The Gospel According to Darwin: The Relevance of Cognitive Neuroscience to Religious Studies

How the Mind Works
By Steven Pinker
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997
Pp. xii + 660.  $29.95.
Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind
By V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee
New York: Quill, 1998
Pp. xvii + 328.  $16.00.
The Neuropsychology of Dreams: A Clinico-Anatomical Study
By Mark Solms
Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1997
Pp. xviii + 292.  N.p.
Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief
By Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause
New York: Ballantine Books, 2001
Pp. 226.  $24.95.

The recent appearance of the anthology Religion and Psychology: Mapping the Terrain, edited by Diane Jonte-Pace and William Parsons (Routledge, 2001), raises anew the question of how psychology and religious studies can best be related to one another.  The book’s contributors offer a variety of different answers to that basic question, with some focusing on the powerful ability of psychology to explain religious phenomena, others arguing that psychology and religion should engage in a mutually respectful dialogue on their common interest in human nature, and still others aiming critical attention at the often unacknowledged religious and spiritual dimensions of contemporary psychology.  These different approaches testify to the creative vitality of the field of religion and psychology, and they bode well for its future.  Such vitality will be needed, for the future also poses serious challenges.  The inherent instability of institutional programs that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries, the declining interest in insight-oriented psychotherapy, the increasing tendency of religious studies departments to focus on traditions rather than methods, and the continuing critical controversy surrounding the works of Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung are among the many factors that will test the durability of religion and psychology over the coming years.

One of the biggest threats to the field’s future development can be put in very simple terms: the “psychology” used in religion and psychology is rarely the same as the “psychology” of leading scientific researchers in that discipline.  Religion and psychology as a field has not sufficiently kept up with what many psychologists consider to be the most creative new developments of their field.  This is ironic, because three of religion and psychology’s seminal thinkers—Freud, Jung, and William James—were all deeply versed in the most advanced scientific psychology of their day.  Those of us today who have been inspired by Freud, Jung, and James could do much to invigorate the religion and psychology field by following their example.  Returning for a moment to the Jonte-Pace and Parsons anthology, I find it telling that very few of the book’s contributors make any reference to the dramatic upsurge of evolutionary theorizing in current psychology.  (Perhaps there will be more of this in a second volume of Mapping the Terrain?)  While I do not believe that all research in religion and psychology should bow down before the Darwinian altar, I do want to suggest that developing an informed and critically reflective stance toward Darwinian thought is an imperative task for scholars in the religion and psychology field.

The following essay will review several recent books that offer religion scholars good introductions to major new developments in scientific psychology and potential implications for the study of religion.  The books can all be classified under the broad term “cognitive neuroscience,” which refers to the increasingly dynamic interaction between neurophysiology, cognitive psychology, linguistics, computer science, and several other related disciplines.  This interaction has been sparked in large part by the dramatic development of new brain imaging technologies that have given researchers a powerful tool to investigate the correlations between psychological experience and neurophysiological activity.  Cognitive neuroscience is firmly, even aggressively Darwinian in its conceptual reliance on evolution by descent and natural selection (“evolutionary psychology” is another term commonly used to describe this area of research).  Within this framework the ultimate level of explanation for any psychological faculty involves identifying its role in the adaptive fitness of the human species.  “How exactly does x contribute to the organism’s ability to reproduce and spread its genes?”—answering that question is the terminal goal of all cognitive neuroscientific research.

Although most cognitive neuroscientists concentrate their energies on the study of highly specific and localized phenomena, many of them are aware that their findings have important implications for the understanding of broader cultural phenomena like art, philosophy, ethics—and religion.  Religion, in this sense, is the most challenging “x” to be explained by cognitive neuroscience.  How do religious beliefs, rituals, and experiences promote the adaptive fitness of the individual?  Does belonging to a religion help people propagate their genes more effectively?  Why did the brain evolve the ability to formulate ideas about God, the soul, and the afterlife?  Some cognitive neuroscientists are claiming to have new answers to these kinds of questions, and a surprisingly large audience (to judge by the impressive sales of some of these books) is taking these answers seriously.  Cognitive neuroscientists currently enjoy tremendous social prestige as the preeminent authorities on the subject of human nature, and if for this reason only scholars of religion need to pay close critical attention to their ideas.

If any of this sounds reminiscent of the sociobiology movement of the 1970’s, it should.  Crudely but accurately, cognitive neuroscience can be thought of as sociobiology with PET scans and brain lesion studies.)

The books I have chosen to review approach the subject of religion in very different ways.  The first (Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works) is overtly hostile to religion.  The second (V. S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms of the Brain) is intrigued by religion, but not entirely sure what to make of it.  The third (Mark Solms’s The Neuropsychology of Dreaming) says nothing about religion per se, but nevertheless has intriguing implications for its study.  And the fourth (Andrew Newberg’s Why God Won’t Go Away) presents itself as friendly to religion and supportive of its basic claims.

How the Mind Works is a massive and massively ambitious book.  Steven Pinker teaches psychology and is director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in How the Mind Works he aims to provide a comprehensive account of human cognitive functioning.  This is “Grand Theorizing” with a vengeance, and with 565 pages of text and another 58 of notes and references Pinker provides an impressive array of evidence to support his claims.  The book’s “key sentence” (his phrase) comes on p. 21:

“The mind is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people.”

Pinker relies centrally on the notion of the mind as a kind of neural computer that has evolved a number of specific abilities.  The primary function of this computer is to process information in ways that, through the long course of evolutionary history, have helped humans survive and procreate.  All humans are born with a set of basic mental modules (“organs of computation”) that enable us to perceive, think, remember, plan, and act in the world.  Although culture has some role in shaping people’s personalities, for Pinker the fundamental psychological structures of the human mind are genetically determined and impervious to cultural influence.

In the course of the book Pinker vents considerable spleen at postmodernists, deconstructionists, feminists, psychoanalysts, and anyone else who advocates the “secular catechism of our age” (57) and grants too much credit to culture as a factor in human life, experience, and development.  Pinker’s colorful rhetoric and combative tone clearly appeal to a wide audience—there’s a kind of Rush Limbaugh quality to the book, a delight in making fun of all the soft-headed, psychologically-correct lefties who live in a fantasy world and refuse to face the cold, hard empirical data.  But many of Pinker’s tirades make no documented reference to any particular texts or scholars, and as the book goes on his animosity toward the human sciences generally becomes increasingly evident.  This is a serious problem, and it drastically diminishes the value of his work. I am sure that for every one of his points about wrongheaded postmodernist thinking, an offending author could be found who has made such a ridiculous claim at one time or another.  What is lacking, however, is any interest or willingness on Pinker’s part to consider the more sophisticated, nuanced, and well-reasoned claims of scholars in the human sciences (not all of whom, of course, consider themselves postmodernists).

This problem is nowhere clearer than in Pinker’s treatment of the subject of religion, which he addresses in the book’s final chapter.  He tips his hand in the opening lines, when he says

“Man does not live by bread alone, nor by know-how, safety, children, or sex.  People everywhere spend as much time as they can afford on activities that, in the struggle to survive and reproduce, seem pointless….  As if that weren’t enough of a puzzle, the more biologically frivolous and vain the activity is, the more people exalt it.” (521)

Although he gives a nod to the value of these activities (among which he includes humor, religion, the arts, and philosophy), calling them “the mind’s best work, what makes life worth living” (521), the fact remains that Pinker’s evolutionary framework renders such behaviors puzzling and problematic.  His professions of admiration for cultural creativity ultimately ring hollow, coming at the end of a book devoted to the argument that culture doesn’t matter to human psychology.  And if culture in general doesn’t matter to Pinker, religion really doesn’t matter.  He grants at least some degree of adaptive utility to art, humor, and ethical reasoning, but he can find little evolutionary benefit to human religiosity.  Pinker offers three possible explanations for why religion originally developed and why it has persisted into the present day:

1.      Religious beliefs “serve the interests of the people who promulgate them.  Ancestor worship must be an appealing idea to people who are about to become ancestors.”  (555)

2.      Religion is a “technique for success” in important, life-and-death matters such as illness, love, warfare, and weather.  “Religion is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they have exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success.”  (556)

3.      Religion, like philosophy, involves a futile effort to understand that which we are innately incapable of understanding.  “[R]eligion and philosophy are in part the application of mental tools to problems they were not designed to solve.”  (525)  “Our thoroughgoing perplexity about the enigmas of consciousness, self, will, and knowledge may come from a mismatch between the very nature of these problems and the computational apparatus that natural selection has fitted us with.” (565)  “For anyone with a persistent intellectual curiosity, religious explanations are not worth knowing because they pile equally baffling enigmas on top of the original ones.”  (560)

The first two explanations have some merit to them, although they hardly suffice as an adequate accounting for the vast diversity of human religious experience.  In this regard, Pinker’s book suggests that evolutionary psychology, if pursued in a dogmatic and reductionistic fashion, may offer no more useful contributions to the study of religion than did sociobiology in the 1970’s.

The third explanation is curious, and merits closer consideration.  Pinker is saying in effect that religious and philosophical thought is a total waste of time.  The realm of worthwhile human cognition is circumscribed by the fact that our mental faculties have been designed to work on certain kinds of problems regarding survival and procreation.  Religious and philosophical mysteries are not among those problems.  Pinker uses the term “cognitive closure” to describe this feature of the human condition, and he denies that such a notion has any negative or despairing implications: “Is cognitive closure a pessimistic conclusion?  Not at all!  I find it exhilarating, a sign of great progress in our understanding of the mind” (563).  Whether or not readers share Pinker’s joy at this idea, I question its legitimacy as an accounting of human religiosity, and I do so by reference to Pinker’s own first principles—Darwinian evolution.  The human mind has not simply evolved; it is evolving.  As Pinker demonstrates in great detail, the mind’s abilities have developed over time in direct response to pressing interests stimulated by environmental forces on people’s lives.  It is entirely possible that religiosity has evolved (and is evolving) in human psychology as part of a process of trying to respond to the radically new challenges confronting a species that has developed unique cognitive abilities for language, social interchange, consciousness, memory, and reason.  Darwin himself was acutely aware of the dynamic, ever-changing nature of evolution (although evolutionary change usually requires very long periods of time to proceed), and in the context of Darwinian theory a notion like “cognitive closure” is an absurdity.  Cognitive weakness, perhaps.  Cognitive imperfection, definitely.  But to suggest that the limits of the present can never be overcome is like saying the earliest ocean-born life forms were subject to “ambulatory closure” and would be forever denied the ability to walk on dry land.


Phantoms in the Brain is co-authored by V. S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at University of California, San Diego, and Sandra Blakeslee, a science writer for The New York Times.  This dual authorship reflects the fact that a broad general audience is interested in the brain/mind research of scientists like Ramachandran.  Earlier books by Oliver Sacks, Antonio Damasio, and others have convinced commercial publishers there is a market for books that explain (with varying degrees of help from second authors) the basic findings of cognitive neuroscience and apply those findings to issues like art, morality, and religion.  Within that new literary genre, Phantoms in the Brain stands out as the most interesting and valuable work to date, for several reasons.  First and foremost, Ramachandran was raised in India, as a Hindu.  Although he doesn’t dwell on his religious upbringing, it seems at least partly responsible for his vastly more respectful and open-minded attitude toward religion than is found in Pinker’s work.  For example, Pinker would never speak, as Ramachandran does, of “the divine spark that exists in all of us” (188), nor would he quote the Upanishads and rhapsodize about the liberating realization that “you’re really part of the great cosmic dance of Shiva, rather than a mere spectator, [and] your inevitable death should be seen as a joyous reunion with nature rather than as a tragedy.” (157)  Ramachandran’s book is prima facie evidence that the findings of cognitive neuroscience are not inherently antithetical to religious faith and spiritual experience.

The influence of Hinduism on Ramachandran goes beyond his attitude toward religion; it shapes his approach to the primary focus of his neuroscientific research, which is phantom limb syndrome.  Why do people who have lost limbs through accident or disease continue to “feel” sensations from those parts of their bodies?  How does the brain generate such a compelling illusion of the presence of something that is demonstrably absent?  Ramachandran’s answer is that the brain is far more flexible and ready to adapt to new circumstances than is generally recognized.  When a body part is lost, the region of the brain responsible for “mapping” that part is taken over by adjacent neural systems.  The brain apparently does not tolerate a vacuum; if one region of neural activity is no longer receiving the input it needs to do its work, the brain will use that space for some other purpose.  The speed with which these transformations take place is surprisingly fast, and I agree with Ramachandran that “the implications are staggering” (31).  Not only does this suggest new possibilities for the treatment of neurological disorders long thought to be incurable, but it also justifies renewed investigation of the cultural forces that actively work to stimulate the experience of specific neuropsychological states (e.g., meditation—see the discussion of Newberg below).  Pace Pinker, the brain/mind system is characterized by remarkable plasticity and flexibility; we are just beginning to grasp its astonishing complexity and sophistication, and far from running up against “cognitive closure,” we are gaining an entirely new appreciation for the evolutionary potential of the human mind.

Another way in which Ramachandran’s Hinduism colors his work regards his approach to perception, consciousness, and selfhood.  Most if not all cognitive neuroscientists agree that our perceptions of the objective physical world give us no “direct” knowledge of that world; rather, our brains take data from our senses and create a neurological model of the real world.  Likewise with our sense of personal identity: there is no miniature self or “homunculus” hidden in some special region of the brain, just a neurogical superstructure that serves to organize our perceptions and manage our actions.  Several neuroscientists have explored the fascinating philosophical implications of these theories.  For example, Antonio Damasio contends in Descartes’ Error (Quill, 1992) that recent neuroscientific findings prove Rene Descartes was wrong to separate the mind from the body.  In the view of Damasio and many other researchers, any future discussion of the soul, the psyche, the mind, the spirit, or any other related concept must acknowledge the ultimate grounding of all human experience in the neurological workings of the brain/mind system.

This is not quite the view of Ramachandran.  He draws rather different philosophical implications from current neuroscience, and while in this book he does not pursue them at any length he clearly intends them as invitations to further discussion and investigation.  Consider these passages:

“For your entire life, you’ve been walking around assuming that your ‘self’ is anchored to a single body that remains stable and permanent at least until death….  Yet these experiments suggest the exact opposite—that your body image, despite all its appearance of durability, is an entirely transitory internal construct that can be profoundly modified with just a few simple tricks.” (61-62)

“[Y]our concept of a single ‘I’ or ‘self’ inhabiting your brain may be simply an illusion—albeit one that allows you to organize your life more efficiently, gives you a sense of purpose and helps you interact with others.” (84)

“To overstate the argument deliberately, perhaps we are hallucinating all the time and what we call perception is arrived at by simply determining which hallucination best conforms to the current sensory input.” (112)

“What is the nature of the self?  As someone who was born in India and raised in the Hindu tradition, I was taught that the concept of the self—the ‘I’ within me that is aloof from the universe and engages in a lofty inspection of the world around me—is an illusion, a veil called maya….  Ironically, after extensive training in Western medicine and more than fifteen years of research on neurological patients and visual illusions, I have come to realize that there is much truth to this view.” (227)

While researchers like Damasio and Pinker regard the current findings of brain science as a fatal blow to belief in any kind of non-physical reality or transcendent truth, Ramachandran is more interested in what brain science can say about the neuropsychological foundations of spiritual experience.  Chapter 9 of Phantoms in the Brain is titled “God and the Limbic System,” and in it Ramachandran discusses the intriguing relationship between temporal lobe epilepsy and religious experience.  Medical literature is filled with cases of people who suffer epileptic seizures in the temporal lobes (a part of the brain responsible for emotional processing) and who regularly report intense spiritual experiences during the seizures; in some cases the people continue to be deeply interested in religious issues after the seizures have stopped.  Ramachandran describes his own research on the religious preoccupations of patients with epilepsy, and in the end he says “the one clear conclusion that emerges from all this is that there are circuits in the human brain that are involved in religious experience and these become hyperactive in some epileptics” (188).  Ramachandran’s openness to religion probably earns him few friends in the neuroscientific research community—though it should spark the interest of religious studies scholars.


No one could mistake Mark Solms’s The Neuropsychology of Dreams for a mass-market book for beach or airplane reading.  This is an unvarnished, straight-as-an-arrow scientific monograph on one very specific subject in cognitive neuroscience, namely the formation of dream experience.  The book contains no witty references to pop culture, no endearing autobiographical digressions, no colorful rhetorical contrivances (although Solms does conclude with the latin phrase nihil simul inventum est et perfectum (“Nothing can be invented and perfected at the same time”)).  No effort is made to appeal to readers outside the scientific community, and the book’s plodding prose is dull as dishwater.  And yet precisely for all these reasons, The Neuropsychology of Dreams gives non-specialists an excellent window into the actual working conditions of contemporary cognitive neuroscience, showing why researchers in this area are so excited about their findings (and so aggressively assertive about their implications).

The logic guiding the argument in The Neuropsychology of Dreams is very simple: he uses research on damaged brains to make inferences about healthy brains.  For four years Solms, a clinical neurologist at London Hospital Medical College, asked his patients (people suffering from a variety of brain disorders) about their dreams.  Many of them reported “global cessation of dreaming,” i.e. they could no longer remember having any dreams.  A few people reported no longer dreaming with visual images, although they could still remember sounds, bodily sensations, etc.  Some patients experienced a dramatic increase in nightmares, while others had increasingly intense and vivid dreams that actually disrupted their ability to distinguish between dreaming and waking.  Using the abundant clinical and anatomical information he had about each of these patients, Solms was able to identify several correlations between their dreams and their neurological conditions.  The Neuropsychology of Dreams provides a careful, step-by-step description of how he moved from the clinical and anatomical data gathered from his patients to an explanatory model of normal dream formation.  Patients with damage to certain regions of the brain consistently suffered marked changes in their dreaming; patients with damage to other regions of the brain consistently reported no changes in their dreaming.  Therefore, Solms concludes, the former brain regions are the ones primarily responsible for the normal process of dream formation.  These regions include the limbic system (center of curiosity-interest-expectancy processes), the medial occipito-temporal cortex (visual representation), the inferior parietal convexity (spatial representation), and the basal forebrain pathways (appetitive desire).  One brain region that does not play any essential role in normal dream formation is the prefrontral convexity (source of logical coherence, prepositional structure, and volitional purpose).

This basic type of argument—moving from data about damaged functioning to inferences about normal functioning—is very common in contemporary neuroscience.  Although such reasoning has serious limitations (health is not simply the lack of pathology), Solms demonstrates its power in challenging long-standing assumptions about brain function.  Ever since the discovery in the 1950’s of the connection between REM (rapid eye movement sleep) and dreaming, most neuroscientists have believed that REM is the neurophysiological basis of dreaming.  The leading advocates of this view, J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, proposed the “activation-synthesis” model of dream formation, in which REM sleep is regarded as the essential determinant of dreaming experience.  Solms, however, using his clinico-anatomical findings, vigorously refutes Hobson and McCarley:

“[A]lthough there is a strong statistical correlation between the physiological state of REM sleep and the conscious state of dreaming, the neural mechanisms that produce REM are neither necessary nor sufficient for the conscious experience of dreaming.” (153)

“[N]ormal dreaming is impossible without the active contribution of some of the highest regulatory and inhibitory mechanisms of the mind.  These conclusions cast doubt on the prevalent notion—based on simple generalizations from the mechanism of REM sleep—that ‘the primary motivating force for dreaming is not psychological but physiological’ (Hobson and McCarley 1977).  If psychological forces are equated with higher cortical functions, it is difficult to reconcile the notion that dreams are random physiological events generated by primitive brainstem mechanisms, with our observation that global anoneira [cessation of dreaming] is associated not with brainstem lesions resulting in basic arousal disorders, but rather with parietal and frontal lesions resulting in spatial-symbolic and motivational-inhibitory disorders.  These observations suggest that dreams are both generated and represented by some of the highest mental mechanisms.” (241-242)

I want to note two features of Solms’ argument that are relevant to religious studies.  First is the compelling force of his scientific reasoning.  No future account of dreaming will be considered adequate that fails to acknowledge this kind of clinical and anatomical data about the role of the brain in dream experience.  In this regard, Solms’ work is one small example of the broader impact that cognitive neuroscience is having on nearly every scholarly field.  The Neuropsychology of Dreams shows how the revolutionary new discoveries in brain science are forcing a wholesale reconsideration of human mental life.  No researcher has written a Solms-like neuroscientific monograph on religious experience—yet.  I suggest it is only a matter of time until someone does produce an incredibly dry, meticulous, plodding report of the correlations between brain damage and various types of religiosity, and in the process radically challenges many fundamental assumptions of religious studies scholarship.

The second point to make about Solms’ work regards the prominent role of dreaming in many of the world’s religious traditions.  Solms takes no interest in this dimension of dreaming, but for researchers who are interested in the interplay of dreams, psychology, and religion, Solms’ work has important implications.  His refutation of Hobson and McCarley’s “brainstem reductionism” strongly supports the idea that dreams are not meaningless epiphenomena of REM sleep but rather meaning-laden, symbolically structured creations produced by some of the most sophisticated processes of the brain-mind system.  This gives fresh impetus to the study of the dynamic interplay between dreaming and religious faith, philosophical knowledge, and cultural creativity.  Unfortunately, Solms’ own theoretical alternative to Hobson is little more than a warmed-over version of Freud’s “sleep protection” theory of dream function: Dreams are defensive reactions to internal stimuli (including, but not restricted to, REM sleep) that threaten to disrupt sleep. The problem with this explanation is that it neglects the remarkable creativity of much of human dream experience.  Solms makes no effort to investigate the specific imagery and symbolic expressiveness of his patients’ dreams, and thus he has no appreciation for visionary power that emerges so clearly in dreams reported from various religious and cultural traditions around the world.  Here, I suggest, lies a golden opportunity for religious studies scholars to use cognitive neuroscience as a point of departure for the fresh investigation of a recurrent phenomenon in the history of human religiosity.  Perhaps we should take Solms at his latin word and, after thanking him for “inventing” these important findings, go on to “perfect” and refine them in future research.


Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief hit bookstores in 2001 with a force usually associated with a new Stephen King novel.  Prominently featured in major newspapers, magazines, television programs and talk radio shows, the book tapped into a surprisingly large public interest in the connection between religious experience and brain science.  Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, both from University of Pennsylvania (Newberg in Radiology, D’Aquili in Psychiatry), wrote an earlier book together, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Fortress, 1999), which laid out many of the research findings and theoretical interpretations that are central to Why God Won’t Go Away.  The new book (completed after D’Aquili’s death, with the help of freelance writer Vince Rause) takes the earlier material and carries it forward to a broader audience, offering several far-reaching claims about the significance of their research findings.  Like Pinker, but with a diametrically opposite attitude toward religion, Newberg and D’Aquili offer another “Grand Theory” of human life and development, with sweeping explanations for a wide variety of psychological and cultural phenomena.   
The widespread appeal of Newberg and D’Aquili’s work has several sources.  First, it’s a “man bites dog” kind of story.  The rarity of neuroscientists saying something favorable about religion is striking, and this in itself has generated broad public interest.  Second, Newberg and D’Aquili assert that religious experiences are not signs of pathology and mental illness but rather the products of healthy, normal human brains.  Such a claim is bound to attract people who do not share the disdain of Pinker and other cognitive neuroscientists for anything even remotely associated with religion.  The book’s title, Why God Won’t Go Away, reflects its explicit intention to defend religious belief against such harsh scientific attacks.

Third and most important, the book draws on the almost magical power accorded to the latest brain imaging technologies.  Newberg and D’Aquili rely on a SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) camera to measure blood flow in the brain during certain behaviors, and thus to identify areas of greater or lesser neural activation.  Since the beginning of the “Decade of the Brain” in 1990 a string of exciting discoveries have been made using new imaging techniques to reveal the workings of the brain in language, vision, hearing, memory, motor action, mathematical reasoning, musical performance, and dozens of other activities.  The colorful computer-generated images produced by these technologies are stunning to behold, and while some researchers have raised important questions about the proper interpretation of these images, the idea has taken hold of the general public that PET, fMRI, and SPECT scans are, for the first time in history, giving us a clear “window on the mind.”

