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The Triggers for God

WHEN GOD BREAKS INTO YOUR LIFE, it is as if you are lifted up and plunked down in a new spiritual neighborhood. To your friends, you appear unaltered.You still part your hair on the left and speak with the same slight lisp. But you know, if no one else does, that your thoughts and ambitions and loves—your soul—have moved to a new zip code. You’re not in Kansas anymore. I can say this from countless interviews and from personal experience. As I heard story after story, I began to wonder what triggered these spiritual transformations.What are the forces that push a person off the cliff of agnosticism and into the sea of faith?

As I searched, I found the usual suspects. Emotional and physical trauma rank high on the list, as does a brush with death. Next to those are the quieter psychological triggers: a poor relationship with one’s parents,1 or stress,2 or even low self-esteem.3

Yet one antecedent stood out, according to the theologians, soci ologists, and psychiatrists I interviewed: brokenness. Brokenness occurs when life—in the form of addiction, cancer, singleness, unemployment, or indefinable misery—defeats you. It happens when you come to the end of yourself, you have exhausted your own resources, your own strength and resilience to cope with the situation at hand.You surrender, and in that release, you find a strange calm. It is the only way that many a stubborn soul finds God.

George Valliant, a Harvard psychiatrist in the twilight of his career, put it this way. He told me he used to believe that spirituality could be explained by Freudian principles, or temperament, or as a response to stressors such as poverty. He followed two groups of men from the time they were eighteen—Harvard graduates and men from inner-city Boston. After chronicling their life journeys for more than six decades, he came to a radical insight about spirituality.

“Looking at those who are spiritual, it has nothing to do with mental health, and nothing to do with good fortune,”Valliant said. “It has everything to do with recovery from brokenness.”

Of course, many people encounter the “divine” without a psychological trauma.Young people in particular seem to embrace God without the usual upheaval, which is why evangelistic groups like Young Life or Campus Crusade for Christ focus on teenagers and college students. But for those who emerged from youth untouched by the spiritual, I believe brokenness lies at the root of conversion.

The trouble with studying spiritual experiences is that they’re sly little devils. You never know when one is going to sneak up on you. You can’t schedule one for next Tuesday afternoon at two-thirty and then keep a log of all the emotional and neurological blips that occur in the days before your encounter with God. This research is by necessity an anecdotal and not a statistical affair.

Therefore, I was limited to post facto anecdotes. The question was, where do you locate those stories? Well, if you want to find bees, search for a honeycomb. If you want to find a cluster of ordinary Americans who have enjoyed dramatic, sometimes physical encounters with God, visit your local church or synagogue. But walk past the minister or rabbi studying in his office. Ignore the faithful singing in choir practice. Make your way down to the basement at seven-thirty on Wednesday night. This is where the transformed people are, the people who have been broken and repaired through spiritual experience. This is where the addicts meet.

The Sudden Alignment

Just as I arrived at Alicia’s rambling ranch house on the outskirts of Albuquerque, a minivan pulled into the driveway. Before the wheels had fully stopped, two curly-haired blond boys, who looked to be ten and twelve, leaped out. A trim man in baseball hat, black T-shirt, and jeans emerged from the driver’s side. But I was watching the woman who stepped out from the passenger’s side, who waved at me and strode over with purpose. For the domestic normalcy I had just witnessed was built on an entirely shattered spirit.

Alicia grew up in a safe, middle-class world, in an intact family that lived in the same house for her entire childhood. There were no obvious dysfunctions, until Alicia became an alcoholic. She was nine years old.

“I remember after everybody went to bed one night,” she recalled. “I went into the living room to look at the glasses and the crystal, and it was all so pretty. And I picked out this bottle that had blackberries on it, and I drank it. And I drank it until I passed out. I drank alcoholically from the very first time. But I also remember that feeling of release, that warmth, and that complete feeling of being okay for the first time.”

Alicia has little memory of the ensuing years, a testament to the analgesic quality of alcohol, until she dropped out of school in ninth grade. At fifteen, Alicia moved out of her family’s house to an apartment, sharing the $235 rent with other high school dropouts “who wanted to drink like I did.”

Soon, however, Alicia was outdrinking her friends, and one by one, they dropped away. Then she met Luke (not his real name), another teenager who was able to keep up, and their mutual addiction bound them together. Eventually they married, and the next decade floated by on a sea of scotch.

“It was just one big long drunk,” she said.“Round the clock. I didn’t have any days of sobriety at all until I was pregnant with my older son. I was twenty-six. That was the first time I was ever clean.”

