Monday, March 31, 2003

Neurotheology Is religion all in the brain? Perhaps. Neurotheology is a new branch of science that attempts to explain religious experiecne as the result of physical processes in the brain (implying that religious experience is no more veridical than a drug-induced hallucination).

Scientists have found that when portions of the brain's temporal lobes are stimulated, certain varieties of religious experience can be induced. However, the effect is not the same for all people. This article in The Washington Times last week describes an experiment done with famed biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins, in which portions of his brain were stimulated via magnetic fields. But while Dawkins described feeling some weird sensations, he did not describe having any religious experiences.

The scientist performing the experiment points out that Dawkins scored low on a preliminary test designed to test susceptibility to temporal lobe stimulation. One test does not warrant a general conclusion, and certainly other atheists have reported having religious experiences when exposed to this sort of stimulation. It is quite possible that small, genetic variations in people's brain structure can affect their likeliness to believe in God.

What is undeniable is that many varieties of mystical experience, such as out-of-body experiences, can be reproduced by the appropriate stimulation of certain areas of the brain. The fact that such experiences are invariably reported during periods when the brain is under unusual stress strengthens this conclusion. People who offer mystical experiences as evidence of the truth of religious claims should reconsider their argument.

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