Episode 104: Religious Experience (with guest Tanya Luhrmann)

For many religious believers the most compelling evidence for theism is their own personal experience of God’s presence. Christians in the rapidly growing charismatic “renewalist” movement do not just talk to God, they claim to actually hear God talking back. Are these powerful religious experiences evidence that God really exists or are they the result of mental illness?  Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back, offers another explanation: such experiences arise naturally when spiritual communities learn to train and enhance their natural capacity for imagination.  She joins us on the show to talk about what she observed while studying members of the renewalist Vineyard Church. Also in this episode: just how much government revenue is lost due to religious tax exemptions and direct subsides to churches? The answer will shock you.  Plus, a counter-apologetics on Richard Swinburne’s argument from religious experience and a new pollyatheism.

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Episode 104 Links:

Council For Secular Humanism Report on Religious Tax exemption

Churches challenge IRS/IRS does nothing


  1. One Thousand Needles says

    I’ve got a few acquaintances that are Vineyard-brand Christians, and I found your and Tanya’s descriptions of them to be spot on. They really do convince themselves that spontaneous thoughts and intuitions are the voice of God. They’ve disclosed to me that this has lead to some infighting and doctrinal disputes, as my local Vineyard is much more liberal than the organization as a whole.

    From what I’ve witnessed, a part of their group prayers is basically a cold reading act. Mid-prayer, somebody might say, “I’m getting the feeling that someone in this room is struggling in their marriage.” If anyone in the group confirms this, they consider the intuition to be divinely inspired. Statements are usually vague and misses are rationalized away.

    Anyway, thanks for another great episode!

  2. nate says

    There is a really important anecdote pertaining to the tax exempt status of the LD$ church that I was sad to see you guys didn’t mention. It is completely absurd that they would boast about spending a billion dollars over the span of many years on charity when just last year they spent 3 BILLION dollars on a high end MALL in downtown Salt Lake City. The church owns the mall and because of that they don’t pay federal taxes. ON A MALL!!! (Which was not only unethical, but completely unnecessary, as we already had 2 good shopping malls within walking distance of the central downtown area. In fact, there are even some duplicate stores in the new mall that the old mall 3 blocks away already has.) I, along with many other skeptics in Utah have boycotted the mall but being a poor student in a state where something like 90% of the residents are Mormon it really doesn’t do a lot of good.

    I keep hearing about how it is the “Mormon Moment” in America, mostly because of Mitt Romney, so I don’t see why secular groups haven’t made a bigger deal about this mall thing. Is this kind of thing just business as usual for churches? Do churches open for profit, non charitable businesses all the time, and I’m just too young and naive to think something is wrong here? Because opening a mall in the name of an organization claiming to be doing Jesus’s work seems extremely hypocritical and the church should feel embarrassed about it. I know I’ve heard of a couple people who are losing/having shaken their faith because of the hypocrisy, and if I hadn’t lost my faith along time ago I feel like this would have done it. Especially when the church preaches so much about not being attached to worldly things, while some of the stores in the new mall are very high end. (Porshe, Tumi, Nordstrom etc…)

    Ok.. /rant>

    TL;DR The LD$ Church spent 3 times the amount they spent on charity on a high end, for-profit, partially tax-exempt MALL.

  3. conway says

    Many years ago, I dropped acid for a Halloween party. (Great party with lots of theater folk, so the costumes were awesome. I was dressed as a swashbuckler.) I was having fun when out of nowhere, Errol Flynn began to speak to me. I heard his voice in my head. We carried on a conversation for quite a while. Then he told me he wanted to enjoy the party, so I let him take over. I was a passenger in my own body, watching Flynn chat up the ladies and smoothly working the crowd. After about an hour, he thanked me and left. The experience felt as real as the earth beneath my feet. To this day, I truly feel like I met Errol Flynn.

    But drugs are bad, m’kay?

  4. Midnight Rambler says

    nate: Since it’s involving state taxes it may be harder to get a judgement in Utah, but a similar case involving the Mormon church came down against them in Hawaii. And that was somewhat less blatant, since they claimed that the Polynesian Cultural Center was a nonprofit place that both educated tourists and provided income to students at BYU-Hawaii (though a loophole where it’s legally operated by the university, and foreign students without work permits are allowed to work “on campus”).