I gazed at this woman, with two boys and an adoring husband, with her own real estate business and her razor-sharp mind, sitting docilely at her kitchen table. It was like watching Pollyanna utter a string of obscenities, so at odds was Alicia’s past to her present.

Staying clean during her pregnancy fueled the illusion that she was not an addict; she could stop at will, after all. Luke continued his affair with cocaine, however. A month after she gave birth to their son, Alicia began using cocaine and painkillers, careful to stay away from her true nemesis, alcohol. During this period, Alicia ran a women’s clothing store that routinely ranked in the top ten of the four-hundred-store chain. Her external life revealed no fissures. Then she became pregnant with her second son.

“And that was where I started to get to my bottom,” she said, “because in that pregnancy I couldn’t stay clean. I had crossed the line. And I knew I was really sick.”

The spiral downward continued after her second child was born, as Alicia nursed her infant and tried to care for her toddler. She could barely breathe for the chaos in her life and in her head. She and Luke would spend most of their take-home pay on drugs, calibrating their highs and lows with a mix of uppers, cocaine, and alcohol. She had lost her job, she was stuck at home with crying babies, and she began to plot her suicide.

“And I felt completely... completely broken. I got angry. How could this happen? That’s when I said, ‘Where are my angels?’ ”

In retrospect, Alicia draws a straight line from that desperate moment to a sublime one that occurred a few days later.

One Friday night in May 1996, Alicia and Luke were buying groceries at Costco.

“It was payday, and he had already spent all the money on drugs.We had loaded the bag and we were in line and he told me,‘You know, we can’t pay for these.’ And I looked at him. And we had to leave the whole basket of groceries there. We came home and I remember the dishes were piled up in the sink. I just remember laying my head on the side of the sink and feeling the coldness of the sink right on my forehead.”

She paused, envisioning the moment.

“And then all of a sudden something literally went through my back and my inside. This alignment took place inside. And it started down low, like in my stomach and in the lower back, and it was just like my spine was being straightened out. It’s like when a cat gets scruffed by its mama on the back of the neck and they get kind of lifted up. And all of a sudden, I knew I was just done. That was it. I took the kids to my mom’s, and came back, and told Luke I was going to get clean and sober, and he had to go. And I was in rehab a couple of weeks later.”

“What would you say it was?” I asked. “I mean, was it a force from the outside? Was it God?”

“It was an energy,” Alicia replied.“I guess people who call that kind of energy ‘God’ would say it was God. I call it ‘soul.’ I think my soul got righted at that moment. And everything changed.”

Alicia has been clean of all addictive substances since that moment a decade earlier. Luke returned, sober, nine months later, and has remained clean as well. She never went to college but has not suffered for the lack. The real estate business she started made a profit the first year. Her rambunctious sons became national competitors in karate, their trophies displayed on practically every inch of flat space in the house. Raised a Roman Catholic, Alicia forged her own sort of spirituality for years before settling, most recently, on Sufi mysticism.

The one constant in her changing world is Alcoholics Anonymous. This movement has rescued millions of lost souls from the gutter and mended families that have been torn asunder for years. It is built on admitting one’s brokenness, surrendering to a Higher Power, and experiencing a “spiritual awakening.” In a society that demands double-blind studies and scientific explanations, AA remains stubbornly mystical. It relies on a “God” of one’s own understanding to reach down and help the addict defeat his vicious disease. It is the most spiritual of all recovery programs. It is also the most successful.

Prelude to a Shift

Social scientists have studied AA at the safest and most superficial level—the communal part of it—and concluded that having a supportive group to which one is accountable aids in your recovery. The same goes for church and book clubs. Astonishingly, no one had studied the spiritualelement of AA—that is, until a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Mexico began posting fliers at AA meetings around Albuquerque. In this way, Alyssa Forcehimes conducted one of the most illuminating studies into spiritual experience, finding consistent themes before, during, and after the spiritual moment occurred.

Forcehimes is a beautiful, petite twenty-something whose groundbreaking research led her to spend untold hours interviewing recovering alcoholics about their spiritual transformations. She has an earnest way about her, and a knack for drawing out personal stories, which no doubt came in handy. I asked Forcehimes whether she noticed common themes before the transformation.

“They knew they were falling apart, and that they could not sustain this way of life anymore,” she said. “There was a brokenness. And then there was some sort of resolution, like, I have to do something. I have to do something different.”

