Dreaming of War in Iraq: A Preliminary Report

Sleep and Hypnosis 2004, 6(1): 19-28


In earlier writings I have explored the political dimensions of dreams in relation to U.S. Presidential elections[i], the terrorist attack of September 11[ii], and people’s self-reports of political ideology[iii]. The basic argument I have been building in these texts is that dreams have directly meaningful connections to the political environments in which the dreamers live. I am seeking to refute the notion (advocated by Sigmund Freud[iv] and Calvin Hall[v] among others) that dreaming is exclusively concerned with the private world of the individual and does not have anything meaningful to say about the broader social world. On the contrary, I contend that certain dreams do indeed speak directly and meaningfully to the most urgent questions of public and political affairs in the dreamer’s waking life. To be sure, by far the majority of people’s dreams do not include any overt reference to political themes. But the evidence I have been gathering provides empirical support for the claim that a significant number of dreams do contain explicit political references and thus offer new insights into the conflicts, crises, and controversies that pervade the dreamer’s political world.[vi] To this extent, the dreams are consistent with G. William Domhoff’s continuity hypothesis[vii], by which dream content is seen as an accurate gauge of the major emotional concerns of the dreamer’s waking life (although the periodic discontinuities between dream content and waking (political) life are also important). Looking at the phenomenon from a broader theoretical perspective, dreams with explicit political references are worthy of study because they reflect an unusually dynamic interplay of physiological, psychological, cultural, and even religious forces, all swirling together with creative, recombinatory tension in the private visionary arena of the nocturnal imagination.

The present study is an exploration of political-oriented dreaming in the context of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which began on March 19, 2003 and ended (in terms of major combat operations) approximately a month later, on April 14. When the war initially broke out I posted a research request in several publications and electronic forums, and I contacted dozens of colleagues, teachers, researchers, and students who in turn distributed my request to other people.[viii]

In that month, 26 people shared detailed accounts of their war-related dreams with me.[ix] Seven of these people are male, nineteen female. Three of them are not U.S. citizens, although two are currently living in this country. Only five of the respondents supported the U.S. decision to go to war, or at least were not overly troubled by it; all the other respondents were strongly opposed to the war.

Three initial observations can be made about this response to the research request. First, the number of responses was fairly small, particularly when compared to the much larger number of dream reports that came in the immediate aftermath of September 11.[x] This surely reflects the limited and unsystematic distribution of my research request. It may also reflect the relatively minimal degree of personal fear Americans feel when contemplating the war in Iraq, in contrast to the traumatizing shock and vulnerability that so many people felt in the immediate aftermath of September 11.[xi] Second, the gender imbalance is striking, though perhaps not surprising given that American women tend to take a much greater interest in dreams than do American men.[xii] Third, the respondents were mostly from the “anti-war” side of the political spectrum. This is likely due to the generally liberal/progressive political orientation of the groups I contacted (e.g., dream researchers, religion and psychology scholars, residents of the San Francisco Bay Area). Perhaps it is also due to the rather obvious fact that “pro-war” people are not as emotionally frustrated by the Iraq invasion as those who opposed the war, and thus (following the continuity hypothesis) are not dreaming about it as much.[xiii]

So, before turning to a consideration of the dreams themselves, the following qualifications need to be noted. The dreams I gathered are certainly not representative of what Americans in general are dreaming. To the extent that most Americans have supported the war, these dreams at best reflect the sentiments of a minority of the U.S. population. My approach to the dreams does not, therefore, aim at providing broad, sweeping claims about national trends in oneiric experience. Rather, I am more interested in highlighting the creative details and meaning-rich images, feelings, and sensations that distinguish each individual dream. Along with that, I look to identify significant themes in the dreams that may be fruitfully compared to themes I have found in my previous studies of politically related dreams, with the goal of highlighting both the common characteristics of these dreams and their intriguingly idiosyncratic, bizarrely distinctive qualities. Finally, as someone who is strongly opposed to the war and who has struggled to make sense of the fast-moving political and military developments, I confess to the personal interest of seeking in these dream reports some insight into my own confused thoughts, turbulent feelings, and flashes of spiritual despair during this violent moment in our national history.[xiv]

Personal Symbols.

One of the first things I noticed in my studies of politically related dreams was the phenomenon of “personal symbols,” by which a dream includes an explicit reference to a political figure or event as a symbolic expression of something involving the dreamer’s personal life. Such dreams correspond to Frederick Perls’ notion that every feature of a dream represents a part of the dreamer’s own psyche; they also relate to C.G. Jung’s view that some dreams can be interpreted at a “subjective level” by which all the images reflect internal psychological dynamics.[xv] There is little controversy about this approach to dreams with manifest political content; I suspect even Freud and Hall would have no problem acknowledging the symbolic reference to the latent content of the dreamer’s personal life.

Several of the war in Iraq dreams I have gathered include personal symbols in this sense. Kerri, a 39-year old college counselor from California, had this dream on March 21:

I am waiting at a cross-walk trying to get across the street. The warning light is flashing alternately green and red in rapid succession WALK, DON’T WALK, WALK, DON’T WALK, WALK, etc. At the same time, cars with anonymous drivers are whizzing by. I am active in trying to get across the street, trying to time my sprint between the cars. One car comes along that is occupied by several people whom I recognize as citizens of Iraq, from all walks of life. Walking, I cross the street comfortably and safely after they pass.

Regarding the Iraq conflict, Kerri is not strongly opposed or in favor—“I am for peace but support war when necessary,” and she felt this dream had nothing to do with Iraq, but rather was “purely personal” and related directly to a situation in her current life—“in my dream (and in reality) it’s clear that I’m going to walk, the question is when.” The presence of the Iraqi people driving quickly past her does not refer to anything in particular about the war in Iraq, but rather serves to emphasize this personal life theme of movement, change, and translocation—she’s going to walk.

