Science and spirituality unfortunately are still sitting on opposite sides of the table, generally critical of one another, each believing it has a unique take on the world. Each one is busy helping us to better understand our realities and our positions within them.
Unfortunately, this tug of war has led to more confusion as individuals struggle to make sense of the most profound questions, such as ‘Who am I?’, What is my purpose?’, ‘Is there a God?’ and much more. Subject to which side of the debate you’re on you’ll either have your own answers to these questions, no answers at all or answers that change with each new discovery or revelation.
Fortunately a new science is emerging which is attempting to bridge the divide. It has emerged out of the field of neuroscience and is slowly being integrated within its fold. Its name is neurotheology and what it offers is an explanation beyond biology, beyond science.
Although it acknowledges that human experiences are anchored and emerge out of the millions of biochemical activities taking place within our brains and bodies, it also acknowledges that these biological events do not provide a definitive explanation of our experiences. Therefore, a spiritual reality (experience), as proposed by those with religious and spiritual leanings, needs to be taken seriously. In this article we take a look into this subject which we hope whets your appetite for this emerging area of research.
What is Neurotheology?
Neurotheology is a unique field of scholarship and investigation that seeks to understand the relationship specifically between the brain and theology, and more broadly between the mind and religion. As a topic, neurotheology has attracted substantial attention in both the academic and lay communities in recent years.
Several books have been written addressing the relationship between the brain and religious experience and numerous scholarly articles have been published on the topic. The scientific and religious communities have been very interested in obtaining more information regarding neurotheology, how to approach this topic, and whether science and religion can be integrated in some manner that preserves, and perhaps enhances, both.
The Emergence of Spiritual Neuroscience
The science of neurotheology, or what is better known as spiritual neuroscience, is a recent entrant to the specialty of neurology. The sub disciplines of neuroscience, i.e. neuropsychology, neurophysiology and neurophilosophy have now also come to the forefront.
To this trilogy another very significant discipline has been added, which is better known as neurotheology. These four elements now form the corner stones of neuroscience and they provide the basic instruments to dissect, decipher and to deliberate on the human psyche and behavioural postures and attitudes.
The entire concept of neurotheology is based on understanding the phenomena of spirituality and the subjective experiences that emerge from that arena, and marrying them with plausible scientific explanations. However, some of the experts in this field continue to suggest that there is a neurological and an evolutionary basis for all the subjective experiences, which emanate from spiritual and religious practices. Whilst others agree that this is indeed the case but is an incomplete explanation for what is happening.
The term neurotheology was made popular by James Ashbrook. He was a theologian who became a neuroscience student. The aim of neurotheology as he expressed it is to “question and explore theology from a neurological perspective, thus helping us to understand the human urge for religion and religious myths.”
So to begin with, we can see that science was really taking the upper hand, because it was not seeking so much to legitimise spiritual and religious experiences, but rather explain them ‘away’, primarily through the neurobiological processes within the brain, diminishing any truly spiritual explanation. Fortunately this has changed.
Science has advanced significantly in the past several decades with regard to the study of the human brain. Neurotheology is taking full advantage of the advances in the fields of science such as functional brain imaging, cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and genetics. Whilst on the other hand, neurotheological scholarship is also engaging in the full range of theological debate and discussion. Theology, like science, continues to evolve and change from the more dogmatic perspectives of the past, through natural theology and systematic theology.
Dr. Andrew Newberg is the professor and director of research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia. He is a neuroscientist who studies the relationship between brain function and various mental states. He is a pioneer in the neurological study of religious and spiritual experiences (neurotheology). His research includes taking brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals, and trance states, in an attempt to better understand the nature of religious and spiritual practices and attitudes and their impact on health and wellbeing. He has written numerous books on the subject, such as: Why We Believe What We Believe, Why God Won’t Go Away, Words Can Change Your Brain and The Mystical Mind.
