God on the Brain


| March/April 1998


New research sheds light on the question:
Are we hardwired to be religious?

Is belief in God a delusion or an insight into how the universe really operates? Until quite recently, only heaven knew, but some now say that's about to change. Probing ever deeper into the wet engine of awareness we call the brain, neuroscientists are starting to understand how we meld our five senses into a vivid picture of the world. A few even think they may be closing in on a sixth human sense that intuitively perceives the divine.

Science has tried to explain religion before, of course, though often as pathology. This new approach assumes that religious impulses are actually a beneficial adaptive trait. The religious reflex has shown a certain "survival value," some say, and not just because the faithful eat so well at church picnics. Rather, a vision of reality that includes a place for God -- or something like God -- may be a more accurate view of how the universe works, and this truth has given believers an evolutionary edge.

Or so argue James B. Ashbrook and Carol Rausch Albright in The Humanizing Brain (Pilgrim Press, 1997). "Archaeological evidence of religious observances indicate that we have been religious for as long as we have been Homo sapiens, perhaps longer," they write. Over the ages we emerged as the planet's most effective hunters -- of meaning. The brain evolved as the organ of meaning, our "lens" for glimpsing the world's "inner logic." The authors are among those who view life and the universe as blooming toward a divinely inspired end, not ad-libbing on a road to nowhere, as most hard-core evolutionists would argue.

Though Ashbrook and Albright admit having been "molded and taught by the Judeo-Christian tradition," they believe that "the brain reveals a basic and universal structure that underlies all belief systems." Therefore myth, religion, and science are all valid efforts to "humanize" God's mysterious plan. Albright, executive editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, and Ashbrook, professor emeritus of religion and personality at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, are part of a wider movement to fuse the insights of science and religion -- in this case, into a new theory of what has been called the neurobiology of meaning.

Skeptics might agree that humans have indeed evolved a brain attuned to meaning -- so attuned, in fact, we see it where none exists. Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT, shares this less-exalted opinion of the religious reflex. In How the Mind Works (Norton, 1997), he suggests that "religion and philosophy are in part the application of mental tools to problems they were not designed to solve." In his view, "we are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we were capable of asking."


Copyright © 1998 by Jeremiah Creedon. 


Is belief in God a delusion or an insight into how the universe really operates? Until quite recently, only heaven knew, but some now say that's about to change. Probing ever deeper into the wet engine of awareness we call the brain, neuroscientists are starting to understand how we meld our five senses into a vivid picture of the world. A few even think they may be closing in on a sixth human sense that intuitively perceives the divine.

Science has tried to explain religion before, of course, though often as pathology. This new approach assumes that religious impulses are actually a beneficial adaptive trait. The religious reflex has shown a certain "survival value," some say, and not just because the faithful eat so well at church picnics. Rather, a vision of reality that includes a place for God -- or something like God -- may be a more accurate view of how the universe works, and this truth has given believers an evolutionary edge.

Or so argue James B. Ashbrook and Carol Rausch Albright in The Humanizing Brain (Pilgrim Press, 1997). "Archaeological evidence of religious observances indicate that we have been religious for as long as we have been Homo sapiens, perhaps longer," they write. Over the ages we emerged as the planet's most effective hunters -- of meaning. The brain evolved as the organ of meaning, our "lens" for glimpsing the world's "inner logic." The authors are among those who view life and the universe as blooming toward a divinely inspired end, not ad-libbing on a road to nowhere, as most hard-core evolutionists would argue.

Though Ashbrook and Albright admit having been "molded and taught by the Judeo-Christian tradition," they believe that "the brain reveals a basic and universal structure that underlies all belief systems." Therefore myth, religion, and science are all valid efforts to "humanize" God's mysterious plan. Albright, executive editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, and Ashbrook, professor emeritus of religion and personality at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, are part of a wider movement to fuse the insights of science and religion -- in this case, into a new theory of what has been called the neurobiology of meaning.

Skeptics might agree that humans have indeed evolved a brain attuned to meaning -- so attuned, in fact, we see it where none exists. Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at MIT, shares this less-exalted opinion of the religious reflex. In How the Mind Works (Norton, 1997), he suggests that "religion and philosophy are in part the application of mental tools to problems they were not designed to solve." In his view, "we are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we were capable of asking."

Some spiritual believers insist that such questions can be answered, in moments of mystical experience. But are mystics gifted, sick, or both? Some neurologists see a link between mysticism and epilepsy, which is often described as an electrical "storm" in the brain that begins in a damaged area, usually the temporal lobe. Researchers at the University of California at San Diego have reportedly worked with epileptics to identify what may be our "dedicated neural machinery" for religious experience, though they've published no results.

In Zen and the Brain (MIT Press, 1998), James H. Austin describes a similar study he's been conducting for decades -- on himself. A professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Austin calls his book a "clinical autobiography," a scientific account of his other, unscientific life as a practitioner of Zen Buddhism. "These two paths converge in ways that lead to one straightforward thesis," he writes: "Awakening, enlightenment, occurs only because the human brain undergoes substantial changes."

As Austin notes, in Zen belief the instant of enlightenment "does not descend from some greater power up above." Rather, it "means awakening to our fundamental unity with that eternal universe right under our noses." He theorizes that meditation and other forms of Zen discipline "help release basic, pre-existing neurophysiological functions" that make sudden "insight-wisdom" more likely. As for neuroscience, the growing knowledge of our "inner weather" will allow us "to forecast -- and encourage -- those rare conjunctions when biological systems, joining forces, go on to transform our bodies and brain."

What are we to make of these efforts to reconcile science and religion? Do they mark the birth of a new faith better suited to the modern mind, or another vain attempt to "prove" the existence of cosmic meaning? That's hard to say. But with neuronauts poised to replace both Freud and the physicist as the secular high priests of the next century, one thing seems fairly certain: The language of neuroscience could soon be taken for the word of God, even if it isn't.


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