neurotheology

two articles in Slate about scientific attempts to explore the murky waters of religious & mystical experiences:

Persinger is one of the more colorful characters in the fast-growing, flakey field of neurotheology, which studies what is arguably the most complex manifestation—spirituality—of the most complex phenomenon—the human brain—known to science. Given that brain researchers have no idea how I conceived and typed this sentence, I doubt they will ever account for religious experiences in all their vast diversity and subtlety. Nor will they solve the riddle of whether God actually exists or is a figment of our evolved imaginations, like unicorns or superstrings. Neurotheology may nonetheless have a profound social impact, by yielding more potent, reliable methods of inducing spiritual experiences.

about the concept of neurotheology in general (since i only purused the two articles): its an interesting idea and figuring out how the brain processes religion and religious experiences is an obvious and potentially fruitful area of study for cognitive or neuro-science – and one that will easily lend itself to the scientific method. Two important caveats, however:

First, the knowledge of the fact that religion is (mostly) a series of brain functions, will have unpredictable repercussions on the essence of religion (though will perhaps have little effect on the scientific results themselves: it won’t change how we are religious, just what we are religious about).

Second, these neurological investigations will not tell us what religion is, only how it works. Religion, being a high-order human cultural feature will easily integrate and digest these findings, transforming itself so as not to be explained away.

Nevertheless, this light thrown upon our religious nature will clean and clear up our religions, making them better, more useful and healthier by forcing them to get rid of the chaff and only keep the grain. Religion, once explained, will have to take the practical route of saying: “well, if the scientists have explained what religion is and why we do it, then we can now go about doing it better.” That will hopefully be the response of the majority. The minority will of course go into denial – but that is the nature of religion!

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One Comment to “neurotheology”

  1. You have left out the possibility I find most likely: the vast, vast majority of religion will be recognised as chaff and we will take the practical route of resolving some of the cultural problems the festering of which gives rise to it. The grain that remains will look like a regard for common sensitivity, kindness, beauty, and calm and some appreciation for period events of social bonding. But then will we still wish to speak of religion when talking of the grain? — or won’t we rather reserve that word for the chaff?

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