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Argument from authority and truth by revelation are anathema to scientists, who seek truth through reasoned arguments based on empirical evidence from nature. Not surprisingly, most scientists are repulsed by religion, especially the dogmatic and authoritarian aspects of its social dimension. The skepticism is greatest among elite scientists, like members of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States or Fellows of the Royal Society in the United Kingdom, of whom only 7 percent and 5 percent, respectively, believe in a personal God who answers prayer. As Neil deGrasse Tyson has pointed out, however, the important point here is not that these percentages are so low. The astonishing thing is that they are not zero. Why do roughly 6 percent of the most accomplished scientists in the world believe in a personal God who answers prayer? As Neil put it, “There’s something else going on that nobody seems to be talking about,” something mysterious and alluring about religion that can seduce even the most brilliant of scientific minds. He went on to argue that, if we really want to understand religion, these are the people we should be studying. Whatever it is that can make believers out of them must be the most concentrated essence of the thing we are trying to understand.

Luckily a few of these elite religious scientists have written about their beliefs, one of the most prolific being Alister Hardy, a marine biologist and Fellow of the Royal Society who died in 1985. Hardy did not accept the dogma of any formal religion, but instead believed in a benevolent God whose presence he had personally experienced. These mystical encounters began during his childhood, especially when he was exploring nature:

From very early days I was a keen naturalist, and, when out on country walks by myself looking for beetles and butterflies, I would sometimes feel a presence which seemed partly outside myself and, curiously, partly within myself. My God was never “an old gentleman” out there, but nevertheless was like a person I could talk to and, in a loving prayer, could thank him for the glories of nature that he let me experience.

Hardy was so moved by these experiences that he undertook a scientific study of them late in his career. Like any good naturalist exploring new territory, he began by collecting and categorizing specimens: accounts of mystical experiences he and his colleagues solicited from the general public through requests in the popular press. As of 1979 he and his collaborators had identified ninety-two distinct characteristics for classifying the reports. For the first three thousand reports collected, the seven most common characteristics were:

  1. Initiative from within self, response from beyond; prayers answered
  2. Sense of security
  3. Sense of joy
  4. Sense of presence
  5. Sense of certainty
  6. Sense of purpose or new meaning to life as consequence of experience
  7. Experience triggered by despair

I find this list revealing and important, but a feature of much lower resolution is also worth noting. The experiences seem to fall into two broad categories, one of which comes on gradually and persists, possibly for a lifetime. This may be an ongoing feeling of God’s love and presence or just a vague sense that the universe is somehow mindful and benevolent. Hardy’s personal account is one of these. The other broad category involves a sudden, dramatic, and transient experience of God’s presence. Often these come in moments of personal crisis, despair, or helplessness. Item seven from Hardy’s list captures this aspect, as does this anonymous report from his collection:

Then, just as I was exhausted and despairing—I had the most wonderful sense of the presence of God. He was in a particular place in the room about five feet from me—I didn’t look up, but kept my head in my hands and my eyes shut. It was a feeling of an all-embracing love which called forth every ounce of love I had in me. It was the tenderest love I have ever encountered and my sins were blotted out completely.

Note the powerful emotions and the spatial specificity of the description: in a particular place, at a specific distance. This is the kind of mystical experience that may save a hopeless addict, comfort the bereaved, assuage crushing guilt, or repair what is sometimes called “spiritual brokenness.” Many people claim to have felt the presence of a loving God in this way, and an innate longing for and receptivity to God is sometimes described as a “God-shaped vacuum” in the human heart.

I do not question the reality of these feelings; I’ve had them myself. Unlike Hardy, however, I just see them as a fascinating puzzle of human nature that cries out for a scientific explanation, not evidence of anything divine. I think the feeling of God’s presence is an illusion that has a completely natural explanation, one that has to do with the peculiar constraints of human infancy, and I have formalized this idea as a hypothesis that draws heavily on my background in ethology. It not only accounts for six of the top seven items in Hardy’s list, but it also identifies the selective pressure behind the unconditionally loving side of the two-faced God.

Excerpted from The Phantom God: What Neuroscience Reveals about the Compulsion to Believe by John C. Wathey. Copyright © 2022 by John C. Wathey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher, Prometheus Books.