Tanya Marie Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her work explores how people come to experience nonmaterial objects such as God as present and real, and how different understandings of the mind affect mental experience. She is the author, most recently, of When God Talks Back (Knopf, 2012), which The New York Times Book Review called “the most insightful study of evangelical religion in many years,” and of other books including Of Two Minds (Knopf, 2000), The Good Parsi (Harvard, 1996), and Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (Harvard, 1989). Her latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, builds on and extends her research for When God Talks Back, taking her to India and Africa. On a recent rainy afternoon in Palo Alto, I spoke with Luhrmann about her work and its new directions.
Posts Tagged ‘religious experience’
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. […]
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. […]
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. [...]
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.” [...]
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. [...]
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. [...]