Newberg and D’Aquili are among the first researchers to try using imaging technology to study the brain during a religious experience (their subjects are advanced Buddhist meditators and Franciscan nuns in prayer).  Their results provide what they coyly suggest may be a “photograph of God.”  Why God Won’t Go Away opens with Newberg describing his use of the SPECT camera on a subject named Robert, who is meditating in the laboratory: “I’m waiting for Robert’s moment of mystical transcendence to arrive, because I intend to take its picture.” (3)  This is a tantalizing way to start a book, and Newberg and D’Aquili try to make good on their promise by explaining how during states of intense meditation and prayer the areas of the brain responsible for sensory perception and orientation essentially shut down due to a lack of meaningful input, while the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for the abilities “to concentrate, plan future behavior, and carry out complex perceptual tasks” (30), becomes highly activated.  In such a neurological condition, lacking any of the information normally used to define self and world and yet highly aroused in its attention association processes, the brain interprets its experience as suddenly devoid of boundaries:

“The brain would have no choice but to perceive that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses.  And this perception would feel utterly and unquestionably real.  This is exactly how Robert and generations of Eastern mystics before him have described their peak meditative, spiritual, and mystical moments.” (6) 
Newberg and D’Aquili describe several other means of achieving this brain state, including states of hyperarousal (ritual dancing, drumming, chanting) and even relatively secular activities like attending a musical concert or taking a warm bath.  Whatever the method, Newberg and D’Aquili claim they all aim at the same fundamental neurological goal, the experience of what they call “Absolute Unitary Being,” or AUB:

“The transcendent state we call Absolute Unitary Being refers to states known by various names in different cultures—the Tao, Nivrana, the Unio Mystica, Brahman-atam—but which every persuasion describes in strikingly similar terms.  It is a state of pure awareness, a clear and vivid consciousness of no-thing.  Yet it is also a sudden, vivid consciousness of everything as an undifferentiated whole.” (147)

At first sight, Why God Won’t Go Away seems like the kind of book religious studies scholars would love.  That, at any rate, was my expectation as I began reading it.  Hence my disappointment at discovering the book suffers from several serious shortcomings.  Despite their eager acceptance of religion, Newberg and D’Aquili do not offer adequate evidence to support their neurocognitive explanation of it.  On the contrary, their major claims are only tenuously related to their research data, and the unfortunate effect of Why God Won’t Go Away may be that many neuroscientists will feel confirmed in their skepticism toward religion, rather than persuaded to pay more attention to it.

The first problem concerns what can be called “the lab effect.”  Simply put, the experimental attempt to replicate a certain kind of experience in a laboratory setting inevitably influences, shapes, and alters the experience in a variety of subtle but significant ways.  For example, in the field of dream research, people who serve as subjects in sleep laboratories tend to have dreams with less fear, aggression, and sexuality than people who sleep in a home setting—the lab evidently has a homogenizing effect on people’s dreams, making it less likely they will have rare or unusual types of dreaming experience.  Newberg and D’Aquili evince only a dim methodological awareness of how this same kind of problem drastically qualifies the significance of their research.  Although they confess that, “because peak experiences are quite rare, the likelihood of catching one when the subject is hooked up for electrophysiological readings is slim” (31), they never question the axiomatic assumption that experiences in a lab setting can be generalized to experiences outside the lab.  The question is, are people meditating and praying in a laboratory, “hooked up for electrophysiological readings” as part of a scientific experiment, having the same kind of experience as people meditating and praying in other settings?  Newberg and D’Aquili assume the answer is yes, but I would suggest the answer is no.  Important similarities between the two conditions certainly exist, but just as certainly there are major differences.  Why God Won’t Go Away takes a steamroller approach to the latter: the overriding goal of the book is to identify a common system of neurological activity responsible for all forms of religious experience.  Personal differences are mere secondary accretions to the fundamentally identical neural processes.

