March 7, 2023

Neurotheology and the God we know

Do our brains really change from spiritual experiences?

Zeno-Charles Marcel

Is it possible to experience God by donning a helmet, like one would wear to play football or ride a bike? Are the experiences normally associated with activities such as prayer, fasting, or meditation artificially triggered by electrode--studded headgear authentically divine or just in our brains? Welcome to the brave new world of applied neurotheology.

When a few scientists decided to study religious phenomena, there was excitement in anticipation of what would be found, especially among people who live in both religious and science camps. “Will science finally demonstrate what adherents to religion have believed all along? Or would this be the death knell for religion and God?” These questions have been prevalent in the minds of both secular and religious thinkers alike.

In 1993 Drs. Eugene d’Aquili and Andrew Newberg from the University of Pennsylvania published a paper describing the then-modern interface between neuroscience and theology. Several names for this new discipline of neuroscience were tried: “spiritual neuroscience,” “biological theology,” and “neurotheology”—among others. The term “neurotheology,” first used in 1962 in the novel Island, stuck. What author Aldous Huxley meant by that term is debatable, but its current use conjures up a variety of fanciful notions that have led to speculations based on the “sound science” of neuroimaging and multidisciplinary neuroscience.

Anthropologists have observed that nearly all human societies have developed some form of religious or spiritual belief system, which may include the worship of gods or goddesses, the belief in an afterlife, or the practice of rituals. This universality has been documented in cultures as diverse as the ancient Egyptians and the contemporary Kung San people of the Kalahari Desert. Additionally, the idea of a supernatural being or higher power as well as the concept of an afterlife have been found in all known societies. Thus the interest in this widespread phenomenon of religion is born of true scientific curiosity.

Religious Experience Is Religious Experience

Neurotheological studies have shown specific neural correlates of religious or spiritual experiences, such as the activation of our default mode network (DMN) and the prefrontal cortex, and the participation of the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine. Studies done with Buddhist monks meditating, Franciscan nuns praying, and Sikhs singing their prayers report all participants describing a feeling of oneness with the universe. Some neurotheologists conclude that “there is no Christian, no Jew, no Buddhist, no Muslim—it’s just all one.” And when it comes to the brain, religious experience is religious experience. They even echo the word of a certain Christian apostle who penned “There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . ; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) in corroboration between Scripture and neuroscience. Nonbiblical forms of meditation and prayer are accompanied by changes in brain activity and connectivity in regions associated with self-referential processing, emotion, regulation, and attention, as well as reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. Interestingly, the parietal lobes of the brain responsible for processing sensory information decrease activity during deep meditation, accompanied by a blurring of the boundaries between self and nonself and a sense of oneness with the universe.

Other observations should give us pause and ask further questions. It has been shown that taking a break from work, a short nap, going for a stroll, daydreaming, self-reflecting, or even mind-wandering can also activate the DMN. This network may appear to be very “spiritual” since it is involved in processing thoughts, emotions, and experiences, creating and imagining future scenarios and events, retrieving memories, understanding others’ perspectives and mental states, and processing moral and ethical decisions. So are all the activators of the DMN God-equivalents?

The author Carlos Castaneda, and the mystic occultist Aleister Crowley, long ago proposed the use of psychedelic drugs to induce mystical, transcendent states of consciousness before dopamine and serotonin were known. Alcohol and opioids do the same. So is God in the drugs? Researchers observe positive systemic changes in the brain and immune systems such as greater antibody response to virus exposure in just two months of meditation training. While this is considered a validation of meditation as a spiritual practice, there is evidence that listening to known and liked music—a nonspiritual practice—stimulates certain areas of the brain, and enhances the immune system. Is music, then, God?

A Different Brain

That scientists find the brains of people who spend significant amounts of time in prayer or meditation “different” from those who don’t should neither inspire awe nor welcome surprise since spending large amounts of anything (e.g., knitting, painting, reading)invariably leads to changes in the brain. The awe comes from the now-accepted fact that the brain can be rewired and retooled in the first place (i.e., it exhibits neuroplasticity). The brain can be sculpted much as muscles can from weight training. Mindful meditation is really deep focus. And when we focus on something—whether algebra, cricket, or food analysis—that thing becomes etched into the neural connections in our brains. By beholding we become changed, so we should be careful about what we focus on—sound advice found in Psalm 1 and Philippians 4:8.

The idea that our brains create the concept of God falls under the broader umbrella of neurotheology and is rejected as being radically unbiblical. Some neurotheologists argue that the human brain has evolved to seek out patterns and meaning in the world and that this tendency leads to the creation of religious beliefs and experiences to fill in the gaps in our understanding—the so-called God of the gaps. Some suggest that specific regions of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex and the temporal lobes, may be responsible for religious experiences and the perception of a higher power. They go so far as to say that if God does not exist, our brains are wired to create Him. Still, others propose that religious experiences are the result of a complex interplay between biology, culture, and personal experience and that the concept of God is a product of human imagination rather than an objective reality.

All That Glitters

Neurotheology cannot be accepted lock, stock, and barrel. Some Christians may be enamored with the promising idea of proving the truth about God. But that is a promise that neurotheology cannot fulfill. First, it reduces religious experiences to mere brain activity. The scientific evidence is merely data that could lead to multiple interpretations. Phrenology was considered scientific when it was first introduced, and had a solid inferential, hypothetical framework. The measurement of cranial bumps was very precise in its day, much like images now produced by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans. The interpretation of the data was the problem, and ludicrous data-derived inferences led to ridiculous conclusions.

Further caution should be levied because of the possibility of manipulating religious experiences through brain stimulation and the characterization of people according to their ability to have mystical experiences. Is the idea of a “God helmet” ethical? Is the explanation for someone who wears such a helmet and doesn’t have the “experience” as being somehow genetically disadvantaged (and, by inference, spiritually disadvantaged) any less offensive than when the same arguments were used to disenfranchise people who didn’t have “certain patterns of bumps” on their skulls?

Neurotheology tends to overgeneralize its findings and often presupposes that the same neural mechanisms underlie all perceived religious or spiritual experiences. For Adventists, many of its described spiritual practices and experiences have little foundation in the canonical Scriptures. The emptying of one’s mind and the feelings of oneness with the universe were not described by Jesus or any of the prophets of the Bible as part of their religious lives. Much of neurotheology flies in the face of the teachings of Scripture, which starts with the words “In the beginning God . . .” The Bible never entertains the idea of “God maybe,” as some neuroscientists propose, but always “God is!” If the premises of neurotheology are true, then Jesus is a liar, and we create God, He didn’t create us. Some think that the future for bridging the gap between nonbiblical religions and atheistic science is bright because of neurotheology, but it is always wise to remember that in many things, all that glitters is not gold.