Hearing Voices, Epilepsy, and Religious Experience

McCauley and Graham’s New Solutions to Old Problems


  • Jakub Cigán Masaryk University




brain disorder, mental illness, religious experience, mystical experience, epilepsy, St. Paul, CSR, McCauley, Graham


Approaching religious or mystical experience in association with mental or brain disorder has been a widespread practice in psychology and neuropsychology, but not so much in the cognitive science of religion (CSR). By their recent book, McCauley and Graham balance the disproportion within CSR. In the commentary, I address McCauley and Graham’s solutions to fundamental problems typical for the psychiatric approach to a religious experience. This approach understands religious experience as a mental or a brain disorder, diagnoses the disorder based on insufficient data in historical cases, and neglects cultural and historical aspects of religious experience and mental disorders. McCauley and Graham handle the diagnosis problem by focusing on the particular aspect of the religious experience (e.g., “hearing voices”) and analyzing its pathological and non-pathological aspects, instead of simply assuming disorder. In regards to the neglect of historical and cultural aspects of religious experience and mental illness, McCauley and Graham stress the importance of the cultural domestication of unusual aspects of religious experience. In dealing with the psychiatric approach problems, McCauley and Graham introduce a new complementary and complex theoretical model for embracing mental abnormalities into the framework of CSR.


Andersen, M., Pfeiffer, T., Müller, S., & Schjoedt. U. (2017). Agency detection in predictive minds: A virtual reality study. Religion, Brain & Behavior 9(1): 52–64. https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2017.1378709 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2017.1378709

Arias, M. (2019). Neurology of ecstatic religious and similar experiences: Ecstatic, orgasmic, and musicogenic seizures. Stendhal Syndrome and Autoscopic Phenomena. Neurología (English Edition) 34(1): 55–61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nrleng.2016.04.012 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nrleng.2016.04.012

Atran, S. (2002). In gods we trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barrett, J. L. (2004). Why would anyone believe in God? Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

Boyer, P. (2001). Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. New York: Basic Books.

Brorson, J. R., & Brewer, K. (1988). St Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 51(6): 886–887. https://doi.org/10.1136/jnnp.51.6.886 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1136/jnnp.51.6.886

Brown, Warren S., & Caetano, C. (1992). Conversion, cognition, and neuropsychology. In H. N. Malony, & S. Southard (Eds.). Handbook of religious conversion (pp. 147–158). Birmingham, AL: Religious Education.

Bryant, J. E. (1957). Genius and epilepsy: Brief sketches of great men who had both. Concord, MA: Old Depot.

Clancy, S. A. (2005). Abducted: How people come to believe they were kidnapped by aliens. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. https://doi.org/10.4159/9780674029576 DOI: https://doi.org/10.4159/9780674029576

Devinsky, O. (2003). Religious experiences and epilepsy. Epilepsy & Behavior 4(1): 76–77. https://doi.org/10.1016/s1525-5050(02)00680-7 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S1525-5050(02)00680-7

Dewhurst, K., & Beard, A. W. (1970). Sudden religious conversions in temporal lobe epilepsy. The British Journal of Psychiatry 117(540): 497–507. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.117.540.497 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.117.540.497

Foote-Smith, E., & Bayne, L. (1991). Joan of Arc. Epilepsia 32(6): 810–815. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1528-1157.1991.tb05537.x DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1528-1157.1991.tb05537.x

Freemo, F. R. (1976). A differential diagnosis of the inspirational spells of Muhammad the prophet of Islam. Epilepsia 17(4): 423–427. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1528-1157.1976.tb04454.x DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1528-1157.1976.tb04454.x

Gazzaniga, M. S., (Ed.). (1997). Conversations in the cognitive neurosciences. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/2162.001.0001 DOI: https://doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/2162.001.0001

———. (Ed.). (2000). The new cognitive neurosciences. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Grinker, R. R. (2007). Unstrange minds: Remapping the world of autism. New York: Basic Books.

Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the clouds: A new theory of religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

James, W. (1902/2002). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.1037/10004-000 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/10004-000

Landsborough, D. (1987). St. Paul and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry 50(6): 659–664. https://doi.org/10.1136/jnnp.50.6.659 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1136/jnnp.50.6.659

Maij, D. L. R., van Schie, H. T., & van Elk, M. (2019). The boundary conditions of the Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device: An empirical investigation of agency detection in threatening situations. Religion, Brain & Behavior 9(1): 23–51. https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2017.1362662 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2017.1362662

McCauley, R. N., & Graham, G. (2019). Hearing voices and other unusual experiences: What mental abnormalities can teach us about religions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Persinger, M. A. (1983). Religious and mystical experiences as artifacts of temporal lobe function: A general hypothesis. Perceptual and Motor Skills 57(3): 1255–1262. https://doi.org/10.2466/pms.1983.57.3f.1255 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2466/pms.1983.57.3f.1255

———. (1991). Preadolescent religious experience enhances temporal lobe signs in normal young adults. Perceptual and Motor Skills 72(2): 453–454. https://doi.org/10.2466/pms.1991.72.2.453 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2466/pms.1991.72.2.453

Schachter, S. C. (2006). Religion and the brain: The evidence from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. In Patrick McNamara (Ed.). Where God and science meet: How brain and evolutionary studies alter our understanding of religion (pp. 171–188). Westport, CT: Praeger.

van Elk, M. (2013). Paranormal believers are more prone to illusory agency detection than skeptics. Consciousness and Cognition 22(3): 1041–1046. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2013.07.004 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2013.07.004

van Elk, M., Rutjens, B. T., van der Pligt, J., & van Harreveld, F. (2014). Priming of supernatural agent concepts and agency detection. Religion, Brain & Behavior 6(1): 4–33. https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2014.933444 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2014.933444

Wiesner-Hanks, M. (2007). Women and religious change. In R. P. Hsia (Ed.). The Cambridge history of Christianity: Reform and expansion, 1500–1660 (pp. 465–482). Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521811620.026 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521811620.026



How to Cite

Cigán, J. (2021). Hearing Voices, Epilepsy, and Religious Experience: McCauley and Graham’s New Solutions to Old Problems. Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion, 7(1), 85–93. https://doi.org/10.1558/jcsr.20219



Book Panel