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Is religious experience just brain activity?

The brain is very active during spiritual activity, according to the latest research. But does that mean science is 'explaining away' claimed religious experiences? Sharon Dirckx responds  

Many people admit to having prayed at some point in life, be that at bedtime as a child, or amid a crisis as an adult. Many people, regardless of their beliefs about God, perceive prayer to be a useful religious activity. But what happens in the brain when people pray? In recent years, this discipline of the devout has been studied closely by neuroscientists.

Professor Andrew Newberg and others have pioneered research into Buddhist meditation, rituals, trance states and Christian prayer, as well as those who pray in tongues. A medical review in 2009 listed 40 different brain regions that are involved in prayer and meditation, showing that the brain is very active during spiritual activity. And not in a one-size-fits-all manner. Amazingly, different kinds of prayer activate different networks.

For years, many have believed that religious experience is merely brain enterprise. So does the presence of brain activity mean the experience isn’t authentic?

Thinking about chocolate

Lots of people love chocolate. It is not just the taste that is great, but also the anticipation of the taste as we get ready to indulge. Neuroscientists now know that from the moment you decide to eat chocolate, a network of “pleasure” centres start releasing brain chemicals that lead to the inevitable “happy place”. These networks are also the same ones that go into overdrive when we are in love.

It is one thing to understand the brain’s involvement in chocolate consumption, but quite another to experience the taste of chocolate first-hand. The relationship between these two things has occupied philosophers for centuries, because objective brain processes and subjective human experience are seen as two very different phenomena.

To determine if an encounter is authentic, we need to ask some more questions. What type of encounter is it? Is it consistent with the beliefs of the person? Are there other instances of this encounter? Can it be verified? The story of the person, and perhaps of other observers too, will be as important as the signal from their brain in deciding whether the encounter is a genuine one.

Does brain activity mean that God isn’t real?

Just because something is experienced through the brain, does not necessarily mean it originated in the brain. The fact that we know and understand reward circuitry in the brain does not mean that we call into question the existence of chocolate. That’s an absurd idea! Nor would we call into question the existence of our boyfriend, girlfriend or partner, whose love also activates our brain. The very fact that chocolate and our partner exist is why there is brain activity in the first place.

Similarly, brain activity during prayer does not negate God. In fact, philosophers such as Alston, Plantinga and Swinburne argue that authentic religious experiences more generally are evidence for God. And if God does exist, then it comes as no surprise that he would make us such that our brains are active when we encounter him. This kind of data is not a threat to religious belief.

For a person’s brain and mind to be both engaged when they pray is exactly what we would expect. The Bible does not refer to people as ghosts nor as brain-washed machines but as integrated physical and spiritual beings. If there were no brain activity during prayer, this would give more, not less, cause for concern!

“But I don’t have a religious brain”

Are some people just wired to “find God”, and others wired not to? The brain-imaging data that we have accumulated so far doesn’t allow this conclusion.

In the middle of our family room at home sits a table. By name it is a dining table, yet in reality it serves many functions. Yes, we eat meals at it with family and friends, but the children also complete homework and various craft activities on it. We have held meetings around this table, and I have even written some of the words of this article on it. The table does not have one sole function. Depending on the time of day, it is an office, a meeting place, a feeding station or a space for the creative arts.

The same is true of the brain regions employed during prayer; none of them are unique to spiritual activities. All serve multiple roles in the brain but are recruited during religious practice as well. Are some people more able to engage with God than others in terms of the makeup of their brain? No. Every person has the machinery they need.

The invitation is for all

I will never forget the day when a mentally disabled boy was baptised in my local church. I do not know the exact nature of his disability, except to say that he needed a wheelchair and was able to speak only through voice-recognition software. It was incredibly moving to hear him prepare for baptism by responding to the questions: “Do you turn to Christ?”, “Do you renounce evil?” and “Do you repent of your sins?” After each question, he answered in a manner that clearly showed he fully understood what was happening and why. This baptism was a reminder to me that relationship with God is not dependent on having a fully functioning brain. God is greater than the human brain, and relates to anyone and everyone, regardless of their cognitive capacity. No one is beyond his reach.

Christianity does not stand or fall on religious experiences, important though they are. Christianity is anchored in human history and pivots around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Did Jesus, the God-man rise from the dead, never to die again? If this happened, then it changes everything.

Sharon Dirckx is an author and itinerant speaker, primarily focusing on the interaction of belief in God with Science and with the problem of evil and suffering. Her latest book is Am I Just My Brain? which lays out the current understanding of who we are from biologists, philosophers, theologians and psychologists, and points towards a bigger picture, that suggests answers to the fundamental questions of our existence. Not just "What am I?", but "Who am I?"—and "Why am I?".

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