The spiritual experiences themselves varied, she said.

“They ranged from a ‘struck by lightning’ experience to dreams that spoke so profoundly to the person that they woke up and changed. Some had an inner dialogue with God, others felt like the weight had been lifted—and they meant that physically, not figuratively.”

Seven out of ten people responded to that moment at a physiological level: they felt something change in their bodies. One out of five heard voices or music; and one out of seven had visions or saw a light. In these visceral transformations, I heard echoes of my modern-day mystics like Sophy Burnham and Susan Garren, and Bill Miller’s subjects in his book on “quantum change.” And like those people, Forcehimes’s addicts identified their encounter with the supernatural as the pivot point of their lives.

“They saw the world in a new way,” Forcehimes recalled. “Colors appeared different. The world appeared brighter. People appeared friend lier. Many of these people were on the brink of suicide. Prior to the experience, they really did not think that they would be around much longer. They were looking for a way out, and death seemed a possible solution. But after the experience, they were saying, ‘Gosh, this is what I’m here for, this is what I can do.’ So the experience was really powerful in that way.”

And they never used drugs or alcohol again.

Most Americans do not find themselves in Alicia’s position—an alcoholic mother with a cocaine-addicted husband and no money to feed her two small children. Most people are not bankrupt or suicidal or disabled from a terrible disease or accident. And yet, many people claim they have been bowled over by something they consider supernatural. For these people, the trauma that leads them to an encounter with God is softer—an aimlessness, or unexplainable hopelessness—the kind of despair that Sophy Burnham felt when she looked at her perfect life and said, Is this all there is?

A confession here: I have more than a clinical interest in understanding the prelude to dramatic spiritual experience. I want to know what happened to me.

And My Heart Was Strangely Warmed

I told you that I was assigned to write an article for the Los Angeles Times Magazine in June 1995. I did not tell you that at the time, my inner life was a sickening storm of misery. First, my career—always a bedrock of security and self-worth—tottered uncertainly. A year earlier, I had taken a leave from my eleven-year reporting career at The Christian Science Monitor for a fellowship at Yale Law School, and finally decided to leave the news business for good. I had received a book contract to write about Burma’s Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and was preparing to move to Rangoon, which almost everyone I knew thought was professional suicide.

My personal life was equally uncertain: thirty-five and single, I had met a marvelous fellow whom I expected to marry. Unfortunately, it was for the wrong reason: I could already smell the loneliness of middle age and was determined to stave it off. At bottom I knew the relationship would end on the shoals, either before or after the wedding vows.

Most disquieting of all was my crumbling faith in the religion of my childhood, Christian Science. Everything I cared about deeply—my relationship with my parents, my friends at church, my job at The Christian Science Monitor, the metaphysical worldview that steered my thoughts and actions—all this threatened to topple once I admitted that I no longer had the energy or fortitude to believe in Christian Science.

I felt as if I were in an operating theater, watching as those parts of my life that defined me were surgically removed. A snip here, and my career is removed; a slice there, my faith lies in ruins; a third incision severs my hopes for marital bliss. The surgery was complete. I could no longer identify who I was, for all the distinguishing parts had disappeared. Into that vacuum rushed the shrill questions of an untethered soul: What is my purpose in life? Will I ever have a family, or will I end up a moderately successful, tired woman who eats cereal for dinner alone each night? Mainly, I wondered, Is this all there is? They were always there, these questions so common as to be comical—and they drained me of all joy like a dull toothache.

This was the backdrop for my trip to Los Angeles for the Times article. These were the questions in the back of my mind when I met Kathy Younge at Saddleback Church, when I listened to her story of cancer and hope, when I sensed an unseen but palpable force as we sat on a bench in the dark, cool night. I returned to my hotel and the next morning bought a Bible. I wanted to know the source of Kathy’s serenity in the midst of cancer, and so I began to read the biography of Jesus, beginning with the book of Matthew.

There is a reason the Torah and the New Testament and the Koran are deemed sacred.When they are read at the right time, they can exert a seemingly physical power. The Gospels—which tell of the kindness and boldness and humanness of Jesus—reached up and grabbed me, demanded that I pay attention. The words of Matthew the tax collector, Mark the itinerant, Luke the doctor, and John the fisherman hijacked my senses. I heard the voice of Jesus saying to the prostitute,“Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more”—I heard it as if he had uttered those words to me. I tasted the salty air of the Galilean Sea and smelled the fear of the fishermen caught in a vicious squall.When Jesus touched the desperate leper, I recoiled from the brackish wounds. This two-thousand-year-old story sprung, like those pop-up birthday cards, from two dimensions to three—from myth to concrete reality.