  5. says

    Thanks for the comments on churches’ nonprofit status. I’ve only recently realized myself that the argument that churches do much good in society and therefore deserve 501(c)3 status is bogus.

    The surprising fact is that we have a very friendly argument for Christians when we ask them to open their financial books. We can say: (1) The status quo makes you look bad. Having your books hidden from scrutiny (by not filling out the IRS form 990 that every other nonprofit fills out) makes you look bad. It makes you look like you’ve got something to hide.

    And (2) you don’t like nutty “religions” like Scientology able to hide their books, do you? If you’re embarrassed by filthy-rich televangelists, wouldn’t you like to see their books made public?


  6. Brad says

    I appreciate you taking the time to address the “argument for religious experience”. You are correct that this doesn’t get much time in your typical “does God exist” debate, but I find that it is by a wide margin the primary reason that people use as confirmation of their beliefs and why they can’t/won’t consider any arguments about their faith.

  7. smrnda says

    I’ve run into quite a few Christians who are part of the charismatic/pentecostal movement. It seems like a movement based mostly on magic thinking and irrationality. I haven’t read her books but her conclusions seem spot on – get a bunch of people in a big building who all believe that God communicates to them and they’ll start to take whatever pops into their heads as divine prophecy. You get the same thing when a bunch of people who think a building is haunted see ghosts or people who are sure they saw signs of Bigfoot. A huge predisposition to believe makes even the shoddiest evidence seem compelling.

    Do people at Vineyard do the ‘speaking in tongues?’ I can’t imagine anyone gullible enough to take people uttering a few phonemes over and over repetitively as some sign of divine intervention, and I’m not sure how much that is shared delusion or just everybody faking and nobody being willing to admit it, or else maybe unable to even see the self-deception going on.

  8. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @smrnda #8:

    A huge predisposition to believe makes even the shoddiest evidence seem compelling.

    The idea is to lower the bar for evidence until your theology has evidence. They just overlook the fact they’ve lowered the bar below the threshold for ‘wrong’. In one of her lectures, Luhrmann said this is ironically part of a trend toward skepticism (as opposed to traditional gullibility faith based on hearsay).

    I can’t imagine anyone gullible enough to take people uttering a few phonemes over and over repetitively as some sign of divine intervention

    Not the phonemes, the strangeness. Surely all these normal people can’t be silly enough to babble incoherently, so something’s making them, therefore goddidit. An out of the ordinary event or feeling in a church context gets attributed to the supernatural.
    Some of the crowd are faking to fit in (or hoping to feel something next time). Some are caught up in the role, unselfconsciously going along with the crowd, and getting a group participation high. Some have practiced long enough that tonguespeaking is effortless, so it’s easier to convince themselves they’re not the ones responsible for it.

  9. Hypatia's Daughter says

    This will be a bit long as I will try to explain about NP’s (non-profits) and why churches are playing the IRS and their fellow citizens. I am a volunteer Treasurer for a 501(c)(3)NP that is not a charity and do the taxes, so I will talk about them.
    First, not all NP’s are charities. An educational institution, a hobby club, a homeowners assoc., even a business, can be a non-profit. (My husband works for a non-profit business that formed out of a co-operative created to provide computer services to its members.)
    The IRS has different classifications, designated as 501(c)(3), 501(c)(?), 4947(a)(1) or 527, depending on what they do. (Get the 990EZ form online to read the details.)
    NP tax filings are public records that anyone can legally access.
    My NP had to apply to the IRS for NP status, and must file if our gross annual income from all sources is over $25,000. If it is under, we must file a form annually to confirm our mailing information. If we get money to pay for a magazine subscription for a member that comes in and goes out the same month, I must declare it as part of the gross income.
    Membership fees/dues are tax exempt for my NP, but not tax exempt for the member. A donation to us that does not offer them a personal benefit can be used as a deduction on their taxes.
    Income and expense streams must be separated as to source, because if our income stream is too high (generally 33%) from a non-exempt source, such as renting a facility we own or interest,it may be taxable.
    How churches play the system:
    They don’t have to file. So there is no oversight as to where the money comes from and who it goes to; no oversight that the money is actually being used for what they received their IRS status for. I’ll bet that a lot of these smaller churches that open up in old strip malls, etc haven’t even bothered to request an IRS tax exempt status.
    #1) All churches should be required to file and it should be a public record, available to anyone.

