Is God All in the Mind?
A review of Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause’s Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.
About ten years ago I began research on the question of why people believe in God, I asked a colleague in a religious studies program to recommend the latest path-breaking scientific work in this area. “William James’s 1890 Varieties of Religious Experience” he responded sardonically, explaining that in his opinion the field was largely moribund.
That’s an exaggeration, of course, but his point was that with the exception of a handful of psychologists teaching at theological seminaries, mainstream social and cognitive scientists had largely ignored the question. This has changed dramatically in the past decade, as the renewed debate on the relationship of science and religion has exploded onto the cultural landscape and scientists from a variety of fields have jumped into the fray. Enter Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, both M.D.s, with Newberg holding joint appointments in radiology and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and D’Aquili, now deceased, a professor of psychiatry at Penn. (Rause is a free lance writer.)
God won’t go away, the authors argue in this breezy and speculative book written for general readers (but with enough new material, especially on the neurophysiology of mystical experiences, to hold the interest of professional scientists) because the religious impulse is rooted in the biology of the brain. When Buddhist monks meditate and Franciscan nuns pray, for example, their single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans indicate strikingly low activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, a bundle of neurons the authors have dubbed the OAA, or Orientation Association Area, whose job it is to orient the body in physical space (people with damage to this area have a hard time negotiating their way around a house). When the OAA is booted up and running smoothly there is a sharp distinction between self and non-self. When OAA is in sleep mode — as in deep meditation and prayer — that division breaks down, leading to a blurring of the lines between reality and fantasy. Is this what happens to monks who feel a oneness with the universe, or with nuns who feel the presence of God?
Yes, say the authors, who believe they have “uncovered solid evidence that the mystical experiences of our subjects — the altered states of mind they described as the absorption of the self into something larger — were not the result of emotional mistakes or simple wishful thinking, but were associated instead with a series of observable neurological events … ” It is an odd distinction to make, which the authors do throughout the book. “A skeptic might suggest that a biological origin to all spiritual longings and experiences, including the universal human yearning to connect with something divine, could be explained as a delusion caused by the chemical misfirings of a bundle of nerve cells.”
Indeed, I am one such skeptic, but I fail to see the difference (outside a minor linguistic distinction) between a delusion and a decrease in OAA activity. Delusion is simply a description of what happens when the OAA shuts down and the brain loses the ability to distinguish self from non-self. It’s still all in the brain. Unless, of course, you believe that these neurologically triggered mystical experiences actually serve as a conduit to a real spiritual world where God (or what the authors call “Absolute Unitary Being”) resides. That is, in fact, what they believe: “ … our research has left us no choice but to conclude that the mystics may be on to something, that the mind’s machinery of transcendence may in fact be a window through which we can glimpse the ultimate realness of something that is truly divine.” Thankfully they are honest enough to admit that this conclusion “is a terrifically unscientific idea” and that to accept it “we must second-guess all our assumptions about material reality.” In the final chapters they do just that.
The strength of Why God Won’t Go Away lies in the original research conducted by the authors, and the brain correlates of mystical states they have identified, that together go a long way toward explicating the experiences of religious mystics. For the billions of believers who have never had a mystical experience, however, explanations for their faith are more likely grounded in the psychology and sociology of belief where, for example, the number one predictor of anyone’s religious faith is that of their parents, modified by siblings and peer groups, mentors, education, age, cultural experiences, and other variables. This is not a critique, since the authors focused their attention on the neurological correlates of belief only, but the book does unravel when they seek an evolutionary origin for religion.
As compelling as such evolutionary explanations are — and surely this must be where the ultimate reason for belief lies — much of the authors’ case depends on explanation in the just-so storytelling mode (critics of sociobiology will find much fodder for their cannons here) where, for example, we are told that religion alleviated the “existential gloom” facing our paleolithic ancestors who were “taken off their game by the soul-sapping notion that no matter how hard they struggled, how skillfully they hunted, how fiercely they battled, or how creatively they thought, death was always waiting, and that their lives added up to nothing in the end. The promises of religion protected early humans from such self-defeating fatalism, and allowed them to struggle tirelessly but optimistically for survival.” That’s interesting. Prove it.
The authors also fall into the trap of thinking of human evolution as almost entirely centered around men on the hunt, a paradigm abandoned decades ago in favor of more sophisticated models of social evolution that stress the importance of relationships, hierarchy, dominance, cooperation, reciprocal altruism, and various forms of social exchange. It is out of this paradigm, in conjunction with psycho-social models, that a fuller explanation for why God won’t go away is to be found.
(The Ballantine Publishing Group, 2002, ISBN 034544034X)
This review was originally published in Science.