Two of the men who reported dreams to me also drew upon the war imagery to express emotions relating to personal life situations. Gary, a 44-year old teacher from Massachusetts, described several dreams involving war and conflict, all of which he felt related to his difficulties in organizing a new educational program at his school. “I was in [the nearby town of] Ashville and there was a war or battle that was going to happen soon. I knew that the front line battle was going to be very dangerous and most everyone was going to die. I had no idea who the enemy was or why I was even involved.” Phil, a 40-year old accountant from Washington, had this dream on March 20: “A huge space ship is invading the earth….I’m afraid my family will be killed, and civilization as we know it will end….My heart is pounding, I’m surrounded by total chaos…” Phil has been struggling recently to deal with various “chaotic” situations at home and at work, and his dream picks up on and dramatically exaggerates the invasion imagery of the Iraq war (which started with an initial barrage of high-technology missiles and bombs) as a way of expressing his troubled feelings about his personal life.

Op-Ed Commentaries.

Personal symbol dreams may of course be regarded as evidence in support of the view of Freud, Hall, and others that even dreams with explicit political imagery are not in fact “about” politics, but rather are like all other dreams in focusing exclusively on the private concerns of the dreamer. However, other war-related dreams reflect an unmistakably broader concern with public events that cannot be interpreted (away) as merely personal symbols. I think of these dreams as oneiric “op-ed commentaries” in the sense that they articulate feelings, ideas, and attitudes about political realities in terms that challenge conventional waking perspectives. Just as op-ed articles in newspapers provide a thought-provoking alternative to the official pronouncements of the editorial page, certain unusual dreams offer awareness-expanding visions of community situations that are causing difficulty, stress, and uncertainty in waking consciousness.

Leah, a 41-year old physical therapist from Israel and now living in the U.S., had this dream on April 5 while staying at her mother and grandmother’s house in Philadelphia:

in order recall; last part of dream written first etc. i’m in a mess tent – huge, heated tall, super/duper tent – in line, the trays are gleaming made from technologically evolved material, hot meals thousands of them- efficient, the army runs on its stomach. As i stand there i’m aware of this tent where magically all is clean, gleaming, efficient, orderly those metallic/silver poles on which one glides their tray from the other side piping hot. i see the steam rising from the food (there are no servers on the other side) thousands of piping hot meals awaiting, “nothing is spared“ there are other soldiers (i think i’m one too but i’m not dressed as one, actually i’m more like a silent ghost like figure- the soldiers look more like astronauts in those special fiber suits and with helmets on, the tent is cavernous.

(next image)- packages – a big net (like the kind they airdrop). i see the net on the ground and i’m aware of orange – (orange package/orange object) it’s the kind of orange that road workers wear, bright neon orange vests. Within this net on a ground that is very bleak – sand colored (like the landscape of iraq on t.v. – not clear if i’m receiving a package or sending one as i stand gathered with others at this place. – the dream figure (me) has a quality of being amidst others but “not of them“ abberation? ghostlike, not in form, but in quality of presence – the term that comes to me as i write it down is “silent witness“?

next image- (this is actually the first of these three) i’m interacting with people (here i’m actually interacting – engaged with them but on an opposing stand but there is communicative exchange). i stand alone – against this “iraqui landscape background“ they want me – they’re inviting. i have a faint sense of the form of temptation having sexual sonnotations as though there is a man among them taht if i were to join them i could also be with him, he wants me (sexual attraction)but if i don’t join them he will not “be“ with me. there is me physically standing across from them , apart in a inner conflict with myself. i stand there. ?

Another image – hospital – people in bunks high up (tent is big in height) something blue – a blue light – like a light from an opened refrigeration door but in a bluish tint – eerie – silent – injured little girl ( i don’t see her i just know she’s there somewhere) she gets a package the dreamer has an awareness that outside is hell- desert/stark chaotic conditions but within these 2 cavernous tents it’s “safe “, “clean“

technologically advanced, special fibers material, orderly. as though:“ you see once you come over to us (even injured) life is better“ –

Leah said afterwards that the dream’s imagery is true to her fervent anti-war feelings (“I tried [to share the dream] with my mother but she is a hawk in the way I’m a dove”). All the gleaming technology in the military mess tent and the hospital, combined with the threat-tinged sexual invitation from the unknown man and her felt sense of being “ghostlike” and a “silent witness,” gave a vivid imagistic expression to Leah’s waking view that the U.S. invasion of Iraq represents an aggressive “declaration that THIS is the only way to live…sort of colonial imperialism…(without necessarily physically occupying) america can take what she needs and the return to other countries are these technological benefits…which also create an addiction to the U.S.” ?

Marti, a 45-year old unemployed journalist from Turkey, had this dream on March 22. It was, she said “the first time I was ever raped in a dream.”

“I was in a very big and luxury house, like a labyrinth. There are another woman and some men in the house. The men are wanting to rape us. The other woman was rather willing against them. I was trying to escape from the man in the labyrinth-like house. But when I lock a door, I see a new door which men can enter. So I go on from rooms to rooms, floors up to floors down. All this time the other woman was in a good relation with the man. I came aware of I am dreaming (but not like lucidity). Though I know I was dreaming and try to direct the dream preventing to be raped by the man in the house. All my efforts were useless. They catch and raped me a few times. I even hurt, broke heads of some of them in my try to escape from rape. The other woman was a dark brunette, very sexy and seems like having satisfaction with their rapes (it was not like rape but rather willingly intercourse to her). In a way, I realized, she was acting like that to get the attention of the men to herself in order to protect me. Everything went on like this for a long time in the house. Than I someway I realized that the house is in fact a web page about dreams of video games. And I was one of the characters in the video game who has to win and get out of the labyrinth.

