International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion - 3 Volumes

edited by Patrick McNamara

Introductory Essay by Michael Spezio

This three-volume set, part of the Praeger Perspectives series entitled, Psychology, Religion, and Spirituality, contains stellar essays whose careful reading would benefit any scholar of science and religion. The editor, Patrick McNamara, has assembled contributors who are scientists or scientifically trained scholars, along with three theologians. The Advisory Board to Where God and Science Meet likewise includes one theologian among its seven members. These choices result in three books that emphasize empirical findings and philosophical interpretations that are informed almost wholly by bracketing out perspectives from within the religious traditions being studied.

The tone is struck immediately in the first volume, Evolution, Genes, and the Religious Brain, which focuses on the evolutionary significance of religious cognition, including religious emotions, and religious behavior. The first essay of the book was adapted by Prof. Steven Pinker from an address he gave to an annual meeting of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, celebrating his receipt of The Emperor’s New Clothes Award. Pinker argues that religion is not really adaptive in an evolutionary sense at all, but that it is a byproduct (and not necessarily a helpful one) of cognitive adaptations, such as positing that other people have minds; “If you are prone to attributing an invisible entity called ‘the mind’ to other people’s bodies, it’s a short step to imagining minds that exist independently of bodies” [I.8]. This is a variant on the “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device” (HADD) most often discussed by Prof. Justin Barrett, who is not a contributor to the volume. Pinker concludes that religion benefits only those who control it, while the “consumers” of religion bundle their collective desires “for health, love, and success” with “possible cognitive adaptations in our intuitive psychology…that seem to provide evidence for souls” to ground a false belief in “a mysterious world of souls to bring about our fondest wishes” [I.9] Pinker is joined in his view that religion is not an adaptation by Prof. Lee A. Kirkpatrick (I Ch. 8), who argues that much of the evidence generally thought to support adaptationist viewpoints in fact, does not, by Prof. Ilkka Pyysiäinen, who gives an overview of his cognitive theory of religion (I Ch. 10), and by Prof. Scott Atran, who argues that religion is “a recurring cultural by-product of the complex evolutionary landscape that sets cognitive, emotional, and material conditions for ordinary human interactions” [1.185].

To be sure, not all contributors follow Pinker’s reasoning, and many argue that religion is an evolutionary adaptation. In the second chapter, Prof. Robert A. Emmons teams with McNamara to explore a conversation between Sacred Emotions and Affective Neuroscience, focusing on gratitude and its adaptive quality as a “hard-to-fake signal of fitness that signals religious commitment and enhances cooperative exchanges” [I.11]. The authors define sacred emotions as 1) “more likely to occur in religious…settings than in nonreligious settings,” 2) “more likely to be elicited through spiritual or religious activities or practices…than by nonreligious practices,” 3) “more likely to be experienced by people who self-identify as religious or spiritual (or both) than by people who do not think of themselves as either spiritual or religious,” 4) explicitly emphasized as desirable for cultivation by “religious and spiritual systems around the world,” and 5) “those emotions experienced when individuals imbue seemingly secular aspects of their lives…with a spiritual significance” [I.13]. The sacred emotions so defined by Emmons and McNamara include: gratitude, awe, reverence, love, and hope.

The remaining chapters in the first volume primarily argue from or for an adaptationist perspective, including an examination of genetic influences on religiosity (religious perspectives and behaviors are 40%-45% heritable [I Ch 3]), an excellent introduction to costly signaling theory by Prof. Richard Sosis (I Ch. 4), an argument for religion’s adaptive significance that analyzes religious healing in light of a proposed mechanism by which cognitive error in general can contribute to fitness (I Ch. 5), and a materialist’s reflection on the psychology of belief in life after death (I Ch. 6).

Chapter 7 provides a very helpful introduction to Prof. James McClenon’s ritual healing theory of religion, which argues that “ritual healing practices shaped genotypes governing the human capacity for dissociation and hypnosis, allowing modern forms of religiosity” [I.136].

