This past summer, I escaped the hallowed halls of academia for a few weeks in the forested hills of rural northern Michigan. Day after day, I hit the off-road running trails with the family dog, racking up the miles as I lost myself in the solitude of the pine trees, the rhythm of my legs pounding the dirt, the soul-searching lyrics and pulsing beat of the music streaming through my headphones. And sometimes – not always, but sometimes – I would feel the architecture of my inner world begin to shift. It starts with the barely-perceptible quieting of those racing thoughts and over-analysis, an internal hush that slowly pervades my entire body and sense of self, until I cease to be aware of my exhaustion, the passing of time, and anything other than the sheer ecstasy of being alive. The edges around my sense of self begin to blur, and I feel completely connected to the world in which I exist in that moment. Moreover, my particular religious and psychological histories provide a cognitive and experiential context that enables me to feel connected to unnamed realities that might or might not exist beyond, in, or through this physical world – the experience takes on spiritual overtones that feel immensely meaningful.
In a word, I experience transcendence, a holistic, embodied state that – depending on the context – could be considered a mild form of religious experience. Stepping back from these moments of transcendence, I can easily analyse the neurobiology of what is happening. Even as I feel myself drifting into an altered mental state, I am completely aware that a full scientific description almost surely exists for my subjective experience in those moments: I am aware that intense exercise tends to release depression-fighting neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine; I know that the rhythmic music I’m listening to is altering the frequencies of my brainwaves; I realise that the understandably addictive “runner’s high” is associated with repetitive, rhythmic movement such as running, cycling, and swimming. It is clear that these subtler moments of transcendence exist on a spectrum with more intense religious experiences and mystical states, and that the difference between them is likely one of degree, rather than kind. I know that there exists an assortment of plausible models for such experiences, coming from research in such diverse fields as neurobiology, neuroanthropology, cognitive science of religion, cognitive neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology of religion. I am aware that I am a fully embodied, incredibly complex, evolved biological organism, and that regardless of how spiritual my experience may seem, it is at least mediated by a functioning brain in a working body in a physical environment conducive to such experiences. And yet, those surprising moments in the forest seem more real and more “alive” than all the other moments in my week, combined.
It is likely that many of us feel relatively untroubled by the fact that our more relatively mundane transcendent experiences (pardon the oxymoron!) can be scientifically explained. One’s knowledge of the neurophysiology of the “runner’s high”, the biochemistry of falling in love, or an intimate knowledge of the hormonal cascade that occurs in a mother at the birth of a child – these experiences are made no less powerful when we know why and how our embodied selves experience them. But what happens when we move from more obviously “natural” moments of intensity to those moments that seem to connect us with something – or someone – beyond nature itself? Call it Ultimate Reality, God, Spirit – the terminology is not so important at this stage.
What are we to make of the reality that most – and perhaps all – of our most meaningful, transcendent, spiritual, and religious experiences are also explicable in terms of the physical processes occurring in our brains, bodies, and environments? Indeed, one major task in the field of science-and-religion is to face head-on the challenge of affirming transcendence and religious experience as anything more than predictable and explicable products of identifiable physical processes in the brain-body-environment system. What is the relationship between scientific explanations for the felt experience of transcendence, religious experiences, and spiritual entities on one hand, and the possible reality of spiritual entities – God – on the other? The question is this: Does a full scientific explanation for the felt experience of God or spiritual realities explain them away, reducing religious belief and experience to mere neural firings? Or, is there a way for seekers of transcendence or spiritual realities to accept and embrace the sheer physicality of such phenomena, perhaps even becoming active participants in the curation of their own spiritual lives?
Religion is Natural
In taxi cabs, undergraduate philosophy societies, and living rooms throughout the western world, it is not uncommon to hear the old refrain that “God is dead”. More nuanced dismissals will involve a pitying explanation of how the extraordinary success of modern science has rendered religious belief unwarranted, an uninformed crutch to be condescendingly allowed amongst the uneducated or emotionally-needy. Others (particularly in the New Atheist camp) strive to hold humanity to a higher standard, joining Sam Harris in his campaign for “conversational intolerance” of nonsensical religious claims that must inevitably crumble under the harsh light of scientific scrutiny. And yet, the strident voices of scientific materialism are not the only game in town, and a growing body of research would suggest a far more optimistic future for religion than the terminal diagnosis so common in decades past.
