ara Norenzayan has a theory.

Experience the divine

Jeff Schloss is an evolutionary biologist. He’s also Christian. As a scientist, he’s trying to develop an evolutionary theory for the origins of religion. But he says science can’t explain everything about religion.


Andrew Newberg is a pioneer in neurotheology. He says brain scans can show the neural signature of spiritual experience.


The Center for Humans and Nature provides a forum for wider discussion on the link between our evolution as a species and the emergence of religious thought and morality, including several essays by evolutionary biologists David Sloan Wilson and Jeff Schloss.

Show Details 📻
May 14, 2017
November 25, 2017
July 14, 2018
June 22, 2019
October 17, 2020
February 19, 2022
Activist, Scientist, Animal Rights Activist
Wildlife biologist
C. H. Candler Professor of Psychology, Emory University
Professor of Psychology
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Have you ever had an experience you just could not explain?

Laura Kehoe (00:12):

We were doing field research to basically collect everything we could about the chimpanzee community there.

Anne Strainchamps (00:19):

Wildlife biologist, Laura Kehoe. This was in Guinea, West Africa.

Laura Kehoe (00:25):

We were sort of just strolling through the bush and we stopped at a clearing And this guide, [Mamadou ALuba 00:00:33], incredibly talented guy, he had found some markings on a tree. Other local people thought that these were probably just wild pigs or teenagers or something else, but Mamadou was sure that there was something more to it.

Laura Kehoe (00:51):

So we put up a camera there for a few weeks to catch what it can. And we essentially moved on. Finally, two weeks came, and I was pretty excited just because you kind of dream when you're in the field that you'll find something new or interesting.

Laura Kehoe (01:14):

What we saw was a chimp approach the tree, pause, look around, pick up this huge rock and fling it at the tree. And then basically run off. And there was a panto, as well, that we did. I hadn't seen anything like that before. And it turns out that it was an entirely new behavior that hadn't been recorded before. We still don't really know what it means, but that's what we found.

Anne Strainchamps (01:53):

Now I can hear you thinking, "Seriously? An ape throws a rock at a tree. This matters. Why?" First of all, it's not just one chimpanzee. It turns out to be dozens of them, all over West Africa. Second, the behavior looks to scientists like some kind of ritual. And the reason that matters is that it might, just might, help explain the origin of religion. Could these chimpanzees be having spiritual experiences? Steve Paulson tracked down Laura Kehoe to find out more

Steve Paulson (02:31):

Laura, the first time you saw the chimps doing this, what was your reaction?

Laura Kehoe (02:36):

Really, just shivers down I spine. I couldn't believe it. Yeah, no, I was just stunned, really.

Steve Paulson (02:42):

These are, you said big stone, like eight to nine kilograms?

Laura Kehoe (02:46):

Yeah. They were ridiculous.

Steve Paulson (02:47):

I mean, that's like that's 20 pounds?

Laura Kehoe (02:50):

That is not an easy thing to hurl. No.

Steve Paulson (02:52):

And so if I understand this, so they weren't just any stones? I mean there were stones that sort of had been cashed? It would seem for this purpose of being thrown at the trees?

Laura Kehoe (03:02):

Yeah, exactly. It did seem like that. And not every time was the stone flung in a kind of a violent way at the tree. Sometimes the stones are tossed. Sometimes there were neatly placed inside the tree cavity. So that really kind added to the mystery, I guess.

Steve Paulson (03:21):

And not only were certain stones chosen, but only certain trees were targeted. Is that true?

Laura Kehoe (03:27):

Yeah. Yeah. They were selected trees that would have repeated visits. Yeah.

Steve Paulson (03:31):

And were these always male chimpanzees?

Laura Kehoe (03:33):

No. So there's observations of females and juveniles as well, carrying the stone.

Steve Paulson (03:39):

So it's not just male displays?

Laura Kehoe (03:41):

No, it's mostly males, but yeah, there's also females, even a female with a young chimp on her back.

Steve Paulson (03:48):

Okay. So obviously the huge mystery is why. And you have speculated that one explanation might be some sort of ritual, perhaps even a symbolic act.

Laura Kehoe (03:58):

Yeah. I'm mean, I think that... Well, first of all, plausibility, shouldn't be mistaken for proof. And it is important to say that it's a speculation. I nearly died when I saw the Daily Mail heading of chimps have found religion or something. So I wouldn't go that far, but I do think that it's a possibility. And I think that some things can seem unlikely until they're discovered. So imagine before we found that chimps were making and using tools, thinking about that, it would seem hugely unlikely. And I think maybe the same as the case for these kind of spiritual sides of other species.

Steve Paulson (04:35):

You have suggested something even more provocative that maybe the targeted trees function kind of like a shrine, I mean, what you've referred to as sacred trees.

