In 1902 William James, prominent psychologist, philosopher, and physician, first spoke of the study of transcendental spiritual experiences and altered states of consciousness through the use of mind altering substances saying: “No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”
James didn’t know it, but he’d stumbled upon a field of research so incredibly controversial that its future remains uncertain today. That field, known as neurotheology, was first given its name in Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel, Island. And although first called such in a fictional dystopian story, neurotheology remains entirely factual in its approaches to the study of religion and neurology today.
Neurotheology (also known as spiritual neuroscience) is at its most basic the study of the neurological and evolutionary basis for subjective (that is, religious) experiences. This is done through correlating neural phenomena with subjective spiritual experiences. As might be expected, the study of the subjective with the neurological brings with it a great deal of controversy both in the scientific and religious communities but it is possible its controversial status indicates its importance as a field of research.
Some researchers call neurotheological studies “Quasi-scientific” and question their validity. After all, how can a subjective experience be when it is mapped against objective scientific facts within the brain? At the other end of the scale, some religious believers disregard this research because belief is too irreverent to be dissected in such a manner.
Both the religious and scientific communities have proponents of the field, however. As pointed out by Kyriacou in Are we wired for spirituality? neuroscience is a combat zone for scientists and religious believers alike. It is a battlefield where materialists and atheists use correlates as evidence that religion stems from and is caused by the brain that it is all in our heads, while religious believers use the very same research as scientific evidence of their belief.
So can we explain away religion with neurotheology? Some neuroscientists believe so. Ramachandran recently claimed there is such a thing as a “God molecule” making belief a result of our evolutionary upbringing and a consequence of survival. Richard Dawkins himself also argues a similar thing in The Selfish Gene: “It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence.” Since neurotheology stemmed from evolutionary biology, and the study of adaptive traits, it is easy to think the prevailing opinion of the research community might be behind Dawkins — that religion is nothing more than an experience caused by our own minds.
This is not the case. As Beauregard and his colleagues point out: “The external reality of God cannot be directly proven or disproven by studying what happens to people’s brains…”
So what use, then, can neurotheology have if we can neither prove nor disprove religious beliefs? The answer is two fold: neurotheology provides firstly the study of transcendental experiences (such as those associated with temporal lobe epilepsy) by the scientific community into the route cause and affect of such experiences. While doing this it also allows the enrichment of spiritual experiences through the understanding of the mechanisms behind such things.
As philosopher Alvin Platinga says: “To show that there are natural processes that produce religious belief does nothing, so far, to discredit it…”
Kyriacou, J. Are we Wired for Spirituality? An Investigation Into the Claims of Neurotheology.
2011. Early Use of the Term Neurotheology and Early Exploration. http://neurometaphysics.wordpress.com
Huxley, Aldous (1962) Island