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In their new book Why God Won't
Go Away: Brain Science and The Biology of Belief freelance writer
Vince Rause, psychiatrist Eugene d'Aquili and radiologist Andrew Newberg
explore the neurological basis of religious experience and its implications
for mysticism, ritual, myth-making, and the origins of religion itself.
The authors claim that empirical data refutes a long-standing tradition
which dismisses religious experience as merely the product of delusional,
wishful thinking in weak-minded people. In fact, they argue that evidence
from neurobiology establishes not only the conclusion that religious experience
is real, but that one cannot rationally doubt the existence of God
any more than one can doubt the existence of the material world.
The authors' most impressive work is to be found in the early chapters
which present their neurological evidence using SPECT scans (single photon
emission computed tomography) of the brain to show various patterns of
brain activity during religious experiences such as meditation and prayer.
The scientific component of their inquiry is highly accessible to the average
reader as cumbersome terminology describing parts of the brain such as
the posterior superior parietal lobe and prefrontal cortex are discussed
in terms of their functional roles, viz. the orientation association area
and the attention association area respectively. This approach enabled
the authors to present their case in a manner that is captivating and facilitates
understanding of elementary brain modularity.
The results of their SPECT scans show a clear neurobiological basis
of some religious experience that is fascinating yet unsurprising. For
instance, the authors found that experiences of deep, spiritual unity are
observable in the absence of neurological activity in the orientation
association area. This interesting observation is unsurprising because
if the orientation association area is responsible for the construction
of the self and its ability to distinguish the self and the rest of the
world, then we have good reason to expect that an experience of unity and
lack of self would result from inactivity in this module of the
brain. Elsewhere the authors give similar, predictable explanations:
We believe that part of the reason the attention associating area is
activated during spiritual practices such as meditation is because it is
heavily involved in emotional responses - and religious experiences are
usually highly emotional (31).
While the authors' experimental work provides solid neurobiological
evidence for the claim that something genuine is taking place in the brain
during religious experience, their attempt at explaining the biological
origin of religious experience is much more speculative in nature. After
gesturing at studies which suggest that religion is associated with "superior
mental health" they reason that since our ancestors had to deal with the
inevitability of death they were able to stave off despair and depression
through religious thinking and mystical experience. In addition, religious
behaviors may have various psychological and social advantages that might
enhance human fitness. Their discussion of myth-making and ritual behavior
provides further elucidation of these claims. Although their explanation
has intuitive plausibility, it is far too easy to be critical of these
just-so accounts of how religion and religious experience might have evolved
in human history. Their speculation falls prey to similar criticisms justifiably
launched at the ambitious claims in evolutionary psychology: we need solid
evidence that something is an adaptation or enhances fitness; giving just-so
stories will not suffice.
In the latter chapters of the book the authors remove their white coats
and try on the flowing robes of a philosopher. There are two noteworthy
conclusions that the authors believe they have established.
First, the authors claim that their evidence from SPECT scans and EEG's
show that religious experience is real. Religious experience is
real in the sense that there is something actually occurring in
the brain that is not dismissable as something delusional or hallucinatory.
While some skeptics might dismiss spiritual experience in this manner,
it is not clear that this is what skeptics have in mind when they do not
concede that religious experiences are real. A skeptical reader
might easily grant that something is taking place in the brain but dispute
whether that experience is an experience of some metaphysical entity, i.e.
God, or of some kind of metaphysical reality, i.e. that all of reality
is unified. Someone claiming to have an intimate experience of God can
be understood as making two claims: that a certain spiritual experience
is taking place, and that such an experience is an experience of a metaphysical
entity (God). The authors' empirical data only establishes the existence
of the former reality, and not the latter.
Second, and more important, is the authors' claim that because of their
findings it is just as irrational to doubt the reality of God as it is
to doubt the reality of the material world:
If you were to dismiss spiritual experience as "mere" neurological activities,
you would also have to distrust all of your own brain's perceptions of
the material world. On the other hand, if we do trust our perceptions of
the physical world, we have no rational reason to declare that spiritual
experience is a fiction that is "only" in the mind (147).
Now, if we dismissed religious experiences just because we regard
them as mere neurological activities in the brain then likewise we ought
to dismiss experiences of the material world. That point is trivial, for
no skeptic dismisses religious experience for just that reason alone. As
the authors seem to be unaware, academic philosophers have debated the
existence of the material world for centuries (perhaps too much since Descartes)
as well as the existence of God. The authors ignore the fact that philosophers
will typically adduce good reasons for not disbelieving in the existence
of the material world and for trusting our experiences of it while offering
numerous reasons for doubting or disbelieving in the existence of God.
In other words, although religious experience and experience of the material
world are both neurological activities in the brain, there exist good reasons
for thinking that our experience of the material world is genuine and many
reasons for doubting or disbelieving that God exists. This is why it can
be rational to trust our perceptions of the material world yet still have
rational reasons for thinking that spiritual experience is a fiction "only"
in the mind.
In summary, Newberg, d'Aquili, and Rause present a variety of neurobiological
evidence that informs us about what is taking place in the brains of people
having spiritual or mystical experiences. They offer interesting speculations
concerning the evolutionary origins of this neurological basis and explore
their hypotheses in the areas of myth-making, rituals, and the origins
of religion. Although the authors concede that they have not reached a
proof of God's existence, they conclude by arguing that their neurobiological
evidence makes it just as rational to believe in the existence of God as
it is to believe in the existence of the material world. Why God Won't
Go Away is recommended for anyone with an interest in the scientific
study of religious experience but will disappoint the educated reader who
seeks a cogently argued explanation for why God won't go away.
© Aaron Holland 2001
is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Utah.
This review first appeared online on Sept 1, 2001