Laura Kehoe (04:45):

Yeah. Again, speculation, but it's a possibility. And it's something that I think we shouldn't turn our backs to and not consider. If we saw a group of humans returning to the same tree and throwing stones at it, repetitively, what conclusion would we come to? I mean, chimps have beaten humans at short-term memory tasks. And we've seen that they can go to war or that they use sticks as dolls and make nests for them. Or that they do these sort of mysterious dances in front of fire or waterfalls. So I think it's an arena that's opening up to more scientific inquiry, but it's something that's obviously incredibly difficult to try and improve in any way.

Steve Paulson (05:26):

Now, as you can imagine, this discovery was big news among primatologists. When word first got out, other researchers across Africa also went looking for trees with strange marks and caches of rocks. And they set up their own cameras and they saw the same thing, though strangely, never in East Africa, which means this is some kind of learned behavior. It's part of the culture of certain West African chimps. So this quickly became much bigger than just Laura Kehoe's story. And it's led to some intense speculation.

Barbara King (05:57):

Well, the original paper that came out, which was written by 80 scientists led by Cole and Callan. They also raised the possibility that this could be a ritual

Steve Paulson (06:07):

Anthropologist, Barbara King.

Barbara King (06:09):

It's the same stones over and over the same trees over and over. So this brings up the possibility of ritual. Also occurs to me, though, that it could be something simpler. Maybe the apes just enjoy forceful throwing at trees. Maybe they enjoy what is essentially skilled practice at aimed throwing, just like many of us would do if we had a pile of stones and trees

Frans de Waal (06:34):

Calling it a ritual is fine with me. It seems like a ritualized behavior, but it has been sort of overblown in the media

Steve Paulson (06:42):

Primatologist, Frans de Waal.

Frans de Waal (06:45):

People started adding things like sacreds ritual or religious ritual. The Daily Telegraph recently even had a headline, "Chimpanzees Believe in God." Now that seems a bit of a jump from piles of rock to believing in God.

Steve Paulson (07:00):

Yes. But could it be some sort of pro spiritual activity? I mean, is that just totally out of bounds to even consider that?

Frans de Waal (07:08):

No, I think it is a hypothesis that you can put on the table, but there's probably several others as well. Is it to impress others that they're doing this? Are others as an audience present? Are their females present? We, we don't know these things yet.

Steve Paulson (07:23):

All of this reminded me of a story I heard from the great field biologist, Jane Goodall back in the sixties when she was living with chimps in Gombe. She used to see them occasionally stop at a waterfall.

Jane Goodall (07:34):

We can hear roll of the falling water, falls about 80 feet. It's a small stream, but it makes a loud noise because it's falling on rock. The chimpanzees, usually the males will bristle a little bit, which is excitement. And as they get me, they start this rhythmic displays weighing from foot to foot off and upright and they may climb the vines and push out into the spray.

Jane Goodall (08:01):

And afterwards they may sit watching the water, watching as it falls. What is this strange substance which is always coming and always going and always here? You can't help feeling that if they had a language like ours that would enable them to discuss whatever feeling it was, that that would turn into some kind of animistic religion like worship of the elements.

Jane Goodall (08:35):

You can't help feeling that it must be something that we would describe as awe or wonder or amazement or something like that which can turn into this worship of things that we don't understand.

Steve Paulson (08:48):

Well, it makes you wonder if our own ancient ancestors millions of years ago, or maybe even more recently than that had similar experiences.

Jane Goodall (09:00):

I would bet they did. I think we still do. I mean, I feel that because we have this language, because we like to explain everything, if we have experiences like that, we describe it in terms of a spiritual experience or a mystic experience. And whatever it is inside us that we feel makes us who we are, different from our mind, we call our soul.

Jane Goodall (09:29):

And if we have soul or spirits, if we do, then I suspect the chimpanzees do, too. And I've always felt that if I had to describe what it is, I would say it's a little spark of a great spiritual power that I felt so strongly around me when I was out in the forest alone. And probably that little spark is in all living things. And it's we, with our passion for describing everything, that decided to call it a soul or a spirit or what have you.

Steve Paulson (10:01):

I asked a lot of scientists if they think these experiences of awe or wonder might be at the root of religion. And most of them said yes. But do chimpanzees have souls? Well, that's another story.

Barbara King (10:14):

Yeah. The question that I would like to, to turn this around. If I had Jane Goodall and the authors of the Chimpanzee Rituals, don't throwing paper here, especially Laura Kehoe, I would ask, what evidence do you see in chimpanzees visible behavior that convinces you that they have a conception of anything sacred.

Steve Paulson (10:40):

And this is Anthropologist Barbara King again,

Barbara King (10:40):

I mean, we can't just be content to say, there may be a ritual in stone throwing. How do we get from that to this very big leap of the sacred and experience of connection to forces side one self. But I would also add the word, some kind of sacred force, some kind of mysterious, ineffable, unknowable force. I don't see any evidence of that kind of meaning-making going on in these chimpanzees.

Steve Paulson (11:12):

But how would? I mean, chimpanzees can't talk to us. We can't actually get into side their minds. How do we know whether or not they have any sense of meaning-making?

Barbara King (11:21):

Well, my definition of meaning-making is that we need to see some visible expression of behavior that meets certain criteria. I don't know how we would ever answer that question in a scientific framework. And to me, that makes these claims of sacred shrines very patently unscientific. I am a scientist and I think that this question is outside the realm of science.

Steve Paulson (11:48):

But not necessarily wrong. Is that right? Who knows? We have no idea what is behind there. Science can't prove it. Science can't disprove it either. I mean, whether there is some kind of ritualistic religious act happening here.

Barbara King (12:02):

True. We can't disprove it. So why are we taking what I think is human species specific meaning-making and insisting upon talking about it in chimpanzees? Why are we so wrapped up in this question in the first place? Doesn't that say a lot more about us than it does about the apes.

Steve Paulson (12:31):

I kept wondering whether whole business of chimpanzees spirituality is strictly a science question. What would a religion scholar think?

James Harrod (12:40):

Do chimpanzees have religion? I say, of course they do.

Steve Paulson (12:46):

James Harrod, scholar of religion and comparative mythology. And he's written a paper called the Case for Chimpanzee Religion. Now he has some unconventional views. He's come up with a trans-species definition of religion, which includes behaviors that seem to show reverence in devotion and experiences of awe or wonder at the apparent aliveness of something like moving water and vocalizations like pantos that apparently call out to other members of the group, things like I'm here, or are you with me?

James Harrod (13:18):

We cannot know if they have spiritual beliefs. So I just say, let's just set all that aside. I'm not talking about beliefs. So I'm doing chimpanzees theology, if you want to call it that, but we're not talking about some intellectual concept. I just want to talk about how they experience the reality of this mysterious world we're in.

Steve Paulson (13:42):

So where does this leave, those stone throwing chimps in West Africa? Well, Harrod has a novel and highly speculative theory. He thinks that some kind of proto-ethical behavior, a way to deal with their bottled up anger from getting bullied by those alpha chimps in the group.

James Harrod (14:00):

They can't express their aggression in that situation. So at a later time, they displace that aggression and anger by throwing stones around. Or they're carrying the stones that they might have wanted to throw at some bully, they placed them in the tree. It's a wonderful metaphor. So placing the stones in the hollow of a tree, stones that could be thrown at somebody, this is the necessary holding space for our outrage at injustice and inequality.

Steve Paulson (14:38):

Now, all that may sound a bit farfetched, but the point is, can we ever know why they throw these stones? What they're thinking about? And why do they sometimes just sit and stare at a waterfall? This is where science may reach its limits. That seemed to be one of the takeaways for Jane Goodall. She spent decades trying to imagine the interior life of chimpanzees, our closest relatives on earth. And in the end, she can only wonder.

Jane Goodall (15:08):

I still maintain if I could be inside the mind of a chimpanzee for just a few minutes, I would learn more about them than goodness knows how many years of study because we, we can guess what they're thinking, but how do they think, how do they think? Are they thinking in pictures? I spent ages thinking about that, wondering about it.

Jane Goodall (15:30):

And we think with words. And when we don't think with words, I think we come close to what mystics might describe as a mystical experience because I don't think that words would come into that. It's a feeling of complete oneness with the natural world and being able to hear it better and sense it better and smell it better and be better.

Anne Strainchamps (16:01):

Steve Paulson produced our story. So let's say our earliest human ancestors were like those West African chimps. And then at some point, they went from in my iron waterfalls to worshiping them. And then they developed sacred rituals and local spirits. And then came the battle of the gods. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (16:36):

Nobody knows exactly how religion evolved, but people think it went something like this. For tens of thousands of years, humans were hunter gatherers. They lived in forests and savannas in small groups. And they probably had some kind of animistic beliefs. They painted animal spirits on cave of walls. They carved bones or small stones into totems. They probably believed the landscape was alive and sacred.

Anne Strainchamps (17:04):

And then in just a few thousand years, everything changed. People built bigger settlements for hundreds and thousands. And the big gods arrived, all-knowing and all-powerful gods who saw everything you did. The mystery is, why? Where did those big gods come from? And for that matter, why are they still here? Psychologist Ara Norenzayan has a theory. He told Raymond [Tangaka 00:17:32] that any explanation of religion has to answer two major puzzles.

Ara Norenzayan (17:38):

We have minds and brains that are calibrated to live in small groups of relatives and friends and allies, yet we live in a world that is mostly defined by interactions with complete strangers. That's the first puzzle. The second puzzle that intrigued me was the fact that of all the possible religions that exist in the world, it seems like just a few account for most believers in the world. So I was trying to answer these two puzzles.

Raymond (18:02):

Okay. So let's unpack that first part. You talked about how we transition from small hunter gatherers as societies to larger communities. And traditionally, I would think that the explanation that most people have for that transition is agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals, but it would seem that you have a different theory.

