Like others in this discussion, I’m not sure that recent neurological studies will dramatically change contemporary religious belief or practice, though my reasons are more historical than philosophical or psychological. To put it simply, American Christians and Jews—Brooks‘s embattled Bible believers—have shown themselves remarkably adept at harmonizing new scientific insights with older religious notions and practices. Let me offer three historical examples that illustrate this, and a few final comments concerning the astonishing survival power not of a generic new religion (neural or otherwise) but of an older, doctrinal one: Christianity.
I’m an historian of American Christianity, so my examples will be American, but it should be said that the conversation about neurology and religion has roots in centuries-old reflections in Europe about how to understand and map out the inner contents of the self. This conversation became intense in the centuries after the Protestant Reformation, when reformers wary of “empty” rituals and old Christian traditions relocated true Christianity in faith and personal piety. This was a powerful moment of turning to the interior life—toward examining the inner self, probing it, wondering about it. That we today think experimental studies of personal religious experiences can test the truth of a particular religion is itself evidence of the dominance of this Protestant perspective. Leigh Schmidt makes this point, in a slightly different way, towards the end of his contribution to this discussion.
So let me turn to a few historical examples to illustrate the point I’m making about Christianity’s adaptability. Though as a system it seems ridiculous to us today, phrenology initially emerged with the same fanfare that has accompanied neuroscience, for it was a way finally to see with certainty into our inner lives, a method for mapping out elusive dispositions and feelings on the physiological self, especially on the head and brain. At long last, here was a philosophy of mind that, because it linked mental capacities to physiological structures that could be measured, resolved interminable metaphysical debates about human nature, free will, and the nature and existence of divinity. All of these problems could be probed by examining the organs of the brain and body. It was not just scientists and philosophers who were keyed up about this new knowledge. “If…we can know the condition of the physical organism at any time, we can determine therefrom the condition of the mind,” one American minister wrote. In this new procedure lay “the mysterious pathway to the court of the soul.” Others agreed that older philosophies of mind amounted merely to “conjecture, speculation, theoretical abstraction,” and that newer sciences, such as phrenology, promised greater certainty and clarity for pastors and others pursuing self knowledge.
The irony here, of course, an irony not noticed by most who embraced this new science, was that moving the site of experience outside of its mysterious, interior spaces and onto the outer surfaces of the brain and skull did not solve the problem of seeing mental and spiritual things clearly. This was so because ways of interpreting body and brain were changing too, and, thus, in very short order, phrenological categories and practices took their turn as too imprecise and “speculative.”
The so-called “new psychology” that arose in the 1860s and 70s, essentially modern experimental psychology, was seen as an improvement upon the old way of searching in the body and skull for clues about mind and spirit. This is a second historical moment worth mentioning. By the second half of the nineteenth century the correspondences posited by phrenologists had been shown to be erroneous, even if the impulse to localize mental capacities in the brain and nervous system continued in different forms. (The new psychology shared a methodological assumption with both nineteenth-century phrenologists and today’s neurologists: that all mental events can be located in the body.) New psychologists located the mind not in the brain per se but in stimulus-response patterns that made up nervous processes. They were interested in what we today would call sensation and perception, in arcs of nervous transmission as they pulsed from initial sensation to muscle contraction, nervous transmissions that in aggregate made up the self. It was now possible, these scientists thought, to understand and explain complex human behaviors by examining how they were made up of simple stimulus-response patterns.
Again, scientists involved, and some lay observers, predicted a revolution in how Americans saw both human nature and religion. Finally, human beings were peering with clarity into the deep parts of the self. In a 1901 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, G. Stanley Hall, son of Massachusetts Calvinists and founder of the new psychology in America, insisted that painstaking experimentation on human sensation and perception would revolutionize philosophical and religious pursuits. ”Beginning with [studies of] touch,” Hall wrote, “the experimental method has slowly come to include almost every kind of psychic activity. Imagination, sentiment, reason, volition, and all the rest are taken into the laboratory, and its methods have taught us a sharpness and refinement of introspection and self-knowledge which make these methods almost comparable with a microscope for the soul.” From painstaking studies of sensation and perception could be built absolutely certain knowledge about all inner aspects of the self-feeling, reason, intuition and faith. The result, Hall believed, would be that scientific psychology would entirely reorient Christianity, replacing its objective supernatural divinity with subjective psychological truths and maxims about morale and mental health.
