When I was about twelve or thirteen—and there is no way I can relate this without sounding like the kid from The Sixth Sense—I started seeing dead people.
Well, I presumed they were dead. They were usually a bit fuzzy around the edges, and didn’t have much respect for the laws of physics. I would only see them for a short period after waking up at night, they’d just be wandering around the room and not really interacting with anyone. Sometimes I would, also, find myself totally paralysed during this experience. I didn’t tell anyone. Being a child psychic is unlikely to be much approved of, and I would likely be laughed at or sent to a psychiatrist—and you know how that would have turned out. But the apparently irrefutable evidence that I could see people who should not have been there caused a serious dent in the stern disbelief in which I had been brought up: I was seeing ghosts.
Then, aged seventeen, I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that, amongst other things, causes hypnagogic hallucination and sleep paralysis—the continuation of the dream state and the associated auto-paralysis outside of sleep. Suddenly, all my silly ideas about being psychic or the existance of ghosts seemed really rather well explained by this simple, but unfortunate, orexin-shaped hole in my brain. I returned, almost gratefully, to rationalism and scepticism.
These hallucinations continue—I will not take any medication for narcolepsy, because to me the side-effects are worse than the condition—and, at the point of hallucination, I still cannot help but believe them, even though my rational mind knows I am hallucinating. I’ve never taken any hallucinogenic drugs (not least because my own experience with hallucination is such that I see absolutely no attraction in doing so), but I presume the experience is much the same. The hallucinations normally, though not exclusively, conform to what I consider plausible—indeed they are often nowadays extremely specific to my circumstances, and I have learnt to simply not rely on anything I experience in the first few minutes after waking up as actually having happened.
We largely operate, even when we may intellectually know differently, under what philosophers call “naive realism”: the presumption that our percepts directly manifest the external world; yet it does not take much to show that this is not the case. Dreams and hallucinations of any type show that external input is not necessary for the construction of percepts, and furthermore, at least some strands of cognitive research suggest that your cognitive categories are used in the actual construction of these percepts (and not simply in the post-perceptual processing), and anyone who has experienced (as I also do, presumably unconnected to the narcolepsy) phantom phone vibration can probably sympathise with this.
The point of this ramble is to explain why, despite insisting on my right to mock the institutes and dogmas of religion as freely as I choose, I rarely mock individual believers, and especially avoid mocking religious experience. The casting of religious experience—whether an inchoate sensation of the sublime or the specifics of hearing the voice of God—as necessarily indicative of madness is a lazy and inaccurate trope of intolerant atheism and, quite apart from the unpleasant judgmentalism it carries concerning mental illness, is simply not the case. We all construct our percepts, partly from input, but also using our existing cognitive apparatus. To someone brought up in a religious tradition, or simply one where supernatural phenomena are plausible, their cognitive apparatus—incorrectly, but not culpably—includes such categories as “real,” and I see no reason to declare lunacy or idiocy in them. I will tell them they are wrong—tediously often—but I do not doubt the validity of their experience, or their honesty in relating it.
My own brush with hallucination has, in the end, confirmed and reinforced my atheism: but it has also convinced me that hallucination, in the sense of perceiving things that are not physically present, is far from a remote condition deriving from egregiously failing brain function. I strongly suspect that we all hallucinate reasonably frequently; but those hallucinations are also frequently reasonable, and so go largely unnoticed. To someone who, however credulously, considers hearing the voice of God to be a perfectly normal occurrence, there is no reason why they should not do so, any more than I should feel my phone vibrating in my pocket when it is on the table in front of me.
They are wrong, of course, but not in my view risibly so. If you assert that God is somehow three things and one thing, if you assert that He is all-loving but prepared to condemn a majority of His creation to eternal torture, or if you assert that He is His own son I will freely mock you for the ludicrousness of your propositions; but if you hear His voice, that’s actually OK by me. Unless it tells you to kill people, of course. That’s when you probably should seek some help.
Update: Minutes after finishing this I checked my WordPress reader and, by a coincidence that threatens to undermine all of the above, one of my favourite blogs has today posted on exactly this topic. Perhaps I am psychic, after all.