Ara Norenzayan (18:23):

That's correct. So that's the prevailing notion, but here is the thing. A few decades ago, there was this discovery in South-Central Turkey, very near the Syrian border. It's an archeological site called Göbekli Tepe. What's really fascinating about this site is that it may give us some answers to this question and may turn this idea on its head.

Ara Norenzayan (18:44):

So Göbekli Tepe is about 11,500 years old. So it's thousands years older than the oldest pyramids or the Stonehenge. It was built by hunter gatherers that did not have agriculture yet it's the world's oldest place for religious worship. It's the world's oldest temple.

Raymond (19:02):

And do we know what the prevailing religion of the time was?

Ara Norenzayan (19:05):

We don't really know. It's very sketchy. We see some pillars, stone pillars that seem to indicate some animal worship and some ritualistic behavior. What's really striking about this site is that it's a pre-agricultural site. So the archeologists who excavated this site, Klaus Schmidt, put the question this way. He said, is it possible that the temple came before the city? That's the question that I explored in book, Big Gods.

Raymond (19:32):

What are these big gods that you refer to?

Ara Norenzayan (19:35):

So these are the gods of the world religions that we now live with. These are gods that are powerful, they're omniscient, they can know your mind, they are intervening, they are moralizing, they care about human morality, and they punish and reward human being behavior. What's really interesting is that these types of gods are actually quite rare in the ethnographic records. So among foragers, for example, where most of humanity evolved, these types of spirits and gods are extremely rare. So then the question is how is it that these types of gods became increasingly common? So if we combine Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. That's already the majority of believers in the world.

Raymond (20:16):

Okay. So why was this transition to big gods, why was it significant?

Ara Norenzayan (20:21):

Because a few things. One is that to the extent that these kinds of beliefs encourage interaction and cooperation amongst strangers, then that would give us at least a partial explanation for this remarkable expansion of human group size in the last 10 to 12,000 years. So the problem with interaction with strangers, of course, is that why would you cooperate with a complete stranger and how would you trust them? So the default strategy in human psychology is not to trust or interact with strangers. Yet we do this all the time. So one possible idea is that, to the extent that people believe in these kinds of moralizing gods, then that could give us some explanation for why these groups expanded.

Raymond (21:03):

Okay. So big gods essentially led to a sort of rub evolution in group cooperation that allowed early humans to move from hunter gatherer societies to larger groups. But why weren't the so-called small gods, the hunter gatherer gods, why weren't those moralizing gods?

Ara Norenzayan (21:19):

Well, the thing about gods of hunter gatherer groups, if you look at hunter gatherer lifestyle, you realize that these gods are really not that important. So most interactions in these groups are among either family members, relatives, or reciprocating partners, people you know and interact with every day. So these are transparent societies where there is no problem of cooperation amongst strangers. So this only is a problem for large scale groups where interaction with strangers is the norm.

Raymond (21:50):

I guess what I'm wondering, though, is, as humans are entering into larger and larger communities, facilitated by the kind of cooperation that big gods allow, I would think that you can have some bad faith actors undermine that. You can have some people fake faith, for instance, and pretend to be religious in order to gain some kind of honored advantage. What prevents that from happening?

Ara Norenzayan (22:14):

That's a great question. And you're right that the religious hypocrisy, as you were describing, is a big problem for these communities of cooperators. And these societies have developed various ways to cope or deal with this. So one possible solution is to require the faithful to basically walk the walk and not just the talk the talk.

Raymond (22:35):

Well, what's an example of that.

Ara Norenzayan (22:37):

A good example of that is sacrifice, right? So self-sacrifice and accepting costly restrictions on human behavior are common and widespread among these pro-social religions with these big gods. And one explanation for that is that, well, if you don't expect or require people to do costly things like accept limitations on property, who you can marry, restrictions on food, and even, in some conditions, sacrifice your life and limb for the community. These are the kinds of signals that will genuinely convince others that they're interacting with a true believer. As a result, cooperation can flourish among these people.

Raymond (23:17):

Let's bring this to the present. I mean, do big gods still facilitate that kind of cooperation?

Ara Norenzayan (23:22):

I think they do, to some extent, although today's world is a more complex world and there we have created other institutions to encourage large scale cooperation. So we have lots of secular institutions that basically have taken over firm religious sources of cooperation to basically do the same thing.

Ara Norenzayan (23:41):

So some societies have climbed a ladder of religion and then kicked it away. A good example is Northern Europe societies where majorities are not believers, don't have religious beliefs anymore, but they're living highly cooperative societies. And largely because they have created institutions that play that role that encourage people to cooperate with complete strangers.

Raymond (24:06):

Well, for instance, what kind of institutions are you talking about?

Ara Norenzayan (24:10):

I'm talking about courts, police, credit, trade, markets. So I'm more likely to trust my neighbor if I know that if I had a problem with my neighbor I could call the police and the police can intervene for example.

