According to Michael Gerson of the Calgary Herald in an article published today, Andrew Newberg is perhaps America's leading expert on religion's neurological basis. His book, "How God Changes Your Brain," coauthored with Mark Robert Waldman, summarizes years of ground breaking research on the biological basis of religious experience, with plenty to challenge skeptics and believers alike:
"Neuroscience cannot tell you if God does or doesn't exist," Newberg states with appropriate humility.Neurobiology helps explain religion; it does not explain it away. But Newberg's research offers warnings for the religious, too.
Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain where empathy and reason reside. But, contemplating a wrathful God empowers that part of the brain "filled with aggression and fear." It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not. For Newberg, this is not a critique of fundamentalism, a phenomenon varied in its beliefs and motivations. It's a criticism of institutions that ally ideology or faith with anger and selfishness.
"The enemy is not religion," writes Newberg, "the enemy is anger, hostility,intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism, and prejudicial fear - be it secular, religious, or political."
Newberg employs a vivid image: two packs of neurological wolves, he says,are found in every brain. One pack is old and powerful, oriented toward survival and anger. The other is comprised of pups, the newer parts of thebrain, more creative and compassionate, "but they are also neurologically vulnerable and slow when compared to the activity in the emotional parts of the brain." So all human beings must ask: Which pack do we feed?
How God Changes Your Brain has a few limitations. In a practical, how-to tone, it predicts "an epiphany that can improve the inner quality of your life. For most Americans, that is what spirituality is about." But if this is what spirituality is all about, it isn't about very much. Mature faith involves self-sacrifice, not self-actualization; anguish, not comfort. If the primary goal of religion is escape or contentment, there are more practical ways.
"I didn't go to religion to make me happy," said C.S.Lewis, "I always knew a bottle of port would do that." Religious discussion must come down to truth. Can we escape the wheel of becoming, or hear God's voice in a wandering prophet, or meet a man once dead? Without such beliefs, religion is mere meditation. Newberg's research shows an amplified influence of religious practices on those who "truly believe." But Newberg himself has difficulty sharing such belief.
His research on the varieties of religious experience leave him skeptical about the capacity of the mind to accurately perceive "universal or ultimate truth." Yet, he told me, "To this day, I am still seeking and searching." And that is the most honest kind of science."
~ Excerpted from "Neurons at work in the mind's God-shaped gap" by Michael Gerson.
15 Apr 2009