    Membership dues to other NP’s aren’t tax exempt for the payee. (I believe Church tithing is 100% deductible to the giver.)
    #2)Church members should only get a deduction on the portion of their tithes that are actual donations, not the “dues” portion that maintains the church organization.

    Many of these non-denom mega-churches are the personal ‘business” of the founding pastor. The church owns his house, his cars, his jets and pays his expenses. It keeps his income low and he avoids all the personal taxes that the rest of us must pay.
    #3) Apply the same restrictions on tax free company perks to pastors that other businesses have to follow.

    Churches run coffee shops, daycare centers, bookstores, put on rock concerts, etc, that are exempt from regular business taxes and regulations. This is totally unfair to competing community businesses, may be dangerous (i.e. day care law exemptions); and it is income not derived from their main purpose (which is to support the religious beliefs of their members).
    #4)Tax income streams not related to the church organization as normal business income.

  10. says

    On the whole bit about imagination, visualization and such, there’s something that I’m not sure people are generally aware of:
    Your brain, by and large, can’t tell the difference between reality and imagination.

    It’s entirely possible, actually easy, to imagine something so vividly that you’ll get a spontaneous emotional and physical response. The most obvious way to illustrate it is to have a guy imagine a naked woman.

    This is such a common thing that I don’t think people realize that this goes much further than that. The whole bit about a “date” with god was just textbook:
    Imagine a person. Start acting as if the person is real. Reinforce it daily in as many ways as possible (like the asking about which shirt to wear).
    After a while, your brain will treat this imaginary person as a real person. You will start to get spontaneous thoughts about what this person might say or do. This is not restricted to gods. You can do this with anything.

  11. Tom McCann says


    How come you got to mix with a charismatic film star and all I got were giant spiders? I’m obviously hanging out with the wrong phyla.

  12. bachalon says

    LykeX is on track there, one question I’m fond of asking Christians is “Does your religion have a reliable way of distinguishing what you ‘feel’ about god from what may merely be your imagination?”

    Scary stuff.

  13. says

    TL;DR The LD$ Church spent 3 times the amount they spent on charity on a high end, for-profit, partially tax-exempt MALL.

    You should put that at the top of your posting.

    Scandalous, BTW! !*$&$&!* religion is such a scam!

  14. Critusodem says

    Inviting Tanya to talk about her work on the subset of the “religious experience,” dealing with the American Evangelical relationship with their god concept is greatly appreciated.

    Credit to Tanya for contributing to what I think is rather important work, which is the mapping out areas we do not have ready access and by an amicable source.

    I currently only base the following on what she provided in the interview, having yet to read the book to be clear.

    The American Evangelical methodology comes off as very underwhelming and is limiting as their religion as a whole.
    I do find value in learning the specifics that Tanya painstakingly extracted from their variety of religious experience and lack of.

    So, what confused me in the show is that it did not seem anyone held the view or considered the argument from religious experience in the least.
    Furthermore, we now can use the argument from religious experience against nearly all relevant god belief positions.

    That is what I would like to verify, as I could be mistaken as to the views of our lovely hosts.

    What are y’alls position on the argument from religious experience and application value in debate?

    I did not want to blather on without having a more solid understanding of what others think and what have you.

    Oh yes, here is a book that I tend to recommend for a few topics. The book deals with one of the more significant botanical brews that we have ever discovered:
    The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience by Benny Shanon

    That book is enough to draw out how the god concept is a construct from our brain and primed for becoming a delusion.

    Note: The use of the word god is a part of our problem when dealing with believers. What is referred to “god,” is just a concept of course and what that concept derives from has no such label attached. We need to break it down and correctly identify with the appropriate term, taking the power we give to words away from such potent topics such as the whole god thing.

  15. says

    So, what confused me in the show is that it did not seem anyone held the view or considered the argument from religious experience in the least.
    Furthermore, we now can use the argument from religious experience against nearly all relevant god belief positions.

    I’m not sure I’m understanding you correctly, so let me just ask: do you mean using religious experiences as an offensive argument against the existence of god?
    Something along the lines of: Everybody has these experiences, no matter what they believe. That shows that god concepts have nothing to do with a specific faith, but is a result of some basic human psychology.

    Is that what you’re referring to or is there something else?


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