Raymond (24:24):


Ara Norenzayan (24:25):

So policing institutions are a very important element of large scale cooperation, because in hunter gatherer societies, there is no police you can call because you don't need police you can call, you can resolve your differences individually. But as societies grow larger, you need some institutions to come and settle disputes. And you have to trust these institutions.

Raymond (24:47):

So you're saying then that, thousands of years ago, big gods helped humans cooperate. Now you have secular institutions. And the commonality between both is that both keep people honest and truthful because there's an element of surveillance and accountability built in?

Ara Norenzayan (25:02):

Yeah. So I think that the secular societies are surprisingly similar, more similar than you think, to the religious societies that they succeeded. Instead of watchful tithes, you have watchful institutions, norms that encourage cooperation as long as you are part of the in group, part of the community. So they're not that different, even though often people think of them as the opposite or clashing, but at they are largely serving the same functions.

Raymond (25:30):

Hmm. Well, I have to ask. If you were to compare secular societies with perhaps more religious ones that believed in big gods, what's more effective in making people cooperate? Big gods or secular institutions?

Ara Norenzayan (25:42):

Well, if your definition is something like corruption or a rule of law, then clearly secular societies are doing better now. Not all secular societies have strong rule of law, but many do. So as societies give up on religion, they do so partly because they are developing alternatives to religion. And in modern world, that seems to actually work pretty well.

Raymond (26:07):

It makes me wonder, I mean, is more and more places around the world strengthen their secular institutions and establish the rule of law? Do you think it's inevitable that someday we won't need big gods or religion

Ara Norenzayan (26:21):

Possibly. I mean, it depends. If you look at Scandinavia, that's the best case scenario, where you see very strong institutions, rule of law, cooperative societies, very high trust levels and quite a decline of religion. Japan might be an example like that. The question, the big question that I don't have the answer to is, is the world moving in that direction, inevitably, or is this a temporary blip in historical changes?

Ara Norenzayan (26:51):

There are other things to consider. For example, as society secularize, fertility rates decline quite massively. So even though secularization is happening in the world, at the same time these secularized societies are, if anything, shrinking because of declining fertility rates, whereas societies that are not secularizing, they're maintaining their religious levels, they are actually expanding because of high fertility rates.

Ara Norenzayan (27:16):

So that will factor in into these kinds of calculations about the future of religion. Because one very powerful way that religion is transmitted is from parents to children.

Anne Strainchamps (27:29):

That's Ara Norenzayan. He's a psychology professor at the university of British Columbia. Raymond [Tangaka 00:27:35] talked with him about his book, Big Gods. And now an experiment, maybe for you and your kids.

Jeff Schloss (27:44):

If you put a snake and a rat in a box and you ask the children who's in the box, the rat and the snake? You've told them beforehand, they're both hungry. The box shakes. And now you ask the children who's in the box and they'll say, well, just a snake. Where's the rat? Well, the snake ate the rat. Is the rat hungry? Yes. So they have this sense of aspects of life or personhood that endure host body.

Anne Strainchamps (28:27):

From snakes and rats to the resurrection, how humans become believers up next. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Religion says God created humans, science says humans created God. It's kind of a cosmic chicken and egg question. And it seems like the answer has to be one or the other, or does it?

Anne Strainchamps (28:56):

Jeff Schloss is an evolutionary biologist. He's also Christian. And as a scientist, Jeff's interested in the question of whether the human capacity for religious belief is a product of nature, inborn, or nurture, learned. He thinks it's probably some of each, for example, he told Steve Paulson that we all seem to arrive in this world with something called a hypersensitive agency detection device, Or ADD

Jeff Schloss (29:25):

This looks like it emerges very early on. Now, even infants make the distinction between animate and inanimate objects. And it makes sense. We got to avoid predators and snakes. And some people argue that, well, it's better to jump out of the way of a snake that isn't there than to fail to jump out of the way of a snake who is there.

Jeff Schloss (29:45):

So our agency detection devices are tuned to be a little hypersensitive. And so we may end up seeing agents that aren't there, maybe even spirits and ancestors and in gods. But that's just a byproduct. Actually that there are spirits or gods isn't adaptive. The adaptive thing is jumping out of the way of snakes that aren't there. And there are others who say, no, we have an innate disposition to believe in these beings. And it is adaptive.

Steve Paulson (30:15):

Okay. So we've been trying to come up with these evolutionary explanations for why people might be really religious, what about transcendence? What about the experience that some people report of revelation or of the experience of the numinous? Does that figure into any of this?

Jeff Schloss (30:34):

There's a gripping power of religious experience that involves the numinous, where you just have an experience of reverential awe. I did my field work at the University of Michigan biological station up in Northern Michigan. We often see northern lights, but one night, it was one of the most traumatic manifestations of aurora borealis that any of us had ever seen. Giant tongues of multicolored flame were leaping up from the horizon to the middle of the sky. And there's a group of us out on the lake watching it.

Jeff Schloss (31:26):

One of my colleagues, well known for his atheism, after one particularly spectacular flame, he said, "Whoa, I'm going to church tomorrow." And the whole group burst into laughter. We knew what he meant. We were all experiencing this numinousity. And there was this disposition to think that there was something more.