What unnerved me was that this feeling seemed to come from outside me, not within: it was as if someone had tied a rope around my waist and pulled me, slowly and with infinite determination, toward a door that was ajar. Over those next few days in Los Angeles, I grew curious—inordinately curious—about how these Christians I interviewed each day came to “know” God.What was the password, the open sesame that unlocked the mystical door to God? I determined to find out, and as I interviewed people for my Times article, I also collected “testimonies”—the stories of people’s conversions—hoping to find the combination to the lock. My curiosity became an urgent thirst. I had sipped something mystical on that chilly Saturday night with Kathy Younge, and I wanted more. It was like a long day at the ocean, where nothing matters—nothing—except feeling long, cold drafts of water glide down your throat. King David captured it nicely: As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for Thee, O Lord.

On June 14, 1995, around two o’clock in the afternoon, I lowered my guard. I opened myself up just barely to the notion that there might be a God who cares about me in the same way that Jesus cared about, say, his friend Mary. I prayed—and in that split second of surrender, I felt my heart stir and grow warm, as if it were changing. It was a physical thing, exquisite, undeniable.

Years later, I would learn about a far more famous heartwarming. In 1738, the British Anglican minister John Wesley was flailing about in his ministry, his faith intellectually strong but spiritually comatose. On May 24, he attended a small meeting of charismatic Moravians, who were known for their recklessly joyous faith. At that moment, a door inside Wesley unlocked, emotionally, spiritually. That moment left a visceral fingerprint. Later, he wrote five words that captured the touch of God: “My heart was strangely warmed.”

So it was for me. The moment was seared into my memory, and later, when I wondered if I had really encountered God, that warmed heart acted like a Polaroid snapshot, confirmation that a spiritual transaction had indeed taken place.

I wish I could tell you that I was blinded by a piercing light, as Saul was on the road to Damascus. I wish I could that say I smelled roses, the aroma that mystics inhaled in the presence of God. I wish I could tell you that I heard a roaring in my ears, or words, perhaps, like the few simple, ghostly words that Augustine caught when he opened his heart to God. My encounter with the unseen was not nearly so dramatic—not then, at any rate—and yet that quiet moment whipped me around with hurricane force. It became the continental divide of my life, the line that separates “before” and “after.” In the next several weeks, the colors I saw were almost unbearably vivid—the cobalt Los Angeles sky at night, the husky green of the summer grass. Even the tan upholstery of my car was so gentle and calflike, I ached to touch it. Things I once enjoyed became dust in my mouth. I walked out of The Bridges of Madison County because I could not bear the pain on Meryl Streep’s face—she was an actor, for Pete’s sake, but I could not tolerate even fictional sadness.

And I was terrified by the implications of my decision. My family jokes that all truth can be found in the movies. Perhaps, perhaps not, but the most authentic spiritual moment I have witnessed is not in church but in the movie The Apostle. Robert Duvall plays a Pentecostal preacher who murders his wife’s lover and flees to Louisiana. He starts a new church, and his flamboyant, holy-roller sermons on the local radio station draw devout, poor, black parishioners.

No sooner has the dilapidated church been repaired and painted than a redneck crashes the services and threatens the parishioners. He arrives during a church picnic on a bulldozer, prepared to mow the church down. Duvall places the Bible on the ground, in his path, and the irate man leaps off the machine. When he stoops to snatch up the book, the preacher kneels behind him, gently placing his hands on the man’s shoulders. Quietly, the man begins to cry.

“I’m embarrassed,” he whispers, and then he surrenders to God. The man weeps for all he is leaving behind—his friends, his tough image, the internal compass that guided his life. He weeps in terror for the future—where will he fit into the world now, now that his north is no longer true? He weeps out of utter humiliation, a strapping man lying facedown in the dust before the dark-skinned worshippers he has so long despised. It was the most realistic conversion I have ever seen.

I say that because this is what I felt. I, too, had much to lose by my spiritual transformation that day in Los Angeles: my friends, my ambitions, the educated image I held of myself and presented to others. Would I have to check my intellect at the door and take everything on faith? How was I to survive, a believer in a world of skeptics, particularly journalists? How would I navigate my world with this new spiritual compass? And at what cost?

