BBC asks: is God just in your head?

One of my readers forwarded to me a BBC article this week about how religion might be an evolutionary adaptation … an implied nudge for me to comment on it. There’s a lot in this article to chew on: far too much to include in just one blog post. I’ll start with a focus on just one thread — the religious experience — and maybe unpack other ideas in later blog posts.

The article begins by putting the religious experience on the same pedestal as one induced by taking drugs (so you know where the author is heading on this topic!?). Neuroscientists pasting electrodes all over people’s heads and measuring changes in brain activity when they meditate or pray, or even speak in tongues. The implied take-home message: “It’s all just in your head.” Maybe the author envisions himself as the Wachowski’s Neo unplugging his readers from the Matrix?

But should this be surprising? Everything we experience goes on inside our head. There isn’t anything that we can experience without it arriving at us through the neurons in our skull. The chat I have with my wife as we drink coffee beside the pond in our backyard involves all kinds of changes in electrical activity in various parts of my brain. The basketball game she watched last night was really nothing more than movement of sodium and potassium ions in her head.

But these mundane facts don’t mean that my wife and the Toronto Raptors don’t exist. Neither does discovering that someone’s very personally real experience with God is measurable using electrodes on their scalp prove God doesn’t exist. It just proves that the spiritual experience seems to use the same brain areas as less ethereal ones.

I’ve been doing some work lately on “what exactly is the soul?”, and finding that many Christian scholars — neuroscientists, philosophers, and of course theologians — have been saying this for quite a while:

  • Nancey Murphy (Professor of Christian Philosophy; Fuller Theological Seminary): “no special faculty [is] needed in order to experience religious realities. What makes the experience religious is a meaningful combination of ordinary experiences, under circumstances that make it apparent that God is involved in the event in a special way. … for such an experience, nothing is needed beyond the ordinary neural equipment that we all possess.”
  • Warren Brown (Professor of Psychology, Director of the Travis Research Institute; Fuller Theological Seminary): “Soul is the music made by an orchestra of cognitive players performing in the context of interpersonal (or intrapersonal) dialogue. Played out in relationship to God, who chooses to be in dialogue with his human creatures, the cognitive capacity for personal relatedness embodies spirituality.”
  • Maurice Wiles (previously the Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Oxford): “Revelation is not the result of special action on God’s part, but is to be explained in terms of special sensitivity of some people to God’s general action.”

All three are saying that humans have biological equipment (nerves; sensory receptors; neurotransmitters) and mental faculties (soul; mind; consciousness; personality; emotions) which they routinely employ in their interactions with other people and the rest of creation, and can also develop a sensitivity in those same faculties toward God as well.

That having been said, the conclusion I draw from those mundane facts can go the other way too: my dreams and imagination can feel so absolutely real, simply because they come to me via that very same brain machinery, but that doesn’t mean I really can fly, or that I need to keep watching out for the multi-headed monsters once I get out of bed.

So, finding that a  spiritual experience can be measured by electrodes doesn’t prove God doesn’t exist, but neither does having that experience prove that he does exist either. In the end, it comes down to choice: it’s totally up to each individual to decide what’s real for them, and no one else can tell them what worldview they must embrace.

The BBC article doesn’t stop there — at simply making the point that there are measurable changes in brain activity during a religious experience — but goes on to say that religion changes your brain. As they put it: “God does something to your brain.”

This too is not news.  A recent study of taxi drivers in London found distinctly measurable changes in the volume of brain areas that are responsible for spatial representations of the environment. We now know that the loss of brain function caused by neurodegenerative disease (such as Alzheimer’s) and even aging can be slowed down by exercising your brain (doing word puzzles or Sudoku) … not much different than building up muscle mass by doing physical exercise.  “Use it or lose it.”

Some of you may have had that experience where you played just a little too much of that fast-paced video game into the wee hours of the morning, and woke up to find your synapses had been rewired: your highway commute the next morning was elevated to a whole new level.  Just last week, someone told me how he’d been playing Tetris and later noticed as he was driving down the highway how his brain kept finding ways to fit together the oddly-shaped buildings he was driving past.

So, I’m not at all surprised to find that electrodes can detect a spiritual experience in real-time, nor that exercising spiritual awareness can change your very biology (it’s life-changing in more ways than one). I’d be a lot more surprised if researchers found that such a huge aspect of human existence — one that has touched every society, including all races, genders, ages, and levels of intellect, throughout all of human history — had no effect at all on brain activity.

Let me know what you think. Either about the BBC article that started this thread, or about my response to it (so far … more to come).  The ball’s in your court …


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