Commentary on "Why God Won't Go Away"

----- Original Message -----
Sent: 20 April 2001 02:20
Subject: Call for Commentary: "Why God Won't Go Away" by Andrew Newberg

Call for Commentary: "Why God Won't Go Away" by Andrew Newberg

We have only asked for commentary once before, but we are on a project that
taxes my resources. We received permission to reprint the first chapter of
Andrew Newberg's book, "Why God Won't Go Away," which I consider to be a
ground breaking work. In it, Newberg gives a biological explanation for the
deep mystical states, Unitary Experiences that Buddhists describe as being
one with the universe, and that Roman Catholics describe as co-mingling with
God, that many humans have experiences throughout time. I have experienced
such a state myself, as an atheist, and have never attributed to it the same
explanations given by my more religious fellows.

This book is a real page-turner indeed, and the implications of Newberg's
research are staggering.

The staggering implications of Newberg's work probably explains why Newberg
spends the latter part of the book trying to reassure religionists that this
doesn't mean that God is not real. In fact, Newberg goes much further than
this, trying to make the case that this could actually be a way to perceive
or get in touch with this "other world" (my terminology -- for lack of a
better way to describe it), suggesting that this "other world" could be
really real.

I'm not ready to take it this far, as you may have guessed.

Two issues need to be addressed: (1) the alleged medical benefits of
religious involvement; (2) the historical discussions in philosophy
regarding the difference between what is real and what is not real.


----- Original Message -----
Sent: 24 April 2001 22:41
Subject: Re: Call for Commentary: "Why God Won't Go Away" by Andrew Newberg

Hi Cliff,

I don't have enough expertise to be any help in analysing the book in the
way you ask. However I do know of some other books and articles that may
interest you if you've not already come across them (plus a few comments).

As for God not going away, amusingly Louis XIV's envoy to "Siam", de la
Loubre, reported the inhabitants as having no belief in a god or in the
immortality of the soul, although some added that they did have a god once
but he had since disappeared, but they didn't know where! However for many
people it's not so much that God (which god?) does indeed go away but that
he doesn't even turn up in the first place.

Although it does appear that numinous/oceanic etc. experiences happen
to a range of people (and certainly not just religious types, let alone
just Christians!) it is also the case that such things are far more
culturally conditioned than might be obvious. In The Philosophers
Magazine, Issue 10, Spring 2000, Anthony Flew made the following

*******Begin quote********

In considering the search for evidence of the existence of God it is as
difficult as it is necessary for those of us who have been raised in
theist or post-theist societies to free ourselves from the prejudices of
such upbringings. I confess that I myself really began to do this only in
consequence of visiting the institute of Foreign Philosophy in Peking
University, Beijing.

There I was able to enjoy much philosophical talk with my graduate student
'minder'. He was of course acquainted with the concept of the theist God.
But he had met it only as today any of us might happen to come upon the
notions of Aphrodite or Poseidon. He had never had any occasion to
confront it as what William James called a 'live option' - any more than,
for any of our contemporaries anywhere, belief in the real existence of
the Olympians constitutes such an option.

So he did not know whether to be more amused or more indignant when he
first learnt from Descartes that our Maker has imprinted upon every human
soul - as his trademark, as it were - the (authentic) idea of God, a
concept that supposedly is too splendid to have been shaped by merely
human agency, and from which it is allegedly possible immediately to infer
the existence of the corresponding object God. For were not his
compatriots also supposed to be God's creatures; and, if so, how had God
failed to imprint his trademark upon their souls?

******End quote********

I remember a friend of mine saying that he is not really interested in
religion, it is politics that gets him excited. It would have disturbed
me when I was a Christian that it is just is not a live issue with many

I have a vague memory that you may have mentioned this sort of thing
yourself before, i.e. that pro-theistic conclusions from religious
experience are just repeating the old argument that we are all
"imprinted" with the idea of God. This suffered its first major
setback in 1689 when Locke mentioned that the Ancients had no
belief in a personal god and that there were whole nations existing
which had no notion of a god nor of a religion. As it says in Ludovic
Kennedy's "All in the mind - a farewell to God" The missionary priest
Chretien Le Clerq found that the Indians of the Gaspe peninsula had
never formed a conception of any divinity but, he noted in 1691, 'they
were charitable beyond anything imaginable in Europe.'

There are more examples in this book and I will send them if you request
but I have a vague memory that you have made this point yourself
somewhere. Just let me know if you want the other quotes. Joseph
McCabe also discusses this in his book "The Existence of God," noting
that the old argument that we are all imprinted with the idea of God is
"little used today" (that's 1913!) It appears the poverty of the
imprinting idea has been forgotten unless Newberg's book (or another)
has new anthropological evidence in its favour.

Personally I think mystical experiences come after a lot of ground work.
Reflect on something for years whilst also thinking it a great important
mystery and you may eventually have a moment of feeling numinous
insight. Even solving a mathematical problem after a long time thinking
about it can seem mystical. Ramanujan claimed that his profound
mathematical theorems in number theory came to him in visions from
Hindu gods. I have had mystical visions of the long process of evolution
after reading Stephen Jay Gould.