In the next few days, I would get a glimpse of the price of wholesale spiritual upheaval. My beau, Steve, was moving to Burma in two weeks. He had managed to find a job there so that we could be together when I wrote my book. A day after this encounter with God, I telephoned Steve from Los Angeles.

“Steve,” I said in a tremulous voice, “I can’t go to Burma with you. I found God.”

An eternal silence ensued.

“Aw, honey,” he said. Another long pause. “I was waiting for this to happen.” Pause. “Your timing’s off, but I’m happy for you.”

Steve would spend the next four years in Burma. He eventually found someone else to love. As for me, it would take me another seven years—past the time I could have children—to find my wonderful husband.

My spiritual transformation blinded me with its intensity, a sunburst eclipsing the stars; it took some time for my eyes to adjust back to the more bearable, and dimmer, hues of daily life and work and love. God outshined all other relationships, which is why Sophy Burnham’s words years later gave me such a jolt. “How can I compete with God?” her husband had asked. And she responded, “You can’t.

A Conversion of Body and Spirit

Ever since my own encounter with something mystical, I have wondered about the physical nature of these moments. I was relieved to find I was not alone: almost every person I interviewed spoke of the light or warmth or the physical touch at the moment they connected with the divine. Sophy Burnham heard a voice; Arjun Patel saw Buddha’s eyes; Alicia felt a shock of warmth straighten her spine.

These stories made me wonder how a scientist might explain these reactions. Perhaps that jolt of warmth that burned through Alicia’s body was a brief break with reality. Perhaps it was a mental delusion brought on by years of physical and emotional stress. Or perhaps it was the fingerprint that proves God was there.

I called Patrick McNamara, a neurologist at Boston University’s School of Medicine and editor of Where God and Science Meet, three volumes on the latest research exploring the science of religious experience. 4 I wanted to understand what was taking place at a biological level to bring Alicia or Sophy or me to—and through—that breaking point.

McNamara explained that no scientist can say with certainty what happens during these moments. No one, as far as we know, has ever hit bottom and undergone a spiritual experience while he happened to be in a brain scanner. Still, we do know a few things about the biology of stress and the neurology of meditation, and this allows scientists to make an educated guess.

Some scientists believe that just below a person’s well-tended exterior lies an underbrush as dry as timber, strewn with stress, trauma, or a search for meaning. These psychological states are quietly waiting, primed for a spark to ignite a spiritual blaze. That spark can appear insignificant or even random—a stressful day at work, a Zen haiku, a long-forgotten song—but it is enough to set in motion a chain reaction. As in the more dramatic cases, the prelude to this transformative moment is not just emotional. One’s body plays a part as well. Something is happening in the mind and in the body, in the psyche and in the physiology, at an emotional and at a cellular level. And at some point these two states, interacting, bring the person to a tipping point.

“There’s a whole series of stress hormones, so when the mind interprets a set of events as negative, the stress hormones get released,” McNamara explained.“And they function to recruit all kinds of chemicals to meet a threat. In the short term, these chemicals make you stronger and sharper and more vigilant. But in the long term, when the vigilant state becomes chronic, this leads to tissue damage and prolonged activation of the epinephrine system, which activates all of the parts of the body that are meant to meet a threat—the brain, the muscles—the hair, even. If you stay in vigilant state for too long, you’ll collapse sooner or later.”

When a person reaches “bottom”—if she is lucky—certain things begin to happen. The body may “up-regulate.” On the basis of meditation studies, some scientists speculate that when people “let go,” as Alicia did when she rested her head on the cool kitchen sink, that can set off a chain of events. The anxiety dissipates, leading to lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. The person feels less pain and fear, her breathing slows, and she experiences a sense of release and joy. This is associated with endorphins (natural opiates that the body produces), which are best known for the rush of good feeling called “runner’s high.” The sensation of happiness and euphoria is enhanced by an overall elevation of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. (Prozac, for example, works in the serotonin system to raise the bottom of depression.) Emotional release can also lead to a surge in a feel-good chemical called dopamine.5

This goes some distance toward explaining the bodily mechanics of a conversion or a transforming moment. But does that mean that the “encounter” is nothing more than Alicia’s body readjusting itself to stress? Or did her body reflect the touch of “God,” of something spiritual, just as water forms ripples when touched by your finger? The answer to that question is not a matter of science—not yet at least—but of opinion, of what you believe about the nature of reality.

