Relax: Neuroscience is not Going to Destroy Your Faith

I’ve been doing some reading on cognitive psychology of religion (in part because I’m involved in a Biologos grant project with some colleagues here at Bethel University on the intersection of psychology and theology regarding human origins beliefs). I came across an essay by Justin Barrett in which he interacts with a prevalent assumption that has two parts: (1) cognitive psychology of religion successfully describes the architecture of human religious belief and successfully explains the prevalence of religious belief, thus (2) cognitive psychology of religion shows religious belief to be a “mere” natural phenomenon which renders the truthfulness of those beliefs null and void and which shows the prevalence of religious belief to no longer “count as evidence for those beliefs.”

While a number of prominent psychologists of religion and other scientists do draw such conclusions, Barrett warns against drawing too hasty a conclusion:

First, explaining how beliefs come about–no matter how complete the explanation–says nothing about whether a belief is true or justified. If cognitive neuroscientists manage some day fully to explain the brain activity and evolutionary history of those brain functions responsible for people believing that seventeen times eleven equals 187, seventeen times eleven would still equal 187. Similarly, a complete scientific explanation for why humans nearly universally believe that other people have minds would not suddenly count against whether humans should believe that others have minds. (“Science, Religion, and Theology” in The Believing Primatep. 96)

This is a deeply important concession and reminder as the science and religion and science and theology dialogues move forward, particularly given all the incredible advancements in understanding the human brain that neuroscience has afforded us. To understand how is not to penetrate the depths of the “really real.” Science and theology work on different levels even if both are hopeful to attain understanding of the greater whole. But the intersection is a fascinating one and, as Barrett points out later, will certainly require some rethinking and consideration of the implications of all this by the believing faithful.


Young Evangelicals and the “Nones”: Jumping Ship
Young Evangelicals and the “Nones”: Jumping Ship
Churching Alone
The Form of Christ: On “The Church for the World”
About Kyle Roberts
  • segv

    As something of a “practicing neuroscientist” (psychiatrist), I firmly believe that the theoretical neuroscientists think they know more than they actually do about how and why the brain works in the way it does. As a for instance, in the time that I have been practicing, there have been no fewer than a dozen neuroscientific theories of depression – none has been completely explanatory, and more importantly, none has led to a “cure” for depression. The truth is that brain function on a molecular level is a highly complex thing and is unlikely to ever be fully understood by anyone.

    And even if a single brain could be fully mapped and explained and understood, that is only one brain and every single human brain (even the brains of identical twins) are unique and wonderful things. For instance, in psychiatric research, the gold standard is double blinded, random controlled twin studies because identical twins have identical DNA and had the same in utero environment. What is interesting, however, is that identical twins do not always have the same disease, even if we “know” there is a genetic link in a disease (such as schizophrenia or OCD). In treating all of these psychiatric illnesses, what we find is that one medication will work for one patient but not for another (even in twins).

    The brain is just not as simple as we want it to be. Hearts are simple – a big muscle that pumps blood and is easily transplanted because it isn’t particularly vascular – kidneys are a touch more complicated – livers even more so, but yet we still basically understand how these things work and can do blood tests to see if they are functioning correctly. But brains are complex – perhaps more complex than we can ever figure out…. and somehow I do think that is how it is meant to be.

    John Polkington talks about how physicists and chemists have come to terms with understanding that they can’t know everything because their reductive discoveries came decades before those of biologists – I think that’s true. Biologists are still chasing DNA, hoping to explain the origins of life, as we know it. Physicists and chemists know that is an elusive hope.

  • AbnDoc

    Of course, not. All science, when not manipulated, will lead a person back to God, not disprove his existence.

  • GCBill

    You raise an important point – in philosophy of science circles, the distinction is usually hashed out in terms of “discovery” vs. “justification.” Kepler formulated his laws of planetary motion on his own desire for a scientifically-legitimate astrology. We know astrology is bollocks, but as it turns out his model was helpful for Newton and later physicists. Showing that a belief is often held for illogical reasons doesn’t prevent someone else from coming along and proving it logically.

    However, I don’t think that’s where the implications of neuroscience for religious faith end. I rejected my belief in religion not primarily because of historical explanations of religious beliefs, but because of relationships between mind and brain that simply shouldn’t hold if most religions were true. For instance, if you believe that human moral faculties are a result of an incorruptible immaterial intellect, you can’t easily explain why Phineas Gage lost his ability to repress antisocial behavior after sustaining damage to his prefrontal cortex. If you’re one of the people who believes consciousness cannot be accounted for by a completed account of the natural world, you have a difficult time explaining why someone can become minimally conscious or “vegetative” simply from brain damage.

    Adam Lee outlines a lot of examples like this within his essay “A Ghost in the Machine,” which is available here:
    Fair warning: It’s pretty polemical, and it mostly presumes a sort of substance dualism that I’m aware not all religious people ascribe to. But it’s an excellent compilation of empirical findings that for most dualists are (at the very least) counterintuitive. If none of these relations between mind and matter/energy were true, I’d have no trouble believing in an immortal soul. But as it stands, that theory struggles to explain the vast amount of evidence for mind/body unity. And that, I think, is the serious problem that neuroscience poses for religious faith.

  • Jerry Lynch

    I’m from Da Bronx. It is not so much a “show me” area as a I could give a good s*** area. Acting like a man means many things in this part of the world. But utmost is not to back down from any threat. And don’t whine. No thinking involved, unless you are a coward. The only struggle or conflicts in life revolve around doing the right thing or the fear of its consequences. Very simple. Black and White. No other explanation, or excuse, is necessary.

    You stand resolute for family, friends, country, and beliefs…or you are a worthless piece of s***. End of story. Psychology only offers baseless excuses for indecent behavior, or BS.

    Can it be that simple? Why not?

    As naive, primitive and tribal as it appears, such an attitude is in keeping with the mandates of an Evolutionary Consciousness. Anything less is posturing and sentimental vacilliation. Brute is being. Beauty, morality, ethics, wonder, delight, affinity, caring: marvelous deceptions of sparky neuron imperatives to survive.