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Big DreamsReview - Big Dreams
The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion
by Kelly Bulkeley
Oxford University Press, 2016
Review by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Ph.D.
Oct 25th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 43)

Kelly Bulkeley is seriously interested in both dreaming and religion. He has published Dreaming in the Classroom: Practices, Methods, and Resources in Dream Education (with Philip King and Bernard Welt) Dreaming in the World's Religions: A Comparative History, and American Dreamers: What Dreams Tell Us about the Political Psychology of Conservatives, Liberals, and Everyone Else (Beacon Press, 2008).

This book, which proposes to combine research on dreaming with ideas about the origins of religion, is both scholarly and frustrating. That is because it provides the reader with interesting reviews of academic research, while failing to deliver what its subtitle not only implies, but promises.

Historically, there has been a debate between those who think that the origin of religion lies in special events and experiences (and this is what every religion tells us) and those who suggest that religion has grown out of universal, normal, processes. In the Introduction to this book, Bulkeley asserted that he would be applying insights from the cognitive approaches to religion or cognitive science of religion (CSR). These insights seem to be ignored later on. Cognitive approaches describe the origins of religious ideas in innate cognitive mechanisms, which make all religious ideations possible. In CSR theorizing, there can be no need for big dreams or little dreams. The attempt to integrate, or reconcile, CSR with the Big Dreams approach is doomed to fail.

The book's thesis, presented in the Introduction (p. 3) is that  "dreaming has something to do with the way religious ideas and feelings get started in people's minds" (italics in the original). The reader should expect the rest of the book to provide evidence relevant to this argument.

But then the author devotes the first 200 pages to an exhaustive review of academic research on sleep and dreaming, including data on insomnia and the right number of hours slept per night.

The book has 274 pages, excluding footnotes and references, and only on  p. 213, the book turns to its topic of religion. The author provides an explanation for the power of religious hierarchies in history, as follows: "Throughout history, religions have taken advantage of the fears that naturally arise in nightmares, using those anxieties to manipulate people's feelings and instill ideas in their minds that might not accept in less frightened and vulnerable conditions. Religious teachings about demons, ghosts, and evil spirits exploit the human propensity to experience terrifying dreams, filling people's minds with irrational worries about supernatural beings intent on doing them harm. These beliefs lead people to rely even more strongly on the religious authorities  to provide them with spiritual protection, thus leading to a self-sustaining  cycle of cynical deception and emotional abuse" (p. 213). (Do worries and fears arise only out of nightmares? Many of our waking thoughts are about dangers and mortality).

Later, we find the following: "Religions take advantage of these cognitive misfirings to persuade people that prophetic dreams and other divinatory practices can provide accurate information about the future" (p.  228).

As explanations for the power of institutional religion, such claims not only fall short of the mark, but ignore the more basic questions about religious ideation. The cynical priesthood idea has been around since antiquity, and was popular among Enlightenment writers. It may still be used by anti-religious writers, but Richard Dawkins (2008), who cannot be suspected of sympathy for any priesthood, explicitly states that if we accept the cognitive theories of religion, there is no need for any explanations in terms of cynical manipulations.

Cynical leaders and operatives may be found in many groups, organizations, and movements. One could easily think of secular leaders in nationalist movements and revolutions (see Genet, 1956/1994). One could think of cynical secular psychotherapists, the purveyors of "alternative medicine", vitamins, health food, and anti-aging quacks. Of course, there are also totally sincere individuals who may provide useless or harmful products and ideas.

Bulkeley states that "Dream-based rituals and practices can stimulate a natural placebo effect that aids the body's innate capacities for healing, recovery and self-repair" (p. 243). No evidence is presented for this piece of New Age psychobabble.  

In addition to the above examples, the book contains several puzzling assertions. The author claims that the Book of Proverbs in the Bible was written "nearly 3,000 years ago" (p. 44) and then mentions that it is "attributed to the great king Solomon, ruler of the Israelite monarchy at the height of its wealth and prosperity (970-931 B.C.E.)" (p. 44). Despite the exact dating, "Solomon"   and the Israelite monarchy are only figments of the mythological imagination. As to the Book of Proverbs, it is a collection of traditional sayings, some taken from ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources, which were redacted probably about 2,000 years ago. 

The author offers us a discussion of cave art, which plausibly might have been created in the context of ritual. He approvingly quotes the following:"…entry into the subterranean passages was probably seen as equivalent to psychic entry into deeply altered states of consciousness" (p.  83). This is speculation, with no evidence to support it, and no means of testing it.

In the Conclusion, the author states that "…the neurocognitive architecture of sleep sets the stage for vivid and highly memorable dream experiences that many people find religiously meaningful" (p.  271;italics in original). The religious meaning of dreams, when experienced or professed, is learned and culture bound. The spirits which appear in dreams or visions are totally predictable from our knowledge of the specific culture. "Religious meaning" is tied to specific images among Tibetan Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims.

Further on, the author proposes that "Any religious group that opposes imagery or visual representations of the divine is likely to have trouble with dreaming, because dreaming is an inexhaustible source of vivid, spiritually charged visionary experiences. The same goes for any religious group that tries to impose strict controls on sexual expression--dreams are going to be a problem for them because of the irrepressible sexual energies that naturally course through the dreaming process. And it seems probable that any religious group with a fundamentalist outlook…will avoid contact with dreams because of their tendency toward heretical, boundary-crossing, taboo-violating content" (p. 272).This is the most puzzling paragraph in a book with many of the kind. Does the author mean the Fundamentalist leaders, or Muslim and Jewish leaders (who oppose graven images) are going to tell their followers to stop dreaming?

Despite all the serious research, dreams remain a mystery, because of their subjective and private nature. They may be experienced most often as fragmentary narratives, but then undergo what Freud called "secondary elaboration", presented in the form of polished texts. As the author admits: "We can never know with certainty whether or not people are telling the truth about their experiences" (p. 234).

In closing, I can now repeat my usual complaint about the 'Footnotes. The book contains 29 pages of footnotes. Most of them could have become part of the main text. The rest could have been deleted. The old footnoting style, inherited from the humanities, is a drag on readers and writers.



Dawkins, R. (2008). Richard Dawkins.  In N. Frankenberry (ed.).  The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words. pp. 268-295. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Genet, J. (1994). The Balcony. New York: Grove Press.


© 2016 Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi


Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Haifa and senior research associate at Trinity College, Hartford, CT.  Among his publications: Psychoanalysis and Theism (2010), and Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity  (2015).


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