Review: Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion

Neuroscience_Psych_RelAcknowledging the profound implications that recent research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology have for our understanding of human nature, Malcolm Jeeves and Warren S. Brown consider the consequences of this research in the context of religion in their book Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion (Templeton Press, 2009). Accordingly, the underlying question throughout much of this work revolves around the relationship between science and religion, a subject consistently enmeshed amidst highly charged controversy. Jeeves and Brown, however, begin with a survey of numerous historical examples lending credence to the possibility of amenable partnership and, more importantly, firmly reject the idea that scientific analysis is somehow able to undermine the significance of religion.

Before addressing the more theologically relevant material, it may be helpful to establish the particular neurocognitive model adopted by the authors, since it ultimately provides the foundation for their perspective on the consequences for religion. Based upon a consideration of two long-standing debates pertaining to the brain (mind/soul as immaterial and separate from body vs. physically integrated; global vs. local patterns of brain activity), the authors clearly endorse a more holistic and embodied approach that interprets the mind as firmly integrated within globally active patterns of brain functioning. Indeed, they rather condescendingly refer to contemporary practitioners utilizing modern imaging technology in search of functionally specific, highly localized neuroanatomical regions associated with religion as “new phrenologists.” Appropriately straddling the line between science and religion, they promote the view of either non-reductive physicalism (NRP) or dual-aspect monism (DAM). Thus, humans are either [a] entirely physical, but the brain is complex enough to produce efficacious mental properties and experiences (NRP); or [b] entirely physical, but any adequate description must also address a mental aspect as represented by the individual’s subjective experiences (DAM).

Far more technical than any other portion of the text but nevertheless relevant, chapter four offers an incredibly lucid and informative exploration of eight currently accepted neurocognitive principles (action loops, nested hierarchy, off-line emulation, motor/somatic support systems, functional localization of lower-order mechanisms, interaction between genetic and environmental influences, learning, consciousness) and the particular neuronal networks or structures thought to facilitate their operation. Expressly relevant to their consideration of implications for theology, Jeeves and Brown specifically highlight the “dynamical core hypothesis” which describes consciousness as a “temporary and dynamically changing process within the cerebral cortex that is characterized by a high degree of functional interconnectedness among widespread areas…created by rapid, two-way neural interactions” (51).

From the very beginning, the authors clearly establish their interest in the implications of this research for our understanding of human nature. Thus, it should come as no surprise that much of this book is preoccupied with precisely those features commonly thought to be capable of distinguishing humans from other organisms. One may, in fact, find the book’s greatest strength in its treatment of this topic. Particularly important in the context of a multidisciplinary field constantly beset by both the risks of perspectival bias and the fear-mongering paranoia of reductionism, Jeeves and Brown evince a remarkable willingness to invite religion into the conversation. Indeed, despite many who still deny compatibility between these modes of inquiry, the authors believe “that, with appropriate adjustments and open reflection on both sides, there is the real possibility of a partnership between scientific and religious views of mankind” (12). They consistently demonstrate a healthy appreciation for the potentially fruitful contributions offered by a religious standpoint and intrepidly treat such information on its own terms as epistemologically valid.

Adopting the perspective of Christianity with confidence, then, this search for what is uniquely human develops into the concept of imago dei. More specifically, Jeeves and Brown emphasize two traits that frequently occupy the center of theological discourse surrounding this notion. Namely, they consider the consequences of neuroscience and psychology for understanding humans' capacity to reason and their moral agency. To the great dismay of our egos, unfortunately, an overwhelming preponderance of evidence from evolutionary psychology suggests that both these mental faculties exist in other species, even if in a far more rudimentary form.

In light of this apparent setback, many have shifted the focus of our search for what is human in humanity. Some, for instance, have developed a more relational approach emphasizing the potentially unique ways in which humans establish and maintain relationships. Taking heed, Jeeves and Brown push past the integrative and holistic position based merely upon brain activity to argue for the assimilation of environmental and sociocultural stimuli into the framework as well. Their approach fits incredibly well into our current understanding of neural development, in fact, which relies heavily upon early interactions with the external world to guide the final stages of organization in higher cortical regions. Further considering this information in the context of general systems theory which entails the emergence of novel properties specific to our incomparably complex sociocultural interactions, they argue “that humans become unique by the interaction between these enhanced mental capacities and the complexity and uniqueness of human society and culture” (118, emphasis original).

