Mentalizing and Religion

A response to “Autism, Religion, and Imagination with Ingela Visuri”

by Hans van Egyhen

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Suspicious Minds? Mentalizing, Religious Hypocrisy and Apostasy

Put simply, ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM) and its associated near-cognates (mentalizing, mind reading, social cognition) refer to the socially indispensable human capacity to attribute mental states to others, thereby comprehending them as agents whose behaviour is driven by internal motivations. Generally this capacity is thought to arise in a predictable manner in the development of neurotypical individuals. Of course, this picture of ToM is not without its controversies: there is currently debate about whether, at least in more subtle aspects, it may actually be a culturally variable acquired skill; questions remain about how exactly it ‘works’ (i.e. through simulation, through the construction of naïve theories, or both); and the entire construct has been criticised as needing fractionation into more specific sub-mechanisms (Schaafsma et al, 2015). However, the main point here is to assess how the ToM construct has been applied in the cognitive science of religion (CSR), and in this respect it has been fertile indeed.

In his RSP interview Dr. Gervais gives us a clear and concise tour of many of the fundamental ways in which ToM is put to work in CSR (for a more in-depth treatment, see Gervais, 2013). The essential point is that we humans are so very primed to think in terms of agency that we overdetect it in (or overapply it to) our environments and this leads to the success of supernatural agent concepts which trigger the misattribution of mental states in ways that are intuitively compelling. ToM thus doesn’t ‘produce’ religious beliefs per se, but it does mould the forms they are likely to take; in the putative epidemiological struggle of concept against concept, we have a content bias to prefer those harnessing notions of agency. One branch of evidence for this comes in the form of Dr. Gervais’ own work, which suggests that there is a small but significant correlation between mentalizing fluency and willingness to entertain belief in supernatural agents (Norenzayan et al, 2012).

Content biases are not the only point of intersection between ToM and belief in supernatural agents, however. In some cases ToM itself may be purposefully manipulated through forms of practice to produce religiously ‘meaningful’ experiences. For example, Luhrmann’s ethnographic work describes the process whereby charismatic ‘Vineyard’ evangelicals painstakingly learn to ‘misrecognise’ some of their own cognitions as external thoughts channelled into their heads by Jesus, thereby ‘hearing His voice’ (Luhrman, 2012). Furthermore, as Gervais himself observes, content biases can explain why certain concepts are intuitively attention-grabbing, but not why people commit to the concepts they do (this is known as the Zeus problem – see Gervais & Henrich, 2010). In certain circumstances people may even commit to ‘concepts’ that cannot be grasped at all; Sperber’s largely ignored theory of the ‘guru effect’ – the tendency, visible in some religious contexts, to meta-represent recondite utterances as profoundly meaningful if they emanate from esteemed sources of authority – marks one interesting potential bias enabled by content that defies successful representation as opposed to content that ‘sticks in the mind’ (Sperber, 2010). More generally, context biases – namely biases to selectively attend to information based on features of its source – are also a factor of specific relevance to religious transmission. How many other people in our social circle hold the belief? Did we hear it from someone prestigious who is likely to be a source of fitness enhancing information? Did we hear it from someone we can trust – and how do we know they believe what they say they do?

One influential context bias proposed in the CSR literature is the CRED (Credibility Enhancing Display – Henrich, 2009): the idea that, due to the manipulative potential inherent in language, cultural learners have evolved the precautionary tendency to scrutinise cultural models for behavioural confirmation of commitment to stated beliefs. Accordingly, belief transmission, particularly in the case of empirically unverifiable beliefs, is strengthened when models ‘practice what they preach.’ Thus religious beliefs accompanied by costly actions the believer would not undertake if they did not believe what they said they did – painful or time-consuming rituals, charity, celibacy, martyrdom – will transmit more successfully than those that lack such trappings.

