CNN on religious brains

CNN has a very short piece on neuroscientists scanning the brains of religious people to figure out which parts fire up during religious experiences. The results are interesting and important inasmuch as they bring religion that much closer to science – and hopefully religious people too. However, as the article itself points out, these results can be interpreted in two wildly different directions:

Newberg [the neuroscientist] suggests that these brain scans may provide proof that our brains are built to believe in God. He says there may be universal features of the human mind that actually make it easier for us to believe in a higher power.

Interestingly enough, devout believers and atheists alike point to the brain scans as proof of their own ideas.

Some nuns and other believers champion the brain scans as proof of an innate, physical conduit between human beings and God. According to them, it would only make sense that God would give humans a way to communicate with the Almighty through their brain functions.

Some atheists saw these brain scans as proof that the emotions attached to religion and God are nothing more than manifestations of brain circuitry.

The science of religion – which the article calls neurotheology ?! – will clear many foolish ideas up and move us towards a much better understanding of ourselves. It will not, however, disprove religion. Religious sentiment is similar to the Open Question Argument in ethics: just as you can always ask if a grand theory of ethics is itself ethical, just so, a religious person will (always?) be able to claim that a scientist’s explanation of why we are religious simply proves that that is how god made us. However, these explanations will force religion to clean up its act and move to a higher, a more ‘meta’ level.

If the scientist explains how religious brains work or how we evolved them, if research explains why we tend to believe things that seem patently untrue, then religion will no longer be able to simply go on believing these dogmas. It will have to move beyond dogma and embrace the position that dogma was only the first stage of human religion and that now, religion having become self-conscious, we must move to another level of religious sentiment, one that does not require dogma but instead seeks to understand why our ‘primitive’ religions did.

I think this new religion that will have gone through the fires of science will have divested itself of most all of the old religions’ dangerous and destructive features, but will retain the main ingredients of what we now call religion: wonder at the mystery of the universe, community, ethics, peace, etc.

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