Is Religion All in Your Head?

Is Religion All in Your Head? June 21, 2014

I remember how they wired up the visionaries at Medjugorje while they were experiencing their apparitions. The scientists wanted to study what was going on in their brains as they “saw” the Blessed Virgin.

Religious experiences of the mystical kind occur throughout human experience and in most every kind of religion. But what is happening when visionaries see the Blessed Virgin, Hindu holy men go into a trance or charismatics speak in tongues?

Are they experiencing something real or is it just their imagination?

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg studies how the brain responds to religion.

In this fascinating article his work is explained and explored by atheist Julia Llewellyn Smith. An atheist submitted to some experiments with Newberg to see if a religious-type experience could be artificially activated in his brain. It didn’t work.

Llewellyn Smith explains:

Newberg is director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Centre of Integrative Medicine, in Philadelphia, and co-author of, among other books, The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought. He is a leading neurotheologist, pioneering a new and highly controversial science that investigates whether – as many sceptics have long suspected – God didn’t create us, but we created God.

During brain scans of those involved in various types of meditation and prayer, Newberg noticed increased activity in the limbic system, which regulates emotion. He also noted decreased activity in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for orienting oneself in space and time.

“When this happens, you lose your sense of self,” he says. “You have a notion of a great interconnectedness of things. It could be a sense where the self dissolves into nothingness, or dissolves into God or the universe.”

Newberg has discovered that the human brain has what might be called “a capacity for prayer” and this is universal. We are able to get outside ourselves and experience what we feel is contact with a high power.

Such “mystical”, self-blurring experiences are central to almost all religions – from the unio mystica experienced by Carmelite nuns during prayer, when they claim their soul has mingled with the godhead, to Buddhists striving for unity with the universe through focusing on sacred objects. But if Newberg and his colleagues are correct, such experiences are not proof of being touched by a supreme being, but mere blips in brain chemistry.

“It seems that the brain is built in such a way that allows us as human beings to have transcendent experiences extremely easily, furthering our belief in a greater power,” Newberg says. This would explain why some type of religion exists in every culture, arguably making spirituality one of the defining characteristics of our species.

What interests me about this research is that the findings can be taken either as evidence for the existence of God or the opposite.

The doubter says that the “God experiences” are simply a matter of a snap, crackle pope in the brain. They assume that the brain is no more than a computer made of meat and that these experiences are no more significant than the other electro chemical impulses of the brain.

The believer, on the other hand, claps his hand and says, “You see! This is proof that we were created to be in touch with God. This capacity exists within all of us to search for and find the Almighty Father!”

One of the problems with some scientific experiments is that they begin with an atheistic, reductionist premise. Everything is reduced to materialism and nothing is greater than the materialistic scientific facts.

I am reminded of a very common  diagnosis of mental illness. We are told that the mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and that medication will fix it. But of course, it could be that the chemical imbalance was itself caused by something else of a spiritual, emotional or relational nature. The chemical imbalance may therefore be a symptom, not the cause.

Likewise, the brain activity which is charted by the neuroscientist may be the result of one’s contact with the numinous rather than the cause. Real contact with the Divine may produce the brain activity observed by the scientist, but because he does not believe in God he thinks that brain activity is what causes what is perceived as a religious experience.

To put it simply, it is just as logical to suppose that the person had a real religious experience and the brain waves are the evidence of this as it is to suppose that the brain waves caused the experience.

Let’s use another analogy. Read More

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