Suspecting another’s internal motivations of diverging from their stated intentions is a mentalizing operation if ever there was one. But if such a bias is exploited via CREDs to facilitate religious transmission, might there not also be scenarios in which similar capacities serve to actively undermine belief? Is irreligion aided simply by the absence of contextual cues to religiosity, or might there also be contextual cues to irreligion? As opposed to CREDs, my own research investigates ‘CRUDs’ – credibility undermining displays. In particular, I am interested in how displays by religious paragons which contradict expressed statements of belief may be uniquely corrosive to the religious certainty of believers. One does not need to look for long to locate examples of the connection between the attribution of insincerity to religious paragons and religious scepticism. New atheist forums are frequently aflame with outrage at perceived religious hypocrisy[i], and it often also features in atheist ‘conversion narratives’ (Wright et al, 2010). The steep and ongoing decline in Catholicism is often partially attributed to the clerical abuse scandals, and in particular the promulgation of such scandals in the media has been linked by sociologists to an acceleration in Irish secularisation since the early 1990s (Donnelly & Inglis, 2009). Indeed, modern methods of information exchange, through their reach and permanence, compound the problem of scandal for religion by tapping into the regulatory pan-human phenomenon of gossip: Mormonism, for example, seems to be currently experiencing a crisis of faith due to online revelations about Joseph Smith’s amorous adventures. Indeed, historically speaking, the credibility undermining display was effective enough to have been used as a form of counter-propaganda, at least in reported form; mediaeval anti-heresy tracts revelled in such rhetoric, describing heretics[ii] as ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ who preached chastity, compassion and asceticism while secretly indulging in orgies, rendering infants down into ceremonial black paste, and drinking toad excrement.

Perhaps part of the reason the relationship between mentalizing and suspicion of religious truth-claims has yet to come into focus in CSR may be due to an unspoken tendency to view ToM as an impartial would-be ‘mirror’ of sorts; though it errs and though its sensitivity may be extremely overtuned, we ultimately evolved the capacity in order to acquire optimally accurate representations of our own and others’ psychological motivations in order to facilitate cooperation. Much research in social psychology, however, would suggest that people can in fact be unkindly biased in the mental states they attribute to others versus those they attribute to themselves (Monin & Merritt, 2010). Moral failings are far more often seen as the results of malign intentions if performed by others, others’ pieties are often written off as the result of self-serving motivations, while individuals frequently overestimate the depth of their own moral commitment. It might be said that ToM seeks truth – insofar as it is useful for action. ToM is surely better seen as intertwined with and influenced by a range of other factors prioritising such phenomena as moral policing and deception-enhancing self-deception, frequently not so much an accurate gauge of others’ motivations as a cautiously (or opportunistically?) harsh one. Given these considerations, we might wonder about the relative potency of CREDs versus CRUDs. Such biases should mean that even a fairly insignificant act could trigger a CRUD warning; unlike with religiously bolstering displays, there is no ‘costliness’ barrier between an act of religious hypocrisy and its potential effects on belief. In fact, there may on the contrary be a heightened sensitivity to such transgressions.

Of course, there are many complexities to be teased apart here: Are some believers more prone to scepticism upon witnessing contradictory statement/behaviour pairings than others, and why might this be so? If CRUDs are so potent, then how do various religious traditions cope with them, and are some particularly vulnerable (see, for example, Wollschleger & Beach, 2011)? Might CRUDs affect theistic belief per se or only religious affiliation? And how does the issue of harm combine with religious hypocrisy in producing any putative effects on belief and/or affiliation (i.e. eating fish on a Friday versus abusing children)? It is possible that if religious scandals/hypocrisy can be a partial driver of religious decline, there may be at least two separable but intertwined psychological effects going on: CRUD-based socio-cognitive belief-scepticism on the one hand and institutional disaffiliation stemming from moral contempt on the other.


Donnely, S. & Inglis, T. (2009). “The Media and the Catholic Church in Ireland: Reporting Clerical Child Sex Abuse.” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 25:1, 1 – 19

Gervais, W. M. (2013). “Perceiving Minds and Gods: How Mind Perception Enables, Constrains and Is Triggered by Belief in Gods.” Perspectives in Psychological Science 8(4), 380 -394.

Gervais, W.M. & Henrich, J. (2010). “The Zeus Problem: Why Representational Content Biases Cannot Explain Faith in Gods.” Journal of Cognition and Culture, 10, 383 – 389

Henrich, J. (2009). “The evolution of costly displays, cooperation, and religion: Credibility enhancing displays and their implications for cultural evolution.” Evolution and Human Behaviour, 30, 244 – 260

Luhrmann, T. (2012). When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Vintage.

Monin, B. & Merritt, A. (2010). “Moral hypocrisy, moral inconsistency, and the struggle for moral integrity.” M. Mikulincer & P. Shaver (Eds.), The social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes of good and evil, Herzliya Series on Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 3, American Psychological Association.

Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W. M., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2012). “Mentalizing deficits constrain belief in a personal god.” PLoS ONE, 7, e36880.

