Let me assure you. Ongoing neurological studies will not dramatically change religious belief or practice. As Robert Bellah notes in a recent comment, brain research does not have a direct effect on what people believe. Or as Christopher White thoughtfully writes in this forum, there is no wholesale transformation of religion on the horizon. I agree with both. But rather than maintain a defensive posture at this juncture in history, I believe that a more aggressive stance may be called for. I say this in light of the hyperbolic claims of David Brooks and others who are quick to adopt a naturalist paradigm vis-à-vis religion and even quicker to ignore the historical ironies of their claims. To be clear, I am not worried that their claims of a cognitive revolution shall soon come to pass. On the contrary, I sense that a revolutionary change has already occurred and I am worried that their massively mediated predictions only serve, just as such predictions have long served, to naturalize it.
The change that must be recognized, grappled with, and prised open has everything to do with what we are talking about when we talk about secularism. It is a change that we have little choice but to believe in: Ideas, particularly religious ideas, can be seen and measured. They are located in the body and directly manifest in practice. This elegant notion is passionately articulated by televangelists and the token religious characters of reality television even as it remains entrenched in foreign policy debates about the Middle East. It is a habit propagated in therapeutic spiritualities, Christian nationalism, and suburban Catholic catechisms. And it goes unquestioned in certain academic circles.
Secularism, then, should not to be considered in terms of cognitive science affecting some species of belief and/or practice called religion, either positively or negatively. Nor should secularism be understood as a process in which a religious tradition, say liberal Protestantism, adapts itself to the methods and insights of cognitive science. On the contrary, secularism has to do with the mutual imbrication of two seemingly different traditions. For if one begins to excavate the relationship between cognitive science and various practices of Protestant religiosity—at least in American history—it becomes more and more difficult to demarcate any essential difference. Something else looms.
This difficulty of demarcation, associated with the looming presence of secularism, is precisely what makes predictions of a cognitive revolution affecting religion not simply premature but also reveals them to be ignorant of their own conditions of possibility.
Contra Brooks’ predictions about the future of neural Buddhism, Americans have long acted as though the self is a dynamic process of relationships. How else to begin to explain the alluring practice of revivalism across the centuries, the persistence of metaphysical religiosity, or the wholesale embrace of circulation under the guise of capitalism? Generally speaking, Americans have also approached both their own piety and critically appraised the religions of others according to the criteria of a common morality located deep within the recesses of self. And finally, they have often assumed that proper cultivation of a common humanity is subject to external verification, that is, resulting in truths that are universal and falsehoods that are actionable. Citing Brooks’s own words, Americans have long been involved in the enterprise of producing and evaluating grainy pictures of the “unknowable total of all there is.”
For better or for worse, we have already become a nation of neural Buddhists. We have become so not because of the formidable influence of Buddhism on the imagination of Americans. On the contrary, Brooks’s prognostications have already come to pass because of two interrelated phenomena: the importance of mental activity in the religious lives of Americans and the technics (and technologies) that have been deployed in measuring this importance. In other words, visual technologies, or more precisely, technologies of vision, have played a significant role in allowing Americans to come to terms with religion. Whether in the form of a statistical chart of the American Tract Society or an MRI, Americans have looked to a variety of images in order to provide terms for understanding their own religiosity, and, subsequently, to make claims about the past, present, and future of religion in America.
As suggested by Leigh Schmidt in his incisive prolegomena to a religious history of American neuroscience, visual technologies are laden with metaphysics of their own. He urges us to recognize that as machines change—becoming better, stronger, faster—so, too, does the form and content of the first principles emanating, with moral force, from these machines. In that sense, the most tangible effects of visual technologies are not necessarily the images that they provide us about neural activities associated with the religious. On the contrary, they are the ways in which their metaphysics become our aesthetics, affecting modes of sense perception, channeling our senses in particular directions, and making some feelings more real, that is, more reliable than others.
In light of recent claims of cognitive science to picture what “your brain looks like on faith,” I want to take a moment to reflect on the penchant for gazing inside the head for the purposes of seeing everything, confidently and assuredly, from the outside. What could be more representative of secularism’s power? The compulsion to capture, and therefore secure representations may not be distinctive to modernity but our technological capacity to produce images of everything—a situation that novelist Don DeLillo has called our pornography of seeing—certainly is. And it has been this penchant for picturing religion that has so often informed, and sometimes spurred, the desire to talk about religion as if it really existed—something you could catch, possess, or alternatively lose. There is an entangled history here, one that I take Schmidt to be calling for us to excavate.
