What can neuroscience offer religious faith?

What can neuroscience offer religious faith? September 9, 2018

What does neuroscience have to do with faith? Can it aid our self-understanding as religious people? Or will the new Scientific Revolution destroy the illusion of religion?

Philosopher, neuroscientist, and skeptic Sam Harris certainly thinks so. In his book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without ReligionHarris writes:

The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is — the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself — can be altered or entirely extinguished…

Confusion and suffering may be our birthright, but wisdom and happiness are available. The landscape of human experience includes deeply transformative insights about the nature of one’s own consciousness, and yet it is obvious that these psychological states must be understood in the context of neuroscience, psychology, and related fields.

I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines — such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must talk about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma as the best science already is.

This is a common narrative among theorists. The advance of neuroscience research will definitively refute religious belief and practice.

But is there an alternative?

Could faith and neuroscience benefit from relationship with each other? If we put theology in dialogue with neuroscience, could it bear fruit?

Read my response here in an essay for the McGrath Institute’s Church Life Journal.

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