The book we’re taking a look at here is The Principles of Neurotheology, which is his attempt to lay a more solid foundation on which the whole discipline can continue to flourish. Fundamentally his work centres on an exploration of the brain and the metaphysical mind, whilst probing the biology of religious and spiritual experience, in an attempt to offer a philosophy enabling us to better see and understand ourselves and the world. Dr. Newberg has also used neuroimaging research projects to study ageing and dementia, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, depression, and other neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Let’s take a look at what his research has to offer…
For thousands of years, religion has posed some seemingly unanswerable questions: Who are we? What’s the meaning of life? What does it mean to be religious? In an effort to address those questions, Dr Newberg has scanned the brains of praying nuns, chanting Sikhs and meditating Buddhists. He explains that “neurotheology applies science and the scientific method to spirituality through brain imaging studies”.
“[We] evaluate what’s happening in people’s brains when they are in a deep spiritual practice like meditation or prayer”. He and his team then compare that with the same brains in a state of rest. “This has really given us a remarkable window into what it means for people to be religious or spiritual or to do these kinds of practices.”
Newberg’s scans have also shown the ways in which religious practices, like meditation, can help shape a brain. He describes one study in which he worked with older individuals who were experiencing memory problems. Newberg took scans of their brains, then taught them a mantra-based type of meditation and asked them to practice that meditation for 12 minutes a day for eight weeks. At the end of the eight weeks, they came back for another scan, and Newberg found some dramatic differences.
“We found some very significant and profound changes in their brains just at rest, particularly in the areas of the brain that help us to focus our mind and to focus our attention,” he says. According to Newberg, many of the participants related that they were thinking more clearly and were better able to remember things after eight weeks of meditation. Remarkably, the new scans and memory tests confirmed their claims.
“They had improvements of about 10 or 15 percent,” Newberg says. “This is only after eight weeks at 12 minutes a day, so you can imagine what happens in people who are deeply religious and spiritual and are doing these practices for hours a day for years and years.” Newberg emphasises that while neurotheology won’t provide definitive findings about things like the existence of a higher power, it will provide a deeper understanding of what it means for a person to be religious.
“For those individuals who want to go down the path of arguing that all of our religious and spiritual experiences are nothing more than biological phenomena, some of this data does support that kind of a conclusion,” Newberg says. “But we need to be careful because the data also does not specifically eliminate the notion that there is a religious or spiritual or divine presence in the world.” Because of that, Newberg says the success of neurotheology hinges on open-mindedness.
“One could try to conclude one way or the other that maybe it’s the biology or maybe God’s really in the room, but the scan itself doesn’t really show that,” Newberg says. This is why it is important that neurotheology maintains an openness to both the scientific as well as the spiritual perspectives – and so it is important to preserve the essential elements of both. The scientific side must continue to progress, utilising appropriate and relevant measures, methodologies and interpretations of data. The religious side must maintain and value that subjective sense of spirituality, a phenomenological assessment of the sense of ultimate reality that may or may not include a Divine presence and a notion of the meaning and purpose of life.
In short, for neurotheology to be successful, science must be kept rigorous and religion must be kept religious, but it is critical to maintain the dialogue. We are standing at a unique crossroads, where both the religious and scientific communities could come together and have a constructive dialogue around their different perspectives – which may indeed lead to a more complimentary approach, one that better serves humanity.
When considering the primary reasons for developing neurotheology as a field, Dr. Newberg has offered four foundational goals for scholarship in this area. These are:
- To improve our understanding of the human mind and brain.
- To improve our understanding of religion and theology.
- To improve the human condition, particularly in the context of health and wellbeing.
- To improve the human condition, particularly in the context of religion and spirituality.
These four goals are reciprocal in that they suggest that both religious and scientific pursuits might benefit from neurotheological research. The first two are meant to be both esoteric as well as pragmatic regarding scientific and theological disciplines. The second two goals refer to the importance of providing practical applications of neurotheological findings towards improving human life both individually and globally.
Given the enormity of these tasks to help understand ourselves, our relationship to God or the absolute, and the nature of reality itself, neurotheology appears poised to at least make a substantial attempt at addressing such issues. While other theological, philosophical, and scientific approaches have also tried to tackle these ‘big’ questions, it would seem that neurotheology holds a unique perspective. It is one of the only disciplines that actually seeks to integrate science and theology, and if defined broadly, many other relevant fields. And this is perhaps the greatest gift of neurotheology, its desire to foster a rich multidisciplinary dialogue.