Neurotheology: Making Sense of the Brain and Religious Experiences
Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg studies the brains of religious people. His work is a remarkable window into how religious practices affect and shape the brain.
Since I was a kid, I have been asking questions about reality. I couldn’t understand why people had different religious, political, and moral beliefs when we all live in the same world. This curiosity led me on a lifelong journey to understand how people form their ideas about reality.
I started looking at the human brain, but soon realized that simply understanding scientific aspects of our experience was not enough. So I started to explore philosophical and spiritual avenues. Eventually, all my searching came together in a field often referred to as neurotheology.
Through this lens of neurotheology, I’ve been studying the brains of religious people for decades. I have done brain scans on praying Franciscan nuns, meditating Buddhist monks, and chanting Sikhs. These scans have given me a remarkable window into how religious practices affect and shape the human brain. They have also given me a profound appreciation for the different ways we perceive reality around us.
What is Neurotheology?
Neurotheology is an interdisciplinary field that combines neuroscience and theology. It explores the relationship between the brain and religious experiences. This emerging field of study has gained great attention in recent years in both the scientific and spiritual communities. And it has struck a nerve (pun intended) in the broader popular media with articles in many prominent television, print, and online outlets.
There are a couple of important points to consider about neurotheology as a field. First, I have always argued that it should be seen as a “two-way street.” The neuroscientific side and the religious/spiritual side should equally engage each other. By working together, science and the spiritual can hopefully give us better insight into our human nature.
By working together, science and the spiritual can hopefully give us better insight into our human nature.
Neurotheology is not just a scientific analysis of religion, nor is it just a religious analysis of science; it is both. Second, it is important to realize that both sides of neurotheology should be considered broadly. The “neuro” side should include neuroscience, neuroimaging, psychology, medicine, consciousness studies, and any other methods that explore the biological aspects of who we are. The “theology” side should include theology itself, but also the beliefs, practices, and experiences that get at the spiritual part of who we are.
A Brief History of Neurotheology
The study of the relationship between the brain and religion can be traced back thousands of years. The early spiritual texts in most major traditions had to combine an understanding of the human person and the human mind with concepts such as God, universal consciousness, and ultimate reality. The more recent exploration of neurotheology began about hundred years ago with the work of William James. In 1902, his book “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” described religious experiences as “verifiable experiences of God” that have a profound impact on the individual. James proposed that these experiences are real and have a biological basis. However, it wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that neuroscientists began to explore how the brain connects to religious experiences.
In the 1990s, my colleagues and I used brain imaging techniques such as SPECT (single-photon emission computed tomography), PET (positron emission tomography), and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to study the brains of individuals during religious practices and experiences. This research showed that religious practices and experiences affect many areas of the brain. During prayer or meditation, emotional, memory, and experiential parts of the brain all become involved.
[Our] research showed that religious practices and experiences affect many areas of the brain. During prayer or meditation, emotional, memory, and experiential parts of the brain all become involved.
In recent years, neurotheology scholarship has ranged from very practical studies, such as looking at the therapeutic effects of meditation or psychedelic experiences on mental health, to considering profound theological and philosophical questions. The latter, more esoteric side of neurotheology, includes tackling questions like the nature of free will, sin, and revelation.
Religious experiences may provide unique insights into the nature of consciousness. They may also shed light on the intricate relationship between the brain and the mind.
The Future of Neurotheology
Neurotheology is a relatively new field, and there is much research that still needs to be done. In the coming years it will be important to develop working definitions of difficult terms such as mind, consciousness, brain, soul, spirit, religion, spirituality, and mysticism. Studying religious and spiritual experiences is complicated since these are personal experiences that can happen at any time. So, it will also be important to consider questions like: How should these topics be addressed from a combination of scientific and spiritual perspectives? How does one take a brain scan of mystical experiences? There are ways of getting at this at present, but it is not easy.
One area of future research is the study of the impact of religious experiences on the brain over time. These studies could help us better understand the long-term effects of religious practices on the brain. Another area of future research is looking at religious experiences and brain disorders. Religious experiences may be affected by brain disorders such as temporal lobe epilepsy, schizophrenia, or Parkinson’s disease. On the other hand, religious and spiritual practices might be useful in helping people manage these conditions. Finally, future research could help us better understand the nature of consciousness itself. Religious experiences may provide unique insights into the nature of consciousness. They may also shed light on the intricate relationship between the brain and the mind.
Neurotheology is an exciting field of study that has the potential to deepen our understanding of the connection between the brain and religious experiences. There is still much research that needs to be done. Current research in neurotheology has provided valuable insights into the biological basis of religious experiences and the impact of religious practices on the brain. As the field continues to grow, future research could lead to new discoveries and a better understanding of the role of religion in human life.
Hopefully…the two most powerful forces in human history—science and religion—can come together in unique ways that can help lead humanity towards a new enlightenment.
It will be important to keep the science as rigorous as possible without losing sight of the spiritual. In addition, spirituality and religion must be respected without diminishing the value of science. Hopefully, through the multidisciplinary field of neurotheology, the two most powerful forces in human history—science and religion—can come together in unique ways that can help lead humanity towards a new enlightenment.
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