Prepared by Victoria Saunders, PhD
Part of the human experience is to ask life’s unanswerable questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Is there a God? If yes, how do we experience God in our lives? Over the past several decades, science and technology are beginning to help us answer some of these questions. Brain scans and contemporary neuroscience research is allowing us to learn more about a variety of religious and spiritual experiences, creating a new field of scientific study: Neurotheology.
The term “neurotheology” was first used by author Aldous Huxley in his utopian novel Island, published in 1962. It generally refers to spiritual neuroscience and seeks to understand religious experience and behavior within the study of neuroscience.
Laurence O. McKinney is credited with having published the first book on the subject, Neurotheology: Virtual Religion in the 21st Century, in 1994. McKinney claims that neurotheology is the basis of human religious inquiry and that brain function is responsible for various religious experiences.
Dr. Andrew B. Newberg writes in Principles of Neurotheology that “neurotheology is a unique field of scholarship and investigation that seeks to understand the relationship specifically between the brain and theology, and more broadly between the mind and religion. . . The scientific and religious communities have been very interested in obtaining more information regarding neurotheology, how to approach this topic, and whether science and religion can be integrated in some manner that preserves, and perhaps enhances, both.”
Newberg states that for neurotheology to be taken seriously as a field of scientific study, it requires a clear set of principles that support both the theological and religious perspective and the scientific one as well. It needs to be respectful and open to both the scientific side that encompasses the “neuro” part and the religious and spiritual side that comprises the theology. There is current data to support the notion that all religious and spiritual experiences are nothing more than biological phenomena. But there is also data that does not eliminate the notion that there is a divine presence in the world that we somehow connect to. Newberg points out that we see changes in the brain when someone experiences being in God’s presence. Newberg warns, however, that we need to be careful with our conclusions. These are not simple questions—there are no simple answers. But there is no question that neurotheology is raising some very important questions about our views of reality, how we perceive it, and how we make sense of it.
Similar to other new scientific fields of study, neurotheology is not without its critics and controversy. Scott Atran, author of In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion says that brain scans offer little in terms of understanding why human believe in God. He says, “Religion is a byproduct of many different evolutionary functions that organized our brains for day-to-day activity.” Scientific images can map our thoughts about God, but some feel like we are a long way from determining why we think of God in the first place.
The Chrysalis Perspective
Chrysalis Institute is always interested in contemporary scientific research, particularly as it relates to spiritual development and human well being. For much of history, the mind has been seen as separate from the body and science as separate from religion or the spiritual. However, Chrysalis has always appreciated the mind, body, brain, and soul connections and the inextricable link between faith and science. We know there is much to learn about how our spirituality affects are health and well being.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How does one apply science and the scientific method to theological questions?
A: We utilize brain-imaging studies to evaluate what is happening in people’s brains when they are in deep spiritual practice, like meditation or prayer. We can compare what’s going on in the their brain at that point to what is happening in their brain when they’re just at rest or perhaps when they’re doing some other kind of task, maybe a mathematics task or a relaxation task. And what we are able to find are the changes in the activity in different parts of the brain, how the different parts of the brain turn on or turn off, depending on the kind of practice and depending on the kind of experiences that they have.
We have learned from brain scans on people engaged in spiritual and religious practices that we see changes not only in the parts of the brain that help us focus our attention but the parts of our brain that help us with our emotional responses, to help to lower our levels of anxiety and depression and make us feel better. [From Dr. Andrew Newberg on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, December 15, 2010.]
Is God only in our brain?
A: Newberg’s research indicates that our only way of comprehending God, asking questions about God, and experiencing God is through the brain. But whether or not God exists “out there” is something that neuroscience cannot answer. To a certain degree, we all create our own sense of reality. Getting at what is really real is the tricky part. [From www.andrewnewberg.com]
Some have looked at the relationship between the brain and religion and have tried to make the argument that religion and God are really housed in one small area of the brain, i.e., the God Module or the God Spot? What does neurotheology say?
A: Andrew Newberg cites his own brain scan research and suggests that God is really a part of ourselves—it is really all of us. It’s the whole brain. Many different parts of the brain turn on or turn off during different kinds of religious or spiritual practices or states. The frontal lobes, the thalamus, the parietal lobes—all these different areas of the brain, emotional areas of the brain, all doing different things, depending on the spiritual practice. It seems quite unlikely, based on Newberg’s research, that there is one “God Spot” or “God module” in the brain.
Are we “hard-wired” for God? And why won’t God go away?
A: The term “hard-wired” suggests that we were purposefully designed that way. Neuroscience cannot answer the question of purposeful design. However, what we can say is the brain has two primary function that can be considered from either a biological or evolutionary perspective. These two functions are self-maintenance and self-transcendence. The brain performs both of these functions throughout our lives. It turns out that religion also performs these two same functions. So, from the brain’s perspective, religion is a wonderful tool because religion helps the brain perform its primary functions. Unless the human brain undergoes some fundamental change in its function, religion and God will be here for a very long time. [From www.andrewnewberg.com]
Does a Catholic relate to the spiritual experience the same as a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim or a Sikh or a Buddhist?
A: Newberg has done hundreds of brain scans on people with a variety of spiritual faiths using many different kinds of spiritual practices and having different types of religious experiences. He says that currently they have not been able to tease out the differences between the myriad of religions but there do seem to be differences.
Andrew B. Newberg | Principles of Neurotheology
Ashgate Religious and Science Series, 2010
Andrew B. Newberg and Mark Rober Waldman
How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist
Ballantine Books, New York, 2009
“God is in the Dendrites” by George Johnson
Slate Magazine | April 26, 2007
“Are Humans Hard-Wired for Faith?” by Chris Gajilan CNN Medical News | April 5, 2007
Andrew Newberg video on Big Think