Are the spiritual experiences of Christians genuine encounters with the living God? Or, as some scientists today claim, are they merely the products of malfunctioning brain states? The question threatens to undermine and reinterpret some of our most precious (and personal) experiences as believers.
Many years ago as a teenager at summer camp, I stood near a ring of counselors, eavesdropping on their conversation about their relationship with God. What they were describing, with joy and sincerity, was what I suddenly realized I most longed for: to know God personally. I wanted what they had more than anything.
The next day in chapel, the speaker described the depth and seriousness of sin, how it separates us from God, and how only Jesus Christ can repair what we destroyed and bring us back into fellowship with God. I felt intense conviction from that message as I walked away through the woods after chapel. Later that same day, those two events — the conviction of sin and the desire for fellowship with God — led me to “turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21 NIV). I had been born again.
I would describe those moments as encounters with God — times when I believe God was clearly communicating to me. Skepticism about claims like that, however, has been rampant for a long time, and is one of the hallmarks of our Enlightenment hangover. Recently, pressure to undermine such experiences and the theological beliefs derived from them has found a new ally: neuroscience.
Our Brains on Prayer
A reductionistic trend has characterized Western culture for centuries. Many people hold a strong conviction that nothing is really understood until explanation bottoms out in the behavior of matter according to natural laws. Thus, to really comprehend something requires a grasp of the fundamental sciences and what they say about the hidden workings of atoms and molecules.
As the brain sciences have progressed in the last several decades, that reductionistic tendency has come to apply to religious beliefs and experiences as well. While I am thankful for God’s grace shown in the countless ways people have benefited from being able to understand and treat maladies of the brain, these advances have produced a pernicious tendency in some to think of humans as merely bodies with central nervous systems. As such, everything we experience must be explained through neuroscience.
To that end, numerous interesting experiments have been devised, leading to a range of competing theories regarding the nature and origin of religious experiences. Some experiments focus on mystical experiences such as those found in meditative practices. Researchers study Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns during prayer and meditation to uncover the neural activity characteristic of the height of their meditations.
In one technique, the subject indicates the peak of his meditative state, at which point a radioactive tracer dye is injected through an IV. The dye will lock into the active brain cells and remain there for hours. This allows time to take scans of the brain with a SPECT camera, showing the active regions and patterns of blood flow characteristic of the subject’s practice. (Andrew Newberg colorfully describes this research technique in Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, 2–3.)
Manufacturing the Divine
In addition to trying to peek behind the curtain to see what is happening in the brain, other experimenters take a more active role. Some attempt to create experiences that feel to the subject like an encounter with a divine or supernatural being by manipulating the brain through physical or chemical means. A notorious example of this is Robert Persinger’s “God helmet.” In this experiment, a snowmobile helmet fitted with solenoids is placed on the subject’s head, exposing the brain to low-level magnetic fields. Says Persinger,
We have found that stimulation of the right hemisphere by application of weak, complex magnetic fields at the level of temporoparietal lobes produced a sensed presence in about 80% of normal volunteers. Individuals with more frequent experiences classically attributed to elevated temporal lobe activity within the right hemisphere describe more elaborate and personally profound “Sentient Beings” than those only exposed to sham fields. (“Are Our Brains Structured to Avoid Refutations of Belief in God?” Religion 39, no. 1 : 40)
Encounters with these “Sentient Beings,” it is hypothesized, are similar to encounters with divine persons reported in religious traditions, leading many people to conclude that such reported encounters are due to nothing more than unusual configurations of brain states. No god is needed.
There are many other lines of investigation as well. Other scientists study the differences in the brains of people who are religious from those who are not. They may conclude that something chemical or structural accounts for those differences, predisposing some people to have and report religious experiences. Maybe the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or other frontal neural networks are not operating properly, allowing for too little executive control and too much credulity. It is widely agreed that there is no “God spot” in the brain, but there is broad consensus among some skeptical neuroscientists that there must be something about the brain that accounts for religiosity. God is all in the brain, they say.
Should Christians Be Concerned?
