Can we really determine the existence of God by studying the human brain? Scientists say maybe. Neurotheologists are scientists who try to explain religious experiences in people through brain function. These religious experiences are such experiences as internal feelings of peace, freedom from fear, deep personal joy, and feelings of fulfillment in life. However, religious followers are wary of determining the existence of God based merely upon brain activity.
Professor John Haught of Georgetown University is a front runner in the Religion-Brain debate. He stats that “They (Neurotheologists) have isolated one small aspect of religious experience and they are identifying that with the whole of religion.” (Martin, 2007). Essentially, religion is more than a joyful experience or oneness with the universe. Still despite this argument, current research on the issue of pinning down “religious brain activity” has turned up a deal.
University of Pennsylvania professor Andrew Newberg actually studied Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns during meditation. Imaging from the study indicated that the frontal area of the brain was recorded as having increased activity. (Martin, 2007). Newberg even narrowed down the specifics citing prayer as activating the language center of the brain, while meditation activates the visual center. (Martin, 2007). However, from this finding Newberg refused to state that it proved or disproved the existence of God. Rather, he believes that “the brain is engineered to allow spiritual experiences.” (Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2001).
Newberg’s colleague in profession, a Canadian professor and researcher of brain activity and religion came to the theory that the brain has evolved into an organ capable of allowing spiritual experiences. But to this one must ask the question of how then did people experience these “religious experiences” 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, how then did people experience these things in biblical times? If this development in the brain is recent, how recent is it? It seems that people have been singing the praises of religious peace and joy for ages.
Professor Haught chimes in stating that “The conflict is not between science and religion or science and theology, but it’s between two belief systems: the belief system that matter is all there is and the belief system that there is something in addition to matter.” (Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2001). Indeed, Professor Haught seems also to have hit the nail on the head regarding the debate between mind and body as well. That aside, the debate over God and the brain continues, and probably will for sometime. However, there seems to be hope for people on both sides of the fence. Professor Newberg states that according to his research, “If there is a God, it certainly makes sense that the brain is set up for this way, because it would be silly for us to have some fundamental disconnect with the God that created the brain.” (Martin, 2007).
Determining the existence of God by brain functions is a long way off, perhaps it will never happen, and perhaps the debate over matter only and something beyond matter will never be resolved. But one thing can be said for the research into religious experiences and their impact on the brain. That certain religious actions have thus far been shown to impact the frontal portion of the brain. That biological functions do indeed mesh with religion, at least a little.
Martin, M. (2007, January 14). Researchers Investigate Links Between Spirituality and the Brain. Retrieved April 18, 2007, from ABC News Website: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=98114&page=3
Educational Broadcasting Corporation. (2001). Religion and the Brain. Retrieved April 18, 2007, from Religion and Ethics Newsweekly Website: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week510/cover.html