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Is there such a thing as a "religious brain"?

JamesKnight300Regular Network Norwich and Norfolk columnist James Knight considers whether some people are naturally more open to religious belief.



As science has progressed we have come to know more about the nervous system than ever before.  There is still a lot more we do not yet understand about the brain (and perhaps never will), but now we can zoom in at a neurological level and observe brain states and how they relate to certain beliefs, behaviours, and our inherent psychological make-up.  Religious belief is often assessed by atheists not as something rational but as an unfortunate product of neurological activity over which we have no control.  They say that certain people are simply unfortunate enough to be susceptible to it, depending on their brain states and neurogenic disposition. 


My first objection would be this: if the atheists are right then every brain must be susceptible to states of this kind, be they religious or some other cognitive state.  Why, then, single out faith-based belief as one of the cerebral aberrations?  Apart from a bias against faith-based belief (presumably on their terms an inevitable product of neurological activity over which they have no control) there is nothing about brain states that tells them axiomatically whether faith-based beliefs are based on truth or whether they are cerebral anomalies that a person happens to be unfortunate enough to be affected by*.  If the functioning brain is a coordinating centre of informational cells functioning entirely because of the universe’s vast stellar, chemical and biological history, the entire process - from receiving sensory signals, to the rich variety of cognitive configurations - is all just nature playing out a realisation of the second law of thermodynamics.  But if free will, rational thinking and neurological sense-making precepts entail scepticism about how reliable our minds really are, then the atheists are in the same sort of trouble that they claim the theists are in.


* Given that most people in the world believe in God or gods, and that most others claim a sense of the transcendent, I would say that they are not really ‘anomalous’ states at all.


It should be stated that in the strictest sense those who claim the agent is not wholly responsible for certain beliefs and feelings are not entirely wrong, and in many cases psychiatrists would concur.  But when this claim is used against Christianity we see that it is problematic.  If a man has a neurological problem and it conditions him to act in a certain way, one could say that good or bad actions are not actions for which their agents are responsible; the agents are passive not active - they are simply victims of a neurosis or inner-conflict.  Their activity is determined by what goes on in their unconscious.  Some would therefore contend that it is the neuroses that are responsible and not the agents.


There have been well-publicised cases where tumours have been thought to make people act out of character and commit crimes.  This has caused some controversy across the world as some argue that people don't make choices, their brains do – and this has been a big debating point between atheists and Christians ever since (the former very often say ‘no’, the latter mostly ‘yes’), but given that in some cases the brain can be distorted into making choices which the conscious mind (the person) otherwise finds ‘abhorrent’, the issue of brain states, and how reliable our beliefs are, is certainly a talking point.  This doesn’t absolve people of their moral responsibilities, of course, but given our vast stellar, chemical and biological history, one could argue that Christ had this in mind when He said one should go all out to forgive even our worst enemies.


So, as Christians who have a relationship with the risen Christ, how can we be sure that ‘knowing God’ is not simply our brains being the catalyst for religious delusion?  If personality is mediated by the brain and things like tumors in the brain, stroke damage, carbon monoxide poisoning, neurodegenerative diseases et al show that any conceivable aspect of our personality requires structures in the brain; memory (hippocampus), desire (hypothalamus), decision making (orbitofrontal cortex), emotions (the limbic system), temperament (amygdala), isn’t there a good prima face case that the same is true of religious belief (usually ascribed to things like temporal lobe epilepsy, left/right hemisphere synthetic activity, or some other neuronal aberration)?  In actual fact, the atheists also contend that further weight can be added to their case by the fact that additional stimulant, treatment, or synthetic neuronal activity can bring about strange phenomenal effects, not least the inducement of religious beliefs and epiphantic instances that can be caused by our interfering with the various parts of the brain.  The upshot is the implication behind the atheists’ statement seems to be that religious fervour/conviction/revelation is amenable to neuronal analysis and that chemical activity in both hemispheres of the brain can explain why we ascribe and wrongly elicit supernaturalism in a non-supernatural existence, and thus in their eyes rejection of the supernatural on these grounds is a perfectly reasonable position to take.


The Christian, to the contrary, claims that each first person ontology can be transformed in such a way that selfhood will experience a miracle - a transmutation, without any of the foregoing interference; for we claim that when this happens one can know it is unmistakably God at work in us because it will be the power of the Holy Spirit that drives our faith.  Naturally, being a Christian, I agree with this; my own view on neuronal manipulation is that those who have experienced the risen Christ experience something that is not synonymous with everyday neurological caricatures of science - a ‘thief on the cross’ type shift in awareness - the point at which Christ becomes a transforming part of the cognisance.  Activities like the ones mentioned above (interfering with people’s brains) constitute a theoretical attempt at making sense of perception through a very unnatural process.  They are therefore part of a more general empiricism but in a much more limited framework than metaphysics (although, in my view, science and metaphysics blend together). 