Overall, Jeeves and Brown provide a rather pleasant and informative saunter across the evolving landscape of what it means to be human in the age of neuroscience and contemporary psychology. In addition to chapter four described above, they also offer a summary of recent research in the field of neuroscience on the subject of religion. Both accurate and adequately thorough for present purposes, this section covers the more prevalent lines of inquiry into the brain activity underlying various stimuli or processes including psychotropic substances, temporal lobe epilepsy, experimentally induced “sense of presence,” moral reasoning, emotional response control, and "theory of mind.” Lucidly distilled, their survey of both fields remains accessible to even the most scientifically illiterate layman, and readers should be confident exploring the territory within this book regardless of background. Jeeves and Brown, having thus given no less time to science than religion, further display their commitment to promoting impartial analyses that welcome contributions from both sides of the boundary. Ultimately, then, their description of religious anthropology seems equally applicable to their own methodology: “It involves wider realms and a different way of seeking to know truth” (121).

That said, this book does suffer from a number of weaknesses. First, although this book does appear to convey a sense of purpose, the reader is only left to speculate, since the clarity of its message is muddled by the inclusion of seemingly irrelevant material. To be more specific, it proves rather difficult to ascertain the justification for including much of the content pertaining to studies about religion in neuroscience. If (as suggested by the title) this book intends to present an overview of the relationship between neuroscience, psychology, and religion, then this material is undeniably relevant. An actual reading of the text (in spite of the title), however, rather strongly presents a much different agenda focused upon the determination of distinctively human qualities. In this light, it is unclear how knowledge about which areas of the brain turn blue on a computer screen when an individual ingests a handful of forest veggies facilitates one’s ability to perceive our social interactions as uniquely human. Assuming that the latter alternative above is, in fact, the message Jeeves and Brown intended for their readers, this ambiguity is easily dispelled by referencing the many ways that religious behaviors and experiences actually do seem to correlate with increased social awareness and morality. Many have done just this already, in fact, with some even drawing upon brain scans from neuroscience to suggest that both utilize the same neuroanatomical structures.

Second, despite emerging unscathed in the end, Jeeves and Brown come perilously close to committing the one logical fallacy probably encountered more frequently than any other in studies about religion: generalization from the particular. While the authors never explicitly assert their intention to extend claims made in their book to all forms of religious beliefs and practices, neither do they caution the reader against any such attempt or inference. In their defense, they do clearly focus specifically on Christianity without ever mentioning another religion. Given the alarming frequency at which such erroneous generalizations are made in this field, however, it is assuredly best to be cautious and err on the side of overclarification vis-à-vis the degree of generalizability for an argument or claim.

Third, despite their unmistakable commitment to treating both religion and science on equal terms, the material presented by Jeeves and Brown remains prevailingly scientific. There is little doubt that this book would benefit greatly from a more extensive contribution from the religious perspective. One potential area for elaboration, for instance, is the notion of our soul. The authors actually spend a good amount of time considering how our understanding of this concept has evolved throughout history, and our idea of the soul is obviously relevant both to the notion of imago dei and to what makes humans distinct. Discussion on this subject, however, is curiously missing from the latter portions of the book. Surely, a consideration of how theology has responded to the increasingly physicalist trends in science towards embodiment of mind would prove incredibly fruitful. In part, this absence may be the result of the book’s tendency to conflate “mind” and “soul” which likely explains why Jeeves and Brown criticize more substantive definitions of imago dei for being “too dependent upon a belief in a thinking ‘substance’ called the mind that is distinct and separate from the body” (122). Nevertheless, this identification between terms is neither explicitly addressed to prepare the reader, nor justified anywhere.

Finally, while more a curious observation than a criticism of weakness, the dismissive treatment of “neurotheology” (always presented in scare quotes) encountered on multiple occasions throughout the book is rather peculiar. Jeeves and Brown consistently associate this emerging field with phrenology and ask with Jerome Groopman, “Why do we have this strange attempt, clothed in the rubric of ‘neurotheology,’ to objectify faith with the bells and whistles of technology?” (38) Upon a closer reading, however, the methodological approach espoused by this book betrays a remarkable fidelity to the fundamental tenets of that field. At the very least, this book appears amenable to the following principles outlined for the study of neurotheology by Andrew Newberg: Principle V (strive to evaluate the relationship between religion/science while remaining open to the possibility of integration), Principle VI (strive to foster dialogue between religion/science), Principle VII (neuroscience and theology considered comparable contributors), Principle VIII (healthy skepticism about results of science and theology), Principle XII (science and theology conducted as rigorously as possible), Principle XXII (caution assigning causality or eliminating religious explanations), Principle XXVI (understand how religions view science), Principle XXVIII (both phenomenological and physiological information required for full understanding).

When all is said and done, Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion provides us with an enjoyable read on a compelling and increasingly relevant topic. As more and more funding continues to be diverted into these contemporary fields and the spotlight of scientific investigation shines increasingly brighter every day upon humans themselves, intimate interactions between religion and science become inevitable. In preparation for the future at hand, Jeeves and Brown break the ice with a commendable demonstration of dialogical analysis.