Jeff Schloss (31:54):

So where does it come from? Well, my colleague would say, well, it comes from the radiation display in the sky. But what do you say if people have those experiences apart from aurora borealis? If they're sitting in their room and they are overcome by an awareness of a numinous presence? I don't think it's a question that science can answer of whether there's a downstream presence really there.

Steve Paulson (32:26):

Whether God is there?

Jeff Schloss (32:27):

Yeah. And if there were a God there, we'd still have the question, is God somehow causally generating that experience or is he always there and something within our internal physiology in some people generate moments of awareness of his presence. And if it's the latter case, you don't invoke God as part of the proximal explanation. It's just not a delusion. It's a revelation.

Steve Paulson (32:57):

Is this a science question? I mean, can science come to any answer of that dilemma that you pose? I mean, essentially, is God there or not?

Jeff Schloss (33:07):

Well, I think science could answer the question, can we come up with a causally, adequate explanation of where the experience comes from? So let's forget the aurora borealis. Somebody's in their room, I'm talking about me, actually.

Steve Paulson (33:23):

Tell me about you. I'm guessing there's something from your personal experience.

Jeff Schloss (33:30):

Okay. Yeah. I was not raised in any particular religious tradition, not even maybe, somewhat anti-religious in a family of German-Jewish Holocaust refugees who believed that religion was the source of human ills. Didn't settle the question for me of whether there was a God. I was reading C.S. Lewis. And frankly, I found him unpersuasive and a little irritating that he would think his arguments were adequate. And I read why I'm not a Christian unpersuaded. And I actually despaired a reason being able to solve these questions.

Jeff Schloss (34:18):

I was laying in my bed one night and decided to pray to a God who I wasn't sure was there. I give up reasons never going to solve it. And in that moment, the most glorious, numinous, loving, overwhelming, personal presence that I had ever experienced or even ever imagined flooded my heart and filled the room.

Steve Paulson (34:56):

Sounds like it changed your life.

Jeff Schloss (34:57):

It did. Profoundly. It changed my life. And I found a narrative to help make sense of that experience, which for me was the Christian faith.

Steve Paulson (35:08):

But you actually are from a Jewish background, the sort of a more or less atheist Jewish background.

Jeff Schloss (35:13):

My immediate family, atheist, larger family was practicing and we were sitting around Passover at my uncle's house. My uncle loved me dearly. And he says, aren't you betraying your tradition by this move and what do you need this Jesus person for? And I'll tell you, I had been living a pretty, well, life on the edge would be an understatement. My dad jumps in and he says, "Gary, that's enough. I don't know who this Jesus is, but all I can say the changes he's made in my son's life, God bless him."

Jeff Schloss (35:53):

In any case this is a little of a diversion, but to question, could science explain that experience? And if it did, would it remove the warrant for believing that the experience was, in any way, truth tracking or revealed anything about the truth of things. And I think, I really believe that science could come up with a proximal and explanation of what my brain was doing.

Steve Paulson (36:22):

So science could maybe figure out what triggered this in... Obviously something happened in your brain to be able to have this experience, but not necessarily the ultimate cause of the trigger?

Jeff Schloss (36:34):

Yeah. Science could certainly explain well was happening in my brain during the experience. What part of the brain is it that actually perceives, not just agency, but experiences personhood. What caused these events in the brain? Maybe it was something I ate or some developmental cascade that culminated in that moment. I'm open to the possibility that maybe the trigger wasn't natural, maybe there is a divine decision I'm going to give this experience to Jeff. If that's the case, I don't think science could explain it.

Jeff Schloss (37:19):

And then the last question is, okay, so let's say we do come up with an explanation. It was a drug that Jeff took. Well, we still have... Could science say anything about the ultimate cause about whether or not there was in fact an intelligent, loving being who so constructed, well, no, science can say anything about that one way or another. Science can come up with discoveries and descriptions of the world that seem to comport or not comport with the idea of a loving, moral, intelligent creator, but science can't adjudicate whether it's such a creator actually exists.

Anne Strainchamps (38:05):

That's Jeff Schloss, he's a professor of biology at Westmont College in California. And he and Steve talked more about evolution and religious belief in this week's podcast extra. Also, if you'd like to read essays about evolution and morality by Jeff Schloss and some others, you'll find them on the website of humans and nature.org, they were our partners for this episode. So you wouldn't think you could find that many scientists whose careers were inspired by mystical experiences, but you know what? Here's another. Meet Andrew Newberg,

Andrew Newberg (38:43):

My own story with regard to just thinking about the universe started out as a kid. And I just always asked a lot of questions.

Anne Strainchamps (38:50):

He's a neuroscientist.