This points to the second problem, which is the book’s runaway universalism.  Ironically, Newberg and D’Aquili are even less interested in culture, history, and individual differences than Pinker.  At least Pinker knows enough about postmodernism to be vexed by it; Newberg and D’Aquili seem blissfully unaware of the past half-century of critical scholarship questioning universalistic claims about human nature and experience.  If they were aware of this literature, I cannot imagine them writing, even in a book aimed at non-specialists, passages like the following:

“Essentially, all myths can be reduced to a simple framework….Virtually all myths can be reduced to the same consistent pattern: identify a crucial existential concern, frame it as a pair of incompatible opposites, then find a resolution that alleviates anxiety and allows us to live more happily in the world.”  (62)

“At the heart of all the mystic’s descriptions, however, is the compelling conviction that they have risen above material existence, and have spiritually united with the absolute.” (101-2)

“Neurobiologically and philosophically, there cannot be two versions of this absolute unitary state.  It may look different, in retrospect, according to cultural beliefs and personal interpretations—a Catholic nun, for whom God is the ultimate reality, might interpret any mystical experience as a melting into Christ, while a Buddhist, who does not believe in a personalized God, might interpret mystical union as a melting into nothingness.  What’s important to understand, is that these differing interpretations are unavoidably distorted by after-the-fact subjectivity….  There is only absolute unity, and there cannot be two versions of any unity that is absolute.”  (122-3)

I leave it to scholars of myth, ritual, mysticism, and various religious traditions to punch holes in these inflated claims.  For the purposes of this review, I will simply say that whatever its failings as an understanding of religion, Newberg and D’Aquili’s “neurotheology” (the phrase comes from their earlier book) is not even firmly grounded in neuroscience.  Their theoretical claims should be understood as artifacts of the current, very imperfect state of brain imaging technology.  At present, the resolution of the various methods of neuroimaging is so poor that no one can tell with any definitive precision whether what is happening in one person’s brain is the exactly same as what is happening in another person’s brain.  But as the technology improves (and given the amount of money being poured into this research, the progress will be rapid), we are sure to discover vast new realms of unique complexity and distinctive difference in each individual’s neural circuitry.  This makes it quite likely that at some point in the near future we will have imaging data showing how, for example, the experiences of praying Catholic nuns and meditating Buddhists (in a lab setting, of course!) are actually quite different from one another.  Paradoxically, the very technology that Newberg and D’Aquili use to defend a universalistic view of religion will, I predict, become a valuable means of highlighting the radically irreducible plurality of human religious experience.

The final problem with Why God Won’t Go Away is that it ultimately fails in its stated goal of defending religion.  Newberg and D’Aquili’s core argument is that “religions persist because the wiring of the human brain continues to provide believers with a range of unitary experiences that are often interpreted as assurances that God exists” (129).  I imagine a skeptic like Pinker saying yes!, that’s exactly right, people foolishly fabricate elaborate fantasy explanations for their experiences rather than accept the more mundane origin of religious belief in anxieties about reproduction, social status, and death.  And even more than Pinker, Freud in his many writings on religion and culture gives give forceful articulation to this reductionistic explanation of religious faith.  Although Newberg and D’Aquili make a few glancing references to Freud, it is clear they have not fully processed the impact of his psychoanalytic thinking on religious studies scholarship.  To borrow from Paul Ricoeur, Why God Won’t Go Away is written from a “first naivete” perspective, and thus is not responsive to the present day’s “post-critical” environment and the profoundly troubling questions about religious belief provoked by a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”


In coming years and decades we will undoubtedly hear of many exciting new discoveries about the neurological workings of the brain.  As I hope to have shown in this essay, cognitive neuroscientists are quite eager to offer their opinions about what their research implies for our understanding of human religiosity.  Their claims are having an increasingly significant impact on the general public, and for this reason alone I suggest it is vitally important for a greater number of religious studies scholars to pay close critical attention to the latest findings of cognitive neuroscience.  Beyond this, I also suggest that for the field of religion and psychology an outstanding opportunity has opened for new investigations of classic themes in the field (e.g. conversion, mysticism, healing, cultural creativity, symbol and myth, gender).  Not since the early part of the twentieth century has leading scientific psychological research provided such fertile material for religious thought and reflection.

Note: I would like to thank the students of “The Soul, the Psyche, the Brain,” taught during the Fall of 2001 at the Graduate Theological Union, for their help in reading and understanding these texts.  I would also like to thank Diane Jonte-Pace for her insightful editorial advice.

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