Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monsters in the closet

Well, I thought I was too tired to write an entry tonight, but sometimes I get an idea in my head and just have to write it out.

This has nothing to do with Christmas, because I really don't care all that much about that debate. Not that it's not an important one; I'm just not passionate about joining the discussion because I just end up wishing that Bill O'Reilly would be imprisoned for his public hate speech.

So I'm not discussing Christmas. I want to talk about religious experiences. This is generally the fallback defense for religion when reason fails: "Well you can't understand it, but I have felt God's presence." It essentially ends the discussion, because no one wants to hear that their mind is playing tricks on them.

For the time being, I'm not going to get into the technical psychology of religious experiences. There are people out there who can do that better than me. I just want to share my own experience that many people would call a supernatural occurence.

First, let me point you to a good post about transcendent joy from an atheist's perspective over at Daylight Atheism.

My experience is considerably less pleasant.

As a young child, I always had a wild imagination that leaned toward a scared paranoia when I was trying to fall asleep. I would think that Bigfoot was circling our house (and one time even could have sworn that I saw him) or that the coyotes outside were going to go insane and attack me by jumping through my window. I was never scared of anything inside my room like the standard monsters under the bed, but I knew that a window and a wall would not be enough protection if some large beast from the outside decided to feed on my flesh.

But the most terrifying experience of my life came about two years ago when I was living in a studio apartment in Milwaukee.

For as long as I can remember I have had recurring battles with insomnia. I don't mean pulling two all-nighters in a row during finals, but actually going upwards of a week without sleeping. For those of you lucky enough to have never experienced long-term sleep deprivation, it is not a fun thing to go through. After about 72 hours of sleeplessness, you absolutely cannot trust your own mind.

On this particular night, I was somewhere around hour 100 of sleeplessness and desperate for some sleep, so I lay down in my bed even though I had no confidence in my ability to fall asleep. After about an hour in the dark it started raining outside. When I looked at the rain splashing against the windows, I saw hundreds of faces forming and melting away with anguished expressions. I was frightened and decided to look away, but I could not convince my body to stay turned away. Without my conscious permission, my head would turn back to the window and continue to watch the tortured rain souls.
So I did what any person does in a scary situation: I hid under the covers. At this point, I absolutely felt the presence of another person in the apartment. I didn't know where this person was exactly, but was absolutely convinced that there was another living being in my apartment. I was as convinced of this as I was of gravity.

In perhaps the bravest moment of my life, I convinced myself to look from underneath the covers...and of course, I saw an empty room and no physical sign of anyone or anything else being in the room. I also saw that the deadbolt on my door was locked. I could reasonably conclude that I was alone.

But my reason was unable to conquer my fear. In fact, I became increasingly more frightened. I was still 100% convinced that there was someone else in my apartment. Not only that, but I was equally confident that this person was the most evil person in the universe, with absolute contempt for other human life. This person was not just going to kill me, but torture me in the most painful ways possible.

I don't remember exactly when I regained my reason, but it was suspended for the duration of the night. For approximately six hours I lay motionless in my bed. I was literally paralyzed by fear. I kept telling my arms and legs to move, but they wouldn't flinch. I tried looking around the room, but my eyes would not move from the ceiling. I lay there waiting to be brutually tortured by this being, and had no question in my mind that it would happen.

Until today, it never occurred to me that I had what many people call a "supernatural experience." I grew up in churches hearing conversion stories about people who reached a low point in their life, had an encounter with Satan himself, and was saved by God. When this experience happened to me I was in a pretty bad situation. I had recently discovered that my girlfriend had been cheating on me, which I didn't take well, and I spent a lot of time drinking and getting into fights.

I could have easily interpreted that terrible night as an encounter with Satan, demons, or a general, capital-E Evil. I could have decided that I had allowed myself to fall away from God with all this atheism talk. I questioned God's existence, and He left me for a short while to show me what it would really be like if He didn't exist.

Doesn't that make a nice story? I would have congregations crying and saying "Praise Jesus!" and holding my story as proof of God's existence and power. I could give a rousing speech to teens about the dangers of questioning God's existence. Hell, with a story like that, I could have become a pastor.

But until today--some two years later--those thoughts never entered my mind. It didn't cross my mind because I had enough of an understanding of psychology and neuro-biology to know that sleep deprevation can turn your mind against you. Thoughts of demons and evil never crossed my mind because I had a discussion with a psychology professor who described insomnia as "a motherfucker of a disease," and explained exactly how something like this could happen.

The people I know who say they have a personal relationship with God need these kinds of experiences to keep their faith. Well, actually, they rely more on the positive "supernatural" experiences, but supernatural nonetheless. And many people will fast or deprive themselves of sleep to "open themselves to God's message." Of course, when you deprive yourself of food and/or sleep, your brain does not function properly. Reason becomes hindered, and you begin believing things are there when they are not.

Even when there is no form of deprivation, our brains are not entirely trustworthy. We see design where there is none, we see faces where there are none, etc. This is a topic I am currently studying in more depth, so I will be able to provide more credentialled opinions in a few months. But I do know that our minds occasionally play tricks on us, and depriving yourself of essentials such as food and sleep can stimulate and amplify these illussions. Sometimes this can be a transcending, wonderful feeling.

For me, it was the most terrifying night of my life.

No comments: