Meeting Jesus at Oxford

Why are undergraduates at Britain's oldest and most respected universities more likely to undergo conversion to fundamentalist forms of Christianity than other students?

Fortean Times/January 2011

The second the new students arrived, the Christian Union set about introducing them to Jesus.

In my case, we hadn't even parked in front of my hall of residence (an outbuilding of Durham University's Coll­ege of St Hild and St Bede), when we were approached by a beaming third-year offering to help me and my parents unpack.

"What a friendly guy!" I remember thinking as he assisted us in unloading the mass­ive computer, the heaving suitcases and the telly. As I got chatting to other freshers, our helper chimed in: "OK, Ed! It was really nice to meet you! I've left an invitation to a party that we're having! It'd be great if you could come along!"

It was the "Hild Bede College Christian Union Chocolate Party". And it heralded my initiation into a new world... a world where students hear the voice of God, experience visions, enter trances where they speak in tongues and where atheists have dramatic conversions to fundamentalist Christianity. And the more I looked into it, the more I found that this was much more likely to happen to students at elite universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Durham. If you get into a 'respected' university it can open many doors - and you're much more likely to meet Jesus while you're there... but why?

The Christian Union Chocalate Party

During the Fresher's Week leading up to the party, I found that four people on my corridor of 15 were 'fundamentalist' Christ­ians. They rejected pre-marital sex, evol­utionary theory and the university's drinking culture, regarded the Bible as the inerr­ant Word of God, went to church twice on Sundays and, naturally, joined the Christian Union (CU). They dressed slightly differently ("modestly", the girls called it), spoke differently (no swearing, lots of Christian 'dialect') and used the word 'Christian' only to mean 'fundamentalist'. Indeed, you had to "become a Christian" - "give yourself to God", usually after a dramatic experience of Him. For these people, God was real: they'd met Him. I was fascinated. I was definitely going to the Chocolate Party.

At first, it just seemed like harmless fun with lots of very polite, upper-middle-class Christians. There were games, jokes and a lot of chocolate eating. But the atmosphere changed when a girl called "Naomi" arose to give her 'testimony'. [1] She explained that when she'd arrived at Durham two years earlier (it was 1999 at the time), she had regarded herself and her church-going parents as 'Christian'; she soon realised that she wasn't, and was "going to go to Hell". Then, one evening on our corridor, she was having a shower when Jesus appeared to her and told her to follow him.

"I broke down... just crying my eyes out and that's when I gave myself to Jesus." She was "sad" that her parents would "go to Hell" but they had "rejected His offer". With tears in her eyes, she ended: "And I know my place in Heaven is secure."

Naïve, sceptical theology student that I was, I got talking to "Naomi" afterwards and proceeded to throw the contents of my recently completed A-Level in Christian Theology at her and, specifically, the Philo­sophy of Religion Module, which armed me with numerous (I thought unassailable) proofs that this world was your lot. She obviously found this threatening, and I'll never forget her response. Her eyes became glassy and cold. It was as if I was no longer in front of her and she was looking through me. She continued to respond to my points, but all the time confronting me with this deeply unnerving, zombie-like stare. [2]

Over the coming months, it was as if Jesus lived on our corridor. A female English student from Kent, an Anglican but not a 'fundamentalist', had a "moment of revelation" when she realised she was going to Hell and dumped her non-Christian boyfriend. A female Christian from north London realised that she hadn't become a Christian "when I was 15 like I originally thought", but only now. "I was in my room, on my bed, and I just realised 'Oh my God! I'm going to Hell basically!' I was just crying on my bed - I just totally broke down - and I just felt Jesus guiding me to him." In consequence, she stopped "snogging random guys". Then a male student on the corridor, a militant atheist, had a vision of God one Sunday afternoon: "I saw this face in the wall opposite my room and I realised it was God. Then I heard this voice say, 'You know I'm real,' and felt this unbelievable joy and certainty, like I was drowning in joy." For days afterwards, he would continue to hear God say, "You know I'm real." And he knew he was. A female student, an atheist and the daughter of an atheist, found herself - quite inexplicably - writing in her diary one day: "You are a Christian. Remember this day."

These religious experiences went way beyond just my corridor. By the third year, people started to admit one of two things. Either they'd been lying in the first year when they said they weren't virgins, or they'd had had some kind of numinous experience.

The strange thing was that friends who had gone to former polytechnics hadn't experienced anything like this. But friends who had gone to similar 'old school' univers­ities had found exactly what I had. What was going on? Why were these 'conversion experiences' and fundamentalist groups so big at these elite colleges?

Oxford and Aberdeen

If anything, Oxford University's Christian Union (OICCU - Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union) was like Durham to the power of 100. Firstly, it was far more 'Charis­matic' - the music, the encouragement to dance and wave your hands, the sometimes hypnotic speakers, all tended to contribute to an atmo­sphere in which religious experience was more likely to occur. The group had the same religious and ethical beliefs as the CU at Durham, but it was much larger, with more frequent meetings. Here, now a PhD student, I found that around a quarter of OICCU members had become Christians while they were at Oxford. This included stud­ents from non-Christian backgrounds (20 per cent of all members) and students from non-fundamentalist Christian backgrounds who'd thought they were already Christians when they turned up and were effectively told by OICCU members that they weren't.

Converts tended to be more over-the-top than established Christians, and would often play for status by openly speaking-in-tongues and prophesying at OICCU meetings. I remember one female student shouting hysterically, "Oh, thank you Jesus! Thank you Jesus! Thank you Jesus! Sha-la-la-la-la-la!" And the 'testimonies' were strikingly similar to those I'd heard at Durham: "I felt more and more like I didn't make sense without Him there and then I realised that maybe that was Him telling me something. So I prayed, I prayed harder than I've ever prayed, and I just dedicated myself to God... Oh! It's good to be back!" publicly proclaimed a male Christian who had previously 'back-slided'.

But at Aberdeen University, the CU was very different. Members weren't as 'fundamentalist', some might be inclined to date a non-Christian (though premarital sex was always a no-no) and they were much less inclined to dress differently or try to evangelise other students. Almost none of the members had become Christians while at university and, in fact, very few had ever had religious 'experiences' at all. This differ­ence couldn't just be put down to dour Scottish Calvinism - quite a few weren't Calvinist and, anyway, there are histories of charismatic revivals amongst Calvinists. Nor could it be explained by Oxford having a more active CU, because we're still left asking why it is more active. Why was Jesus appearing - and with such strength - to students at Oxford and Durham but not at Aberdeen University?

Selfhood and suffering

According to anthropologist Pascal Boyer, religious experience is a by-product of human evolution and 'cognitive architecture', which has given us an "agency over-detection system". This is a useful adaptation; if we see a rock from a distance and assume it's a wolf, then no harm is done when it turns out to be, in fact, just a rock. If it is a wolf, then our survival might be a consequence of our early perception. Our human ancestors had to deal with predators and prey, and in both situations there is an advantage to over-detection. [3]

For animals, environmental and 'pack' knowledge are separate 'domains', like the blades of a Swiss-army-knife, while for us, they're intermixed: so we can perceive agency (pack knowledge) in nature (environ­mental knowledge).[4] And, as pack animals, we have evolved to be highly suggestible (hypnotisable) and acquiescent to the pack leader. This is a potent mix, and means that when we are 'hypnotised' - something caused by being deeply relaxed or fired up - we are far more likely, with our evolutionary hard-wiring, to perceive agency in the world, to accept what we're told by dominant people and to be very fervent about it.

Universities like Oxford seem to induce something like this state to a far greater extent than universities like Aberdeen. Oxford is like one of the tribal 'Rites of Initiation' studied by anthropologists. It raises the status of 'children' to that of fully fledged 'adults' who are destined to run the tribe - and graduates from prestigious universities are the ones expected to run our tribe. Just as with the Ndembu of Zambia,[5] for example, they reach this higher status through suffering. Oxford cuts off its 'neophytes' from the tribe so it can break them down and refashion them anew, indoctrin­ated with new values and ways of thinking. "David", one OICCU interviewee, certainly found university difficult.

"I hated it at first. I was so overjoyed to have got in, but after a few weeks I hated everything about it. I just wanted to go home." Oxford took him away from everything that his sense of self was built on: his hometown, his family and friends. It placed him in a college with people he would have had little to do with before: students from all over the country, from affluent, privately educated backgrounds, who had often been to boarding school and had a gap year, making university far less traumatic for them. Oxford has numerous ways of attacking your sense of who you are: formal meals and other rituals where everyone has to wear the same clothes, the shared trauma of near-constant essays, a weekly academic inquisition, the sole purpose of which is to question everything you believe makes sense, and exposure to extremely intense relationships and their almost inevitable break-down. Oxford is infamous for its rates of student depression.[6] The whole point is to break you down, and so it's little wonder that religious fundamentalism thrives in such an environment. Research in America has found that Christian students who go to Christian colleges tend to come out more liberal; Christian students at Ivy League Universities become more 'fundamentalist' as their faith is challenged and they react to it by creating a fortress.[7]

Aberdeen University is very different. Most students are from state schools, many are from the local area, there are very few rituals, essays are infrequent, exams less nerve-racking, students do not live in intense colleges, there isn't the 'expectation' attached to going to an elite institution; overall, the experience is less distressing, less likely to make you question who you are, and less likely to lead to a religious conversion.

So, is this why students at Oxford and Durham "meet Jesus" more often than those at Aberdeen? It probably plays a big part; but why do some students from the same backgrounds convert while others don't?

Evangelical priests have suggested that Oxford University students are just brighter and so more likely to get to the truth - which is evangelical Christianity. The Rev. Simon Ponsonby, vicar of one of the churches attended by OICCU, takes this view. He argues that the difference is there because at Oxford there are "highly intelligent students, seriously, intellectually considering the claims of Christ and profoundly convicted by the truth. Having done numerous evangelistic-type events in colleges and for OICCU, followed up by determined questioning, I can assure you that the intellect­ual, rational and reasonable nature of the Christian faith is very important in people coming to faith."[8] But conversions are emotional epiphanies, and are unlikely to relate directly to high levels of rational intelligence. Intelligence may well be an issue, just not in the way Rev. Ponsonby and others suggest.

God on the brain?

Michael Persinger (see FT42:50-54; 201:39; 205:4-5) has spent decades studying relig­ious experiences, and has even patented a machine which, in most subjects (though not Richard Dawkins!)[9] allows him to induce a religious experience in the lab by electrically stimulating certain parts of the brain. Persinger believes that religious experiences occur due to the stimulation of the temporal lobe area. The brain is divided into four 'lobes,' symmetrical on each side: frontal, parietal, occipital and temporal. The temporal lobe is involved in auditory processing and the processing of speech and vision. It is also the location of the hippo­campus, which plays a vital part in long-term memory and spatial navigation. The amygdala too is found deep within the temporal lobes, and plays a key part in processing memory and emotional reactions. "Visions," says Persinger, "are caused by electrical microseizures within deep structures of the temporal lobe." These microseizures are caused by stimulation of the amygdala area, which relates to strong emotions.

"People who reported greater numbers of different types of paranormal experiences also reported greater numbers of temporal lobe signs," explains Persinger. "We have found a moderate strength (about 0.6) posit­ive correlation over about 30 years of data collection between experiences consistent with elevated electrical sensitivity in the temporal lobes (particularly in the right hemisphere) and the propensity for mystical and conversion experiences. The temporal lobe scales are also correlated moderately with indicators of creativity, imagination, memory capacity and suggestibility... I would suggest that perhaps the students selected to attend [Oxford University] display more of these capacities in addit­ion to their high intelligence."[10]

Oxbridge students are obviously very intelligent - only a tiny minority of the very strongest candidates get in. Though it remains unproven, the high intellig­ence of Oxbridge students is likely to be coupled with a high level of creativity - which might be a significant factor behind the high levels of conversion experience at such universities.

In another report, Persinger surveyed two groups of male and female univers­ity students. He found that people who reported religious experiences in this survey were more likely to enjoy reading and writing. In understanding the difference between Oxford University and Aberdeen University in terms of conversions, 'intellig­ence' - or creativity or original thinking - might, therefore, be a factor.

Rejects from Oxford and Cambridge tend to go to certain respected univers­ities such as Durham and Bristol. However, many English students at Aberdeen are rejected by these universities, while Scott­ish students (the overwhelming majority) have sometimes been rejected by Edinburgh or Glasgow. Accordingly, the putative lower level of creativity amongst these stud­ents - taken together with the university environment's lower psychological intensity - might help to explain the relative lack of conversions at Aberdeen (and elsewhere). The evidence seems to indicate significant variations in intelligence within prestigious universities,[11] making it even more likely that the issue is 'creativity' which, beyond an IQ of 120, is independent of intelligence, reflecting a psychotic 'personality type'.[12]

And there is striking evidence of a relat­ionship between 'hypnotisability' and a high level of creative intelligence. 'Grade 5' individuals - those highly susceptible to hypnosis - make up about 10 per cent of the population. Though more inclined to feeling than reasoning, 'Grade 5s' are usually of formidable intelligence, able to focus and concentrate to quite an extraordinary degree - even to the extent that they can become victims of this capacity because so easily hypnotised. Such people can get effortlessly into a trance state, and are accordingly extremely prone to religious experiences. Their lack of cynicism means they are particularly open to the merits and demerits of different points of view - they would check out a CU meeting rather than just dismiss it as nonsense. They also have extremely good memories (something vital to high performance in both written and oral exams).

"The Grade 5 has an excellent memory. Like a sponge absorbs water, they take in everything," explain psychiatrists Herb­ert and David Spiegel. Grade 5s, with their superb recall, can regress under hypnosis to their child-selves with an extraordinary degree of accuracy, always remaining in the present tense. Highly intelligent students are likely to be very competent at acquiring knowledge and approaching new knowledge with open minds. However, the flipside of this is that they are prone to hypnosis, which could lead both to religious experiences or, in extreme cases, brainwashing.[13]

So is Jesus stalking the corridors of Durham and Oxford because the type of intelligent-creative students there are just far more prone to indoctrination and hypnosis - the very kind of experiences that such pressurised environments induce?

Of course, religious experiences can happen in other places, and can have far subtler effects on how people see the world than those I found in the Durham or Oxford CUs. Then there are those not particularly religious students who've had religious experiences and, as a result, have not become fundamentalists, but rather much more critical and less willing to assert anything with absolute certainty.

"I had an experience," one former Oxford student told me, "of a kind of tunnel opening up, inviting me to travel down it. It makes you think, certainly. It makes you more critical of the things you hold to be true."

And a Durham music student, arriving at university as a Christian, had a kind of 'de-conversion experience' which has just left him wondering about the nature of the world and particularly sceptical of people who claim "to have some gnosis, you know, some ultimate truth". Perhaps, then, universities like Oxford can add not only to the Christian but also to the fortean fold...


1. All names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

2. According to cult expert Marc Galanter, this "glazed, withdrawn look" is a classic sign of a "religious cult" - "the trance-like state appears to protect the sect's 'boundaries' by disturbing the perceived antagonist". Marc Galanter: Cults: Faith Healing and Coercion, Oxford University Press, 1999, p107. See also Edward Dutton: "Eye-Glazing and the Anthropology of Religion", Anthropology Matters, 2007, 9:1.

3. Pascal Boyer: Religion Explained, William Heinnemann, 2001.

4. Steven Mithen: The Prehistory of the Mind, Thames & Hudson, 1996.

5. See Victor Turner: The Ritual Process, Aldine Publishers, New York, 1969.

6. Shirley Fisher: Stress in Academic Life, Open University Press, Buckingham, 1994.

7. Philip Hammond & James Hunter: "On Maintaining Plausibility: The Worldview of Evangelical College Students", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1984, 23:3.

8. Pers. comm, July 2009.

9. As recorded on Horizon: God and the Brain, BBC2, broadcast 17 April 2003.

10. Pers. comm, July 2009.

11. C Mascie-Taylor, A MacLarnon & P Lanigan: "Personality and IQ Score Variation in Cambridge Undergrad­uate Sample", Journal of Biological Science, 1983, 15:501-508.

12. HJ Eysenck: "Personality and Intelligence: Psychometric and Experimental Approaches", in Robert Sternberg & Patricia Ruzgis (eds): Personality and Intelligence, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

13. Herbert Spiegel & David Spiegel: Trance and Treatment: Clinical Uses of Hypnosis, American Psychiatric Association, 2004.

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