Should Christians be nervous about the latest studies? Should believers cower in the corner when faced with the findings of neuroscience, afraid their beliefs have been undermined?
After all, consider the role of dramatic religious experiences in the founding and justification of Christianity. God appeared to Abraham and spoke both instructions and promises. God appeared vividly to Jacob and to Moses. Isaiah had a heavenly vision, as did Daniel and Ezekiel. Recall Peter’s vision of the sheet, Stephen’s account of seeing Jesus in heaven, Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and vision of the man of Macedonia — not to mention the frequent dreams guiding the Holy Family and even the wise men in the opening of Matthew.
If these were nothing more than flukes of brain chemistry or neurophysiology, then the Bible would be an interesting but utterly unreliable collection of stories from people with malfunctioning brains.
So how might Christians process these findings in neuroscience?
Scientific Pipe Dream
First, the experiences recorded in Scripture are nothing like those studied in the lab. Nothing produced under controlled conditions resembles them, and there is simply no indication that experiences like them can be manufactured. It is, at least now and in the foreseeable future, an unrealized scientific pipe dream. But Persinger, expressing a sentiment held by some in the brain sciences, has a presupposition committing him to the eventual reducibility of all such events to neuroscientific explanations:
The principles [of neuroscience] indicate that all experiences, from the sense of self, to the feelings of love, to the presence of God, emerge from brain activity. If the scientist can isolate the controlling stimuli that evoke an experience, then any experience, including the experience of God, should be subject to experimental verification and reproduction within the laboratory.
But why think such a hope will ever be fulfilled? The experiments to date are irrelevant to the kinds of experiences from the Bible we enumerated above. Nothing in any of those studies even comes close to those events. A meditating monk or a praying nun is not doing anything like what is portrayed in those encounters with God described in Scripture.
Furthermore, what would it matter even if similar incidents could be created in the lab? What would that actually show us?
If the optimistic reductionists are right, and if something like John’s revelation on Patmos could be produced at will, they assume that would debunk the claim that it was an encounter with God. But it wouldn’t. As an analogy, consider the experience of seeing a giraffe. When I have such a perception, my brain is in a certain state — a state that can be scanned and categorized like any other brain state. If careful enough brain mapping could locate just which parts of the brain were activated by giraffe perceptions, would that mean that we no longer had grounds for believing in giraffes? That giraffe experiences were nothing but brain states with no connection to an external reality? What if we could manipulate a subject’s brain to replicate a giraffe experience in the laboratory — would that mean there are no giraffes in reality?
Quite obviously, it would not. So even if those experiences could be produced on demand by neuroscientists, it would not show that God himself is never the cause.
Brains Made for God
One additional observation is that very few (if any) of us have those experiences, and they are neither normative nor essential to the Christian life. Instead, the Christian life is characterized by the kinds of experiences I talked about in my conversion story: conviction of sin, reassurance of forgiveness and salvation, character transformation, walking in the Spirit and not the flesh, experiencing the presence and comfort of God, and the faith to believe that Jesus died for our sins and that God raised him from the dead. These, not dramatic visions or rhapsodic ecstasies, are the religious experiences that Christianity is made of. Neuroscience’s studies of religious experiences shed little or no light on them at all, and have certainly done nothing to subvert their genuineness.
In fact, it makes perfect sense from a biblical point of view that we would be primed to interact with God by having the cognitive capacities and propensities we do. We would expect the ground to be prepared through the way we are made, and that includes our brains. It is as if we have a runway for him to land on, prepared in advance through the common neurological structures we share as humans. How strange, then, that skeptics would conclude that the presence of a runway means there are no airplanes.
The Christian teaching about human nature is that we are spiritual beings made to know God. He created and sustains us, body and soul, moment by moment. He interacts with us both spiritually and physically — that is a feature of the human condition. In him we live and move and have our being, and that includes our brains.
Neuroscience is giving us incredible knowledge of that organ — the most astonishingly complex and marvelous object in the universe, natural or man-made — but none of what it teaches us threatens biblical faith.