In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that if we can say anything of religion, it is that religion is fundamentally natural. This is not a normative claim about what should be the case, but rather an evolutionary, cognitive scientific, and anthropological description of what is the case. To say that the human capacity for religious belief and experience is natural is simply to say that there exist compelling models describing how and why billions of human beings throughout history have claimed to experience some sort of relationship with or awareness of an Ultimate Reality existing beyond the physical world. One compelling strand of research comes from the cognitive science of religion, with researchers painting a textured picture of the “naturalness of religion”, a thesis indicating the evolutionary basis for belief in supernatural beings. Justin Barrett, for example, has provided compelling arguments that given the particular sort of highly evolved minds that we have, belief in God is almost inevitable – we are constantly using subconscious mental tools to navigate our physical and social environments, and these naturally lead us to intuitively form beliefs about God(s).
A different take on the naturally religious mind comes from the neurobiology of religious beliefs and religious experience. Those who study the neural correlates of religious experience are quick to point out that not only are mystical experiences or encounters with God at least mediated through the brain, they are predictably and consistently associated with specific patterns of neural activity. Praying nuns and meditating monks have proved to be remarkably fascinating subjects for researchers in the field dubbed “neurotheology”, shaped most significantly by neuroscientist Andrew Newberg. Newberg’s research has identified the profound role played by the temporal lobes (the amygdala and hippocampus) in the generation of profound mystical experiences and visions, and has also demonstrated that different types of religious practices are correlated with different patterns of brain activity: it is highly likely that the perception of God is a result of complex relationships between various brain structures, and that different types of religious activities – think prayer, ritual, dancing, chanting, meditation – result in different sorts of religious experiences.
Of course, many of us make the point that we, as rational, educated critical thinkers, do not often (if ever) have profound religious experiences. Those of us who are religious might even feel the need to explain that we are not “that kind” of religious person, that our beliefs are rational, justified conclusions having nothing to do with unfettered emotional experiences, thank you very much. And yet it seems clear that religious experiences exist on a vast spectrum ranging from a mild sense of God’s presence while walking in nature, for example, to a full-on mystical state while participating in the rhythmic music, dancing, chanting, and singing of an emotionally-charged Pentecostal worship service. That mild sense of oneness with the universe felt in a forest or a church pew? That experience is instantiated in neural processes, given depth and flavour by the cognitive and religious context in which you exist. Indeed, researchers note that religious belief in general is inherently embodied, and that emotions, social structures, and thoughts all contribute to the felt perception of God or other spiritual realities. It is physically impossible to arbitrarily choose a belief, for all beliefs develop in response to our experiences: we believe what we perceive. Beliefs are not abstractions, but whole-person perceptions of what is actually the case (whether or not our perceptions correspond to reality is a different question, of course). As both Barrett’s and Newberg’s research would suggest, our brains-in-bodies are constantly interacting with our immensely complex environments, and it is within this embodied and complex interplay that religious beliefs are made true to us.
But our question remains: If, as seems evident, there are scientific ways to describe why and how humans naturally experience God and form religious beliefs, does that undermine the possibility that such spiritual realities actually exist and interact with humans? Can we know why we experience God, and still maintain that we do experience God?
Interestingly, both Newberg and Barrett deny that their respective bodies of work disprove the validity of religious belief and experience. They, and many other scientists working in this area, would be quick to emphasise that understanding the brain mechanisms involved in belief formation and religious experience say nothing about the possibility of God’s involvement with those mechanisms. Indeed, if God were to interact with a human being via a mystical vision or in prayer, wouldn’t it be more surprising if that didn’t involve mediation through brain processes?
Similarly, Justin Barrett points out that if God did exist and wished humans to have some religious capacity, one might expect the evolutionary process to produce humans with exactly that capacity for religious cognition. One might even say that humans have evolved exactly the sort of brains one would expect if there were a God who desired to be in some sort of relationship with humans. In any case, it seems clear that scientific explanations for religious belief do not themselves explain away the object(s) of that belief. To do that would require philosophical and theological steps.
