In the early 1980s I visited the town of Medjugorje where a group of young people reported that they were experiencing visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The scientists wired the children up to machines to record their physiological responses during the apparitions. The scientists wanted to study what was going on in their brains as they “saw” the Blessed Virgin.
Religious experiences of the mystical kind occur throughout human experience and in most every kind of religion. But what is happening when visionaries see the Blessed Virgin, Hindu holy men go into a trance or charismatics speak in tongues?
Are they experiencing something real or is it just their imagination?
Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg studies how the brain responds to religion. In this fascinating article his work is explained and explored by an atheist journalist named Julia Llewellyn Smith. She submitted to some experiments with Newberg to see if a religious-type experience could be artificially activated in his brain. It didn’t work.
Llewellyn Smith explains:
Newberg is director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Centre of Integrative Medicine, in Philadelphia, and co-author of, among other books, The Metaphysical Mind: Probing the Biology of Philosophical Thought. He is a leading neurotheologist, pioneering a new and highly controversial science that investigates whether – as many sceptics have long suspected – God didn’t create us, but we created God.
During brain scans of those involved in various types of meditation and prayer, Newberg noticed increased activity in the limbic system, which regulates emotion. He also noted decreased activity in the parietal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for orienting oneself in space and time.
“When this happens, you lose your sense of self,” he says. “You have a notion of a great interconnectedness of things. It could be a sense where the self dissolves into nothingness, or dissolves into God or the universe.”
Newberg has discovered that the human brain has what might be called “a capacity for prayer” and this is universal. We are able to get outside ourselves and experience what we feel is contact with a high power.
Such “mystical”, self-blurring experiences are central to almost all religions – from the unio mystica experienced by Carmelite nuns during prayer, when they claim their soul has mingled with the godhead, to Buddhists striving for unity with the universe through focusing on sacred objects. But if Newberg and his colleagues are correct, such experiences are not proof of being touched by a supreme being, but mere blips in brain chemistry. “It seems that the brain is built in such a way that allows us as human beings to have transcendent experiences extremely easily, furthering our belief in a greater power,” Newberg says. This would explain why some type of religion exists in every culture, arguably making spirituality one of the defining characteristics of our species.
What interests me about this research is that the findings can be taken either as evidence for the existence of God or the opposite.
The doubter says that the “God experiences” are simply a matter of a snap, crackle, pop in the brain. They assume that the brain is no more than a computer made of meat and that these experiences are no more significant than the other electro chemical impulses of the brain.
The believer, on the other hand, claps his hands with delight and says, “You see! This is proof that we were created to be in touch with God. This capacity exists within all of us to search for and find the Almighty Father!”
One of the problems with some scientific experiments is that they begin with an atheistic, reductionist premise. The scientist’s assumptions often mean that everything is reduced to materialism and nothing is greater than the materialistic, scientific facts.
I am reminded of a very common diagnosis of mental illness. We are told that the mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and that medication will fix it. But of course, it could be that the chemical imbalance was itself caused by something else of a spiritual, emotional or relational nature. The chemical imbalance may therefore be a symptom, not the cause.
Likewise, the brain activity which is charted by the neuroscientist may be the result of one’s contact with the divine. In other words, real contact with the spirit world may produce the brain activity observed by the scientist, but because he does not believe in God he thinks that brain activity is what causes a “religious experience.” It is just as logical to suppose that the person had a real religious experience and the brain waves are the evidence of this as it is to suppose that the brain waves caused the experience.
Let’s use another analogy.
If you didn’t know that drinking five pints of beer made you feel lightheaded, loquacious and sentimental you might observe that altered state of consciousness and conclude that these behaviors made you drink beer. You would have it just the wrong way around.
Likewise with the religious brain activity. Instead of causing the religious experience, the unusual brain activity could be evidence of a real religious experience. Your conclusion will depend on your prior assumptions.
What the scientist fails to do is to consider the entirety of the human religious phenomenon. The experiments of the neuroscientist only seek to study a single, particular form of “religious experience”–that which might be considered “contact with the transcendental.”
While these transcendental experiences are certainly part of religious experience, the whole of the human experience of religion is far greater, more complex, beautiful, frustrating, challenging and mysterious.
Let’s use the analogy of a person going into St Peter’s Basilica. He may enter the great doors, take the first look at the colossal structure and have an “Ahhh!” moment. This might be called the subjective, transcendental part of his experience. However, the whole visit to the basilica may include going to confession, attending Mass, learning about the history of the place, studying the artwork, marveling at the relics and discussing what he is experiencing with fellow pilgrims. Indeed some pilgrims may not be awestruck at all upon entering. Their particular capacity for having an “Ahhh!” moment may be minimal. Still they are devout religious believers.
Likewise with religion there is far more to religion than the subjective personal experience of the transcendent. Indeed, in the Catholic religion we are taught that this subjective element of religion is not even primary. There is an objectivity about Catholicism which is tied in with dogma, logic, canon law, sacraments and historical events. Our religion does not rely on the validity or non validity of subjective religious experiences. It relies on the historical objective fact of the life, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.
This is why at Mass, the recitation of the creed is more important than having a blissful experience of the Divine. Nobody says for Mass to be valid everyone has to have a mini spiritual epiphany, but we do mandate that the creed is recited.
So, while Andrew Newberg’s research is interesting it is not important to the genuine analysis of the Christian religion. It may shed light on one aspect of religion–the mystical experience–but it has nothing to say about the rest of the Christian faith.
To really encounter the reality of Christianity one must consider the claims of the resurrection. That’s why, when it comes down to scientific investigation I am far more interested in sindonology than neuroscience.
Fr Dwight Longenecker is Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his website to browse his books and connect to his well known blog atwww.dwightlongenecker.com Fr. Dwight Longenecker Website: www.dwightlongenecker.comBlog: Standing on My Head. His latest book is The Romance of Religion –Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty