Why God Won’t Go Away by Andrew Newberg et al. brings the experimental method of science to bear on the slippery subject of spirituality. Based on brain imaging scans of devout spiritual practitioners such as Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns, they locate and describe the areas of the brain which are active during the spiritual (sometimes also called “mystical”) state.
I’ll skip past the neurological details and go straight to the central thesis which unfolds as the book progresses: that the mystical state is the same across all faiths, and that this state can be defined in its simplest form as the overlap of mental arousal and quietude.
Arousal is not just sexual arousal, although that is certainly one possibility. Rather it encompasses any time your mind is alert, focused, energized - in a word, up.
Quietude is a state of calm. When your mind is defocused, peaceful, relaxed - in a word, down.
All of us follow a cycle which bounces back and forth between these two states many times a day. You may start in a state of quietude when you rise: the sleep has not quite been shaken yet. Once you get your day started and get focused on work your mind starts to sharpen and proceed into a state of arousal. After lunch you are probably down for a little while (the dreaded “food coma”), but then in the afternoon you perk up, doing more work, then perhaps leaving and going to run errands or the gym. When you get home you may relax in front of the TV and allow yourself to slip into a state of quietude, an ideal precursor for proceeding on to sleep.
Furthermore, most of us utilize a variety of drugs to force ourselves into the right state at the right time. A stimulant such as caffeine or ephedra in the morning gets you going (arousal: focus), while a beer or a joint in the evening helps you unwind (quietude: relaxation).
During this ongoing cycle, one rarely hits the maximum peak of arousal or the matching trough of quietude. Such extremes are hit only are on special occasions. For example you may reach your peak of arousal during an intense sexual encounter, the birth of your child, or even something as simple as seeing your favorite band play a live concert. And you may reach maximal quietude in a situation such as a long massage given by a professional masseuse.
Typically, these states do not overlap with one another. Indeed, you might think that they are mutually exclusive by their very natures - and you would be right, most of the time. But the human mind seems to (the authors have discovered) have the capability to experience both at once. When this happens, a spiritual experience occurs. And the more extreme both the arousal and the quietude - essentially, the larger the gap between them - the more intense the experience.
But why? Why is the human brain wired to be able to overlap these states, and produce such a singular, specific, powerful state? It seems far too precise and universal to be an accident of evolution. There must be some purpose.
In fact, there is one time when the human mind reaches this state “naturally” (i.e. during the life of prehistoric man). That time is sex, or more precisely, immediately afterward.
On reflection, you may find this combination of arousal and quietude suddenly sounds familiar. Sex, especially with someone you love, may produce a state during orgasm - and then immediately afterward - which combines the intense arousal of the sexual encounter, coupled with the extreme calm, satisfaction, and relaxation of orgasm. Post-coital bliss, it is sometimes called. This is the origins of human spirituality.
Have you ever wondered why it is common for organized religion to treat sex as a great evil? Many times this is accompanied by trying to restrict it to nothing more than a method of procreation. Often this is more of a focus even than other “moral” issues like killing or stealing. But when you stop to think about it, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sex is a natural human process just like eating and sleeping. Trying to suppress it is not only impossible, but borderline absurd, and seems to have no particular benefit to the furtherance of religious belief.
Now, view it in the light of the theory of human spirituality just described. Now we see that sex is direct competition to religion. It is the only easy way for people to experience the spiritual state other than through the rituals of their faith.
Therefore, a religion maximizes its power by suppressing sex. It’s no accident that the religions who covet the most power and influence over their followers - Catholicism and Islam come to mind - are also the ones which suppress sex the most vigorously.
Just to be clear, the book only goes as far as showing that the evolutionary purpose of the spiritual state is for sex. Although I think that the conclusion I have drawn here (competition by power-hungry religious organizations with sex) follows directly from their theory, they do not take this final step in the book. Perhaps this is to avoid the inevitable negative reactions from some members of those religions, or perhaps simply because they wanted to stay focused on the neurological aspects of their research.
And of course, it makes a lot of sense that this spiritual state is wired into our minds by evolution for the express purpose of sex. The most important single thing an organism can do in their life, as far as evolution is concerned, is reproduce. Having the most powerful, singular, and blissful mental state achievable be a direct consequence of reproduction is surely yet another stroke of genius by the blind watchmaker of evolution.