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"This book is outrageously ambitious", writes Barbara Bradley Hagerty, the National Public Radio's award-winning religion correspondent, at the beginning of her personal and highly readable account of the different ways in which science and spirituality meet. She is right: the book is ambitious. Yet, Hagerty succeeds brilliantly in capturing the multifarious ways in which science and spirituality impinge on each other, without spiritualizing science or making spirituality the complement of a scientific worldview.
The narrative is embedded in Hagerty's own biography, and starts with her leaving behind her Christian Science upbringing. Yet instead of becoming a nonbeliever, Hagerty has religious experiences which motivate her to delve into issues concerning spirituality in life and in science. The central question which drives her search is: Is there more? For this book she interviewed countless people who also had religious experiences, as well as modern-day mystics and scientists – atheists, religious believers, and agnostics – who explore the fringes of science and spirituality. The result is a well-written pop-science book, which for some may be unsatisfying and fairly simple because of the lack of theoretical reflection, but that is nonetheless very effective in bringing home the central message of the book: No, science neither proves nor disproves God, but science is entirely consistent with God.
The route Hagerty takes in this book is organic and makes sense. She starts, in the first chapter, to introduce the topic and takes upon her the brave task of telling the world about her own religious experience. In chapter two she explores spontaneous spiritual and even mystical experiences which apparently so many Americans claim to have had. Chapter three explores the question that is at the root of Hagerty's own religious upbringing: the question whether there is a transcendent or spiritual power that is capable of hearing prayers and healing the body. The fourth chapter explores the triggers for spiritual experiences; it shows that life-changing religious experiences are often encountered when people have reached rock-bottom. Existential brokenness, Hagerty writes, is often the best predictor for spiritual experiences.
Chapter five explores the question why some people are religious whereas others couldn't care less. Is there a genetic predisposition to religiosity? Studies with identical twins seem to indicate that genetic influences play a role. Chapter six looks into issues of the chemical balance or imbalance in our brains that seem to be also factors in spiritual experiences. Chapter seven continues the travels through the human brain, and explores ideas such as the "God spot" and Michael Persinger's claim that God is merely electrical brain activity. Chapter eight delves into scientific research conducted on "spiritual virtuosos," like Tibetan monks.
Chapter nine crosses the boundary of "acceptable science" (as Hagerty herself describes) by looking at the scientific explanations of out-of-body experiences, and in chapter ten to explanations of near-death experiences. Chapters eleven and twelve are slightly more reflective and concluding: Hagerty chews on different definitions of God and thinks about paradigm shifts in science and in her own personal life. Hagerty is skilled in sliding fluently from more reflective modes of writing into a more conversational style including dialogue, with the result that the book often reads like a real page-turning novel.
I applaud Hagerty's very nuanced and balanced approach to the controversial issues involved in these controversial scientific studies. She makes the reader sense the fascinating aura that surrounds these studies and yet she avoids drawing conclusions from these relatively young branches of science. Hagerty's involvement with the subject is intense, and yet she is able to remain professional, critical and distanced. The result is a nuanced and balanced account in which Hagerty constantly remains cautious and nowhere claims that science has proven the existence of God. And although in the end of the book she touches upon anti-materialistic scientists who take quantum mechanics as the foundation for a metaphysical and highly speculative framework which explains spirituality in ways we have seen in films like What the Bleep Do We Know? and in commercial fabrications like The Secret, Hagerty remains cautious and nowhere uncritically accepts apologetic claims of scientists like Dean Radin, Mario Beauregard or Larry Dossey (although it becomes clear from the book that she is attracted to such speculative ideas).
Does Hagerty answer the question: Is there more? Her conclusion is as follows:
Yes, I believe there is, and the new science of spirituality buttresses my instinct. Science is showing that you and I are crafted with astonishing precision so that we can, on occasion, peer into a spiritual world and know God. The language of our genes, the chemistry of our bodies, and the wiring of our brains – these are the handiwork of One who longs to be known. And rather than dispel the spiritual, science is cracking it open for all to see. Of course, these are only my conclusions (p. 284-285).
Her conclusion, as she writes somewhere is: "It all depends on how you define 'God'." Elsewhere, towards the end of the book, when she describes a meeting between mathematician John Barrow and atheist biologist Richard Dawkins in Cambridge, she writes about believing in God being a choice:
The paradigm in not a law, it is a choice: a choice to look for – or exclude – the action of a divine intelligence. The paradigm to exclude a divine intelligence, or "Other," or "God," to reduce all things to matter, has reigned triumphant for some four hundred years, since the dawn of the Age of reason. Today, a small yet growing number of scientists are trying to chip away at the paradigm, suspecting that its feet are made of clay (p. 270).
To me this sounded like an odd conclusion, since a choice implies a conscious deliberation, a reflection on the arguments pro and contra a certain position one may take, while most people one encounters in her book describe experiences of being overwhelmed by a power that seems to lift people temporarily beyond the limits of space and time as we encounter them in everyday life. For these people, believing is not a choice but a matter of accepting the (for them) undeniable fact of the existence of a Reality that is present in, with and under normal reality, that penetrates reality and in which reality is lovingly embedded.
Another problematic feature of the book is the apparent equation of "belief in God" and "spirituality." To my theological mind, these are not the same, though they may be related (although one can be spiritual without having to believe in God; think e.g. of the atheist philosopher Comte-Sponville's book The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality). Related to this is Hagerty's tendency to equate "atheism" with "materialism" which I think is also wrong. But these are minor points to an otherwise excellent book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading and warmly recommend – to religious believers and skeptics alike.
© 2009 Taede A. Smedes
Dr. Taede A. Smedes is a philosopher of religion and a research fellow at the Faculty of Religious Studies of the Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and specialized in the field of science and religion.