As recent advances in the brain sciences have expanded their explanatory reach and aroused the public’s interest, some researchers have taken up a project that could transform debates about science and religion for good: the search for a scientific explanation of religious experience and belief. Taking a New York Times column by David Brooks as a starting point, this series brings history, philosophy, and literature to bear on the question of what such explanations really stand to offer as well as what they tend to exaggerate.
A cognitive revolution?
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. [...]Read Always put one in the brain.
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. […]Read Mind sciences and religious change in America.
The New York Times opinion piece by David Brooks, titled “The Neural Buddhists,” drives a wedge between mystical and “revealed” religions by citing recent philosophical and scientific scholarship. Brooks suggests that neuroscience (including psychology) poses a considerable challenge to religions that emphasize divine law or revelation. Brooks is right to predict that neuroscience will profoundly affect our culture’s thinking. Neuroscience forces us to revise our concept of self. And I agree that the investigation into universal moral intuitions raises interesting questions about the emergence of religion. My guess is that its most significant cultural contribution will be, simply, increased happiness. […]Read Is this anything or is this nothing?.
David Brooks’s op-ed, “The Neural Buddhists,” is premised on a variety of conceptual confusions that are worth trying to clear up, although the widespread nature of some of these confusions says something quite interesting about innate human cognitive biases. I think he is mistaken about the precise character of the cultural impact of recent neuroscientific work, but the kinds of mistakes he makes points toward ways in which the contemporary neuroscientific model of the self continues to be misunderstood. […]Read Let’s get clear about materialism.
David Brooks, in his New York Times op-ed column “The Neural Buddhists,” offers speculations about how the “cognitive revolution” will impact religious belief. He goes on to cite studies by Andrew Newberg and others studying brain states that correlate with particular religious practices and experiences and then speculates as to what such research might mean for undercutting or bolstering particular religious commitments. Specifically, he suggests that doctrinal and theistic religions may be more threatened by contemporary science in this area than mystical religions. I suppose there is little harm in speculating, but we should get our “revolutions” straight. [...]Read Which cognitive revolution?.
The first three postings in this series remind us how complex the individual topics of cognitive science, Buddhism, and religious experience can be. Certainly there are many interpretations of each—many more than an entire monograph could account for, let alone a column in the New York Times—and reminders of the density of such topics are valuable and need to be repeated. But the cultural phenomenon that David Brooks’s column describes is its own topic altogether. Just what this phenomenon is will probably take a while for historians to describe and for critical scholars to assess. My preliminary suggestion is that we are witnessing an aesthetic urge, in which scientists and Buddhists find common cause in their pursuit of a beautiful—albeit potentially dangerous— “theory of everything.” [...]Read The aesthetics of neural Buddhism.
A century ago, in “Religion and Neurology,” the opening chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James argued against a “medical materialism” that would reduce religious experiences to their neurological causes for the purpose either of dismissing them or confirming them. Since that time, many have tried to understand religion through the study of religious experience and, like James, many have given special attention to mysticism. New techniques for the study of the brain have brought great advances, but David Brooks’s New York Times column “The Neural Buddhists” and the work of Andrew Newberg, to whom he refers, stand squarely in the tradition James was criticizing. [...]Read Medical materialism revisited.
Not long ago, researchers wired up the atheist Richard Dawkins with a helmet that would create magnetic fields partially simulating the brain activity of temporal lobe epilepsy, which they linked to dramatic visionary religious experiences and to less dramatic feelings of sensed presences. It turns out, though, that hooking up a hardboiled atheist to a machine, known as the transcranial magnetic stimulator, produced no such experiences. “It was a great disappointment,” Dawkins related after 40 minutes on the machine. “Though I joked about the possibility, I of course never expected to end up believing in anything supernatural. But I did hope to share some of the feelings experienced by religious mystics when contemplating the mysteries of life and the cosmos.” As my own mind was being massaged with images of Richard Dawkins having his temporal lobes stimulated, an odd notion popped into my head: namely, when it comes to religion, history and culture trump neurology. [...]Read A religious history of American neuroscience.
The past fifteen years or so have been a period of extraordinary activity in pursuit of what are called “cognitive” and/or “evolutionary” explanations of religion. These include, in addition to Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (the focus of my previous post), a number of other self-consciously innovative books with titles like How Religion Works: Towards a New Cognitive Science of Religion, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. What unites these works and distinguishes them from the broader naturalistic tradition in religious studies is, first, the centrality for their approach of methods and theories drawn from evolutionary psychology and the rather sprawling field of “cognitive science” and, second, the more or less strenuous identification of their efforts with “science,” itself rather monolithically and sometimes triumphalistically conceived. In these two respects, these and related works constitute what could be called the New Naturalism in religious studies. […]Read Naturalism, otherwise.
One of the most influential works among recent “cognitive” and/or “evolutionary” studies of religion is a book by French anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Pascal Boyer. It is titled, with imposing finality, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. [...]Read Cognitive machinery and explanatory ambitions.
On Sunday May 25, 2008 the New York Times published an article entitled “Superhighway to Bliss” about Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who suffered a stroke in 1996. After she regained the ability to speak, she described the experience as “nirvana.” Neuropathology as religious experience is nothing new, yet the next day, the piece was number one on the Times list of most e-mailed articles. In the Science Times section of the paper the following Tuesday, there was an article entitled “Lotus Therapy,” on the growing use of the meditation cushion to treat problems previously consigned to the analyst’s couch. The next day, “Lotus Therapy” had taken over the top spot as the most e-mailed article. Clearly, something is going on. But that had become clear two weeks earlier when the conservative commentator David Brooks entitled his May 13 op-ed piece, “The Neural Buddhists.” [...]Read The Buddha according to Brooks.
To appreciate the cultural impact of the “cognitive revolution” discussed by David Brooks in his New York Times op-ed column “The Neural Buddhists” (May 13, 2008), we need to be clear about what has and has not been revolutionized by neuroscience. Brooks gets the research essentially right, but he overlooks some key issues raised by “neural Buddhism” that make me question his view of its future effects on religion and culture. [...]Read The cognitive revolution and the decline of monotheism.