Intuitive Dualism and the Crutch of Mystery
One of the more interesting twists in religious engagement with neuroscience is that it is so often the theologians who force the choice between science and God. Or more specifically, it is not scientific explanations for religious belief in particular, or the mind more broadly, that threaten religion. Rather, it is the presumption (common in theology, but elsewhere as well) that either physical processes are causing one’s awareness of God, or God is. Within this incompatibilist framework, religious believers have a vested interest in insisting that the mind – including religious experience and belief – is inherently mysterious, a uniquely spiritual aspect of the person that is fundamentally immune to scientific explanation. To be fair, most religious scholars eschew outright substance dualism in favour of a more nuanced theological anthropology, but almost all seek to preserve an aspect of the human person that is uniquely open to spiritual influence and irreducible to physical processes in the brain-body system. This reflexive privileging of the mind as uniquely and inherently spiritual is bound up in the long history of the soul – but that’s another story. Suffice it to say that the collective religious imagination finds it extremely difficult to accept a picture of the human person that does not set the mind apart as theologically special.
Unsurprisingly, this theological motivation leads religious scholars to make heavy use of the so-called “Hard Problem of Consciousness”, David Chalmers” [in?]famous insistence that no matter how detailed and comprehensive our neuroscientific descriptions of mental activity (including that of a religious flavour), there will always be something more that is left unexplained, the subjective experience of being “me” that is qualitatively different than neural patterns in the brain. This intuitive dualism, of course, makes complete sense to most of us: it simply seems self-evident that we are more than Francis Crick’s “pack of neurons”. And surely this is true, insofar as few would suggest that reductive explanations of the human person are satisfactory even from a scientific standpoint – so long as “reductive” refers to an attempt to analyse love, joy, religious experience, grief, and creativity using the methods and language of particle physics. In some ways the reflexive rejection of reductive materialism is something of a straw man. After all, there are far more sophisticated and nuanced ways to describe the human person as a complex system-of-systems in completely physical terms, which deny that such physicalist descriptions entail reductionism. What if the human mind simply is what it is to have a functioning human brain in a working body in a complex sociocultural environment? Of course, a physicalist anthropology still faces the problem of intuitive dualism, and the deeply visceral sense that a scientific description of our wildly creative, rational, and religious minds will always fail to grasp the “whole picture”. But perhaps it is worth challenging our intuition, taking on board Patricia Churchland’s insight that our intuitive sense of the insufficiency of scientific explanations for the mind is actually a reflection on our epistemological limitations and lack of imagination – rather than a reliable indication of the truth of the matter.
Active Participation and Religious Curation
In any case, it is clear that we – religious and non-religious – have become wed to the modern conviction that a scientific understanding of physical mechanism precludes involvement with God, Ultimate Reality, or some other supernatural entity. We have become enthralled by the unknown, bowing down at the altar of mystery and viewing neuroscientific advances as existential threats to the religious mind. But might it be possible to see religious entities and physical processes as existing in relationship to each other?
What if this is not an either/or game, and scientific descriptions of physical phenomena are compatible with religious beliefs and the reality of religious experience? And indeed, there exists a long theological history suggesting just this: religious truth is not to be located in gaps in scientific knowledge about the natural world, for as Charles Coulson wryly explained, such gaps have a terrible habit of shrinking. No, if there is a Being corresponding to the religious beliefs of so many billions of people throughout history, that Being’s presence and action is to be seen in and through the physical processes of the natural world itself. It is theologically insufficient to relegate spiritual realities to seemingly mysterious areas such as the human mind, for such an approach implies that the world’s “default state” is one of self-sufficiency and non-involvement with any sort of Ultimate Reality. Of course, such a metaphysical picture might well be true – but it is not the only theological option on offer, and it is entirely possible to affirm a model of the God-nature relationship in which spiritual realities are seen in and through the natural world itself.
This picture of reality, I suggest, opens innumerable doors for active participation in one’s own spiritual life. That is, those interested in transcendence or relationship to an Ultimate Reality can become curators of their own religious practice and experience. This is not a new idea, of course. Indeed, religious communities and institutions over thousands of years have collectively incorporated religious practices and aesthetics that are almost uncannily conducive to the neurobiological experience of transcendence and belief. Liturgy, chant, dancing, corporate prayer, rhythmic music, singing, meditation, emotionally-charged speaking, fasting, hallucinogenic substances – these are exactly the sorts of elements one would include if one were to intentionally create a meaningfully religious context. Usually, the mechanics of such curation remain in the subconscious background – but what of the possibilities when one takes ownership of the neurobiology of one’s own religious life? What sort of practices, habits, and experiences would one seek out if, say, one did not believe in God or a supernatural religious being, but wanted to? Indeed, it is entirely possible that humans can become active participants in their own spiritual development, rejecting the crutch of mystery, and curating those elusive moments of transcendence.