Is Religion Only in Your Head?

If you didn’t know that drinking five pints of beer made you feel lightheaded, loquacious and sentimental you might observe that altered state of consciousness and conclude that these behaviors made you drink beer. You would have it just the wrong way around.

Likewise with the religious brain activity. Instead of causing the religious experience it is the evidence of a religious experience.

But there is more. What the scientist fails to do is to consider the entirety of the human religious phenomenon. The experiments of the neuroscientist only seek to study a single, particular form of “religious experience”–that which might be considered “contact with the transcendental.”

While these transcendental experiences are certainly part of religious experience, the whole of the phenomenon of religion is far greater, more complex, beautiful, frustrating, challenging and mysterious.

Let’s use the analogy of a person going into St Peter’s Basilica. He may enter the great doors, take the first look at the colossal structure and have an “Ahhh!” moment. This might be called the subjective, transcendental part of his experience. But the whole visit to the basilica will include going to confession, attending Mass, learning about the history of the place, studying the artwork, marveling at the relics and discussing what he is experiencing with fellow pilgrims. Indeed some pilgrims may not be awestruck at all upon entering. Their particular capacity for having an “Ahhh!” moment may be minimal. Still they are devout religious believers.

Likewise with religion there is far more to religion than the subjective personal experience of the transcendent. Indeed, in the Catholic religion we are taught that this subjective element of religion is not even primary. There is an objectivity about Catholicism which is tied in with dogma, logic, canon law, sacraments and historical events. Our religion does not rely on the validity or non validity of subjective religious experiences. It relies on the historical objective fact of the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.

This is why at Mass, the recitation of the creed is more important than having a blissful experience of the Divine. Nobody says for Mass to be valid everyone has to have a mini spiritual epiphany, but we do mandate that the creed is recited.

So while Andrew Newberg’s research is interesting it is not important to the genuine analysis of the Christian religion. It may shed light on one aspect of religion–the mystical experience–but it has nothing to say about the rest of the Christian faith.

To really encounter the reality of Christianity one must consider the claims of the resurrection. That’s why, when it comes down to scientific investigation I am far more interested in sindonology than neuroscience.

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