More evidence that mystical experience is largely culturally driven comes
from "Three Forms of Mystical Experience" by Philip J. Ivanhoe Stanford
University at
Here are the most relevant quotes:

*****Begin Quotes******

Roman Catholicism has produced a type of mystical experience that is a
clear reflection of the metaphysical scheme described earlier. In the
mystical experience a person, a member of the profane order, unites or
forms a union with God, the sacred order. And so we will refer to this as
union mysticism.  The event is often described in the language of love, a
temporary and intense joining together of a human being with the divine.
Buddhists claim that our normal view of the world is a delusion. In truth
there is a kind of identity or unity between the self and the world. Those
who achieve the highest spiritual state perceive this and experience what
we shall call a mysticism of unity. It is described in terms of metaphors
like a drop of water (the self) dissolving into a boundless sea (the
universe). This insight into the true nature of things has salvific power,
it releases us from the grip of our debilitating delusions. Of course this
requires both an affective (emotional) as well as a cognitive
(intellectual) grasp of the truth and for most people this requires a
regimen of meditational practice as well as philosophical study.

The ineffability of the mystical experience is more prominent in Buddhism
than in almost any form of Christianity because Buddhism's underlying
metaphysical view claims that the perceived world is not true or real.
Zhuangzi's form of Daoism produces yet another type of mysticism: what we
shall call performance mysticism. This is best understood as analogous to
the experience of being completely absorbed in the performance of some
task. For example, those moments when, lost in the movement, there are no
dancers but only the dance. Zhuangzi himself offers this kind of example
in his descriptions of skilful individuals.
We have seen that these reports reveal that their experiences are to a
large measure informed by other beliefs of the religious tradition from
which they emerge. So on the one hand, this leads me to doubt that any
mystical tradition defines a single type of experience that unites and to
so me degree defines religious experience. Such experiences might share
something, but it is a much thinner "something" than most claim. On the
other hand, I do not find the kind of "linguistic eliminativism" that some
folks argue for particularly convincing . This view depends on the
assumption that language goes "all the way down" in our thinking. But I
don't accept, as some contemporary philosophers do, that the only
information we have of the world is what we know through language. This
view seems to me clearly wrong. Prelinguistic infants make quite a few
significant discriminations about the world and seem to recognize states
of affairs without having anything that I recognize as language. And
animals whose experiences are profoundly alien to me, for example, Tom
Nagel's bat, seem to know a good deal about the same world as I do. I
think that there may well be something like a common insight to be found
across many mystical traditions. Perhaps it will turn out to be something
like Freud's "oceanic feeling." Most religions will find this
disappointing, as such a feeling cannot be used to provide any substantial
support for most of their doctrines. But it may turn out that such a
feeling is a part of our experience of the world and one that, contrary to
Freud, might be part of a mature and healthy human life. It may well have
a substantial future.

*****End Quotes******

The two most excellent books that study religious experience that
I have found are both out of print but will presumably be available
via the library (actually I did find copies at Barnes and Noble which
I bought, even though I read them both from the library about 15 years

They are "Ecstasy in secular and religious Experiences" and "Everyday
Ecstasy" both by Marghanita Laski. They were classic studies in their
time ('Ecstasy' in 1961, followed by 'Everyday Ecstasy' in 1979). Laski
interviewed people who had such experiences across the spectrum
from religious believer to atheist, as well as mining literature for
reports of such mystical moments and wrote a fascinating account
of her findings with some masterful analysis and intriguing ideas. I
have a very small summary at
but there is a better review at

If you like poetry then "Tongues of Fire" by Karen Armstrong ISBN
9780140585667 did it for me! From the book:-
"Former nun Karen Armstrong brings together various authors and divides
them not by faith and belief but by theme and treatment into a series of
chapters that accentuate their common features rather than their
differences. She also provides intelligent and absorbing introductions to
each theme, probing the psychological and philosophical springs of

Doubtless you are familiar with the classic studies such as those of
William James, Ninian Smart and Robert Thouless. Also interesting is

Of course religious experience is often the last straw that holds many
Christians to their belief system, as it was for me until I discovered my
experiences were not unique to Christianity - and that Christianity
doesn't do justice to other experiences I also found spiritually valuable
(as you read at A case
in point is maybe William Craig - I say this on my website:

*****Begin quote*******

"Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the
fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and
evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the
latter, not vice versa." [William Craig - Reasonable Faith: Christian
Truth and Apologetics, 1994] Indeed from reading the debate and analyses
in "Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment : A Debate Between William Lane
Craig and Gerd Lüdemann" it appears that despite his initial appeal to
sift historical evidence, the crunch of the argument for Craig is that his
personal religious experience convinces him of the resurrection. To claim
something for Christianity (e.g. the veridical nature of mystical
experience) that you would not accept for another religion (e.g. the very
different mystical experience of Buddhists and Daoists demonstrating their
veracity rather than Christianity's) is a fallacious argument (special
pleading). Therefore such arguments carry no weight. [ref.] It also
demonstrates what is really going on with apologists like Craig -
apologetics are rationalizations after the fact of a previously held
belief. However, if the evidence is against them, so much worse for the
evidence. "Should a conflict arise between..."

*****End quote*******

Also see "Craig's Holy Spirit Epistemology" by Michael Martin.

Thanks for listening - and giving me the opportunity to mouth off!

I very much look forward to reading the first chapter of
Andrew Newberg's book, "Why God Won't Go Away."

Thanks very much for bringing up such an interesting subject and I look
forward to your further comments on the PA site.

Best regards,

Leaving Christianity:

Leaving Christianity contents | email me