Schaafsma, S., Pfaff, D., Spunt, R., & Adoplhs, R. (2015) “Deconstructing and Reconstructing Theory of Mind.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19(2), 65-72

Sperber, D. (2010). Sperber, D. (2010). The Guru Effect. Review of Philosophy & Psychology, 1 (4), 583-592

Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Belknap Harvard

Wollschleger, J. & Beach, L. (2011). “A cucumber for a cow: a theoretical explanation of the causes and consequences of religious hypocrisy.” Rationality and Society, 23 (2), 155 – 174

Wright, B., Giovanelli, D., Dolan, E. & Edwards, M. (2011). “Explaining Deconversion from Christianity: A Study of Online Narratives.” Journal of Religion and Society, 13, 1-17

[i] Interestingly, this often includes both the hypocrisy of believers and also God’s own hypocrisy, i.e. theodicy.

[ii] And of course heretical movements have often been partially attributed to Church failings – simony, nepotism, corruption, venality and so on. I don’t assume here that the CRUD leads straight from orthodoxy to atheism by any means, but rather to scepticism about the expressed representation; historical and cultural context is key, and where theism is the inescapable idiom of the age, schism is the more likely outcome. The link to atheism becomes possible where it has come to exist as an option (i.e. Taylor, 2007).

Cognitive Science, Learning, and ‘Theory of Mind’

As I have responded to Tanya Luhrmann’s book elsewhere and am on record in terms of thinking it makes a major contribution to the cognitive science of religion (CSR) both in terms of its argument and its use of mixed (ethnographic and experimental) methods, I decided that rather than recycling comments that I have already made, it would make much more interesting to give you something of a meta-review of the scientifically-oriented reviews of her book. My initial thought was to focus on the review symposium in Religion, Brain & Behavior from last winter, but with help from Luhrmann, who graciously emailed me some additional reviews, I decided — at the last minute — to expand my scope.

But let me begin by summarizing what I take to be the scientific heart of her study, that is, her effort to offer a scientific answer to the question of how people — in this case, evangelical, charismatically-oriented Christians in Vineyard congregations in Chicago and the Bay Area — come not only to believe that it is possible to talk to God and God will answer but to experience this as actually happening. In her introduction, she explicitly positions her study in relation to some of the research in CSR that stresses the prevalence of belief in gods and other invisible beings, making the case that, while this belief may be widespread, people have to learn to actually hear God and this learning process is (1) difficult, (2) more difficult for some than others, and (3) when it occurs actually changes how people process information.

Each of these claims required different methods. The first, documenting the learning process, was primarily an ethnographic task, which she accomplished through two years of intensive involvement not just with the congregations but with small groups in which people learned to pray that were attached to the churches in both Chicago and the Bay Area. She discovered that some found it easier to learn to hear god than others through participant observation as well. There were the “prayer warriors” at one end of the spectrum and the poor guy, who was raised in the Vineyard church, who desperately wanted to hear god, but never did, at the other extreme. But Luhrmann didn’t just observe these differences. When they started to become apparent, she had them fill out several psychological scales, some of which they liked better than others. Their responses on a scale that reports their tendency to lose themselves in something — to become absorbed — correlated with their ability to learn to hear god. That was an interesting discovery that suggested that individual differences made a difference in how easily people learned to hear god, but it didn’t say if the learning process itself — the religious practices and spiritual disciplines changed how people processed their perceptions and sensations. To test this, she designed an ingenious field experiment in which she gave people iPods with tapes that they had to listen to for 30 minutes six days a week for four weeks (202-210). The experimental group got a modified version of Ignatius’ spiritual exercises in which they were asked to place themselves in a biblical scene and interact with the characters. The control group got a series of Luke Timothy Johnson’s lectures on the New Testament. They were given a series of cognitive tasks before and after the experiment to see if the imaginative exercises made a difference in how they processed information, e.g., resulted in their seeing mental images more vividly. She described these as “training effects” and there were connections between the training effects and individual differences on the absorption scale.

Luhrmann took these measurable changes in how they were processing information as suggesting that they were learning a new theory of mind. Here’s the key passage from the introduction:

In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God. They learn to interpret the familiar experience of their own minds and bodies as not being own at all–but God’s. They learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness. … To do this, they need to develop a new theory of mind. That phrase theory of mind — has been used to describe the way a child learns to understand that other people have different beliefs and goals and intensions (Luhrmann, 2012, xxi-xxii).

