RH: I’ve heard the term prayer warriors used for folks who are seriously committed to prayer.
LUHRMANN: Yes, exactly. I was really interested in finding out more about what was happening for them psychologically. I found that they scored high on the absorption scale, which predicted which members of a church were more likely to report that they had a back-and-forth experience with God, that God addressed them like a person, and that they could feel God’s love directly. It would also predict whether people said they heard God talk audibly or whether they experienced God with their other senses.
RH: How did you measure this?
LUHRMANN: I ran an experiment in which I asked people to listen to a piece of scripture on an iPod for half an hour a day for a month. Then, while the control group was just asked to listen to lectures from a teaching company on the gospels, the experimental group was led through the scripture again and encouraged to use their imagination.
For example, with “The Lord Is My Shepherd” psalm, they were asked to look directly at the shepherd, to look in his eyes, and to see how he held himself. They were more likely to report sharper mental images, a more vivid internal experience, a fuller sense of God’s love and presence. They also reported more hallucination-like experiences—not actual hallucinations, but vivid religious experiences outside of everyday reality. For instance, they’d report, “I thought that I saw the edge of an angel’s wing” or “God spoke to me.” It seemed that by following the instructions we gave them, they learned a different way of perceiving God.
RH: Is there any way to distinguish what some people see as delusion from a faith in the intangible?
LUHRMANN: I’ve done research on psychosis, and I know a lot about the internal experience of people who meet the criteria for schizophrenia. The phenomenological accounts of that experience are quite different from those of the people I spent time with in these churches. For the evangelicals, the experience of nonordinary reality are rare and brief and filled with a sense of “goodness.” Somebody might hear God saying, “I’ll always be with you” from the back seat of a car, and they find it comforting rather than deeply disturbing.
RH: Someone shared with you that God told them to vote for George H. W. Bush in 1988.
LUHRMANN:Yes, exactly. That’s quite different from the frightening experience of someone with schizophrenia. I think many people in the evangelical churches are invited to allow some of their thoughts to become more external, but those are the good and loving thoughts.
RH: Why would they do that?
LUHRMANN: Well, I don’t think the church would describe what they do in that way. I think the church would describe that as prayer. But I think that process is really therapeutic.
RH: Self-talk is a central concept in many therapeutic modalities. Is prayer with a loving God something like talking to an affirming therapist all day long?
LUHRMANN: Yes. I think that there’s actually evidence for that. I ran one experiment in which we gave everyone a series of measures,including the statement “I feel God’s love for me directly.” The more highly they affirmed that statement, the less lonely they were and the fewer symptoms they reported on a brief psychiatric scale. Clearly, this can be quite a powerful experience for people.