Marti said she rarely remembers dreams with overt sexual content, so this one definitely stood out for her. The men in the dream felt to her like direct symbols of the forces invading and bombing Iraq, with “being raped representing the attack to my beliefs and peace wanting soul. The other woman is maybe the ‘other me’ (the fighter me) trying to protect the ‘more vulnarable me’ from the rape.” The labyrinthine house suggested to Marti the uncertainty she and everyone felt about what would come of the American invasion—where would it all lead? The semi-lucidity enhanced her sense that she had to make urgent desicions to protect herself, even though she realizes the futility of all her efforts. The video games reminded Marti of her sons, who occasionally play them; a complex concluding image, both a wishful escape (“it’s all just a game”) and a foreboding of peril to come (her children playing at war, readying themselves for the adult world of real war). ?
Sandra, a 41-year old California woman, dreamed on March 20, right after the war started, that:

“We were in an area of land–this bad guy (dictator like–no clear features but dark hair medium height and build) had a key to break up one part of the land. Someone else had another key which was a disc (small like a coin, silver-grey colored–sometimes plastic looking other times more metallic in appearance). The bad guy got a hold of that key too. I think he used the keys. We were running (who was not clear–may not have been me–there was a female with brown straight hair). The land started to crack beneath the group and oceans of water lay underneath. I awoke feeling terrified or an adrenaline rush–like fight or flight reaction. At the same time it felt like I was watching a Star Trek adventure or like I was in outer space or on another planet.

Sandra said the dream “nagged at me throughout the day,” and she knew it related directly to the war, even though she had not been paying much attention to the media coverage of the conflict. “I’m sure the earth cracking is metaphoric of how I feel about this whole world situation and that the ocean lies underneath reminds me of just how powerful the ocean can be (reminds me of cycle of birth, death, and rebirth).” The bad guy is certainly reminiscent of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, although the fact that the dream character remains a more generalized antagonist points to a deeper level of emotional distress—Sandra is not simply afraid of Saddam Hussein, she is afraid of how the war in Iraq is setting loose destructive powers that threaten the very foundations of the world. The ocean underneath hints at a dimension of spiritual hope amid the fear and panic, although the science fiction framing at the end may (like Marti’s dream of the video game) reflect a wish that none of this was really happening.?

Gerhard, a 42-year old college teacher and author in California, did as much as he could to stop the war—he marched for peace, wrote and phoned the government, gave money, spoke in class, engaged in lengthy email discussions, etc. Once the war started, however, he found himself surprisingly unsure of his anti-war stance, and he struggled with “vague and malformed ideas” about what should happen next. He had this dream on March 27:

“I was on a tropical island (I recall the fringing coral beyond the beaches). I was not a resident; no doubt I was there for the diving. The island was occupied by white people and, on the beach, I met a young and affable Asian man who was going to try to reclaim it. We talked and, though I don’t remember the conversation, I made a joke about him staying away from the war. I felt ashamed when he then told me he was going to attempt a landing on the beach, right then. He then got into a canoe, with many other men, looking like a Hawaiian war party. I followed on the beach as they headed up to the end of the bay we were on. As they neared the shore again they were joined by another canoe but then the hills erupted in automatic weapons fire. As thousands of rounds tore the water around them, I marveled at how they were not being hit. But soon they were. Somehow by this time I had gotten far too close to the firefight. The men were hitting land and their enemies in the hills were coming down to engage them. I retraced my steps, but as I was walking I realized the enemy were all around. I further realized I looked exactly like the invaders: there was no way to tell I was not a combatant, and I was no more than 100 yards from the thick of the battle. My memory of the dream ends with me in the sand where I had thrown myself, looking up at a passing patrol of soldiers, desperately hoping they would not see or shoot me. But I believe that here the soldiers were inimical and Asian, neither the invaders, nor whites.

The tropical/Asian setting reminded Gerhard of wonderful vacations he had taken to Hawaii and Australia, and also of his awareness of the colonialist violence that the native people of those islands had suffered through history at the hands of white Euro-Americans like himself. His vigorous opposition to the war in Iraq certainly grew out of his general feelings about that historical legacy of racial/religious colonialism, and thus the dream accurately reflects his waking life political opposition to the Bush administration’s policies on Iraq. However, the dream does something more than that—it highlights the profound uncertainties he is now feeling as he tries to adapt those political views to the actual unfolding of the war. “In fact, I am the strangest thing in the dream. Where most of my dreams are highly unlikely or clearly impossible, this one was almost naturalistic but for one thing: the bizarre behavior and physical transformation of its main character, me. I don’t see an easy explanation for this one, but am irresistibly reminded of a dream I had during the war on Afghanistan. In that dream I was an Afghani, watching the bombs drop like poisonous leaves on my country. But here, who am I? Am I an occupier in the beginning? Am I an invader at the end? Or have we all somehow switched races?” ?
Judy is a 48-year old health care professional in California who agreed with the need to use military force against Iraq even though she worried about all the deaths that would result. She had this dream on March 18, just before the first missile strikes on Baghdad:

“The dream was my husband and I were going to Hawaii for a vacation. Somehow we were separated and I had to pass through this hall and the hall was made up of many faces of all races. I passed through the hall as the faces were speaking or making faces at me and then I’m in the open. There were people around like sight seeing and all of a sudden the mountains they were looking at started crumbing and big pieces of cement, etc, fell and hit people, killing them. I ran up a hill of sand and finally got to level ground. I’m looking around for my husband and can’t find him but then the mountains on that side start to crumble and I run again, through the hall of faces and races. I come out on the other side but have not been able to connect with my husband.
Also, the mountains had the faces of Mount Rushmore in them too and that was the cement part of the falling pieces.”

