Religious experience: so what if it’s all in your head?

This week’s episode of Unbelieveable? was nowhere near as incendiary as the interview released from last weekend — I’m glad Chris handled that one and not me! It was, however, a rather interesting contribution to the show’s “Mind, Body, and Soul Month.” (N.B. I have inserted the Oxford comma in that title where Brierley has omitted it. Bad Brit!)

The topic of discussion was “Has Neuroscience Killed God?” Featured was a discussion between Cambridge neuroscientist Rev. Dr. Aladair Coles and psychological therapist Martyn Frame, a Christian and an atheist respectively. The discussion covered the ground you might expect, e.g. whether determining the neurological phenomena associated with religious experiences fully explained those experiences and was therefore sufficient to discount them. Overall I think this was a much better discussion than last week’s disappointing conversation between David Papineau and Keith Ward over materialism/dualism, in which I sided with the materialist over Ward (whom I really respect).

Unlike Ward last week, neither guest suggested that there is anything involved with religious experience that science has not explained; I don’t know what Coles believes, but there was nothing in his responses that indicated anything but what is most consonant with non-reductive physicalism. Coles expects everything that happens, even when related directly to influence from the divine, to have a fully natural reflex observable by neuroscience.
Diagram of a Religious experience

Anatomy of a religious experience (via Wikipedia)

Frame early on concedes that religious experience as emanating from divine interaction is not strictly speaking disproved by neurological evidence, but keeps insisting that (reductive) naturalism is somehow more in line with the scientific evidence. Yet when pressed to explain how this was the case, he kept wanting to offer philosophical/theological challenges. Specifically, he wondered why the Christian God wouldn’t wire people to believe in specifically Him (i.e. the Christian God) rather than to allow people to either believe in another deity or disbelieve altogether. Unsurprisingly, Coles countered that 1) this is not after all a neurological question and 2) a God who wired everyone to believe in Him would be despotic and unlike the Christian God. Coles was very careful not to dismiss Frame’s concern as a real problem, but pointed out quite rightly that it was a philosophical and not a scientific challenge. As this show’s topic was specifically on the scientific evidence, I think Coles was right in respectfully and not dismissively steering things back.

Among the more interesting scientific discussions was the evidence cited by Coles that the parts of the brain that appear to be involved in the perception of religious experience are not at all unique to humans. There is no detectable “God module” that humans utilize for their prayer lives and religious experiences; people interact with their deities in the same way they interact with other humans. For Coles, it might be easier to dismiss God if there were such a lump of cells tacked on by evolution which makes humans think they are having their mystical experiences, but having the brain act in a normal, human way when interacting with either other humans or a spiritual being is “deeply Christian” in that it coincides with the Christian belief in God as a person with whom we interact rather than just some mystical force. I found that interesting; take it or leave it.

One of Frame’s lines of evidence was pointing out that people with a dominating right hemisphere were likelier to be religious than otherwise. The right hemisphere is the creative side of the brain and notoriously can find patterns even where there are none; the popular implication is that, essentially, right-brained people are the likeliest to believe in things that don’t exist, and that this explains religious people. Coles countered that there are plenty of left-brained people who are religious in different ways: he said that although right-brained individuals seem to have more mystical experiences, left-brained individuals are likelier to view God in doctrinal or theological terms. Moreover, Coles cited studies that show people with no religious inclinations who have the left side of their brain damaged will often find a sense for spirituality as a result of their dependence on the right hemisphere. From this he suggested that we all have the physical mechanisms for religious experience built in to us, but such inclinations are sometimes “bullied” out by a dominating left hemisphere. Such people are not de facto atheists or materialists, but may find mystical, religious experiences harder to access.

A couple additional thoughts from me.

  • The case was predictably made by Frame that being able to artificially stimulate mystical experiences using electrodes applied to the applicable regions of the brain invalidates any immaterial source for those experiences in other people. The implication is that if we can fool the brain into thinking there is a God through very mundane physical processes, this goes to show that it’s all delusion caused by our brains’ reactions to electro-chemical accidents. This is a very old, very tired bit of reductionism. If neuroscientists were able to manipulate a subject’s perception so that he thought his mother was in the room, this would not at all invalidate the existence of the subject’s mother, or even exclude the possibility that his mother was in the room. Similarly, neuroscientists are able to artificially approximate all kinds of reactions to stimuli that, while actually existing, are not actually present at the time. To my mind, this is a line of evidence that painfully begs the question. All that has been shown is that certain kinds of experiences that are experienced by our brain’s chemistry are in fact reproducible by chemistry.


  • The topic of this show dealt specifically with religious experiences; I have indeed had religious, even mystical experiences, but I am not particularly right-brained. My left hemisphere really tries to get me to dismiss my experiences, and although I do think it important to suspend my belief in them when evaluating these questions, I find that my left hemisphere is more than adequate to explain my religious beliefs anyway. The fact is, I don’t believe primarily because of religious experiences as perceived by my right brain: equally so, perhaps even more commonly these days, I believe because the world makes better intellectual sense to me with a God behind it. Importantly, in practice I discount every mystical personal experience, mine included, and proceed with my belief in the Christian God based on a reasoned choice. All this to say, for me, not much hangs on the outcome of this discussion in either direction.

Please note that I’m not saying there aren’t real challenges for theism or Christianity from neuroscience. I honestly don’t know enough to say whether there are or aren’t. But I do know that Dr. Coles presented a better case than Mr. Frame.

Anyway, for a cordial, civil exchange of interesting ideas, I certainly recommend checking this episode out.

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