This insight led to an expanded project, which she launched shortly after the book went to press and is still under way, in which she is comparing charismatic Christians in India (Chennai) and Ghana (Accra) to see if she finds local variations in theory of mind, that — she is hypothesizing — would suggest that culture influences the inferences we make about other people’s minds.

From a CSR perspective, this is actually her most controversial claim. Controversial, because theory of mind, which refers to our capacity to attribute mental states to ourselves and others is a central topic in developmental psychology and ethology, the study of other animals, where researchers are asking how this capacity develops in humans and whether it is present in other animals. What makes her claim controversial is that most developmental psychologists think this is a universal human capacity. There are other lines of research that question this and argue that “the standard psychological model for theory of mind is distinctively Euro-American.” Luhrmann is thus using her Vineyard research to raise the possibility that there are different theories of mind — local theories of mind — and asking whether these cultural differences make a fundamental difference in the way people draw inferences about another person’s intentions, feelings, and so on (Luhrmann, 2014, 83).

In the reviews I have looked at so far, reviewers did not address this controversial point head-on, but instead addressed it indirectly. Thus, some in the RBB symposium found her approach “too cognitive” – too dependent on an “information processing approach” — and advocated approaching the problem in light of research on embodied cognition (Strawn & Brown 2014), they and another reviewers thought she ought to pay more attention to explaining differences in terms of attachment processes (Strawn & Brown 2014, Sandage 2014). Others highlighted the role of emotion and still others the need to attend to motivation (Alcorta 2014, 54).

Whether her approach is “too cognitive” depends on how cognitive is defined. There is a narrow and a broader sense in which the term is used. Here I quote John Tooby & Leda Cosmides (1992, 65) on the definitional issues: “Some researchers use it in a narrow sense, to refer to so-called ‘higher mental’ processes, such as reasoning, as distinct from other psychological processes, such as ’emotion’ or ‘motivation’; that is, to refer to a concept that corresponds more or less to the folk notion of reasoning while in a calm frame of mind. In contrast, we [Tooby & Cosmides] are using the word cognitive in a different and more standard [cognitive science] sense. … We use … cognitive and information processing to refer to a language or level of analysis that can be used to precisely describe any psychological process: reasoning, emotion, motivation, and motor control can all be described in cognitive terms, whether the processes that give rise to them are conscious or unconscious, simple or complex. In cognitive science, the term mind refers to an information-processing description of the functioning of an organism’s brain.” So a cognitive science approach, as they and many others understand it, is a language for describing how we process all the incoming information available to us from our bodies and the entire environment in which we are situated – social, cultural, natural — in functional terms, that is in terms of what we do with it.

In terms of this understanding, what many of the reviewers distinguish as “not cognitive”, i.e., bodily sensations, emotions, and motivations, all can and should be considered within a cognitive, information processing approach as either input to be processed or output of the processing. Attachment processes are one of the ways of processing information. So in my mind, most of these reviewers missed the key question, which I think has to do with learning. If Luhrmann wants her work to speak to a CS audience, which I think she does, we need to be able to think about how Vineyard folks were learning — more or less well — in cognitive terms.

Pascal Boyer’s review for the HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory symposium basically does this, which to my mind makes it the most important — and illuminating — of the science-oriented reviews. Pascal Boyer is the author of Religion Explained and has been a leading figure in terms of CSR. His review firmly positions Luhrmann’s work within a cognitive, information processes perspective. Boyer picks up on Luhrmann’s central point: that people have to work hard to learn to hear God. He makes the obvious point that believing in god — however fervently — is not the same thing as feeling you are in the presence of and communicating with god. He points out that many anthropologists have glossed over this distinction, referring all the time to what the people they are studying believe and then offering this as an explanation for their behavior. Boyer generalized from Luhrmann’s research to suggest that most people hold their beliefs in a more tentative fashion, as a conjecture, that they have not necessarily, or perhaps only fleetingly, experienced first-hand as “real” in the sense that Luhrmann uses the term.

Boyer links this distinction between believing and experiencing to a basic cognitive science distinction between “intuitions,” which are normally processed rapidly and unconsciously, and “reflective beliefs” or “reflective processing” or “metacognition.” Most of what we find out about people’s beliefs are “reflective beliefs.” We process most bodily sensations, perceptions, and emotions intuitively without any reflection on the process at all. As he points out — and this is the key link — “religious representations are potentially much more compelling, attention-grabbing, and memorable when they are associated with intuitive content, preferably with perceptions” (Boyer 2013, 353). In other words, through slow learning processes we can learn to associate reflective beliefs with intuitively processed sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Doing so allows us to experience the reflective beliefs in a way that we would not otherwise be able to do. So the point here is that from an information processing perspective, the evangelical’s Luhrmann studied are learning to connect their conscious, reflective belief in god with intuitive, unconsciously processed emotions, perceptions, and sensations in a way that allows them to distinguish some of their inner thoughts as “theirs” and others as “god’s”.