Even though Judy is, in waking life, a supporter of the American war effort, she still feels deep misgivings about where the invasion will lead, and those concerns surface in her dream. The hall of faces from all races gave her a clear sense of tension between her American cultural beliefs and those of other people around the world. “They are not mean, but they are not exactly in ‘sync’ with my beliefs.” The striking image of Mount Rushmore crumbling to pieces made a strong impression on her—“I think it was showing a crumbling of the U.S. as we know it and a devastation that we did not expect.” In those deadly pieces of rock and cement raining down from the ultimate monument to American presidential power, Judy saw an omen boding that, for good or for ill, “we are entering into a new era.”

Political Transformations.

The “op-ed commentary” dreams just presented are all fairly continuous with the dreamer’s waking life political views. Other dreams, however, involve images and feelings that run counter to the person’s ordinary outlook. The political discontinuities have the effect of prompting new conscious reflection on particular issues or conflicts, in some cases actually altering the individual’s waking life attitude. These dreams correspond closely with what Jung called the compensatory function of dreaming.[xvi] Although researchers like Domhoff argue that compensation is inadequate as a comprehensive theory of dream function,.[xvii] the evidence that Jung and others have provided is sufficient to demonstrate that at least some dreams have a compensatory effect on people’s waking consciousness

Stella, a 60-year old teacher and counselor in Georgia, dreamed this on April 3:

“I am standing on a hill with a finely dressed woman. She has some white and some colors in her dress. The wind is blowing. She says something like Saddam is going to blow the world up, something like that. That is her worry thought. I think of how she is a worrier, yet I feel a bit of concern myself”. The previous day Stella had read in the paper a threatening quote from one of Saddam Hussein’s son’s, and she was surprised at how much it upset her since had not been very concerned about the war so far, even though she knew many people around her were quite agitated and fearful. (One of her favorite teachers had always encouraged her not to focus any attention on negative media stories.) Looking at her dream in this context, Stella regarded the woman as an exemplar of a “fine personality,” the hill as a “higher perspective,” and the wind as “the Holy Spirit, the sacred.” Seeing that in this lofty, serene setting the finely dressed woman gives voice to a terrible feeling of danger and vulnerability, Stella is able to recognize a similar emotion in herself, although in a less intense form. “In my dream I admit to feeling some concern, which is more than I wanted to admit prior to my dream. I am grateful for this realization; if I do not acknowledge feeling fear, I will be unable to deal with it.”

David, a 55-year old health care technician in North Carolina, had this dream on February 28, about three weeks before the start of the war, which he bitterly opposed (“Quite frankly I think the invasion of Iraq is a cynical ploy to inflate Mr. Bush’s approval ratings, discredit the United Nations and protect the interests of an avaricious economic minority”).


I notice a movement in the corner of my eye and turn to see something large and dark coming toward me. After a moment it resolves into an elephant with a white, one story house on its back. The elephant proceeds to a far corner of the parking lot on which I am standing. I study the house as I walk across the lot. It is sided with rough textured, pressed board and looks like the kind of temporary building one often sees serving as offices on used car lots. I look down to find there are now four elephants. Looking back up I see the little building is now buried in one corner of a much larger, multi-storied version of itself on the backs of the four elephants. From within the original building I hear a man’s voice say, “Look! I got a campaign to run here!“ I see a digital clock face which reads, “6:15“ and realize it is time for me to go home. As I am about to leave I remember several cockatiels are caged in the attic of the white building and I must see they are fed before I can go. I climb a ladder made of 2x4s to the attic. The bird cages are made of wire mesh and have been build between the rafters and struts of the roof. It is difficult to see into one cage which contains a normal grey, male cockatiel. I cannot see any seed dish at all in this cage and become very anxious, wondering how long the bird has gone unfed. I stand on tip-toe to look into the bottom of the cage hoping to see a dish there but, instead, I find a goldfinch in summer plumage, lying on its side, dead. I worry that if I move it I will create a bad smell and a big mess which may be unhealthy for the cockatiel, then I wonder, with horror, if the cockatiel has been feeding on the dead bird in lieu of seed. I am torn between the need to deal with the dead bird and my desire to get home.

The first thing to note is that this dream does not contain any explicit reference to the imminent war. It would be extremely difficult to devise a keyword search that could reliably identify this as a war-related dream. And yet for David, the dream is absolutely an explicit expression of his thoughts and feelings about the current political situation. This was his initial reaction to the dream: “The elephant, of course, is a symbol of the Republican Party the which is further emphasized by the White House on its back.” The elephant moves to a position opposite (ideologically) to where David is standing, and then the house swells in size and there are four elephants instead of one—“much as the Republicans and Bush have increased in power lately.” The man’s voice shouting “I have a campaign to run!” is for David a transparent political reference to his scornful waking life attitude toward the President and his administration. ?

The final section of the dream, with the cockatiels and the dead goldfinch, carries the political reference to a new allegorical height, moving beyond his strongly held personal views to a surprisingly new point of view on the whole situation and his role within it. The ladder of 2x4s is a peculiar symbol David has noticed in his dreams for years, and he has come to see the rough-hewn, hand-made nature of the ladders as a reflection of his underlying belief that he has to “make my own way up” in life. The “normal grey, male cockatiel” David could not help but associate with himself, while the “goldfinch with summer plumage” struck him as symbolizing “the Sweet Bird of Youth.” In that context, his intense reaction (“I wonder, with horror”) to the possibility that the cockatiel has been eating the goldfinch led him to this humbling personal and political realization: “To paraphrase the adage, young people fight wars that old people start. It is also true that ‘normal grey’ people live in and benefit from economies bolstered by wars, so my ambivalent feelings about dealing with the dead goldfinch could be a reflection of a desire not to acknowledge the ways in which I, myself, feed on the young sacrificed in war and the responsibility I bear because I have tolerated the actions of Bush’s government.”

Empathetic Identifications and Fearful Anticipations.

The psychological and spiritual impact of the war can be seen in those dreams in which the dreamer identifies with people who are directly involved in the combat. Gerhard’s dream of being caught in the fighting on the tropical island and trying desperately to hide is one example of this. Several other reports I received included this vivid personal experience of being in the war. William, a 54-year old college professor from Massachusetts, dreamed on March 14 that “I am watching four young American fighter pilots be strapped into one man fighter planes with oxygen masks being fastened on their faces, almost as if they are being bound down for execution or torture. I awake in terror with feelings of being suffocated.” Jenny, a 51-year old librarian from Ohio, also dreamed on March 14 that “Somehow I am with a large group of people who are being chased by an army—there is one person in charge (Saddam?) who wants us all killed. We find a large building like a castle to hide in.” From the other side of the ideological divide, James, a 36-year old student and former Air Force weapons specialist, has had several dreams in which “I am teaching classes to new airmen on Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Warfare. I was in civilian clothes and we were in a classroom.” James is a strong supporter of President Bush’s approach to Iraq, and while he was in the Air Force his training focused on weapons of mass destruction, “so I think the dreams have to do with wanting to help in an area that I know.”?

Following September 11 I heard numerous reports of dreams in which people’s homes and neighborhoods were attacked by bombs, missiles, terrorists, and/or military forces. Although I have gathered fewer of these dreams during the war in Iraq, a few vivid examples have been reported. Jackie, a 40-year old writer from California, dreamed on March 20 that “I am in the hills, there are trees around me, very healthy trees. I am anxious, there are explosions in the distance, coming closer and closer to where I am. I do not know where the next one will be and am confused about which way to go.” For Jackie the dream was a very direct expression of her fearful attitude toward the war—“I feel helpless and fear the unknown future. I am conflicted about what to do but I feel like I have to do something.” Tommy, a 12-year old boy from California, dreamed in early March that the Golden Gate Bridge (which in waking life he sees every day from his home) was a “mangled wreck” following a terrible battle; he also dreamed that he was dead and had come back in the form of a grown man to visit his mother, who was now an elderly woman. Gracie, a 19-year old college student in North Carolina, dreamed in late February that “I was watching the news and suddenly discovered we were bombing Iraq. I was so upset that we were bombing the poor Iraqis and I saw so many people dying. It was a very distressing dream, and it seemed very life-like. When I woke up I was sure that we had started bombing, when we had not yet begun.”?

One of the most moving stories I have heard so far involves Melody, a 41-year old technical writer in Alabama who strongly opposed the war (even though most of the people in her community were equally strong supporters of it). The first night following the invasion she had unclear, disturbing dreams of bombs dropping.

“The second night is much clearer and more elaborate. It started with bombs dropping and soon evolved into a sort of science fiction scenario with underground bunkers and force fields and so forth. These force fields could automatically recognise friend from foe — that baffled me and, frankly, worried me that I would maybe not be able to get in. Above ground was like a sprawling housing project and I remember wondering how the drainage and so forth for those buildings didn’t interfere with the underground, which wasn’t very far underground at all. But once you got into the underground you were safe: the force fields made you safe from the bombing that was going on overhead. They were trying out new kinds of bombs that were just flashes in the sky, like neutron bombs, I suppose, designed to kill but not to destroy the buildings. I’m not sure.

Melody admitted that “I’m having difficulties in my personal and professional life because of my anti-war stance.” A few days after the dream, she became involved in a contentious email exchange with her co-workers (they were soliciting charitable donations for U.S. troops in Iraq, and she replied by suggesting her colleagues visit an Oxfam web site), with the result that she became a pariah in the office and an object of scorn and derision from her colleagues. “I am still involved with discussions between me, my manager, and human resources. Basically, it’s an extremely uncomfortable position to be in right now, and you can rest assured that absolutely no one has stopped by my desk to support my input.” Much as her dream anticipated, Melody found herself in a high-tech war environment where she is in danger of being split off from her erstwhile friends and cast into the militarily targeted category of “foe”; the only hope of survival is to move herself (and her minority political opinions) “underground,” where she can’t be seen or heard.

Closing Reflections: Religion and War.

Whether one is for or against the war in Iraq, the religious dimensions of the conflict are an important and undeniable reality. The rise of radical Islam as a threat to American national security, the disproportionate influence of ultraorthodox Jews on Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, the friction between Sunni and Shi’ite branches of Islam, the proudly assertive Christian faith of President Bush, the opposition to war by the official leadership of nearly all American religious denominations, the theological context of Europeans and Americans launching colonial/missionary/crusading efforts in the Middle East—all of these factors make religion a major issue in the war in Iraq. I want to end this preliminary report with a dream that highlights some of the religious complexities involved in the present conflict. Kate, a 42-year old health care worker in Ohio from the anti-war camp, had this dream on March 18:

“War in our country: bombed buildings and roads, and I was in a car driving to escape. Our church had collapsed before the war began and dozens of national guardsmen had come to fix it. They surrounded the stone structure and piles of rubble shoulder to shoulder wearing uniforms and helmets, even carrying guns. I discussed with my pastor how much it appeared like a war scene. “Isn’t it ironic that our church would fall at the same time as the war, and that soldiers would come to help us?”

Kate said her church is currently in the process of remodeling its 130-year old stone building, so her dream certainly has that direct connection to her life. When I asked her about her church’s attitude toward the war, she told me of the congregation’s long history of anti-war activism and her own enthusiastic participation in the protests leading up to the current conflict in Iraq. The opening of her dream seems to reflect, consistent with the political views of herself and her church, a frightened sense that warfare and bloodshed are on the rise everywhere and are even threatening her home community. However, at this point something a little odd happens. The church is in ruins, as if it has been struck by a bomb, but Kate knows that in fact the church fell down before the war started. Her capacity to recognize the irony of the situation—soldiers during wartime helping rebuild an anti-war church that collapsed prior to the war—is, I suspect, a healthy sign of psychological and spiritual reintegration amid the confusing chaos of the historical moment. Despite the destructive forces of war consuming her country, despite the presence of armed troops right before her, she feels no personal threat in what’s happening. On the contrary, she appreciates the help of the national guardsmen in rebuilding her church. “The soldiers seemed to be working to shore up the remaining structure and to protect people from further collapse. At the time I had the dream, the war was just beginning and I was certain that it was an enormous mistake. I feel much more conflicted now than I did before it started, as I see the Iraqi response to the US presence… I still feel we made a terrible mistake, but maybe the consequences won’t be as dire as I had imagined.”

A violent war, a crumbled church, a military trying to make things better—in dreaming as in waking, Kate and many people like her are struggling with sharp fragments of image, emotion, and history, trying to reorient themselves to a world they no longer recognize.


Bosnak, Robert. 1996. Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming: Exploring Interior Landscape through Practical Dreamwork. New York: Delacorte Press.
Bulkeley, Kelly. 1996b. Political Dreaming: Dreams of the 1992 Presidential Election. In Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society, edited by K. Bulkeley. Albany: State University of New York Press.
———. 1997. An Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming. Westport: Praeger.
———. 1999a. Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
———. 2002. Dream Content and Political Ideology. Dreaming 12 (2):61-78.
———. 2003. Dreams of Healing: Transforming Nightmares into Visions of Hope. Mahwah: Paulist Press.
Domhoff, G. William. 1996. Finding Meaning in Dreams: A Quantitative Approach. New York: Plenum.
———. 2003. The Scientific Study of Dreams: Neural Networks, Cognitive Development, and Content Analysis. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Freud, Sigmund. 1965. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by J. Strachey. New York: Avon Books.
Hall, Calvin. 1966. The Meaning of Dreams. New York: McGraw Hill.
Jung, C.G. 1974. The Practical Use of Dream Analysis. In Dreams. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Original edition, 1934.
King, Johanna. 1996. Let’s Stand Up, Regain Our Balance, and Look Around at the World. In Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society, edited by K. Bulkeley. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Rupprecht, Carol Schreier. 1996. Sex, Gender, and Dreams: From Polarity to Plurality. In Among All These Dreamers: Essays on Dreaming and Modern Society, edited by K. Bulkeley. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Samuels, Andrew. 1993. The Political Psyche. London: Routledge.
Shafton, Anthony. 2002. Dream-Singers: The African American Way with Dreams. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Sobel, Mechal. 2000. Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Taylor, Jeremy. 1983. Dream Work. Mahwah: Paulist Press.
———. 1992. Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill. New York: Warner Books.
Ullman, Montague, and Nan Zimmerman. 1979. Working with Dreams. Los Angeles: Jeremy Tarcher.

[i](Bulkeley 1996b).

[ii](Bulkeley 2003), and a forthcoming study (co-authored with Tracey Kahan) on explicit incorporations of 9/11-related themes in a set of 21 college student dream journals from the fall of 2001.

[iii] (Bulkeley 2002).

[iv] (Freud 1965) (358): “Dreams are completely egoistical. Whenever my own ego does not appear in the content of the dream, but only some extraneous person, I may safely assume that my own ego lies concealed, by identification, behind this other person.”

[v] (Hall 1966) (11): “Dreams contain few ideas of a political or economic nature. They have little or nothing to say about currentevents in the world of affairs….Presidential elections, declarations of war, the diplomatic struggles of great powers, major athletic contests, all of the happenings that appear in newspapers and become the major topics of conversation among people are pretty largely ignored in dreams.”

[vi] Others who have written about this include Montague Ullman (Ullman and Zimmerman 1979), Jeremy Taylor (Taylor 1983, 1992), Robert Bosnak (Bosnak 1996), Andrew Samuels (Samuels 1993), Anthony Shafton (Shafton 2002), Johanna King (King 1996), and especially the recent fascinating work by Mechal Sobel on dreams as windows into racial and gender relations in early American history (Sobel 2000).

[vii] (Domhoff 1996).

[viii] Here is the text: “Dreams Relating to the War in Iraq: A Research Request. If you have had any dreams relating to the current war in Iraq, please send them to researcher Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D. (The Graduate Theological Union), who is collecting such dreams for a study on personal dreams and public events. All dream reports will be kept anonymous, and the researcher will respond to any questions you might have about your dreams. In your report please include 1) the date you had the dream, 2) your age, 3) gender, 4) state or country of residence, and 5) occupation. Please describe the dream in as much detail as you can, and if possible include your feelings about the war and how your dream relates to it. Thank you. Email: kellybulkeley@earthlink.net”

[ix] I have received several other dream reports since that time, and those will be included in an expanded study in the future.

[x] (Bulkeley 2003).

[xi] Although we can be sure that many of the U.S. military personnel who are serving in Iraq are dreaming about it right now, and are likely suffering the first symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The same is likely true of their family members, and of course of countless people in Iraq. Future clinical studies on the veterans of this war will add considerable detail to the ideas presented in this report, as will anthropological investigations of post-war Iraq.

[xii] (Bulkeley 1999a)(Rupprecht 1996).

[xiii] Although as Margaret, one of my respondents, noted, it seems surprising that she (and perhaps other anti-war people as well) have not been dreaming more about the Iraq situation. “[T]he violence of war has been in my conscious mind consistently and vividly for months and months. Last night [April 6] was the first time I dreamed about the war in all that time!”

[xiv] Gerhard, one of whose dreams is discussed below, commented on the effect of receiving my research request: “I wonder if I would have had the dream at all, had you not called it forth.” This points to the ultimate methodological indeterminacy of dream research, our field’s version of the uncertainty principle in quantum physics: the observer inevitably influences (and even creates) that which he or she observes.

[xv] For more on the dream theories of Perls and Jung, see (Bulkeley 1997).

[xvi] (Jung 1974) (101).

[xvii](Domhoff 2003) (144-147).

Sleep Deprivation Is Torture

“The former C.I.A. officer, who is knowledgeable about the interrogation program, explained that, ‘Sleep deprivation works.  Your electrolyte balance changes.  You lose all balance and ability to think rationally.  Stuff comes out.’  Sleep deprivation has been recognized as an effective form of coercion since the Middle Ages, when it was called tormentum insomniae.  It was also recognized for decades in the United States as an illegal form of torture.  An American Bar Association report, published in 1930, which was cited in a later U.S. Supreme Court decision, said, ‘It has been known since 1500 at least that deprivation of sleep is the most effective torture and certain to produce any confession desired.’ Under President Bush’s new executive order [of July 20, 2007], C.I.A. detainees must receive the ‘basic necessities of life, including adequate food and water, shelter from the elements, necessary clothing, protection from extremes of heat and cold, and essential medical care.’  Sleep, according to the order, is not among the basic necessities.”

Jane Mayer, “The Black Sites: A Rare Look Inside the C.I.A.’s Secret Interrogation Program,” The New Yorker Magazine, August 13, 2007

The American Dream

275093“The American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it.  It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position….[T]he American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtless counted heavily.  It has been much more than that.  It has been a dream of being able to grow to the fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.”

From The Epic of America (1931) by James Truslow Adams

An Exchange with Political Psychologist John Jost

In January of 2008 I had an email exchange with John Jost, political psychologist at NYU and lead author of the 2003 article, “Political Conservativism as Motivated Social Cognition.” (Psychological Bulletin 129: 339-375). He had seen an advance copy of the book, and while favorably disposed toward most of it he took exception to the following passages in the conclusion:

“The data presented in this book for the most part agree with the findings from my earlier studies. Political conservatives in America tend to sleep well with a diminished range of dreaming, while American liberals are more likely to sleep poorly with an expanded range of dreaming. The differences are not absolute, but the trends seem consistent with their respective political ideals.

These findings correspond fairly well with other research on political psychology. For example, John T. Jost and his colleagues argued in an influential 2003 article that “the core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat.”[i] Reviewing the results of eighty-eight studies involving more than twenty thousand people, Jost et al. found that political conservatism was psychologically correlated with high degrees of death anxiety and dogmatism and low degrees of openness to experience, tolerance of uncertainty, and integrative complexity. Without corresponding data on political liberals it’s hard to know exactly what to make of these findings, but they seem consistent in many ways with the patterns identified in my dream research, and thus supportive of a classic social scientific view of conservatives going back to Adorno and his 1950 study of “the authoritarian personality.” Conservatives seem to have thicker psychological boundaries than do liberals, with less interest in anything that deviates from their traditional ways of living and more concern about possible threats to those traditions.[ii]

My hesitation to fully endorse this line of research stems from 1) its pathologizing approach to conservative beliefs and ideals and 2) its premise that there’s a clear, stable distinction between a conservative and a liberal personality. I believe it’s better to start political psychology research with the recognition that no one is purely conservative or liberal. Everybody’s personality includes aspects of both tendencies… Samuels, like Lakoff, is an avowed political liberal, and Jost et al., leave little doubt as to their greater sympathy for liberal qualities. The leftward-leaning tendencies of most social scientists gives us good reason to question the motivations of researchers who argue that conservatives are somehow less mentally healthy or psychologically mature than liberals. Personal bias plays a role in political psychology just like it does in every academic field, and the best we researchers can do is try to be honest with ourselves and continually test our ideas against new sources of evidence.”

Jost replied that “you seem to be perpetuating some common misunderstandings (or misrepresentations) of our work. For example, you state that our meta-analysis did not include “corresponding data on political liberals” and that our work assumes a “clear, stable distinction between a conservative and a liberal personality.” Both of these statements are false. In fact, participants’ political orientation scores were treated as continuous variables (ranging from extremely liberal to extremely conservative) in nearly all of the 88 studies in the meta-analysis. Thus, our research contains extensive data on liberals and does not assume a rigid categorical distinction at all; rather, all conclusions are comparative. You also claim that our research takes a “pathologizing approach to conservative beliefs and ideals” (p. 154) and imply that our (assumed) “liberal bias” led us to conclude that “conservatives are somehow less mentally healthy or psychologically mature than liberals” (p. 157). These claims are also false, and we clearly said so in an August 2003 Washington Post Op-Ed piece. All of the 9 cognitive and motivational style variables that we investigated are part of normal psychological functioning, and there was nothing in our articles that “pathologized” conservatives. What you are doing here is perpetuating false claims that circulated on right-wing websites by people who never actually read our research.”

