Or, A Particular History of Religion and the Brain
- ISBN: 9780226797182
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: October 2021
John Lardas Modern’s Neuromatic: Or, A Particular History of Religion and the Brain offers a creative and multifaceted exploration of the history of discourse that leads to the brain being the window into understanding human experience and the entangled secular and religious investments therein.
Neuromatic takes aim at scientific trends of studies measuring and quantifying religiosity, specifically as they appear in the cognitive science of religion (CSR). On one level, taking inspiration from Talal Asad, Modern sheds light on the cracks in the dichotomy between the secular and religious on which these studies are premised. On the other hand, following Michel Foucault, he demonstrates how the manipulation of this dichotomy through the discursive framings of religion in such studies perpetuate an air of objectivity and universality around their data and conclusions.
Modern conveys these CSR approaches as indicative of a particular understanding of the brain which he refers to as the neuromatic. He describes the neuromatic brain as that in which “[d]ifferent parts and particles of the brain are identified and traced as part of a system, different locations are considered as in their collective action, as leverage for cultivating the self and explaining the wide wide world” (30). To address and expose the inescapability of this paradigm, Modern positions his work as an immanent critique--taking inspiration from the work of Theodor Adorno.
Modern structures his “history of the present'' (38) around the ascendance of cybernetics in the mid-20th century at which point trends conceptualizing the brain “. . . as both material object and metaphysical horizon” (40) became instantiated in information theory and proliferated across scientific disciplines. This information-centric approach molded the human into a machine that can be infinitely measured and analyzed and ultimately solved by other machines—specifically, the ever-expanding and advancing arsenal of brain science technology. While this cybernetic moment provides its foundation, Neuromatic is by no means a wrought survey of this period. In fact, one of the greatest strengths of Modern’s book is its skillful weaving of disparate historical moments through recognition of genealogies of ideas.
Chapter 1 begins with a survey of the current state of research in the cognitive science of religion focusing on the notion of the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device—a mechanism by which the brain evolutionarily adapted to over-ascribe agency to natural phenomena. He then connects this pathologizing tendency in studies about religion to a 1940s study conducted at Smith College investigating female test subjects’ tendency to ascribe agency to projections of shapes, and finally to the 18th century inquiries of John Edwards into the nature of religious revival. Despite their disparate temporal and geographic settings (or, as a result of them), Modern’s keen eye for patterns of discourse allows him to tease out historical precedence for the neuromatic and effectively illustrates the discursive network enlivening these notions of the brain; he offers a rich story about how the brain came to be the ultimate key to being human while also matching the content of his discussion to its form.
Modern’s succeeding chapters have a similarly expansive scope. His second chapter investigates the intellectual lineage that led to information theory becoming the key to understanding the brain by examining Emmanuel Swedenborg’s theory of tremulations—an immaterial substance he conceptualized as connecting the activity of the brain to its environment. He highlights the blurring of the secular and religious of this lineage by showing how Swedenborg’s theory presented tremulations as “...a movement that was both mechanistic and the hinge of divine flux” (43). Modern follows the afterlives of Swedenborg’s theory to the emergence of cybernetics in the mid-20th century. Along the way he excavates their presence in 19th century phrenology, the discovery of the motor cortex as well as the 20th century emergence of electroencephalography and discovery of neural nets.
Chapter 3 continues the deconstruction of the secular/religious binary posited as the core of the neuromatic by looking at 20th century figures whose appropriations and applications of cybernetics and information theory sat on the fringes of religion and science. Among the various characters he spotlights, Modern offers a fascinating description of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s work and situates its birth from the burgeoning information-centric understandings of humans that are still operative to this day. Ultimately, Modern argues that figures such as Hubbard, Eileen Garret, Brion Gyson, and William S Burroughs “. . . each distilled a metaphysical directive undergirding neuromatic theories of communication by using them to make sense of supernatural orders of existence, variously construed” (45).
Chapter 4 comes at these directives from a different angle, examining the instantiation of the neuromatic paradigms in electric shock therapy in order to uplift the unexpected, upsetting, and downright frightening ends to which this discourse has been employed in the name of science.
Throughout the book, Modern discusses the racial, gendered, and to a lesser extent socio-economic, prejudices driving many of these projects. As mentioned above his first chapter alludes to the ways that religious sentiments were framed as a female trait in need of reform. The second chapter, which focuses on theories relating the brain to its environment, highlights the vestiges of phrenology and scientific racism in modern brain science in so far as its positing of infinite self-improvement vis-à-vis the brain has been constructed in relation to normative notions of male whiteness. Given the scope of Modern’s argument it is hardly a critique to say that there is more to be said about the gendered and racial implications of the lineage of thought bolstering neuromatic approaches to the brain. Hopefully others will pick up this work where Modern has left off.
Neuromatic would provide a thought-provoking read for scholars in a variety of fields as well as those interested in the history of science. From the standpoint of religious studies, Modern’s book offers a powerful intervention into how notions of the secular are proliferated and internalized. In his wry and tongue-in-cheek style, he also gestures towards the ways in which neuroscientific data takes on the air of absolute truth in a similar fashion to religious dogma. All in all, it is an innovative and imaginative work that shows the inner workings of our commonsense understandings of ourselves and our world.
Atéha Bailly is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School.Atéha BaillyDate Of Review:April 22, 2022