Neurotheology

How Science Can Enlighten Us About Spirituality

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Andrew Newberg
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , March
     2018.
     328 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780231179041.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This is an excellent introduction to the emerging field of neurotheology as well as a concise assessment of the contributions of neuroscience to our understanding of a broad range of religious and spiritual issues, including the evolution of religion and the impact of ritual and spiritual practices on the brains of practitioners. Similar to the goal of the dialogue between theology and psychology, Newberg’s intention is to expand our understanding of various religious and spiritual phenomena by drawing on research that he and others have done in the area of neuroscience. 

Newberg begins this engaging study by sharing his own lifelong quest to understand the nature of reality. This search for understanding led him to appreciate how the two seemingly oppositional forces of science and religion/spirituality might be brought together and lead to a fuller understanding of the human person and the world. The focus here is on the brain and the different processes that go on within it, leading to or hindering specific ideas regarding God, belief systems, meaning, and the purpose of life. Neurotheology is a vast multidisciplinary field drawing on psychology, cognitive neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, as well as ritual studies, theology, and religious studies. The thrust of this discipline is to move beyond science merely explaining what is going in the brain during experiences such as prayer to a more comprehensive perspective on how the human person approaches both the spiritual and nonspiritual world. 

One of the strengths of Newberg’s work is that he is clearly advocating a hybrid approach to answering fundamental human questions regarding God and existence in which both science and theology have important roles to play. However, in this book Newberg aims at bringing forward what empirical, scientific studies are contributing to the discussions. As Newberg had articulated in an earlier book, one of the goals of neurotheology in its study of religious experience is to expand the current understanding of the human mind and brain and of how religious or spiritual beliefs impact health and well-being. The payoff from neurotheological studies will come, Newberg suggests, in improving the human condition in the areas of health and well-being and indeed of religious and spiritual well-being. 

In an early chapter on neuroscience and neurotheology, Newberg provides a succinct review of the parts of the brain and their respective functions with particular attention to their involvement in religious believing, spiritual practices, and religious experiences. Here and throughout the book Newberg provides details of scientific studies that his laboratory and other laboratories have conducted to flesh out knowledge of what areas of the brain are involved in various religious phenomena. One of Newberg’s studies involved showing subjects twenty-five religious/spiritual symbols and non-religious symbols while their brains were being scanned. The findings revealed that religious symbols had a different impact on the brain’s occipital lobe’s visual center than did non-religious symbols. 

Germane to the contemporary distinction between religion and spirituality, Newberg devotes a chapter each to religion and spirituality to indicate what neurotheology highlights in each case. In discussing religion, he notes the importance of, but also the difficulty of, defining religion, and he reviews a number of classic definitions. One way of approaching religion that allows neurotheology a pathway for investigation is to describe religion in terms of elements such as religious beliefs, affiliation, religious commitment, and religious coping. Newberg reports on a survey of around three thousand respondents regarding spiritual experiences that revealed that about 30 percent of people change their religious belief system, with the majority of them dropping their religious beliefs. 

In a fascinating chapter on religious myths and the brain, Newberg suggests viewing the brain as a myth-making machine. Earlier in the book he had referred to the brain as a prison in which people are locked and from which they are unable to determine whether what they think really conforms to the reality that is outside them. However, on the basis of sensory information that people have gathered, their brains create myths that provide them with a framework for dealing with the world and all that is out there. These myths are stories comprised of beliefs which are more limited and specific whereas the myths themselves are more comprehensive. Religious myths also enter the picture and receive support from spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, and religious rituals. One of the areas for further research in neurotheology would be whether religious and spiritual myths remain constant through an individual’s life or whether they change, for instance, when the frontal lobes of the brain reach their final level of functioning in adulthood. 

Toward the end of the book, Newberg returns to the view of the brain as a prison and explores the question of whether mysticism and mystical experience represent an escape from the prison of the brain. Here he maintains that neurotheology has an important contribution to make as it delves into whether mystical experience is simply a manifestation of the brain’s function or whether the brain enables people to make contact with some more fundamental aspect of reality in mystical experience. “Put another way from a more religious perspective, we might ponder whether the experience of a mystical union with God is driven by the brain or driven by God” (277). Newberg’s exploration of neurotheology points to a wide range of possible benefits emerging from this ongoing dialogue between religion and science.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Raymond Studzinski is Associate Professor of Religion & Personality at the Catholic University of America.

Date of Review: 
July 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Newberg is Director of Research at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. His books include Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (2001), Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth (2006), How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (2009), and Principles of Neurotheology(2010).

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