April 18, 2024


Last week BioEdge’s lead story featured research which points to the brain as the source of ethics. An even more daring theory is that the brain is the source of God. According to Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist, or rather, a neurotheologian, human beings are hard- wired to believe in God. Like a number of other researchers, he believes religion and spirituality can be explained in terms of brain processes. The frontal lobe helps to focus attention in prayer; the parietal lobe is involved in the feeling of becoming part of something greater than oneself; the limbic system is responsible for feelings of joy and awe.

A number of recent books support variations of this claim. There is In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, by anthropologist Scott Atran. Last year Newberg published Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth. Matthew Alper also released last year a revised edition of his 1996 book The ‘God’ Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God.

Of course, such ideas are hardly novel. Marx said that religion was invented to oppress the working class; Freud believed that it was an illusion which sprang from unresolved sexual conflicts. William James claimed that religious experience could be induced with drugs. But the increasing power and prominence of neuroscience suggest that in the future theological debates will centre on the brain.