The first volume concludes with a long essay by Prof. Wesley Wildman (I Ch. 11), arguing that religionists would do well to pay close attention to the new convergence of fields represented in the preceding chapters.

The second volume of the set, The Neurology of Religious Experience, begins with an analysis by Prof. McNamara and coworkers of the Chemistry of Religiosity. The essay takes an approach unusual within cognitive neuroscience in that it applies the well-established lesion-deficit method to Parkinson’s patients. This method analyzes the probabilistic relationship between patients’ brain damage and specific impairments in their cognitive processing, the better to establish which brain regions are necessary for said processing. Parkinson’s patients generally have widespread physical impairment throughout the brain, associated with dopamine dysfunction. The essay details differences that Parkinson’s patients exhibit in measured religiosity and concludes that “dopaminergic activity in the frontal lobes very likely significantly influences levels of religiousness” [II.10].

The remaining chapters in this volume include: an overview by Prof. Andrew Newberg of his proposed “neurophysiological network possibly associated with meditative states,” [II.19], a cross-cultural analysis of neuroimaging measurements during religious experiences of various kinds (II Ch. 3), an argument that adolescence is a critical period, or “life stage,” for the transmission, or lack thereof, of religious tradition (II Ch. 4), and a philosophical analysis of neurotheology that argues that it is largely empty, since neuroscience has no decisive force in adjudicating theological claims (II Ch. 5)

Chapter 6 provides an argument that religion is an evolutionary by-product of attachment mechanisms, along with a nice overview of attachment theory. Subsequent chapters provide: a consideration of religious conversion by Prof. Raymond F. Paloutzian and colleagues (II Ch. 7), an analysis of temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) in relation to religiosity that includes a review of TLE in cross-cultural contexts (II Ch. 8), a brief overview of The Frontal Lobes and the Evolution of Cooperation (II Ch. 9), an interesting perspective on ongoing debates in the cognitive science of religion that warns that the field “runs the risk of turning into so many ghettos, with each author trying to defend his theory against competitors,” [II.225] in Chapter 10, and a very helpful articulation of a “nonreductive neurology of religiousness” in Chapter 11 [II.240].

The final volume of the set, “The Psychology of Religious Experience,” is also the longest. Some of the chapters touch upon concepts and models raised in Volume 2, which is helpful for the set as a whole. Contributions include a technical analysis of the role of hallucinogens in religious experience that summarizes data from experiments in cortical slices and living humans to conclude that experiences of God and psychedelic hallucinations “are very similar or identical” [III.26].

We are presented with an overview of recent research on links between religiosity and health (III Ch. 2) along with a highly speculative consideration of neural circuits that contribute to perceived meaning and their role in religion (III Ch. 3). Chapter 4 is a review by Prof. Kenneth Pargament and colleagues of how religion may harm health that seeks to establish evidence for “the darker side of religion and spirituality” [III.108] while Chapter 6 presents a careful argument by Prof. Ralph Hood in favor of a Jamesian middle way in the psychology of religion holding that mystical experiences, whether introvertive or extrovertive, share a common core.

Subsequent chapters include: an argument that the study of shamanism provides fertile ground to show religion’s evolutionary adaptive qualities and the mechanisms thereof (III. Ch. 6), a proposal that schizophrenia is evolutionarily adaptive in the same way that religion is, since it gives sufferers the “ability to tap into a spiritual realm and experience the divine via hallucination, delusion, and anomalous perceptual experiences” [III.161], an examination of religion’s links to intolerance (III Ch. 8), a proposal that narratives about the origins of dreaming hold promise for productive engagement between science and religion (III Ch. 9), and a proposal for a new field called “pharmatheology,” that seeks to study the causal chain of “chemical input, religious output” [III.235]

The set concludes with a consideration of what it might mean “to go forward with methodological integrity embodied within a vision for scientifically rigorous and theologically sophisticated inquiry into these complex phenomena and relationships” [III.281], a goal well worth embracing and which this collection takes good steps toward achieving.