Science and Religion at the Crossroads: An Evening with Andy Newberg
By David Cregg
November 19th, 2014
This past weekend I had the privilege of attending a seminar hosted by the Foundation for Contemporary Theology titled “Religion and Science at the Crossroads.” It was a panel discussion on ‘neurotheology,’ featuring a pioneer of the field as the keynote speaker, Andy Newberg, as well as Cindy Wigglesworth and Rice professors April DeConick and Jeff Kripal. I’ll spoil things right up front: it was fascinating. Read on for a summary of some of the key points and discussion.
Dr. Newberg defines neurotheology as a field of scholarship that “seeks to understand the relationship specifically between the brain and theology, and more broadly between the mind and religion,” (taken from his book Principles of Neurotheology, chpt. 1). Dr. Newberg began with a humorous illustration as to why this field matters. He told us of a personal experiment he did where he googled a variety of search terms to see the total number of hits that came up. The top 3 most popular? Money, health, and God. I just tried this game myself. At the time of this blog entry, ‘money’ had 2,580,000 hits, ‘health’ had 2,430,000, and ‘God’ had 1,600,000,000 hits (yes, you read that last number correctly). When Nietzsche told us that God is dead, it appears he could’ve benefited from a modern search engine. Dr. Newberg’s simple illustration was quite persuasive: far from being dead, it seems no other concept receives so much of our attention, inspires so much emotion, both positive and negative, or has the potential to create more unity or division than the idea of God. Consequently, Newberg argued that neuroscience needs to seek to understand how people experience God and other spiritual concepts if it is to shed light on one of the most important domains of human existence.
I went into the event with some reservations. I had some previous exposure to neurotheology, and I’ve seen some of the research abused in the past. Popular writings on some of the early work in the field played up the idea of a “God spot” in the brain, that is, a specific brain region (or regions) that is responsible for the experience of God, thus making us “hardwired” for spiritual belief. For instance, the description from this book, Where God Lives in the Human Brain, states that “our reptilian brain, the oldest part, gives us ritual, holy places and an ever-present God, while our mammalian brain gives us a loving, nurturing God. Our neocortex, the organizing part of the brain, gives us a God who is purposeful on our behalf.” Some theologians have tried to extrapolate the existence of God from this putative “God Spot.” Conversely, I’ve seen the research abused in the other direction as well. Iconcoclasts have been all too eager to use neuroscience to form a particular philosophy I will call the “Nothing But” school of thought, the idea that all of humanity’s experiences of transcendence are nothing but the neurological mechanisms of the brain. The most prominent form of this is probably a view called eliminative materialism popularized by neuro-philosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland. This is the idea that all of our beliefs, desires, and other thoughts, including those of God, do not really exist, but rather are just convenient short-hand expressions for the mechanisms of the brain (in one of the more grandiose claims I’ve seen, Patricia Churchland likens our knowledge of the neural substrates of beliefs to the Copernican Revolution in this interview).
With these ideas in the background, you can imagine that I was a bit skeptical of the direction the event would go in. However, I breathed a sigh of relief when Newberg addressed both of these misunderstandings up front. First, he made clear that there is no such thing as a “God Spot” in the brain. This is not surprising, given that there is no specific compartment in life that we can isolate as religious or spiritual. Religion is something that can potentially permeate every aspect of someone’s life. It can involve singing, reading scripture, physical activity in ritual, silent reflection, etc. Accordingly, religious cognition reflects this reality: depending on the spiritual exercise engaged in, there can be great variety in neural activation patterns that could involve any brain region at any given time. Second, Dr. Newberg made it clear that at this point in time, neurotheology cannot tell us one way or the other whether God exists. It can only inform us in a descriptive manner how spiritual experiences are mediated via the brain, or how the concept of God may affect the brain. Allow me to illustrate this point. Consider how stimulating neurons can produce phantom sensations. For instance, the famous neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield once had a patient who experienced the smell of burnt toast prior to suffering an epileptic episode. When Dr. Penfield electrically probed her brain, he was able to successfully locate the region causing these epileptic seizures when the patient reported this smell. Obviously, there was no burnt toast in the room. It was simply the stimulation of the electrical probe. But it would be quite silly for us to conclude that burnt toast does not exist simply because we can reproduce the same olfactory sensation in its absence. The opposite is also true. Unless the surgeon got a pre-op breakfast hunger craving, we have no reason to suspect on the basis of the sensation alone the presence of burnt toast. To determine that, we need additional information, beyond what is provided by the subjective experience or its neural correlate (in this case, we need to know if an electrical probe was used). And so it is with neurotheology. The neural correlates of spiritual experiences alone give us little information about the ultimate cause behind them. As with the burnt toast, the same sensation and neural activation pattern could be produced by two very different sources (actual burnt toast, and a probe). Thus, only information provided beyond what’s produced in the lab will make any headway in inferring the primary cause behind these experiences.
After laying out these limitations of neurotheology, Dr. Newberg launched into a tour of some of his research. I’ll briefly recount some of the more fascinating findings. Different forms of prayer show very different neural patterns. A study of Franciscan nuns engaged in centering prayer displayed great activation in their frontal lobe and verbal areas. The frontal lobe is a region associated with concentration and our “higher-order” functions, such as a sense of awareness of surroundings, time, etc. Another study with individuals speaking in tongues displayed a drop in activity of their frontal lobes and an increase in basal ganglia activation. The basal ganglia is associated with implicit actions that are not consciously processed, such as expert tennis players performing a back-hand hit that is second-nature to them. So what these studies show is an appropriate neural reflection of the subjective experiences reported. Those speaking in tongues report feeling a loss of self and surrender to God, and the deactivation of areas associated with conscious concentration (the frontal lobe) and increase in more “subconscious” regions (basal ganglia) is consistent with that experience. Another fascinating anecdote Dr. Newberg shared was a case study with an experienced atheist meditator. Dr. Newberg asked this individual to engage in a form of centering prayer like the Franciscan nuns, and though he still reported experiencing a calming meditative sensation, his neural pattern was not the same as the nuns. Thus it appears that belief plays a role in influencing neural stimulation, not merely the content of the exercise. Other interesting reports included long-term meditators having thicker frontal lobes, and a tendency for religious symbols (such as a cross) to stimulate the visual cortex to a greater degree than non-religious symbols (such as a smiley-face), but this pattern is influenced by one’s own beliefs. However, a money symbol tended to produce the most excitation, regardless of the religious or secular leanings of the individual!
After the lecture, Dr. Newberg sat down the next morning with the other scholars for a panel discussion, where they respectfully dialogued on some of the implications and future directions of the research. Several potential avenues were considered. Some of the themes included a need to expand more research outside of the Judeo-Christian theological context to religion in general, a need to study negative spiritual experiences in addition to the positive, and a need for greater emphasis placed upon assessing the subjective experiences accompanying these neural scans to interpret them more accurately. To achieve these aims, it was suggested that neurotheology could benefit from more collaboration between religious studies scholars and neuroscientists. Dr. Newberg acknowledged many of these points, and was very eager to push the boundaries of the field further.
Overall, it was a very thought-provoking, fascinating, and entertaining conference. I felt fortunate to be able to attend and be in the presence of thinkers who are pioneering a new field of science. My hat goes off to Andy Newberg, April DeConick, Jeff Kripal, Cindy Wigglesworth, and The Foundation for Contemporary Theology for a job well done.
By David Cregg, Research and Congregational Outreach Coordinator of ISH
 For more on this, see this fantastic Boyle lecture on psychology and theology by the eminent British neuroscientist/theologian Malcom Jeeves. His discussion of neurotheology is 39 minutes in.