Review (Guest): Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion–Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature

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Malcolm Jeeves and Warren S. Brown

5.0 out of 5 stars Eloquently written review! Best of Class. Congratulations!

February 16, 2010

By Kenneth J. Garcia “Jazz Is …” (Baltimore, Maryland United States)

In my early 20′s, circa 1973, I questioned why each culture had it’s own distinct religion much like they spoke a distinct tongue? Clearly, people speaking a language addressed a universal need to communicate. Did religion address some need so fundamental to human nature that, like our different languages, groups of people, separated in time and space would evolve different religious systems independently? The 1960′s saw the world grown smaller by telecommunications and jet travel, increasing awareness of the disparities in belief systems and the consequent conflicts arising therefrom, convinced me that we were entering an era in which an appreciation of our universality was critical as our capacity for self-destruction grew. The works of individuals, like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, began to build bridges across an enormous chasm of endless distinctions in practices and details.

A rare accomplishment, this book journeys to the heart of those questions at the level of a Scientific American article; with eloquence and an impressive scope and command of the research. It is the most balanced account of the neuroscience perspective on religion that I have had the pleasure to read. Readers seeking more imaginative interpretations of the neuroscience data, where authors find “the God Module” on fMRI or proof of God’s existence in the brain’s design, will be disappointed. Here, as well, there is no treatise of comparative religious mythology or proof in the validity of any particular belief system over others. Despite being written by two admittedly Catholic scholars, they are, as well, first-rate neuroscientists. The only faith peddled here is what brain science can inform us about the phenomenon of religiosity as seen on it’s effect in the central nervous system and visa versa. This is a cutting edge neuroscience view of how the brain begets the mind and what is specific to a mind hooked on religion.

The book begins with Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin, in The Idiot, describing a temporal lobe seizure: “His brain was on fire, and in an extraordinary surge all his vital forces would be intensified. The sense of life, the consciousness of self, were multiplied tenfold in these moments. His mind and heart were flooded with extraordinary light; all torment, all doubt, all anxieties were relieved at once, resolved in a kind of lofty calm, full of serene, harmonious joy and hope, full of understanding and the knowledge of the ultimate cause of things.” Do such experiences reflect the divine or pathology, or are such black-and-white judgements even relevant? Much like the hyper-religiosity of certain bipolar and schizophrenic patients, what are the connections between the wiring in our brains and these pathologic states which occur beyond the patient’s will or, in these cases, betterment?

Evolutionary theorists have suggested that our brains developed a propensity for religious belief as an extension of a survival advantage in developing the ability to infer, or detect, the presence of an organism that might do us harm. There might be a survival cost, in evolutionary terms, if rustling grass was not assumed to be secondary to a predator. These realities prompted the mind to evolve a “causal narrative” for natural events, eventually leading to the conclusion that other people also have minds of their own. Things in nature have causes. Agent detection, causal reasoning, and theory of mind developed as automatic cognitive processes. Eventually, as Barlett suggests, “our brains are primed for religious belief, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic.”

From a search for the soul (mind) as embodied in the brain, including a discussion of phrenology and current efforts to localize complex functions in the brain, the book discusses what we currently know about the neuroanatomical circuitry that contribute to the phenomenon of the mind. The book’s neuroscience authors thoughtfully present the fundamental historic, philosophical, and neuroanatomical underpinnings, before launching into the Neuroscience of Religiousness, where they discuss religious experience associated with hallucinogenic drugs, Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, brain stimulation experiments using TMS, fMRI imaging of various practitioners of religious practices (speaking in tongues to meditative techniques), and even genetics twin data of transcendental experiences. Here, in psychological and philosophical terms, these concerns are placed within a contemporary framework.

Missing from the book, and part of my own take of this field, is the issue of the human burden of anticipation and flexible choice based upon our capacity for switching between multiple perspectives. We do not concern ourselves only within this moment, but with what may be possible in the future as well as re-experiencing our past. Just as motility allows organisms to take advantage of feeding further from where we find ourselves or not becoming other’s nourishment, senses develop to guide us so that our excursions are not a waste of metabolic energy. As the central nervous system becomes increasingly complex, the senses and the capacity to process data evolved which allowed for greater anticipatory capacity. Our vision and hearing extend our attention ever further into the future as, for example, something approaching from far away. We sense things that may have a significant impact upon us in a future moment in time and have developed predictive capacities along with behavioral strategies to address these concerns. We may act, or not, upon a momentary event, based upon a capacity to vary our perspective. Beyond the explanatory role of anthropomorphizing natural forces, the complex nature of our own cognitive capacities have made us increasingly aware of the uncertainty we face. That one would seek or imagine a higher authority in whom to entrust one’s fate and reduce the psychic burden seems…well, human.

Religious structures and practices are so vast and multifaceted that many additional biologically significant purposes, such as encouraging social interaction, support for the needy and vulnerable, faith for the desperate, must involve CNS systems concerning attachment, reward, stress reduction, and many other healthful functions. Although almost every activity human’s are capable of has, at one point or another, been done in the name of some higher power, the authors have concerned more narrowly with what I’ve discussed above.

As advances in all scientific fields occur at breakneck rates, perhaps something in the archaic structure of century-old religious systems, in seeking to preserve their authoritative voice on all fronts to guide behavior and provide structure, lacks the adaptive capacity within their treatise and practices, to coexist harmoniously with such progress. Change in our understanding of the universe, throughout the time of homo sapiens, has never progressed at such a pace. Neuroscience understanding has advanced in the last 20 years to a greater extent than throughout the entire history of man. The nature of scientific query, although somewhat conservative, is relatively more forgiving of it’s own self-examination and tolerant of questioning the structure of the universe than is religious query. Yet, still there are possibly concerns about our nature and place in the universe only addressable in religious terms. No one suggests science can make poetry or music irrelevant. In other words, perhaps future religions will introduce new rituals and practices which accept and respect the transient nature of our current state of knowledge to allow us to preserve a sense of sanctity, continuity, and belonging essential to our humanity.

This is a great book. I hope the review has provided a sense of the breadth and intellectual curiosity of this very significant arena. Not mentioned here is a lot of really cool stuff, like passages from the books of William James, Jung, Freud, and countless other greats as they have pondered the relationship between religion, psychology, and neuroscience. I’d pray, using the appropriate brain areas, to whatever higher power you profess faith to that the book store does not run out of copies.

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