Although human behaviour has a ‘mind-collective’ interpretative component (a commonality of ‘mind’ where we all know what it is like to be a mind), our perception of God is inextricably linked to our perception of the world and as such is more loosely tied to uncompounded protocols than comparatively tractable neurogenic observations.  Therefore, these examples of miraculous salvation exhibit a much greater ability to discharge apparent contra evidence because they are not readily amenable to simple test/refute procedural analysis - they are far more internalised - a central part of what defines mind in the first place.  The vastly complex reality of a God created world and our perceptual overload in trying to apprehend it makes it less amenable to assessing such a reality with elementary observational and experimental protocols.  This is probably why, when it comes to salvation, Jesus focuses less on the external realities of God’s work and more on our own cognitive dispositions – after all, His assured method for our coming to know Him (‘knock and the door will be opened to you’) involves simply the mind in which such a search is occurring, and God Himself, who chooses the right time for revelation based on numerous interconnecting factors, and on how such revelation will interrelate with the rest of His grand plan for creation.  Once the mind of the supplicating man has received Christ as his Lord and Saviour his identity will be defined by his relationship with the living God, and he will see that his initial faith will be rewarded with the ‘certainty’ that the writer of Hebrews spoke about – a certainty that only his fellow Christians could apprehend, but a ‘certainty’ that remains an opportunity for everyone who wants to know God..


BrainsThis is the certainty that Jesus Christ offers to all those that claim a relationship with Him is simply an unfortunate neurological state from which people need to be cured, but naturally the only method that can remove such doubt is if the doubter asks for revelation himself.  That is the covenant God has made with man, and, for the sceptics, knowledge of God oneself is the only way that one can remove these doubts.  Moreover, the fact that the many miracles experienced are congruent with a particular point in time at which God was asked to them perform (the same is true of healings) shows that the miraculous is not an arbitrary set of occurrences, but very much consonant with the temporal perceptions of those believing in God and the miraculous (an example of which is when I saw a man pray that the Holy Spirit would heal a blind lady, and straight away she was given her sight).


Although I said a few moments ago that examples of miraculous salvation are not readily amenable to simple test/refute procedural analysis and that they exhibit a greater ability to discharge apparent contra evidence, I do not mean that Divine impartations are unempirical - rather that their a priori complexity constitutes an ontology which makes them less amenable to examination, as elemental experimental protocols are bound up with a vastly complex psychological nexus, which has a bearing in the formation of our own perception.  As I said a moment ago, I certainly think with science and metaphysics one blends into the other, but at the level of analysis that we are describing it is very probably impalpable.  Moreover, when observing any man that seems to alter his perception of supernaturalism when his brain is manipulated by external interference (such as in surgery or neuroscientific testing), you would have to consider a great many factors inextricably linked to his state of mind - personality, education, religious background, personal traits, insecurities, allegiances, human propensity to identify with social groups, etc - all of which feed into the evidence in a more general process than institutionalised science often countenances. 


Please do not misunderstand me, I am all for scientific endeavour and improved neurological understanding through advanced science, but I think with the cases mentioned and other similar cases, scientists attempting to assemble observational protocols in test/refute circumstances must be aware that Divine activity would not necessarily be a quantity that would encapsulate the notion of the organised complexity we find in organisms.


Let’s assume for a second that there is Divine activity and ordinary human physiology - certainly their dialectic will be a conflated dialectic.  I do agree that the engines of neuronal activity create useful work throughout the various scientific gradients, but I see no conflict or contradiction between any of the foregoing and Christianity.  If you had a Ford Escort in your driveway and woke up to find a Rolls Royce you would naturally assume someone has switched cars in the night.  But if you were standing in front of your Ford Escort and it suddenly morphed into a Rolls Royce you would think it was a miracle.


When one grapples with the subject of Divine activity, you will find that the conceptual complexity cannot be trivialised by comparison with even a well thought out atheism, much less an arbitrary agnostic comfort zone.  God is a complex personality forever interacting with those that know Him; He has a psychological, sociological and historical lineage which gives rise to continual cognitive sustenance and revelation.  I think atheists are all too aware of the weaknesses that penetrate when their shaky convictions are exposed to a little fire.  And if they brush aside any residual doubt as inconsequential, then they are claiming de facto certainty; that is, they are axiomatically conferring upon the self a degree of certainty which is anathema to the self’s own inherent make-up. . And therein lies the problem for atheists - the temptation to attack the theist with their own weapon of certainty should, if they are not quarantined from cognitive reality, leave greater residues of doubt in the mind of the attacker. In my experiences, their confidence and stridency ends up being a lipstick on the ugly face of self-doubt, and to the discerning eye, gives the impression that they are merely covering up for an unwillingess to take some brave intellectual and emotional forays.  I know too well what that is like – ten years ago that description would have applied to me.  But I took that step out of my comfort zone – straight into the arms of Jesus – and it was the best thing I’ve ever done.



The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. You can also contact the author direct at james.knight@norfolk.gov.uk  

James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich.
You can access his current collections of columns here

Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about Christianity, visit: www.rejesus.co.uk


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