Neuroscience and theology

There are many ways to study theology: read sacred texts, study great theologians, neuroimage someone’s brain – wait, what was that last one? In an attempt to develop a scientifically grounded theology rather than a purely speculative one, advocates of “neurotheology” believe that the study of the brain in connection with religious experience in fact plays an important role in theology and spirituality. However, the approach of neurotheology is readily met with criticism. Armin W. Geertz (Aarhus University, Denmark), for example, argues that neurotheology has deep flaws in terms of its scientific methodology and its religious assumptions.

What exactly is the project of neurotheology? First, it's not just neurological research into spirituality, which is a booming field in its own right. Neurotheology is more than that – it's the hope that through neuroscience, neurotheology can provide a “megatheology” that applies to and can be adopted by all the world’s religions without favoring any one of them. It would be a religious studies professor’s dream: there would no longer be need to engage in unresolvable debates about pluralism or imperialism because a universal framework for explaining religious phenomena would exist. All religious activities involve the brain in some way, so neurotheologians like the University of Pennsylvania's Andrew Newberg hope that conducting brain analysis may yield promising results.

Skeptical of this, Geertz criticizes neurotheology in terms of its scientific methodology and its religious assumptions. His concerns with neurotheology's scientific metholodology are twofold: (1) scientific studies often contradict each other on critical neurotheology issues, and (2) it’s not clear exactly what neurotheologians are trying to measure. While Geertz lists many examples of the former, one certainly worth mentioning is the study of alpha waves. It often said that meditation helps to produce alpha waves in the brain, but there are several studies that could find no difference, or, worse still, found the exact opposite effect! Furthermore, scientists struggle to demarcate between alpha waves caused by meditation per se and alpha waves caused by relaxation in general. In other words, relaxation by definition is associated with alpha waves and meditation helps one relax; as such, is there anything special about meditation and alpha waves or is meditation merely a subcategory of relaxation?

Secondly, what is neuroscience trying to measure in respect to religion? Religion lacks a standardized “religious” or “meditative” state. One person’s ecstasy, bliss, or nirvana may be not necessarily be another’s. Different people claim to be in the same states of religious achievement, but the neurology shows they are in different brain states. Should all of these states be accepted? Should neurotheologians try to decide which ones are authentic and which ones are subpar? If so, how could they figure this out?

Aside from scientific methodological problems, Geertz also argues that neurotheology does not address fundamental methodological questions raised by the academic study of religion – namely, what is religion? What is the subject of investigation? Geertz worries that emphasizing the brain ignores other key components to religion, such as social and cultural context. He cites philosopher Matthew Ratcliffe (Durham University) who reasons that trying to explain religion solely in terms of neurology is like trying to explain baseball solely in terms of neurology: seeking the “baseball areas” of baseball players’ brains is simply not enough to explain baseball. In short, Geertz thinks that these neurotheologians miss what religion really is.

Geertz believes that the rebuttal “it’s not religion but religious experience under investigation” falters. The problem, as before, is that such assertions are completely vague about what “religious experience” means; after all, religious experiences vary widely. Citing Ratcliffe again, Geertz agrees with him that trying to find the universal neurological religious experience is like trying to find the universal neurological “metal object experience, hairy thing experience, car experience or any other category that arbitrarily brought together many different kinds of phenomena.”

For the record, Geertz opposes neither science nor theology. He believes the cognitive science of religion legitimately investigates the neurology of religion. That is, the neuroscientific investigation of religion should be conducted—his problem is with drawing hard and fast theological or religious conclusions from this. He finds it troubling that some Eastern religions find their worldview vindicated somehow by neuroscience. Neurological claims regarding religion, he says, are inconclusive. Science should be performed without any religious or theological strings attached.

Likewise, Geertz is no opponent of theology. He simply wants to see “critical theology” win out over “celebrative theology.” The former is a proper function of religious studies, while the latter hinders science by seeking scientific endorsement.

Neurotheology may not be an entirely lost cause, but it certainly needs to address the fundamental problems outlined by Geertz and Ratcliffe in order to be taken seriously by scientists and theologians alike. Granted, this may not be long in coming – Geertz's sources are all at least two years old, and in the interim an explosion of research into neurology and spirituality has found its way into academic journals. This means that more methodologically adept neuroscientific investigation may soon provide sound rebuttals to Geertz's critiques. And, naturally, a scientific basis for religion would be a dream come true for many. But in the meantime, it might very well be all in their heads.

Geertz’s article ”When cognitive scientists become religious, science is in trouble: On neurotheology from a philosophy of science perspective” appeared in last December’s issue of Religion.