So, let me tie this back into the theory of mind (ToM) issue. In her response to the RBB symposium, Luhrmann referred to a meeting of anthropologists and psychologists that she arranged at Stanford to see whether they had sufficient evidence to argue for “local theories of mind.” They came up with at least six such theories, one of them “the Euro-American modern supernaturalist theory of mind” (Luhrmann 2014, 82-83). In light of Boyer’s distinctions, what Luhrmann characterizes as local theories of mind are best understood as reflective or folk theories of mind. They are the beliefs that we and others have about how mind, body, and world are related. These beliefs may or may not have any relation to the evolved, intuitive, unconscious way that we intuit what is going on in the minds of others. In her RBB response, Luhrmann (2014, 83) acknowledges that there are a range of competing scientific views of ToM and cites two in her discussion – Scholl & Leslie (1999) and Astuti (2012) – that question her approach, stressing that theories about how something works may or may not tell us anything about how they actually work.

Thus, in Boyer’s terms, Luhrmann is asking whether reflective ToMs can influence intuitive ToM.   In asking that, we need to specify what we mean by influence. I think it is much more likely that reflective ToM can influence what inferences we draw about other people’s minds, but not so likely that it influences how we draw inferences about other people’s minds. By calling what people believe about the mind, body, world relationship “theory of mind,” Luhrmann risks over-associating these reflective beliefs with the intuitive process and overlooking the possibility that these beliefs about the relationship between mind, body, and world may come to seem real to people through association with other intuitive processes. So I think we need to consider the possibility that people can attach reflective/folk ToM to a range of sensations, perceptions, and emotions. Then the question we would need to ask would be how do people learn to experience THIS particular folk ToM, including our Euro-American secular one, as real?



Alcorta, Candace S. 2014. Modes of knowing: how kataphatic practice impacts our brains and behaviors. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 49-56.

Astuti, Rita. 2012. Some after dinner thoughts on theory of mind. Anthropology of this century 3 available in LSE Research Online at:

Boyer, Pascal. 2013. Why ‘belief’ is hard work: Implications of Tanya Luhrmann’s When God talks back. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 349-57.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2012. When God talks back. New York: Knopf.

Luhrmann, T. M. 2014. Response: Knowing God, attentional learning, and the local theory of mind. Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 78-90.

Sandage, Steven J. 2014. Attachment theory, relational spirituality, and varieties of evangelicals. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 59-65.

Scholl, Brian J. and Alan J. Leslie. 1999. Modularity, development, and ‘theory of mind.’ Mind & Language 14 (1), 131-153.

Strawn, Brad D. and Warren S. Brown. 2014. Living with evangelical paradoxes. Book Symposium. Religion, Brain & Behavior 4 (1): 65-72.

Tooby, John and Leda Cosmides. 1992. The psychological foundations of culture. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby, eds. The Adapted Mind, pp. 19-136. New York: Oxford University Press.

Having Coffee with God: Evangelical Interpretations of God as a Person Among People

Characteristics attributed to God often indicate apotheosis—some quality beyond human understanding, beyond worldly constraints. Commonly used terms include supernatural, omnipotent, and incorporeal, to name a few. Four decades ago, it would have seemed absurd to hear God characterized by American evangelical Christians in terms of personhood, with words such as audible, visible, or coffee-drinker. In this interview, psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann describes how God becomes real for certain groups of evangelicals and how practicing prayer through mental imagery can develop sensory awareness of God’s presence. Discussing the fieldwork of her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, Luhrmann explains the experience of God, not as a distant transcendent deity, but as a figure who is entirely present and accessible through an intensely personal relationship.

Through years of fieldwork with members of The Vineyard Movement, a multi-branch American evangelical church, Luhrmann observed congregants in direct contact with their friend, God. Through Vineyard prayer practices, congregants develop what Luhrmann describes as a “new theory of mind” in which even mundane thoughts are interpreted as evidence of God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, xxi). In her RSP interview, she recalls a congregant suggesting that, to understand the experience of the divine in real time, she should treat God as a real person and literally have a cup of coffee with him. For American Christians raised on a more formal association with God, positioning him in such a casual role might seem like a return to the playground days of imaginary friends. However, congregants insist that the sense of God’s presence is not only external but also interactive.