For people like me, this is not an academic question. After all, my own worldview changed dramatically, and it mattered to me whether I was touched by the Divine, or just plain deluding myself.Was that sensation of my heart warming no more spiritual than, say, the cold sweat a diabetic feels when his blood sugar dips?

These questions simmered in my mind for years, and in April 2006, I spotted an opportunity to answer them.While attending a conference on science and spiritual transformation at the University of California at Berkeley, I met two very smart and very sympathetic medical researchers. At the tail end of the conference, I asked to speak with them privately, and told them about my experience eleven years earlier when I had surrendered to God and felt my heart “warm.” They asked that I not identify them, because even tipping one’s hat to spiritual things can mar a career in science.

“Physiologically, what happened?” I asked them.

“Probably there was an increased blood flow to the heart, and that made it warm,” one explained.“There are two predominant systems that operate. There’s the parasympathetic system, which calms you down, and there’s a sympathetic system, which revs you up. And so what you’re describing, probably, is that the parasympathetic system kicked in.”

The researcher also theorized that a hormone called oxytocin might have been produced in the brain. Oxytocin is the chemical messenger that is produced when a mother is bonding with her newborn baby. And this hormone affects different organs—including, she speculated, the heart.

“I think she’s right on,” the other researcher said, nodding. He said that studies on primates, rabbits, and bulls suggest that oxytocin release is related to love, and some studies suggest it brings on an “oceanic,” sometimes mystical, feeling.

“I’d put my money on something that oxytocin is doing,” he said. He noted that in my own case, I had been strained with tensions over work, my boyfriend, and some problems with my physical health. Then an insight, a prayer, a moment of surrender, and the parasympathetic system took over, soothing and calming the body.

“We often underestimate the effects of just relaxing your muscles,” he said. “A good massage and suddenly, Hey! The rest of my life is good! And you probably had pretty powerful muscle relaxation.”

“But what does that mean?” the first researcher asked. “So there’s a physiological correlate of whatever is going on. So what? That still doesn’t explain it.”

Both researchers nodded, acknowledging a central tension in this line of inquiry: science may explain the biology of spiritual experience, but it cannot explain the experience away.

A Journey, Not a State

Neurologist Patrick McNamara warned me against pinpointing trauma as the primary trigger for spiritual experience.

“I agree that stress and distress and pain and suffering can certainly lead to spiritual experiences,” he said. “But in my experience, interviewing lots of people, and working with lots of different patient groups and reading the literature, I think the thing that consistently leads to spiritual experience is a concerted effort on behalf of the individual to grow in the spiritual life.”

He took a deep breath. “In other words, spirituality or religiosity is not simply a response to stress or brokenness or pain or suffering or joy, or any particular emotion. It can be a goal.”

This suggests another intriguing catalyst for spiritual experience, one that differs radically from gnawing stress and sudden pain. It is not a state but a journey. It is the search for meaning.

“The human creature is built to need a purpose in life,” observed psychologist Ray Paloutzian at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. “And if someone doesn’t have one, they’re going to invent one. And one of the ways that humans do this is by adopting a religious worldview, or some kind of spiritual approach to the world. If they don’t have it already—or if they’re not comfortable with the one they have—then, because it’s a need, they’re more prone to spiritual experience.”

You might think that spiritual experience should be in the same category as, say, fantasy football or learning Italian—a hobby to brighten one’s otherwise dull routine. Or you could conclude that spirituality is a mild psychosis that one develops to cope with reality. However you view it, one of the most powerful triggers for dramatic spiritual events is the desire for it, the kind of search that keeps one up at night, wondering about the universe.

When I began this book, I instinctively knew that my search would reveal a multifaceted “Other,” one perhaps more defensible than a list of attributes I memorized somewhere in my Judeo-Christian upbringing: God is love and spirit, omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience, to name only a few. It took no more than a few weeks investigating spirituality to stumble upon three surprising characteristics of this “Other” not found in any catechism: God as master craftsman, God as chemist, and God as electrician. The next leg of this journey, then, leads through the hard, sometimes reductionist, science, which in my opinion does not dismiss the notion of God but informs it.

By “God as master craftsman,” I mean the one who organizes a person’s genes into an astonishingly intricate code. Those genes give a person blue or hazel eyes, make him shy or extroverted, literal-minded or spiritual. God as craftsman helps me with a puzzle that has gnawed at me for years. Many people suffer traumatic experiences, but only some encounter what they believe is another reality. On the flip side, some people experience another reality without a psychological trigger. Why are some people predisposed toward God and others not?

Enter the “God gene.”

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