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 the rest of Medical materialism revisited.
Wayne Proudfoot is Professor of Religion at Columbia University, specializing in the philosophy of religion. His publications include God and the Self (Bucknell University Press, 1976) and Religious Experience (University of California Press, 1987). His current research is on pragmatism and American religious thought. He has published articles on Charles Peirce and William James, and he is working on a book on that topic.