In Bad Faith, Part 2: Born this Way? or This is Your Brain on God

As a college freshman at Loyola Marymount University I recognized that there had to be at least some psychological aspect to things like Speaking in Tongues (Glossolalia) and didn’t feel that that diminished the “God” part of the behavior at all.

In Bad Faith, Part 2: Born this Way? or This is Your Brain on God

I don’t think that I ever shared these thoughts with my fellow-believers. I just assumed that those in the midst of the experience probably didn’t analyze the phenomenon beyond a few Bible passages and whether the practice was accepted or rejected by their church. Then many years later I saw a documentary TV program where scientists were mapping the brain, using scans that looked for elevated brain activity. They found that persons in deep meditation or prayer showed elevated activity in the Temporal lobe. From what I remember, the pattern of activity was similar to those who reported stories of alien abduction. They were able to induce the “Alien” experiences in some test subjects by transmitting the pattern instead of recording it. Then one scientist, an atheist, thought that he might “see” what the religious participants in the experiment had experienced if he also used the recording harness to transmit the “religious” patterns to his brain. The scientist saw and felt nothing. I wasn’t too surprised, but it wasn’t because of any “God” thing. It might have been that his brain was just not wired to understand the “language” of religious experience that had been recorded in the experiment. According to a recent article in Ars Technica, it might indeed be something lost in translation that’s individual to everyone’s brains.

Previous studies were looking to see if there were particular areas in the brain related to religious experiences. According to the Ars article, more recent studies, conducted by Dimitrios Kapogiannis from the National Institute on Aging, didn’t find “God” areas of the brain but did find neural pathways associated to social cognitive processing that were not unique to religion. So what does this mean for the Faithful, or for the Skeptics? According to Ars Technica, it means that religion and religious experience could be experimentally addressed and studied. Thus, one of Dawkin’s demands from his book, The God Delusion, seems closer to realization: that religion can no longer claim to be entirely outside the realm of scientific inquiry. Whatever rational systems of thinking that we apply to weather, biology, physics, etc., can and should now be applied to religious experience.

The Ars article goes on to discuss how some scientists are looking at the possible connection between the emergence of language and the development of religion. Additionally, scientists are looking at the capacity that some have for intimate relationships and how this might be related to how some feel “close to God.” Conversely, they are also looking into how some individuals’ inability to form close relationships may be related to how some have no sense of there being an “Other” out there.

Taken to its logical conclusions, it might be determined that having no sense of the Divine is no different than being red/green blind. Or for the skeptics, having a sense of the divine is just like having Phantom Limb Syndrome. Thus, while science will be able to determine if an individual’s experience is “real,” two things have not been determined. One is causality: do some people have these neural pathways because they are born that way, or were these pathways developed because of their early experiences? The other thing is that brain evidence that one feels close to God neither confirms nor denies that God is, in fact, communing with the one wearing the scanning harness.

Geovanny Verdezoto can't handle his success Heartbroken young man on floor by hyperscholar
Geovanny Verdezoto can’t handle his success Heartbroken young man on floor by hyperscholar

So, where does this leave us? We can see that something “real” is happening in the brains of those having religious experiences and that opens the door for Science to investigate Religion. Note that on a purely scientific level there are still a number of limits to what Science can determine if one sticks to the scientific data. There are some parallels here between this course of study and when higher critical theory was applied to Biblical Studies. The “devotional” was striped away and strenuous literary, historical and cultural research was (and still is) conducted. Unfortunately, in the long run the Faithful abandoned higher Biblical criticism to the “liberals” and academics and only the academics cared about advances being made in literary Biblical criticism (except when Erhman publishes a popular culture friendly book pointing out the blazing holes in Biblical Inerrancy).

Again, where does this leave us? Well, one can’t “prove” delusion, so the skeptics need to dial it back a bit. Science that’s interested in measurable data can only say when someone is sincere about their experiences, period (I’d love to see a “sincerity readout” on the tel-evangelists, though I’m sure part of their “art” is convincing themselves about their own importance and relationship with the Divine). Second, on the other side, the faithful aren’t interested in anything that doesn’t “prove” already established beliefs, so there’s little room for real dialog here. Finally, ones receptivity toward awareness of the “Other” doesn’t seem to be universal which should change the idea that the gospel is open to everyone. At the same time this receptivity does seem to exist, whether via early experiences or “wiring” for some of us. So….

bios bible
bios bible

As brain-studies advance Science will have more to say about “religious experience,” It would be good for the Faithful to pay attention, but that’s not too likely. It’ll be left to those of us who drift between the two worlds to interpret and dig deeper into the data and ramifications of the findings, to look at whatever human meaning and significance can be gained from these studies. Even Science has to acknowledge that there is something there but what it is, well, I’ve become less likely to interpret with the Biblical goggles that I previously worn. Finally, I have to speak out against the assumption that those with the higher IQ are all part of the skeptics camp. It’s a much more complicated landscape than that. Yes, very few Ph.Ds believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. Then again Ph.Ds don’t represent the majority of any population, so… “Truth” is not about intelligence or popularity. One must dig deeper.

To be continued…


Finding the fear and love of God inside the brain by Jeremy Jacquot for Ars Technica retrieved 1/9/2010

image: 2008_nidcd-brain. NIH. retrieved 1/9/2010.

image: Geovanny Verdezoto can’t handle his success Heartbroken young man on floor by hyperscholar retrieved 1/9/2010.

image: bios [bible] by Gastev. retrieved on 1/9/2010.

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