Jost also offered links to several articles in which he makes his case against his conservative attackers:


My response to Jost starts with an acknowledgment of my imprecision in summarizing his research. In the conclusion I briefly discuss my findings in light of four different perspectives on political psychology—cognitive scientist George Lakoff, Jungian analyst Andrew Samuels, Neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and Jost and his colleagues. In the paragraph on Jost I discuss his work in connection to the long lineage of social scientific research on political “authoritarianism” starting with Adorno, and clearly from Jost’s perspective I failed to adequately credit his methodological advances over the early Adorno work. The primary target of my critical comments is indeed Adorno, and I could have done more to distinguish Jost’s research from his. That said, I stand by the general methodological concerns raised in that passage. Research like Adorno’s and Jost’s is predicated on psychological categories that may correspond to actual features of cognitive structure but also have the tendency to obscure the fluid dynamism of actual lived experience (of the liberal and conservative varieties). My approach in the book tries to integrate both dimensions, the cognitive-structural and the dynamic-experiential, and even though my efforts are very limited and preliminary, the initial results have been sufficiently promising to encourage the pursuit of more and better research. Indeed, my primary point in bringing up Jost’s work was to highlight the convergence in our findings. The sleep and dream data I present in the main portion of the book strike me as remarkably consistent with the basic results of the meta-analysis of Jost and his colleagues in their 2003 article. I’m curious to know how much further these correspondences extend.

[i] John T. Jost, Jack Glaser, Arie W. Kruglanski, and Frank J. Sulloway, “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition,” Psychological Bulletin 129 (2003), 339.
[ii] The notion of psychological boundaries comes from Ernest Hartmann, Boundaries in the Mind: A New Psychology of Personality (New York: Basic Books, 1993). See also Milton Rokeach, The Open and Closed Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1960).

Dream-sharing among the Founding Fathers

John Adams and Benjamin Rush: dream-sharing among the Founding Fathers, told in Joseph J. Ellis’ Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

John Adams-Benjamin Rush 1: Dream-Sharing of the Founding Fathers

“Rush set the terms for what became a high-stakes game of honesty by proposing that they dispense with the usual topics and report to each other on their respective dreams.  Adams leapt at the suggestion and declared himself prepared to match his old friend ‘dream for dream.’  Rush began with a ‘singular dream’ set in 1790 and focusing on a crazed derelict who was promising a crowd that he could ‘produce rain and sunshine and cause the wind to blow from any quarter he pleased.’  Rush interpreted this eloquent lunatic as a symbolic figure representing all those political leaders in the infant nation who claimed they could shape public opinion.  Adams subsequently countered: ‘I dreamed that I was mounted on a lofty scaffold in the center of a great plain in Versailles, surrounded by an innumerable congregation of five and twenty millions.’  But the crowd was not comprised of people.  Instead, they were all ‘inhabitants of the royal menagerie,’ including lions, elephants, wildcats, rats, squirrels, whales, sharks….At the end of the dream, he was forced to flee the scene with my ‘clothes torn from my back and my skin lacerated from head to foot.’”

Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 214-215.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to study these letters between John Adams and Benjamin Rush myself, so I’m relying on Ellis’ reading of this remarkable correspondence (which began in 1805 and continued for many years).  Adams was the country’s second President (1979-1801).  He played a central role in the country’s revolutionary birth but found himself  brusquely pushed aside by Thomas Jefferson, his erstwhile  friend and compatriot who defeated him in the 1800 election.  Rush was another “Founding Father,” a Pennsylvania doctor who signed the Declaration of Independence and who made it his personal mission to reconcile Adams and Jefferson.  He acted as an intermediary between them, writing letters to both men and trying to persuade them to restore some sense of political unity with each other, for their own sake and for the welfare of the young American republic, its visionary system of government still fragile and uncertain of long-term survival.

Why Rush made his dream-sharing proposal to Adams, where he got the idea, what made Adams so quickly agree—these are questions to which I don’t know the answer.  But it’s fascinating to discover evidence that the country’s earliest leaders evinced an enthusiastic willingness to share and discuss the insights revealed in their dreams.  Rush’s “singular” dream reflected the distaste he and Adams both felt toward the political demagoguery of their opponents, whose seductive fantasies were threatening to destroy the federal government’s ability to function as originally intended.  Adams responded with an elaborate nightmare (his reporting of the animals goes on for several paragraphs) in which he’s overcome by the tremendous power and riotous diversity of the animal kingdom.  Ellis suggests, plausibly I think, that Adams’ dream symbolized the angry emotions aroused in him by the split with Jefferson.

John Adams-Benjamin Rush 2: The End

“Rush reported his most amazing dream yet.  He dreamed that Adams had written a short letter to Jefferson, congratulating him on his recent retirement from public life.  Jefferson had then responded to this magnanimous gesture with equivalent graciousness….Then  the two philosopher-kings ‘sunk into the grave nearly at the same time, full of years and rich in the gratitude and praises of their country’….Adams responded immediately: ‘A DREAM AGAIN! I have no other objection to your dream but that it is not history.  It may be prophecy.”

Ellis, Founding Brothers, 220.

In 1809, when Rush described his dream, Adams and Jefferson were still estranged.  However, both men had expressed to Rush a willingness to overcome their differences and bury their hurt feelings for the higher cause of national unity.  Ordinarily I would raise the skeptic’s question myself—Rush’s “dream” sounds too smooth, too allegorical, too conveniently supportive of his conscious goals to be believed.  But as a matter of historical fact, the dream came true in a way I doubt anyone could fabricate.  Adams and Jefferson resumed a cordial, respectful friendship in 1812, and for the remaining years of their lives they wrote each other detailed letters analyzing their roles in the country’s founding and articulating their best understanding of the Revolution’s core ideals and purposes.  In uncanny obedience to Rush’s dream, Adams and Jefferson died on same day—July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

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.