The desire to explain religion by way of seeing it (and, conversely, to see religion by way of explaining it) is a remarkable feature of the world we live in. And although one could argue that this proclivity is not new in the American grain—it is manifest in Puritan notions of covenant and publicity or perhaps in Jonathan Edwards’ realignment of religion and the affections—the role that technologies of vision have played in the history of this desire, in its intensification and naturalization, is wholly undeniable.
Pictures of religion are ever becoming more precise, more pixilated, more infused with the air of verisimilitude. And in all due respect to Barack Obama, it is to this proposition—rather than to guns or religion, per se—that many in the so-called secular age cling. Pictures of the self being religious morphing seamlessly into knowledge morphing into knowledge of self morphing into the self as it is in essence. This series of elisions is, perhaps, fundamental to American life and has become, more ominously, both a weapon and religion of choice.
I call your attention to two examples that speak to the springs and motives of this choice: 1) antebellum phrenology and 2) Andrew Newberg’s “biology of belief” cited with prophetic approval by Brooks.
The infamous “Symbolical Head,” made ever-present in antebellum America by Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, expressed not simply a will to measurement but the notion that there were ideal moral categories that corresponded to a universal law. Each of the faculties identified in their cognitive map were thought to be sensual components of reason. In Religion: Natural and Revealed, Orson Fowler argued that the “demonstrative science” of phrenology is extending yet also displacing the “religion of Jesus Christ” in its power to exert “an all-controlling influence over the intellects, the emotions, and the conduct of mankind—engrossing the feelings, shaping the lives, occupying the minds, and filling the souls, of untold millions of the human family.” Phrenology would prove what many Americans at the time already knew-that religion was a complex of ideas that forms habits, moulds characters, shapes and perpetuates governments, guides intellects, and governs conduct. Phrenology would also measure (and not simply declare) the failed religious mechanics of “conceited Chinese,” the “benighted Hindoo,” and the “degraded Ethiopean.”
According to Fowler, the human head was a more reliable text of universal truth than the Bible. Unlike the “Scriptures,” which demanded interpretation, the “truth” of phrenology was “come-at-able.” “Men cannot help believing it, any more than they can help seeing what they look at, or feeling fire when they touch it. All must and will admit its truth . . . It is crushing beneath the car of its triumphal progress whatever and whoever resist or oppose its advancement.”
Phrenology pictured religious experience as an interaction among various faculties, in particular, those of “Spirituality” and “Veneration” located at the top and center of the head. Together, the capacity to pay attention to things religious (“Spirituality’) and the capacity to orient oneself to things religious (“Veneration”) constituted a biological rendering of belief.
Spirituality was defined as the capacity to be attentive to the wonderful and the marvelous. It hinged upon the degree of attention one was capable of directing toward things not seen. The organ of Spirituality “adapts man to a world of spirits. It imparts the element of spirituality to his nature, and renders him a spiritual, immaterial, immortal being.” Too little of this faculty and one would be hardened to transcendent realities. Too much and one would risk being lost to the necessities of this world.
Veneration complemented Spirituality in creating “the feeling of awe” and the capacity to defer to power whether it be divine or human. “This organ is divided,” wrote Fowler, containing both the capacity for feeling amazed in the presence of God and the tendency to submit to “elders and superiors.” When proper balance was achieved both within each faculty and between them, the experience of “true religion” was all but guaranteed.
According to Fowler, the existence of God had become a matter of “ocular demonstration.” In light of the results achieved among his clients who, after receiving their initial diagnosis, had adjusted their faculties accordingly, Fowler proclaimed: “Behold, then, the true science of mind! Behold the study of this godlike department of our nature reduced to demonstrable certainty! . . . The study of mind is, then, the STUDY OF GOD in the highest work of his hand and embodiment of his nature.”
More recently, Andrew Newberg has employed SPECT scans to argue “that transcendent and mystical experiences can be traced to specific neural processes in the brain, and that they are valuable—to anyone who seeks them, including secular individuals.” Unlike the ostensibly passive phrenological chart, single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) is a high-tech imaging tool that detects radioactive emissions underneath the skin. Newberg injects subjects (Franciscan nuns, Tibetan Buddhist meditators, Pentecostals) with a radioactive tracer at the onset of their religious experience (the threshold determined by Newberg in consultation with his subjects). SPECT scans then produce freeze-frame pictures of blood-flow patterns in the brain and have allowed Newberg to claim that “our studies are beginning to show that each system of belief, and each form of meditation, activates a unique pattern of neural activity that changes the way we perceive reality.”