Andrew Newberg (38:51):

I wanted to understand why people have different political perspectives, different religious perspectives. To me, I felt like, well, if we're all looking at the same world, shouldn't we all come to the same conclusion? Ultimately, I came up with this idea that, well, if I was really going to figure out what was real and what we could know that anything that I wasn't really sure of, I would put into what I would refer to as a kind of realm of doubt. It didn't mean that it was wrong. It didn't mean that it was right. It just meant that I wasn't sure at that moment.

Andrew Newberg (39:18):

And so more and more, everything started to go into this realm of doubt. When I got between college and medical school, I had kind of a summer off there. And I spent a lot of that summer in fairly deep contemplation, philosophical meditations, if you will, trying to solve this issue, how could I get beyond all of these questions?

Anne Strainchamps (39:38):

And then one day something happened.

Andrew Newberg (39:42):

It was a nice summer day. I had spent some time walking outside and just sort of thinking about things. As I kept striving for this, I was just getting more and more anxious. It was very upsetting to me that I couldn't get to an answer. And then finally, I had this experience where I came to this realization that, ultimately, there was nothing I could know, everything was doubted and there was no way that anything had any kind of solid foundation. Everything just blended into this one kind of a deep emptiness, but there was this incredible feeling of calm, I guess maybe a blissfulness may be the best way to describe it. Ultimately, I know no other way of describing it other than to call it infinite doubt

Anne Strainchamps (40:31):

And with a little meditation or focus, he can still summon up that feeling. So what started and as Andrew Newberg's personal experience of spiritual bliss, or enlightenment, or infinite doubt, whatever you want to call it, led to his scientific practice. Andrew is one of the founders of neurotheology, the study of the human brain on enlightenment. He's done hundreds of brain scan studies, of meditating monks, and praying nuns, psychic mediums, Pentecostal, Sufi mystics. And he says they all have something in common.

Andrew Newberg (41:05):

Well, I think that there is certainly a neuroscientific signature of these experiences. One of the other fortunate things that I had the opportunity to do was actually to scan my own brain. And I was in an MRI scanner. We were doing some 10 testing with it. And I said, well, listen, why don't you just do a scan? I'm just going to sit here and be quiet and let's see what happens.

Andrew Newberg (41:26):

So I didn't tell them that I was going to kind of get back into that meditative state and just kind of rest within this infinite doubt. But I was able to, to do that at least for a short period of time, even while I was in the scanner. And what was fascinating was that when I looked at the scan, one of the areas of my brain, the parietal lobe, which was located in the back of my brain, in all of our brains, that was an area that actually started to shut down.

Andrew Newberg (41:53):

And for a long time, we've ha been hypothesizing that this is an area that normally helps us to create our sense of self. And that during that kind of an experience, as we lose that sense of self, as the boundaries between ourselves and the world begin to blur, as the boundaries between other objects, everything in the world just kind of becomes a oneness, that there would be a shutting down, a decrease of activity in this area. And that's exactly what I actually saw in my own brain.

Anne Strainchamps (42:19):

So do you think that it's only some lucky or spiritually gifted people who can do this, or are all human brains kind of essentially hardwired, preset for of this experience?

Andrew Newberg (42:34):

Well, I think it's the latter. I think the evidence suggests that pretty much anyone can have these experiences. That doesn't mean everyone will, but if we look at the data that we've collected over the last 20 years, which includes several hundred people getting their brain scans, and more recently an online survey, and we have about 2000 people who provided us information about who they are, their religious and spiritual background, their medical background, and the narratives about the experiences themselves, to me, the real take-home message is that everyone can have these experiences. And people sometimes think, oh that's only for the Mother Theresas of the world or the Buddhas of the world. And the evidence suggests just the opposite. And then what I hope that we can do is use that information in a way that can help more effectively guide people down their own paths towards enlightenment.

Anne Strainchamps (43:27):

I just want to point out the kind of remarkable thing you're talking about, which is using science to improve people's spiritual lives.

Andrew Newberg (43:35):


Anne Strainchamps (43:35):

So this all kind of this all kind of begs a question, we're talking about spiritual religious experience using the language of science, isn't there something essentially reductionist about that? I mean, let's say I have an experience of a transcendent reality, call it God, or the divine or something. I experience as a living reality outside the bounds of the merely human. I'm not sure I really want you to tell me that that's the result of electrochemical surges in my brain.

Andrew Newberg (44:07):

Well, it's a very important question. And I think part of the way to understand this has to do with the causal related relationships. The analogy I sometimes think about is there's a boat on the ocean. When we do a brain scan, are we looking at the boat or are we looking at the wake of the boat? Either way, it still tells us something interesting, it still tells us something about the boat, but the question is how much can we actually know?

Andrew Newberg (44:30):

And so I think we always have to be very careful in this field of neurotheology about what kinds of conclusions that we draw. And I think, ultimately, it's probably a little bit of both. I mean, it's probably a little bit of our biology creating the experience and a little bit of the experience creating the biology.

Anne Strainchamps (44:46):

Biology is the symptom, not the cause.

