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Who Hears the Voice of God?

Cultural context and individual personality predict spiritual experiences.

Key points

  • Some people report that they sense the presence of gods and spirits.
  • An ambitious new study combines anthropology and psychology to study these experiences in over 2,000 participants across five societies.
  • Variations in cultural context and individual personality combine to predict "spiritual presence events."
 Michael Kroul/Unsplash
Sunbeams through clouds (a divine presence?).
Source: Michael Kroul/Unsplash

Across a broad range of cultural contexts, in many religious traditions, some people say that they sense the presence of gods and spirits. And these are not simply the stories told about prophets, mystics, or divinely anointed leaders. Such events are part of the ordinary lives of numerous people around the world. What are we to make of this?

In an ambitious, cross-cultural, interdisciplinary research project, anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, psychologist Kara Weisman, and a number of fellow scholars pursue this question. Their paper, "Sensing the presence of gods and spirits across cultures and faiths," was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . In four studies with more than 2,000 participants in the United States, Ghana, Thailand, China, and Vanuatu, the authors investigate how local cultural context and individual differences combine to predict who will experience spiritual presence events and what forms these events take.

The authors start with the observation that spiritual presence events , although widespread, are by no means ubiquitous. They are more likely to happen in certain cultural contexts. Moreover, even in contexts where they are more common, many people do not have these experiences at all—and vice versa. Some highly religious people wish they could have such experiences; some atheists have them despite their nonbelief. In some cultural settings, these experiences are associated with mental illness; in many others, they are highly valued. Neither cultural variations nor individual differences are sufficient to understand what is going on.

Two Key Ideas: Porosity and Absorption

The authors summarize their main message: “The central claim of this paper is that cultural models of the mind and personal orientations toward the mind shape people’s phenomenological experiences and their interpretations of these experiences in ways that manifest as cultural and individual differences in reports of spiritual presence events.” (p. 1) They then introduce two important ideas: porosity and absorption.

Linda Xu/Unsplash
Absorbed by the sunset
Source: Linda Xu/Unsplash

Porosity is defined as a difference between cultural contexts; in this case, a difference in how people understand the mind. In non-porous contexts, more common in ‘Western’ societies, the mind is experienced as clearly separated from the world. By contrast, in porous contexts, the boundaries between mind and world are considered much more permeable. People in such contexts are much more prone to believe that their thoughts and feelings can be influenced, perhaps even dictated, by forces outside the self.

Absorption , meanwhile, is defined as a trait—a way in which individual people within and across contexts differ from one another. People high on absorption tend to get absorbed in whatever they are doing, sensing, and feeling. For example, they might frequently get engrossed by art or music, by natural beauty, or by the products of their own imagination. By contrast, people lower in absorption would have such experiences less strongly and less often. Some very low scorers report that they rarely or never have such experiences.

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One man testifying at a Pentecostal rally
Source: Geron Dison/Unsplash

The Four Studies

The authors present the results from four cross-cultural studies, combining methodologies from anthropology and psychology. In each of the five societies, the researchers include two samples, one of charismatic evangelical Christians, one of a locally relevant faith (e.g., Methodists in the U.S., Buddhists in Thailand). This allows cross-societal comparisons on a single religion as well as cross-religion comparisons in each society.

  • Study 1 involved detailed interviews of people with strong religious commitments, including questions about porosity, combined with a standardized measure of absorption;
  • Study 2 used the results of Study 1 to develop more focused interview questions, which yielded estimates of spiritual presence events and endorsement of porosity in large community samples;
  • Study 3 examined the relation between absorption and spiritual presence events in large urban undergraduate samples in each society;
  • Study 4 tested the hypothesis that both porosity and absorption contribute to predicting the extent to which a person reports spiritual presence events, again in large urban undergraduate samples in each society.

Each successive study built on the findings of prior studies, testing increasingly specific hypotheses with steadily improving measures.

Results

As predicted, high porosity and high absorption combined to help explain cultural, religious, and individual differences in spiritual presence events. People differ in how open they are to their worlds. Some people are more aware of ambiguous or peripheral experiences than others. And some cultural contexts provide ways of explaining these experiences as originating from beyond the self. Closer inspection shows the usual nuances: the relations are stronger in some contexts than others. But the overall story is clear.

 Arisa Chattasa/Unsplash
Buddhist monk at prayer
Source: Arisa Chattasa/Unsplash

The paper itself provides quite a brief summary of the results, emphasizing quantitative findings that emerge over the course of the four studies. The reader is pointed elsewhere for further discussions , especially of the qualitative findings that emerged from the many interviews. The two project leaders have also written a piece on what anthropologists and psychologists can learn from one another .

The benefits are clear, even from this single paper, unfolding further as one pursues the other papers from this project. There is a big picture here, an important set of relationships that have been studied systematically. But there are also numerous details of specific beliefs, practices, and experiences. Both are important—and they are best studied together.

References

Luhrmann, T. M., Weisman, K., Aulino, F., Brahinsky, J. D., Dulin, J. C., Dzokoto, V. A., ... & Smith, R. E. (2021). Sensing the presence of gods and spirits across cultures and faiths. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(5).

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