According to Newberg’s comparative studies, religion happens when your capacity to pay attention increases while your sense of a grounded and bounded self decreases. In each of his case studies he has found a common thread of religious experience-heightened focus to no thing in particular (signified by increased neural activity in the frontal lobe) combined with a sense of being disengaged from all things in general (signified by decreased neural activity in the superior parietal lobe).
Unlike Fowler, Newberg defers on questions concerning the existence of God. Instead he emphasizes a more pressing matter—the existence of religion, itself. According to Newberg, his images portend the creation of a religionome—similar to the human genome project—defined as a way to “begin to look at all of the different beliefs and practices and traditions and try to evaluate and understand them not just from a spiritual perspective or a subjective perspective, but from physiological and biological” perspective. And as Newberg has already made clear, such evaluation and understanding will confirm that “humans, in fact, are natural born mystics blessed with inborn genius for effortless self-transcendence.”
This is certainly an argument to be taken seriously and one that has been made countless times, perhaps most vividly at the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893. But to not recognize that this gesture toward biological essentialism is, in fact, an argument, and not a truth waiting to be discovered, risks something, dare I say it, essential to the human.
But from the perspective of history, Newberg’s images do not suggest the enduring presence of religion so much as they confirm the persistent metaphysics of brain imaging techniques. For what is most remarkable about Newberg’s SPECT scans is that they capture images of the afterlife of phrenological concepts of religion. For is it not the ready acceptance of phrenological notions of Spirituality and Veneration that helps produce Newberg’s SPECT scans and precipitate the “aha” moment? Truth is there to see in plain sight. What is visible corresponds, if not directly, then allegorically, to invisible laws of being.
More provocatively, I want to suggest that Newberg’s pictures capture something that has already happened—the rupture of secularism in American religious history. This rupture was (and is) all but invisible, having created in its wake a discourse which has set the terms that all arguments about religion must adopt in order to become intelligible. Newberg’s particular version of secularism goes something like this:
When properly cultivated, religious experience will allow us to transcend the culture which contains us. For if we can produce a clear enough picture of religion, if we can rehearse our attention enough so as to capture an image of the brain in the heights of rehearsing its attention and losing its earthly orientation, then we are that much closer to “knowing ourselves” and therefore “becoming ourselves.”
Questions concerning the metaphysics of technology come into fleeting focus here. But might Newberg’s deployment of single photon emission computed tomography possess more than a metaphysical dimension? Might his machines be assuming a kind of divinity in their ability to direct our attention in particular ways? Might they, as well as other technologies of vision, be creating us in their capacity to imprint themselves upon the human? Do the ways in which the human brain is imagined and visualized affect the ways we use our brains, not to mention our bodies? To what extent have we begun to see what our technologies see?
I am stubborn and remain skeptical of aggressive truth claims accompanying various technologies of locating and dissecting religion. I am, instead, committed to the indefensible and ridiculous proposition that the human is a malleable thing in the world, that neural activity is dependent, in part, upon the degree to which words, ideas, and particular bodily actions that accompany such activity are shot through with lines of force. In other words, different vectors converge upon the individual at any one time. And to begin to measure what is happening on the inside of the brain without accounting for the various combinations of what Durkheim called “moral forces” seems to me to be a project doomed to success. Although seeing religion as it truly is may feel like the right thing to do, such vision risks affirming the universalism of those words, ideas, and bodily actions taken by the investigator to be precisely what his or her account of neural activity is meant to explain in the first place. There is an ominous circularity here, or more precisely, a feedback loop between phenomena and explanation that does not simply avoid the reflexivity demanded by genealogical excavation of one’s own categories but aggressively defends against and casts aspersions toward the critical enterprise of what John Dewey once called “severe thought.”
Perhaps I, in my humanistic plea, am guilty of casting a different set of aspersions. So be it.
For in fooling myself with the conceit that the emergence of secularism happened sometime in the nineteenth century I am all too aware that I am its victim, enveloped by its swirl of indefensible claims about the way reality is in essence and habits of defending those claims in the name of a reality that is essential.
But even though the atmosphere of secularism may have conditioned the trajectory of my words and the arc of my thoughts, perhaps even molding their content, I insist that such power is not to be taken lightly or without a degree of tactical resistance.