Luhrmann posits this conceptualization of a highly participatory God as a natural development within the context of emerging pluralism in America. As she explains in her interview, it all began with “hippie Christians” of the 1960s (e.g. the “Jesus Freaks”) who wove charismatic traditions of Pentecostal Christianity into their philosophy and practices. Instead of dropping acid to contact a transcendent reality, they brought transcendence down to them, making God a “person among people.” Luhrmann suggests that this form of association with God has staying power, providing a way to keep God not only close in heart, but actually present in life.

Though a popular notion in contemporary charismatic evangelical thought, a personal relationship with God does not always come easily; it often requires a learning process of becoming comfortable with God’s presence. Vineyard churches encourage practicing pretend casual conversations with God. In a sense, congregants become comfortable with God by playing house with him, literally pouring him a cup of coffee and chatting. To reinforce God’s presence, prayer groups occasionally designate someone to stand in for him as a human surrogate. Additionally, members are encouraged to imagine God as a loving therapist who is genuinely interested in their lives and concerns.

So, is this imaginary-yet-real God accessible to anyone? Luhrmann observed that about one-quarter of her interviewees do not experience intense sensations of God’s presence, while others experience God so intensely and frequently that Vineyard members refer to them as “prayer warriors” (Luhrmann 2012, 155). To investigate these apparent differences, Luhrmann used the Tellegen Absorption Scale to evaluate subjects on proclivity for absorption, or tendency for becoming absorbed in their imaginations. Results reflected trends of higher scores relative to higher reports of what Luhrmann describes in the interview as “cool, weird spiritual experiences.” She concludes that sharpened mental representations of God described by congregants correlate with (1) belief in God’s direct presence through sensory experiences, (2) absorption tendencies, and (3) practice of imagining God’s presence.

Seemingly central to Lurhmann’s interest is how some congregants report “mental changes” following prayer practices, as if, through prayer training, their minds learn to sense God (Luhrmann 2012, 190). In her book When God Talks Back, she describes Vineyard groups that convene to improve prayer practices through kataphatic exercises, where congregants imagine themselves observing or participating in a biblical scene while paying close attention to sensory details of the experience. She studied the effects of these absorbing imaginative practices among congregants, finding this type of prayer to be more effective in enhancing vividness of mental imagery than listening to scriptural lectures or apophatic prayer (i.e. centering the mind on a spiritually meaningful word). Like training for a triathlon, regularly practicing absorption in this way strengthens sensory awareness, enabling congregants to “give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events,” thus becoming more receptive to (and conscious of) God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, 221-2).

From an etic perspective, it is difficult to accept claims of regularly and casually encountered religious experiences, especially when the caliber is so amplified as to relate a persistent (very real) presence of God. Yet, ironically, skeptics are not alone in facing the problem of interpreting the intangible; this challenge indeed characterizes the Vineyard experience at its core. As the process of sensing God requires an initially effortful imagination, congregants face the issue of discernment in determining the validity of their experiences. Luhrmann notes in the interview that congregants are often skeptical themselves; some even gossip about others who claim questionable divine requests. Interpreting divine inspiration requires the help of the community, with increasing urgency in cases of greater demands. To determine whether God’s instructions are real or imaginary, congregants employ a loose pattern of heuristics: (1) real God experiences are typically spontaneous and surprising; (2) the experience should realistically coincide with God’s expected behavior; (3) the credibility of an experience is valence-dependent; as Luhrmann suggests in the interview, Vineyard’s “teddy bear of a God” should inspire warm and fuzzy feelings.

Luhrmann makes a significant move by highlighting the interpretive challenge facing Vineyard congregants. She shows believers confronting the issue of maintaining faith in something that cannot be proven by scientific means. They are not shying away from epistemological evidence—they are actively engaged in altering their minds to welcome it in the form of God’s sensed presence. By illuminating the believer’s narrative, Luhrmann clarifies the spiritual experience that frequently halts discourse due to its internalized nature. She must be commended for this contribution to the enormous project of bridging the gap between believers and non-believers. For the sake of religious studies discourse, Luhrmann faces the tyrannical problem of communication head-on, enabling the possibility of respect through understanding.


Luhrmann, T. M. (2012) When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Vintage Books.