Neurotheology, Andrew Newberg. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.
Summary: A survey of the field of neurotheology, arguing for its viability as a field of inquiry, exploring the various research studies on religious and spiritual experience and practice and correlates of activity and changes in various brain structures, and what might be learned at the intersection of religion and neuroscience that may help us understand the most profound questions of our existence.
There has been an explosion of research in the field of neuroscience and related disciplines in the study of the functioning of the brain and how various brain structures interact with everything from autonomic processes like breathing and heart rate, creation and loss of memory, reasoning, stress responses, sexual response, motor skills, language–indeed every aspect of human experience. This includes a growing field of studies of religious experience and a whole host of questions that arise as to whether brain differences account for different experiences, how such experiences change the brain, and even whether the neuroscience of religious experience can account for the religious nature of human beings. Needless to say, such inquiry can both offer deeper insight into the significance of religious practices, rituals and experiences in our lives, and arouse controversy around the fear that neuroscience could “explain away” faith.
In this work, Andrew Newberg navigates this potentially contentious ground by offering us a survey of the work that has been done, the research questions that might be explored, and the potential or actual value that may be derived from this multi-disciplinary approach to studying neuroscience and religion.
Newberg begins by discussing the “happy prison of the brain” within which all of us are trapped and that all of our perceptions of the world come through our senses and are processed by our brains–religious perceptions as well as scientific ones. He contends that an approach that draws upon both has the potential to help us more fully understand what it means to be human and our belief systems and how we experience them.
The early chapters of the book focus on overview, defining neurotheology and the disciplines that contribute to this study, the most relevant neuroscience data looking at different brain functions as they pertain to religious and spiritual experiences and the elements of religion and spirituality that might be studied by the neurotheologian and the tools that may be used in such study. I was struck by how much was defined by what could be studied while in an fMRI scanner, although sensor “helmets,” magnetic fields, as well as survey data are also used. I wonder for example about how one would study various forms of active service in one’s community or one’s ethical behaviors that arise from one’s faith.
Beginning with chapter 6, the focus of the next three chapters are on what various scientific disciplines contribute to our understanding. Evolutionary biology and anthropology helps us understand the evolution of the human brain and known correlates between the development of aspects of religion and the development of specific brain structures. Psychology helps us understand various “cognitive, emotional, attachment, and social elements of religion” and their connection to brain processes. The study of brain pathologies and pharmacology reveal the connection between some forms of brain disorders and some extreme types of spiritual experience. This raises the question of “the God delusion,” although the author notes that if this contention is true, much of humanity is delusional.
Chapter 9 and following turn to elements of religion–the creation of mythic stories, rituals and practices like prayer or meditation. Each of these chapters explore some of the brain processes that connect to the various elements of religion as they have been studied. Then chapter 12 and the remaining chapters focus on some special questions such as whether there may be differences in brain function between religious, “spiritual,” and non-religious persons, what neuroscience reveals about free will (or free won’t, as the author suggests at one point), and the nature of mystical experience, where one experiences transcendence, perceiving that one has escaped one’s body. It is fascinating to see the changes that occur both in the frontal and parietal lobes during such experiences.
The final chapter (15) was perhaps the most controversial to me in the author’s proposal that neurotheology might offer a “metatheology” or “megatheology.” This struck me as at best unhelpful to collaboration between science and faith, suggesting that particular religious or theological perspectives might be subsumed in some universal. This feels a bit like those who claim with smug superiority that all religions really are “different ways up to the ultimate” that they, unlike the poor benighted adherents of particular religions, are enlightened enough to see. Much of this work was characterized by a becoming modesty, that seemed to be suspended at this point. The most charitable interpretation I can place on this is the author’s enthusiasm for this multidisciplinary approach, which made this an informative and engaging read.
Overall, I found this work quite helpful in getting up to speed on the current state of research in this field. I found myself often reading with a sense of wonder at how amazing the brain is that is reading that text (not that I am claiming my brain to be amazing in any distinctive way)! Personally, I think, just as we are wired up to function in so many ways effectively in the world, so it is not incredible that if there is a spiritual dimension to life, we would equally have cognitive capacities to apprehend and experience those realities. I do hope there can be a continuing respectful conversation between scientists and believing people (sometimes they are one and the same!). It is clear we have much to learn from each other!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.