The third and final historical moment I wanted to mention is more recent and perhaps more familiar—the biofeedback and meditation studies that began in the 1960s, including those by Herbert Benson, who studied the physiological correlates of meditation and coined a term for these, the “relaxation response.” This was another situation in which new, psychological tests and technologies “saw” into the physiological self, another situation in which religious conditions and states could be seen and measured in the body. It also was a situation in which scientists and lay believers predicted (and in some cases worried) that these kinds of new scientific studies would dramatically change American religious practices.
In all three historical moments there were scientists who employed experimental study as a weapon against belief; and in all three situations there were believers who feared that such study amounted to reducing mental and spiritual states to physiological ones. But both fearful religious predictions and confident scientific proclamations appear to have given way to a different kind of logic in American cultural history—a logic by which everyday American Christians kept their Christianity and harmonized it with scientific knowledge. The result has been an astonishing proliferation of Christian spiritualities, including evangelical ones, that draw on psychological studies for new insights on human nature, the healthfulness of Christianity and the best ways to foster Christian conversion.
Why have things turned out this way? Why has the rise of mind/brain science not led to the expected decline of traditional religions or their wholesale transformation? One reason has been pointed to by Brooks and others in this discussion—that psychological studies often point to the usefulness of religious belief and practice. It is true that such studies do not authorize specific religious ideas or practices. But in my experience, this doesn’t matter to most believers. (Scientific experiments, just because they don’t specifically support one type of belief, do not therefore undercut specific types of belief, do they?) Like others, I’m not sure why Brooks thinks neurological study might support Buddhism in particular. Does neuroimaging support specific Buddhist doctrines, texts, gods, revelations, supernatural beings and rituals? Lopez and others in this discussion have quite usefully reminded us that Buddhism is much more than a regimen of experimentally tested meditative techniques.
A second reason that psychological experimentation hasn’t dramatically altered the American religious landscape is that American Christians borrow selectively and (might I say) ingeniously from psychological work, embracing insights that support their views and resisting insights that seem reductive or are destructive of deeply-held beliefs. There is a longer story to this, and it is in my forthcoming book, Unsettled Minds—shameless plug—so I won’t give away the whole story here. A third and final reason that psychological technologies haven’t dramatically altered belief is simply that it is difficult for believers to sustain a living religion either because of pragmatic reasons (it’s good for me) or because experimental results call for it (studies show it is healthy). Hall expected Christianity to transform itself into a merely hygienic or therapeutic system, but when faced with the choice, most Christians kept the old doctrines, rituals, gods and supportive communities. They can hang on to all of that and incorporate what they can of newer, therapeutic practices and ideals. The last one hundred years has shown this to be the case: It has been at once a century of astonishing psychological growth and power and a time of remarkable Christian (and evangelical Christian) growth.
Has scientific psychology changed nothing, then? Have new psychological categories, therapies and experiments not influenced American religions at all?
Perhaps the psychological sciences have done one thing: Perhaps they have abetted a growing trend among traditional believers, Christians and Jews and Muslims, toward more universalist religious perspectives and more eclectic devotional practices. In American Christianity I think this is happening among liberal evangelicals and mainline Protestants in particular. Perhaps psychological studies, by drawing attention to the health benefits (for example) of all religions, have abetted a new openness to once strange devotional practices such as meditation and yoga. Certain Christians are incorporating these non-Christian practices. I am not making a new or startling observation here; there is a lot of evidence that monotheists in America today are cobbling together eclectic practices and beliefs. The survey data is dramatic; but I recently came across a bit of anecdotal evidence, a Christian review of Herb Benson’s Beyond the Relaxation Response, that illustrates more clearly the religious style I’m identifying:
About a month ago I read the Beyond the Relaxation Response. I decided to try Dr. Benson’s simple technique which is based on the same principles of Eastern meditation. Instead of using a mantra I used a term from the Bible. Immediately I felt like I was right back were I left off years ago. I have now come full circle, adding the Relaxation Response to my Christian faith. As an RN and a lay counselor I see many possibilities for using this technique to bring relaxation and relieve stress. As a Christian I believe this is a technique to help incorporate our prayer time experience with God into our daily lives.
A wonderful example, because it shows what I see all the time in my research—so few qualms, so little stress or strain about incorporating new psychological notions into older, traditional religious systems. For people on the liberal to moderate Protestant spectrum in particular, I think this kind of spirituality is flourishing. Perhaps, then, once we’ve registered an appropriate historical caution, there are a few new things afoot—no revolutions, but for a subset of intrepid monotheists, a developing impulse to use scientific insights, selectively at times, to fashion better, more useful and healthy forms of their old-time religion.