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A while back I got on a Bert Ehrman kick for some reason. I ended up listening to five or six debates that he did with a number of conservative evangelical scholars. The debates usually address the historical reliability of the Gospels. Ehrman–not surprisingly, if you’re familiar with his work–argued that from a scientific/historical perspective, the gospels aren’t historically accurate or reliable in the modern sense of the word. The academic historical process attempts to uncover what the most probable rendering of events was. Because miracles are by definition the least probable possibility, the Gospels aren’t reliable. So says Ehrman, at least.
One of the topics that received decent play in several of the debates was the possibility of group hallucinations. Group hallucinations were one of the possible explanation for some of the miracles recorded in the Gospel accounts. Ehrman and whoever he is debating go back and forth over whether divine intervention or a group hallucination is the more probable explanation. Accounts of group hallucination are rare and poorly documented in the academic practice of psychology. Even NT Wright (an individual whose academic reputation far outshines those with whom Ehrman is debating) in his and Marcus Borg’s book The Meaning of Jesus, argues that it is unlikely that the idea of Jesus could have transformed from the Historical Jesus to Jesus Christ (God incarnate) in such a short period of time in the minds of the Believers in Jesus.
I’m no psychologist, nor have I researched group hallucinations. However, I do believe that there is compelling evidence that coercive forces of group dynamics make a compelling explanation. Take the following video as evidence. It’s another example of the work of shaman/pastor Rob de Luca. Whether or not this qualifies as group hallucination, I’m not qualified to say. However, I think it demonstrates how compelling the pressure to fit in can be. I mean, from all indications these people actually believe that de Luca is tossing glory bombs. They actually feel themselves getting hit by something. Also, take note how quickly the newcomer conforms to group norms.
A spontaneous group hallucination is highly improbable. I, for one, would be skeptical of such an occurrence. However, if sufficient pressure to conform to a group exists, I believe it’s entirely possible for a group of people to legitimately believe the are experiencing a non-real experience. The brain’s ability to override perception combined with sufficient social pressure may lead to something not too unlike a group hallucination. I would suspect that the participants in this video would be able to provide a fairly cohesive, unified explanation of their experiences. Save for the ridiculousness of the actual circumstances, their accounts–even from the newcomer–would probably be similar enough to be credible. It doesn’t quite amount to group hallucination, but I think this video provides strong evidence that social pressure can create a similar environment.