Andrew Newberg (44:48):

Exactly. There are many shamanic cultures throughout the world where they take a mushroom or something. And for them, the spiritual experience that ensues is not artificial. The mushroom was just a way of getting the person into the spiritual realm, which is a real thing. And the analogy that I always use is that I have very bad vision. So when I wake up in the morning and it's a very blurry world and I put on my glasses and suddenly it's clear, what if taking a drug or doing one of these practices is a way of just making the world clear for the brain. And maybe by clear, we're seeing the world in some kind of new consciousness level, a spiritual level, maybe even a supernatural level. These are the big questions. And again, it gets back to the infinite doubt too, that look, I don't know. That's why I keep looking and we keep exploring.

Anne Strainchamps (45:37):

Well, you've been studying this kind of stuff for quite a long time, but the thing that you've been working on recently is seeing if you can take all of this scientific information that you've accumulated and use it to help people have these experiences. So what have you figured out?

Andrew Newberg (45:55):

Sure. Well, I think that the... Again, we look at all of these experiences that people have. We look at the biology of how we understand what's going on in these experiences. Some people, enlightenment just hits no matter what they're doing. So those are the fortunate few. We have some wonderful examples of people basically just driving their car are down the street and suddenly an experience happens to them. But for most people, it is a bit of a process.

Andrew Newberg (46:19):

And I think that there are a couple of steps that we've outlined. So one of the early steps which anyone can do is to think about what enlightenment means to them, what are they looking for? For me, it was sort of a striving for knowledge understanding. And for other people, it might be something different.

Andrew Newberg (46:36):

And then the second part is preparing yourself for that journey and for that process. If you go hiking in the woods, you just don't walk out the door and hope for the best. I mean, you go and you take your backpack and you bring water and some food. So, part of it is to be prepared for the experience. And sometimes these experiences, they can be both wonderful and scary at the same time, they can transform your life.

Andrew Newberg (47:00):

And so to some degree, you have to say to yourself, I'm all right with the fact that my life may change going forward. I think, perhaps, the most individualized aspect of all of this is finding the ritual, finding the individual path that works best for you. If you're a Catholic, it might be doing the rosary, or some particular prayer, or going to church. If you're a Buddhist, it might be doing some type of specific meditative practice.

Andrew Newberg (47:24):

Each person has to kind of find those different processes and those different rituals that work best for them. And as you do this on some type of fairly regular repetitive basis, you ultimately allow yourself to let go the idea of saying, okay, this now, I'm just going to open myself up to whatever happens and whatever that experience is, and just let it come to me. That's when you have these very dramatic changes in the brain that seem to be associated with those kinds of experiences.

Anne Strainchamps (47:54):

So here's what seems to me one of the really big questions. If we are all walking around with these brains that have evolved to have this amazing capability, why? Why do you think our brains evolved to have the capacity for spiritual experience?

Andrew Newberg (48:13):

Well, that is a very interesting question. And there are a couple of different ways of going about thinking about that. Some people feel like this is something that they referred to as an epiphenomenon that our brains developed so that we could try to interact with the world. And as we thought about things and solve problems and connected with others socially, that this is something that kind of grew out of that process.

Andrew Newberg (48:36):

And I think that, to some degree, that that's part of what probably did happen. But part of it is, is that our brain is capable of transcending itself, of changing from one moment of life to the next. It's part of what evolution is, which is to go beyond where you are now. And I think that these experiences are a kind of ultimate expression of that.

Anne Strainchamps (48:59):

Do you feel, at a gut level, that we are evolving on a spiritual path?

Andrew Newberg (49:07):

It seems like we are. This is where... It's always hard when you're kind of in the middle of it to know exactly where you're headed. We do keep evolving. And whether we are ultimately evolving to something which is a greater sense of being connected to the universe in some way, a greater sense of connecting to some sort of universal consciousness or universal reality, to what extent it is a truly spiritual evolution, or it's a more biological one, or some combination of the two, which to me seems perhaps the most likely. We'll have to see.

Andrew Newberg (49:44):

But yeah, I think that because these experiences are so powerful for people, I think we'll ultimately get them to that kind of an enlightened perspective, an enlightened plane of looking at the world and truly understanding it in a way that we never have before.

Anne Strainchamps (49:59):

Thank you. That is just great. Thank you so much.

Andrew Newberg (50:02):

Thank you.

Anne Strainchamps (50:05):

Andrew Newberg is director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia. And he's the author with Mark Waldman of How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain. Today's show is produced in partnership with the Center for Humans and Nature. And if you're still curious, you'll find essays on evolution and morality by Jeff Schloss, Ara Norenzayan, and other scholars on their website, humansandnature.org.

Anne Strainchamps (50:34):

To The Best Of Our Knowledge comes to you from Madison, Wisconsin, and the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio. Steve Paulson produced this episode. He had helped from Charles Monroe-Kane, Raymond Tangaka, Doug Gordon, and Mark Riechers. Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Hardtke. I'm man string champs. Thanks for listening,

Last modified: 
February 16, 2022